Long-distance runner Julie Shea's first marathon began as a lark. She figured she would sightsee through Bermuda for 10 kilometers or so, about half her usual daily regimen, then quit. But running felt so good, the people along the way were so friendly, she kept right on going.
Then a tropical storm came up, buffeting the island with rain and strong winds. Shea tried to slip behind a male runner to use his body as a windbreak, but the man swerved, saying he was rooting for another woman.
It was the wrong thing to say to Julie, then a freshman at North Carolina State, who just months before was named Track and Field magazine's high school athlete of the year. Shea, who thrives on challenges and once vowed she would "never let a boy my age beat me," abruptly grew serious. "I'm running 26 miles anyway," she told herself. "I might as well win."
She did just that, defeating Joan Benoit, who two years later was the top woman finisher at Boston.
This year, Shea entered the Boston race for the first time, but despite her Bermuda victory she still thought of primarily as a cross-country and 10,000 -meter runner who would probably fade at the 26-mile, 385-yard marathon distance.
Julie led for most of the first 15 miles, however, then held on well for an impressive fourth-place finish. Her 2:30.38 clocking, in fact, would have been good enough to win top women's honors in any previous Boston Marathon, and was bettered this year only by Allison Roe of New Zealand, Patti Catalano of Quincy, Mass., and Benoit.
As a child, Julie shared few interests with other girls her age, and by age 7 had begun running with her father through a Raleigh, N.C., park. She was running competitively long before the sport achieved its current popularity, before it became fashionable for young women to be athletes. "I can remember running down the street in a sweat suit and people staring at me," said the 21 -year-old college senior, who ranks as one of the United States' most successful female athletes.
A three-time All-America in cross country and track, Shea was undefeated in Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women events in 1979 and '80. She is defending AIAW champion in the 3,000-, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter races, an unprecedented "triple," and last year won her second AIAW cross-country title in a row. She is the only woman ever named Athlete of the Year in a major conference, the Atletic Coast Conference, beating out the likes of All-America basketball players Albert King and Mike Gminski.
The earlier this winter AIAW members voted Julie Shea winner of the 1980 Broderick Cup, given to the year's most outstanding undergraduate woman athlete.
Extraordinary athletic feats are nothing new for her. A week before her tenth birthday she ran a 5:40 mile, a national age-group record. The next year she set a record for 10-year-olds with a 5:01 mile. She broke age-group marks for that distance at 11, 12, 13, 16, and 17. As a high school senior she set a national girl's record with a 4:43.1 mile.
Although running is well-established Shea family tradition (father, Mike, used to be track coach at NC State), lean, soft-spoken Julie insists her ability is not inherited. She has just always been an achiever, determined to win.
Until she was 14 she devoted long, monotonous hours to both track and swimming, choosing between the two only when her swimming coach insisted. "He used to get mad at me when I ran 10 miles before swimming practice," she recalled. After that, all the hard work went into running.
Shea's race strategy is to push hardest during the middle stages of a race, when "the end isn't in sight, and you've been running for some time and you're not feeling all that fresh."
If it isn't a struggle, then she knows she didn't try her best. "You might have won, but you'll have failed if you didn't push yourself," she explained. "I like racing because it's testing yourself."
One kind of test the visual-design major was not accustomed to came last fall , when a knee problem may have prevented her from adding the national amateur cross-country title to her collegiate crowns. In a tough field, Julie came in second to her sister Mary, whom she used to coach informally.It was the first time Mary, a sophomore at NC State, had ever defeated her older sibling in a major race. "I didn't know what to say to Julie," Mary said. "But she came over to congratulate me, and she had a big smile on her face. She told me how proud she was. Julie said all along she wanted us to be 1-2."
Back when their father used to throw a mattress into the family station wagon and drive all night to get his young daughters to races, the girls didn't get along so well. Julie in particular resented it when her sister "would start training the week before the race just so she would get to go on the trip." But these days they room together at college, share strategy, pace each other in races, and cheer each other on.
Another thing that's changed over the years is Julie's intensity. She limits herself now in training instead of working to near-exhaustion, and she's finally learned to relax before a race rather than dread it as an ordeal. "If you don't think about the discomfort, and concentrate on the race and strategy, you sort of go out beyond yourself," she said. "I'm still nervous before a race, but before I'd be terrified."
After she graduates, Shea intends to become a part-time track coach at Auburn , a job that will pay for graduate studies in graphics. When she is freed from representing a school competitively, she will look forward to participating in more road races, marathons, and the sylvan cross-country events she loves.
She's particularly excited that the 1984 Olympics will include long-distance races for women for the fist time (1,500 meters has been the longest until now, but the International Olympic Committee has approved a 3,000-meter event and a marathon for women at Los Angeles). At the 1980 US Olympic trials, she won an exhibition 5,000-meter race. Now that the longer events are in the games themselves, it will be a dream come true for her, possibly even a golden one.