Julie Shea Sutton and Wesley Frazier are separated by generations, but the love of running they share gives them a common link.
Frazier, a senior at Ravenscroft School, broke Shea’s high school girls state mile record during a race in New York on June 9 and is challenging Shea’s previously undisputed title as all-time top girls high school distance runner in North Carolina.
Frazier, 16, is quiet and humble in interviews, traits with which Shea can relate. Frazier has great respect for Shea, who not only was a great runner, but also a pioneer at the dawn of women’s athletics in North Carolina high schools.
“I don’t know when I first heard of Julie Shea,” Frazier said Wednesday as she met the N.C. Sports Hall of Famer for the first time over lunch in Raleigh. “But I’ve heard about her for a long time.”
Shea set the national high school girls mile record in 1977 with a 4:43.1 when she was a senior at Cardinal Gibbons High. No North Carolina girl had come within three seconds of the record in more than 30 years before Frazier ran a 4:42.78 during the adidas Grand Prix Dream Mile this month.
Frazier and Shea had never communicated before but during their meeting they discovered that shared experiences, dreams and hopes that gave them a bond and made them feel like old friends.
The meeting seemed to invigorate Shea, who travels from near Southern Pines to Raleigh to coach her running club, CoolKidsRun. Shea still is a competitor and hated to see her state record broken. She was disappointed when she first learned the record had fallen — thinking to herself, “dang,” which is about as salty as she gets — but she felt better after watching Frazier’s post-race interview on the internet.
“But now that I’ve met her and spoken with her, I’m excited for her,” Shea said. “I’m happy for her. At least it was a Raleigh girl who broke it.”
The two runners have very different running styles. Shea was 5-foot, 8-inches tall in high school — she grew another two and a half inches while at N.C. State — and Frazier is 5-foot, three inches, about four inches taller than she was as a freshman.
“I was gawky and clumsy,” said Shea, who said she started running because she was a klutz at most sports. “Wesley is built more like the classic miler.”
Shea trained more than 60 miles a week, leaving the school, then on Western Boulevard, and running miles and miles. Frazier trains 30 to 40 miles a week and often splits her workouts into morning and afternoon sessions.
But Frazier’s workouts are intense. Shea marveled when Frazier offered one of her favorite workouts — intervals of 1,600 meters, 1,200 meters, 1,000 meters and 1,000 meters, each separated by a 30-second break. Each run is at a comfortably hard pace.
“You run it fast enough that you could run another 800 if you had to but you don’t want to,” Frazier explained.
That regimen is easier on her body than higher mileage workouts at slower speeds, Frazier believes. And it doesn’t require her to take days for recovery even after meets like the recent New Balance Outdoor Nationals (NBO) in Greensboro, where she won the two mile, was second in the mile, third in the 5,000 and ran a leg on a distance medley relay.
When they talked about running and racing, Frazier and Shea had the same thoughts and many similar memories and experiences.
When Frazier described a one mile race as being over so quickly that it required strategy, a quick start and toughness, Shea said, “That’s exactly the way it was for me.”
Both have sisters who are 17 months younger and who are outstanding runners.
Mary Shea, who now is with the Sisters of Charity, in Kenya, held three national high school records at one time. Ryen Frazier, a Ravenscroft sophomore, has run the sixth fastest 5,000 meters by a state girl (17:53.80) and also competes on the national level.
But Julie Shea, like Wesley Frazier, did not often train with her sibling. Shea remembered training year-round and pounding out the mileage while her sister didn’t have the type of dedication until later in her career. Frazier said she and Ryen often are at the same place at the same time, but they usually work out apart.
Both Shea and Frazier were influenced by their fathers. Mike Shea was a physical education instructor at N.C. State and he had a ready stop watch. Mike Frazier, an American Airlines pilot, trains his daughter.
Both fathers sometimes provided incentives for success.
“My father once told me that he would get me the lime green purse I wanted at Pic N Pay if I did well in a race,” Julie Shea recalled.
“And my father said he’d buy me an iPhone if I did well at the nationals,” Wesley Frazier countered.
“Inflation,” sighed Shea, who got a stop watch for her 16th birthday.
Frazier can’t remember the last day that she did not run. She said she gets bouncy legs — she can’t sit still — if she misses a workout and she doesn’t sleep as well. Shea still runs five days a week for fitness and coaches the track club for children nine to 14. Among her former runners is N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A cross country champion Samantha George of Millbrook.
Shea could not run cross country in high school because the sport wasn’t offered until 1980. When she began her high school career, girls were not allowed to race any farther than 880 yards. The mile was added later, but girls could not run both events in the same meet because it was believed that distance races would be unhealthy for females.
“I cannot understand that type of thinking. Really?” Frazier said.
Frazier has won the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters championships on the same day the past two years, but Shea may have run the 3,200 only once while in high school because the distance was considered too grueling for girls. Shea ran a 10:21.5, which has been matched only in North Carolina high school races by Mary Shea and Frazier in 35 years.
Shea envies Frazier for having teammates. The first two years of high school competition at Gibbons, Shea was the girls track team. Mary joined her when she was a senior.
Gibbons didn’t have a coach, but some nuns, wearing their habits, accompanied her to meets.
Shea remembers the reactions when the, “team,” arrived in Raeford for a meet.
“The people there didn’t know what to think of the sisters,” Shea said. “Wherever they went, it was like a parting of the sea as people got out of their way. I saw people come up and touch their habits. It was something new.”
It was new to the sisters, too. Shea seated them in the stands and told them to stay there, but they came pouring onto the track as soon as she finished running her record mile on the hot asphalt oval.
“Here I was sweating like a pig and all the sisters hugging me,” she said. “They took about a half lap of a cool down with me before I told them they had to get back in the stands.”
Teammates are very important to Frazier. At the NBO, for example, she ran a 4:48 while finishing second in the mile and a 4:48 for her mile as a part of the distance medley relay.
“The 4:48 in the relay was so much easier,” she said. “I was just thinking about the team.”
Ignoring discomfort during races is one key to going fast in distance races. The runners can crowd out any thoughts of pain by thinking about strategy, the race, the other competitors.
Shea tells her club runners to run bravely, to run for their mothers or fathers, club or team. “Be courageous. Be courageous for 15 minutes. The race is bigger than just you,” Shea tells them.
When asked what advice she would give Frazier, Shea said, “Don’t let the pressure and the expectations take the fun out of running.”
Several years ago, Shea entered a road race just for the joy of racing. When it was over, someone said, “You used to be Julie Shea. You were good. What happened to you?”
“I didn’t say anything at the time, but I wish I had thought to say, ‘20 years. Two children. 30 pounds.’ People can rob you of your joy,” she said.
But the joy of running bubbles out of both of them.
“I’m so glad we met,” Shea said.
“Me too,” responded Frazier.