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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."
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.