Photo: Ellie Shea is a really fast Belmont High runner.
Just how fast is Ellie Shea? OK, head down to Harris Field and step onto the track. Ready? Now start running. Keep a steady pace in which it will take you just about 71 seconds to complete a full lap. Whew, that took your breath away, didn’t it! But don’t stop! Do the same lap time for an additional three times around to finish in around 4 minutes and 44 seconds for the mile.
Yeah, Ellie’s is that fast. In fact, after this past 4th of July, the 15-year-old Belmont High student was the fastest freshman running the middle distances in the entire country.
“I like racing [against runners who] can push me to get a (personal record),” she told the Belmontonian in late May as she began her record-setting assault.
Shea demonstrated her growing prowess this spring and summer by clocking a series of outstanding times not just for freshmen but all high school runners including an out of nowhere 4:45.4 mile (on the roads) in her very first race against big time competition at the Adidas Boost Boston Games in May and then breaking the Massachusetts high school two-mile record running a 10:10.5 in early June.
Her half year of successes – she didn’t run cross country and participated in just a handful of “indoors” races during the Fall 2 Season – was so impressive that Shea was honored with the 2020-21 Gatorade Massachusetts Girls Track & Field Player of the Year award, just days before she would make a name for herself nationally on the July 4th weekend across the country in the Pacific Northwest.
Shea’s times and talent earned her way into the National Scholastic Athletic Foundation’s Outdoor Nationals – the equivalent of a high school national championships – where she had qualified to run three middle distance events (1 mile, 2 mile and 5,000 meters) on July 3 against top-ranked prep athletes at historic Hayward Field on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene.
But the nationals would have to wait until after Shea raced the mile at the Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle on July 2, her first major national track showcase. She held her own against older and taller prep runners – Ellie’s a slightly built 5 foot-2 inches, 98 lbs. – to set yet another personal standard by nearly two seconds, a 4:43.7 which is better than any ninth grader in the country has run the distance this year.
With little sleep and after a four and a half hours drive from Seattle to Eugene, Shea decided to compete in the 5,000 meters (3.12 miles), a race she last competed in seventh grade.
“I wanted to give it a shot after running a couple of fast two miles,” she said during an interview in Eugene. “The five K is intriguing and I want to see how it goes” with the additional benefit it was being run at 9:30 a.m. during Oregon’s historic climate-influenced heat wave.
Wearing the same spiffy blue framed polarized sunglasses she wore the day before in Seattle, Ellie latched onto the prohibitive favorite, junior Caroline Wells from Winter Springs, Florida (who finished one place ahead of Shea at both the Brooks meet and the Boston Games) from the start and wouldn’t let go, maintaining a stride-distance behind Wells lap after lap.
After the two front runners dropped Shea’s club teammate, Margot Appleton, with a mile remaining, the pair kept logging in 78-second laps until about a kilometer to run (“two-ish laps” as Ellie put it) when Shea surged past Wells. But her move nearly went terribly wrong as she stumbled after hitting the inside railing. But Shea quickly righted herself to run about two seconds per lap faster than Wells, who had no answers to her rival’s surge.
Down the final straight, Shea powered home to a sensational 16:10.7, obliterating the 41-year-old freshman national outdoors record by 29 seconds (her time is also under the existing sophomore mark), recording the fastest time ever by a US 15 year old while running the 9th fastest high school 5,000 in history. As of July 4, Shea’s time ranks her third among women under 18 years old worldwide, trailing only two 16 year old Ethiopians.
“I just wanted to go out fast and get in a good spot and race with some really fast girls,” said Shea after the race.
The Hayward 5,000 meters was a simply a remarkable performance just in itself, made the more so coming from a young runner who seemingly came out of nowhere in the past four months, not that she hadn’t shown promise before 2021 having won the 2019 Boston Mayor’s Cup cross country event for girls’ 11-14. Since the late spring, Shea’s times have fallen faster than the value of bitcoin. Coming into the year with a mile best of 5:17.9 (recorded when she was a 7th grader in 2019), Shea took off nearly half a minute off her PR while dropping her two mile best from an 11:23 set in 2019 to her current 10:10.5 in early June.
She credits her rapid improvement on focusing on a single sport. Before the pandemic, “I did a lot of sports,” said Shea. Besides town lacrosse and soccer, there was rock climbing, tennis as well as several years as a competitive alpine and nordic skier out of New Hampshire’s Cranmore Mountain.
But as COVID-19 closed down many sports and venues, “I made [running] my priority” and was able to train more consistantly. Shea also joined Emerging Elites in the spring of 2020 which concentrates on designing training programs for young runners. When asked by track commentator Larry Rawson at the awards ceremony about her training regiment, Shea said she doesn’t run too much compared to the high mileage other do. “I like to focus more on quality over quanity.”
What gives Shea an added advantage is natural competitiveness. Shea’s mom, Jamie – a Belmont High teacher and a member of the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee – said Ellie has been “super competitive” at every venture she’s competed in. Jamie recalls when Ellie was a tee-ball player when an opponent hit the ball, she ran in from the outfield, dove into the scrum, and ended up with the ball.
“I really like pushing myself, pushing through pain … see how fast I can go and how good I can be,” Ellie said. That drive is also demonstrated in the classroom where she holds high honors. But there’s While she enjoys the sciences, “I don’t like physics so I’m excited for next year.”
In her near future, Shea is eager for a return to cross country “to have fun on trails” after being away for two years. Beyond the coming fall season, “I just want to keep racing in the big invitational meets.”
And while it’s clear that Ellie has found a home in running, the spark of another challenge for her is always there. Jamie Shea, a collegiate swimmer at Princeton who ran a 21:38 5K at the Friends of Belmont Education Apple Run in 2019, said recently Ellie saw the girls’ rugby team practice and told her “that looks exciting!”