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The Motivator

That phrase rang out over the crowd, and when volunteers were called to participate in a nude plunge, a young woman hesitated on the stands before stripping down and diving in. When asked what pushed her to do it, she said Shea's challenge got into her head, and the rest was chilly naked history.

"You made some random girl take her clothes off," Shea's friend said.

He laughs about it now, but that deceptively simple phrase became the motto he attached to the newsletter he sends to all the trainees in the 10K program.

Shea's the son of an insurance salesman, "a motivator," he says. "He was big on quotes." Likewise, Shea has tons of them, little packets of wisdom that seem absurd in their straightforwardness. But like a Zen master, or at least an on-target fortune cookie, his statements cut through a lot of the technical talk that muddles the connection between athlete and novice.

It helps that he's a teacher. Shea has taught physical education and English to special-education students at Matoaca Middle School. He coaches track and cross country. His bite-sized wisdom often crosses over.

"If nothing changes, nothing changes," he says to his students about study habits. It's easy to disregard a statement like that, much harder to let it sink in. But when he put it in a newsletter for the training group, it got through to a woman completing six miles for the first time in her life. It inspired her to keep going, she said.

"This is natural to me," Shea says. "For me to see people that don't intrinsically love it — that blows my mind." He radiates the attitude of a modern athlete: tall, bright-eyed, energetic. He got competitive early on — having four siblings does that — finding his way onto the soccer field at Benedictine High School, which ultimately was his springboard into running.

"I just intrinsically really, really enjoyed it," he says. "Academics took a back seat." When he moved to Boulder in 1990, he found a fitness paradise, a health-conscious Shangri La in the mountains. "That town is a bubble," he says. Here was a town of the naturals, all biking and hiking, and living with very low resting heart rates.

"I think that my eyes were a little more open when I came back," he says of his return to Richmond. In the four years since he became head coach for the 10K program, he's learned to communicate the nature of exercise to his students, and they have amazed him with their dedication to each mile. For them, the enjoyment that he feels every time he exercises is often a distant promise, a town in the mountains.

This is the gap he bridges as a coach, that leap of faith that is supported by little more than a single quote. "They're crossing their fingers and banking on the prospect," he says. It's a leap of faith with no times to beat. Like the naked woman in the winter mountains, they take off their watches and jump in.

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