Billy Shue has a dream, and in that dream he is running.
He’s running up Stonewall Street on the edge of his hometown’s city center, and though he’s been chugging along now for about 2 1/2 hours, he’s still holding a pace most people couldn’t maintain for a single minute.
After coming down the short hill near Bank of America Stadium, he makes the right turn onto Mint and sprints toward the finish line next to Romare Bearden Park. Crowds roar, family members and friends shriek his name, and an announcer booms:
“There he is, ladies and gentlemen, the 2017 winner of the Charlotte Marathon: BILLY SHUUUUUUUUUUUUE!!!”
That’s the dream for Shue for this Saturday morning: To win the marathon in the city he was born in, where he attended Christian school K-12, and where he’s worked as a banker since graduating from Wake Forest and UNC Greensboro’s business school.
“My number one driver for doing the race is the hometown support,” says Shue, 33. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you do some of the bigger marathons around this time of year like New York or Chicago, where there are more spectators?’ and I think those are great races. But I’ve got family and friends from so many different facets of life – from my old days at Wells Fargo and my time at Bank of America, people from my church, people who I know through the swimming and cycling communities, the Charlotte Running Club – who come out and cheer me on. And to me, one person who knows me and cheers me on equals the cheers of a hundred people who don’t know me.
“But the second motivation,” he says, “is it would be very nice to try to get that win.”
He’s clearly a gifted runner. Since 2008, he has run Charlotte’s only 26.2-mile road race seven times, finishing fifth twice, fourth three times, third once and second once: In 2011, he was the runner-up by just 96 seconds.
The funny thing is that – unlike most sports, which are ruled by schedules pitting one team or one individual against another in pre-arranged matches – marathons and other footraces are “open” events. Basically, anyone who wants to show up (or not show up) is welcome to.
On any given day, at any given race, you don’t know for sure who you’re competing against until you get to the starting line.
So you could argue Shue lost out on his chance to break the tape in 2011 simply because that was the year a young man named Kyle Smith, from the tiny city of Linden, Mich., decided to piggyback a marathon onto a late-fall visit with family in South Carolina.
And the reality is that if the right (wrong?) runner or runners show up this Saturday morning, Billy Shue could very well fall short again – and if they keep showing up, it might never happen for him.
On the other hand, maybe this is his year.
‘A very, very competitive streak’
There’s nothing terribly complicated about Shue.
Went to Northside Christian Academy, then off to Wake, where he joined the cheer squad as an upperclassman, in part to meet girls. Works in the corporate audit division at B of A, but talks so passionately about his beloved Panthers that you’d think he was employed by the team. Wears a slightly crooked but infectious smile practically around the clock, giving him the ability to make a new friend virtually every time he turns a corner.
There’s no dark past, no terrible tragedy he’s rebounded from, no crushing adversity he’s had to overcome. If there’s a chip on his shoulder, it’s a microscopic one.
“When I was growing up, on the playground and playing soccer, I was one of the shorter kids and kind of felt like I had something I needed to prove,” Shue says. “I had a very, very competitive streak. Someone who I can really relate to is Steve Smith. Obviously, he’s in a whole ’nother galaxy when it comes to what kind of an athlete he was and is compared to what I am, but I can relate to what drives him – wanting to not put limitations on myself. Anytime there’s somebody out there who’s a doubter or someone who tries to say, ‘Uh, I think you’re shooting too high; you don’t have the right expectation here,’ that’s something that has always driven me.”
That, in fact, is the attitude Shue took into his marathon debut, in Charlotte in 2008.
Having taken up swimming and running to stay in shape, he completed his first 5K in October of that year. Having gotten hooked on the idea of running farther and faster, he ran his first half marathon in November. And then, having an inflated sense of his still-blossoming ability, he set his sights on his first full marathon just a few weeks later (back then, the marathon took place in December).
He didn’t bother training.
Uh, I think that’s gonna be a rough experience for you, swimming friends told him.
Nah, I’ll be OK, Shue responded, emboldened by the skepticism.
At Mile 13, the muscles in his calves started twitching. By Mile 20, he says, “I literally felt cramps going all up from my feet into my hips, and even my arms a little bit.” He has no memory of Miles 21 through 25. At all.
But when he crossed the finish line – in 3 hours, 18 minutes and 12 seconds, good for 85th place out of 965 finishers – he did so with one of the clearest thoughts he’s ever had in his entire life: “I definitely want to do this again.
“I was just amazed – like, ‘I actually did this,’ ” Shue recalls. “ ‘I ran from uptown all the way to SouthPark and back, and then ran to NoDa and Plaza Midwood and back.’ Growing up in Charlotte, I had driven all over all these areas, and to be able to run that for the first time. ... It was pretty rough, but to be able to finish those and still have a hunger to run marathons fired me up.”
A taste of near-victory
Improvements came. (What do you know? Actually training for the race helped.)
In 2009, he bested his time by more than 34 minutes – running a 2:44:08 – and finished in fifth place. In 2010, he was fifth again, with a 2:41:18. Then in 2011, Shue got his first real taste of near-victory.
For the first 15 miles, he ran alongside Kyle Smith of Michigan, and being the extrovert that he is, Shue struck up a conversation. One of the things he learned about Smith was that he was a former track and cross country All-Stater running his first marathon. So Shue thought his best chance of beating his out-of-town foe was to get him out of his comfort zone.
With that in mind, Shue threw down a surge at Mile 16 and wound up leading the race for more than 20 minutes. But when Smith answered by turning up the heat and pulling ahead at Mile 20, the hometown kid didn’t have the gas to go with him. When Shue crossed the finish line in 2:38:57 – barely a minute and a half behind Smith – he did so, again, with one of the clearest thoughts he’s ever had:
“I want to do this every year until I win.”
An asterisk? No, thank you.
Shue does have one marathon win* under his belt.
In February 2011 (10 months before his second-place showing in Charlotte), he broke the tape at the Myrtle Beach Marathon with a time of 2:43:47. The reason there’s an asterisk next to the win is because he was the first man to finish.
More than 2 minutes earlier, Kathleen Castles of New Providence, N.J., won the overall title on her way to qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon.
It’s another example of the whole “You never know who’s going to show up” thing. So his strategy is to just keep showing up. Keep trying to get faster, too – sure – but just keep showing up and giving it everything he’s got.
Shue in 2012: 2:40:38, fourth place (the winner ran 2:33).
In 2013: 2:38:08, fourth place (the winner ran 2:33).
2014: 2:38:01, third place (the winner ran 2:31).
2015: 2:40:26, fourth place (the winner ran 2:27).
Last year, Shue missed the race for the first time since his 2008 debut due to knee injuries, and as fate would have it, he probably would have had his best shot ever: Charlotte attorney Chad Crockford won in 2:37:19; though Shue has never run quite that fast in his hometown, he did run a 2:36:01 at the Boston Marathon in 2015.
This year, Shue is in as good shape as he’s ever been, and the field doesn’t appear to be stacked. Brian Mister, marketing director for Run For Your Life (which organizes the Novant Health Charlotte Marathon), says that none of the top five finishers from last year’s race are currently registered.
But one name does stand out on the participant list for Saturday: Bert Rodriguez, 38, who won Charlotte in 2013 with a 2:33 and finished second in ’14 and ’15. Two years ago, he ran a 2:28 – 10 minutes faster than Shue’s best time on his home course.
So is Shue’s strategy to pray that Rodriguez drops out?
“I don’t want there to be any sort of asterisk, like, ‘Oh, well, you only won because he wasn’t there,’ or, ‘You only won because he was sick,’ ” Shue says. “I want to earn it fair and square. ... And when you do finally win, the level of appreciation you have for it is so much greater than had it come easy.”
For the record, he says, it’s not an obsession – not anymore, at least. He says in the first few years of marathoning, he was fixated on his times and how well he finished, but that he’s gained perspective. As he’s gotten more mature, he’s realized winning isn’t everything. As he’s battled injuries, he’s recognized that when he’s healthy, he should more fully appreciate just being able to run at all.
And more than anything, he’s glad to be home.
“Some folks enjoy going to homecoming, you know, for their high school or college. To me, this race is kind of like a homecoming – being able to go out there, run a good race, have fun and see all the folks from the different facets of my life who are cheering me on. As time has gone on, I’ve shifted more in that direction of just enjoying the atmosphere, more than being driven by ‘I’ve gotta get this win.’ ”
He pauses, strokes his chin, then suddenly flashes that crooked smile.
“But don’t get me wrong: A win would definitely be nice.”
See how he ran
Saturday’s Novant Health Charlotte Marathon starts at 7:30 a.m. next to Romare Bearden Park in uptown Charlotte. Billy Shue is projected to finish sometime shortly after 10 a.m. Results will be posted at some point on Saturday at www.runcharlotte.com/runners/results.