As they passed the two-mile mark in The Athletics Congress' cross-country nationals last Saturday at Pocatello, Idaho, two women, running shoulder to shoulder, held a comfortable lead over the rest of the field. Against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, they appeared to be striding in step, an impression enhanced by the fact that they wore similar red-and-white singlets. These were the Shea sisters, Julie and Mary, and their lead with little more than a mile to go in the 5,000-meter race suggested that cross-country history was about to be made. No woman had ever won both the collegiate and the national cross-country championships in the same year. But two weeks earlier, 21-year-old Julie, a North Carolina State senior, had won the AIAW title in Seattle. Now she had merely to outrun her little sister to the finish line for the historic double. That should not be much of a problem. After all, Mary had never beaten her big sister—not in cross-country, not on the track, not on the roads, not even to the breakfast table.
Julie already had made some history. In Seattle she had become the first woman to win back-to-back AIAW titles. Mary, a 20-year-old sophomore at N.C. State, finished fifth there, and another teammate, Betty Springs, came in second as the Wolfpack easily took the team title. Mary had been in a group vying for second place behind Big Sister for much of that race before fading in the last three-quarters of a mile. Last Saturday she feared she might fall back again. "My plan was just to stay with Julie as long as I could," she said afterward. "At one point I felt like asking Julie if I should be trying to keep up with her. I didn't want to push myself too hard."
The Sheas have been running together for as long as they can remember. Their father, Mike, a P.E. instructor at N.C. State, used to throw a mattress in the back of the family station wagon and drive them to races on weekends. In the early days Mary didn't take the sport as seriously as Julie did. She remembers going to Frederick, Md. for her first age-group nationals when she was eight and finishing next to last in a pair of black-and-white oxford shoes. But Mary began to work harder and improved steadily as a runner. At Cardinal Gibbons High in Raleigh she set national high school records for two miles and 5,000 meters and an American record of 32:52.5 for 10,000 meters.
Still, Mary had always taken a back-scat to Julie, so on a long downhill stretch in the last mile at Pocatello, when she saw that Big Sister was slowly dropping back, her first reaction was surprise tinged with fear. "Come on, Julie," she yelled. Later, she said, "I felt so strange. I'm just not used to being out in front like that."
December 8, 1980
Julie didn't respond to her sister's picas. She has been bothered all year by a debilitating condition in her left knee. "My kneecap is wearing away from underneath," she says. It hurt her just to walk at the start of the season. She missed N.C. State's first three meets and thought about redshirting. A cortisone shot helped temporarily, but the pain returned at the AIAW championships and increased so much last Saturday that she admitted, "I was sort of dreading this race."
For the spectators, most of whom were clustered in the distance near the finish line, it was impossible to tell which of the Sheas had forged ahead. They naturally assumed it was Julie. When the first face that popped into sight above the little rise at the head of the final straightaway turned out to be Mary's, there was an audible gasp of surprise. Little Sister raced on to win in 18:18.7. So much for history. Next in view came a struggling Julie, who finished in 18:31.1 and then nearly fainted. Still, she was eight seconds ahead of the third-place runner, Jan Merrill. "I was hurting," Julie said, "but if it had been Jan instead of Mary in front of me, maybe I would have been more aggressive."
Merrill, who comes from Waterford, Conn. and had won this event in 1976 and 1977, didn't realize until later that it was Mary, not Julie, who had won. "I can't tell them apart," she said. Merrill was leading at the end of the first mile, but during the second, which climbs almost all the way to the highest point on the course, she was passed by both Sheas. "They got into a groove," Merrill said with a shrug. "I got into a different groove." Her coach, Norm Higgins, was quick to give the Sheas credit. "The way Julie and Mary muscled that second mile won the race," he said. "They ran it as if the race ended at the top of the hill."
It could be argued that it actually ends in Madrid, Spain, because the top six finishers in Pocatello automatically qualified for the U.S. women's team that will compete there in the International Cross Country Championships at the end of March. For Julie, the chance to go to Madrid is what made going to Pocatello bearable. This will be her fourth International team and Mary's first. In addition to Merrill, the other three qualifiers were Brenda Webb, of Knoxville, Tenn., fourth, N.C. State's Springs fifth and one F.L. Smith sixth. F.L. Smith turned out to be none other than Francie Larrieu, the former American record holder in the mile. She qualified for her first international cross-country team in 1969, won the nationals twice in the '70s and then kicked off the '80s by marrying Jimmy Smith, a doctoral student in exercise physiology at North Texas State.
Unlike the women, the men did not use the Pocatello results to pick their international cross-country squad. The selection will not be made until early next year, which may be just as well because the American men didn't look all that ready for international competition last week. In fact, at the NCAA championships, held in Wichita, Kans. on the Monday before the TAC nationals, foreigners sorely embarrassed the good ol' U.S. of A. The first American to cross the finish line was Penn State's Alan Scharsu in seventh place. The University of Texas at El Paso's winning team was composed entirely of Africans. Like N.C. State in the AIAWs, UTEP won in a rout, but it one-upped the Wolf-pack by placing its top three runners—Tanzania's Suleiman Nyambui, South Africa's Matthews Motshwarateu and Kenya's James Rotich—first, second and fourth, respectively.
The win was the fifth in the past six years for UTEP Coach Ted Banks, who says, "Some schools run cross-country just to condition for track. We run it to win a national title." Since going to UTEP in January 1973, Banks has won 13 national titles, including five NCAA track championships indoors and three outdoors. His success is a subject of controversy in NCAA circles because his teams have been composed almost entirely of foreigners who are older than the average American collegian. Nyambui's age is estimated at 26 to 28. Nyambui won't say. Banks doesn't know.
The 10,000-meter course in Wichita was flat and fast, favoring the field's milers and 5,000-meter men. That was fine with Nyambui, who has won the mile at the last two NCAA indoor championships and last summer won a silver medal in the 5,000 meters at the Moscow Olympics. Through most of the race he loped along in a front-running pack of four, which included his teammates, Motshwarateu and Rotich, and another Kenyan, Fairleigh Dickinson's Solomon Chebor. Motshwarateu and Rotich took turns making surges to wear out Chebor, who eventually developed a stitch in his side and had to struggle in for his third-place finish. Nyambui waited patiently until the 5½-mile mark, then pulled easily away to win in 29:04.
None of the top six foreigners in the NCAA race went to the nationals, and without the lure of Madrid several top Americans avoided Pocatello, too. These included Alberto Salazar, the defending champion and recent New York City Marathon winner, and Craig Virgin, who won last year's International Cross Country title. Without them, the favorites for the 10,000-meter race were America's top road racer, Herb Lindsay, and yet another foreigner, England's Nick Rose. Rose had won this event in 1977 and finished third at last year's International Cross Country. Lindsay and Rose were among the leaders at the half-mile mark when suddenly a salesman for Gojo in Fort Collins, Colo., named Jon Sinclair sprinted away from the pack and put 100 yards between himself and the rest of the field.
Sinclair graduated last year from Colorado State, where his most notable achievements were a fifth place in the mile at the 1979 NCAA indoor championships and a ninth at the NCAA cross-country meet that year. He is not unknown to road racers, however. In the past two years he has finished out of the top 10 in a road race only once, and he had won each of his three starts leading up to Pocatello.
Those wins came after Sinclair's recovery from a knee injury that sidelined him all of last summer. When he began working out hard again in September, he drastically altered his training program. He started swimming two or three nights a week to improve his oxygen intake and also to help loosen his legs after running. He took up weightlifting to build his strength. And he greatly increased the intensity of his workouts by making his runs faster and shorter. Instead of covering 15 to 17 miles a day at a seven-minute pace, he ran 10 to 12 miles under six minutes each.
Sinclair went to Pocatello in the best shape of his life. Furthermore, he had an advantage over most of the other runners because the course was at 4,600 feet and he had been training in Fort Collins at 4,800 feet. "I saw this race as a war of attrition," he said. "It was a matter of who was hurt by the altitude first, second, third, fourth and, eventually, last. I wanted someone else to lead, and I planned to hang on near the front until the altitude took effect."
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that no one wanted to push the pace. "They were all willing to lag and go slow, and that was not the race I wanted," said Sinclair. "I decided to break open the pack, but when I went no one came with me. It shocked me to death. When I finished the first mile, I started to think about what was happening. I could see a group of eight to 10 runners forming behind me. They were waiting for me to die. But I was feeling smooth and untaxed. I figured I'd just stay out in front, and if they caught me I was running comfortably enough so that I was sure I could stay with them. I could feel what I had left. It was almost like reading a gas gauge."
Sinclair had guessed his opponents' thinking perfectly. He kept leading, and the rest of the field kept waiting for almost the entire 10,000 meters, which was essentially two laps around the women's course. "No one wanted to go after him," said Steve Scott, America's top miler, who eventually finished fourth. "At that altitude on those hills, we were too afraid of dying in the latter part of the race." Lindsay, who, many expected, would give chase, had left the energy for a late push in Chicago, where he had won a 10,000-meter road race in a snowstorm two days earlier. After struggling home in sixth place Saturday, he called his decision to run in Chicago "a mistake." Only Rose had enough left near the end to try to catch Sinclair. With less than two miles to go, he slowly moved to within 70 yards of the lead, but at the five-mile mark the altitude got to him. Eventually he was passed by Penn State's Scharsu and finished third. Scharsu never got within a football field of Sinclair, who coasted in at 31:46.6.
Sinclair was ecstatic. "No one has ever seemed to Know who I am or where I come from," he said. "That didn't used to bother me, but lately it was beginning to. I think I've been underrated. I don't attract as much attention as the people I beat all the time. I've beaten Bill Rodgers three out of four times, and everybody knows who he is. This win should get me some public notice."