This week, middle-distance runner Mary Cain—known for being very fast at a very young age—presented a championship trophy to another runner—also known for being very fast at a young age.
Cain, 21, of Bronxville, New York, gave the Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year award to Katelyn Tuohy, 15, of Thiells, New York. Tuohy had an undefeated cross-country season and won Nike Cross Nationals by 40 seconds over the second-place finisher. She also broke several of Cain’s records on cross-country courses around New York.
Observers see parallels between Cain and Tuohy—especially in their swift rise into national class contenders during their early teen years. Cain made the 2013 world championships team in the 1500 meters at age 17. Last month Tuohy, only a high school sophomore, set a national high school 5,000-meter record, running 15:37.12 on an indoor track. That time would have put her fourth among college runners last year at the NCAA championships.
When she was a sophomore, Cain stopped training and racing with her high school team and instead was coached remotely by Alberto Salazar, head of the Nike Oregon Project. She turned pro in November of her senior year of high school, forfeiting her collegiate eligibility. After graduating, she moved to Portland, Oregon, to attend the University of Portland and train with NOP.
The early days of the arrangement with Salazar produced Cain’s best times. During a nine-month span between May 2013 and January 2014, she set most of her PRs. At those 2013 world championships, she became the youngest athlete ever to make the 1500-meter final.
But since her 2014 track season, Cain has not been able to come close to the times she ran as a 17- and 18-year-old. In May 2015, she returned home to New York, and in October 2016 announced she is no longer coached by Salazar.
Cain, in a phone interview with Runner’s World on Wednesday, said she is living at home and is a full-time student at Fordham University in the Bronx, majoring in business and taking pre-med courses. Medical school, she said, has always been a goal. “I’m still the weirdo who enjoys taking organic chemistry,” she said, although an A- in the notoriously difficult course upended her chance at a 4.0 GPA. (Cain has always been happy to talk about her brainy side.)
After injury curtailed her 2017 season—she had a stress fracture in her tibia—she is back to training, building her base and doing two workouts and a long run each week, with cross training mixed in. John Henwood, a New Zealand Olympian who has guided her since high school in tandem with Salazar, is coaching her. She has not yet returned to track workouts. She hopes to return to racing during the outdoor track season, but with neither Olympics nor world championships on the calendar in 2018, there’s no rush. She likes it that way.
She says she regrets nothing about her path so far. When asked if she wishes she had run for a college program, her response was emphatic: “No, not in the least. Not at all.”
Has she felt that there was a downside to being so good at such a young age? Should she have stuck to a traditional progression instead of training with pros?
“I guess my whole thing has always been that nobody knows you except for yourself and nobody knows your story except for you and the people who you care about,” Cain said. “I think my biggest thing—Katelyn is in the room, and I’ll say this to her—my advice with this sport is always just to have fun with it. Of course there’s people who say things and who have their opinions. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is your story and the people you know and the people you love.”
Her cousel for Tuohy, or any ambitious high school runner, boy or girl, is the same.
“Always maintain confidence in yourself and confidence in your training,” she said. “Never lose sight of who you are and never let other people do that. At the end of the day, as long as you kind of focus on what you can do and what you can achieve and what’s in front of you, that’s all you can be doing and all you should be doing. Anything else is probably unhealthy.”
Cain also left no doubt that she has many years of track racing ahead of her. In no way is she finished, even though she’s been making headlines for six years already. “I’m 21 years old,” she said. “And if you’re writing me off now, I’ve got a decade or so left before any medical school aspirations are going to be [pulling] me away.”