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Catching Up With Teen Track Sensation Mary Cain

By Peggy Shinn | Jan. 29, 2015, 12:40 p.m. (ET)

Mary Cain runs during the 3,000-meter final during the IAAF World Junior Championships at Hayward Field on July 24, 2014 in Eugene, Ore.

This Saturday, Mary Cain will be home in New York for the Armory Track Invitational. But the 18-year-old middle-distance running phenom is not entered in the 2 mile, as advertised earlier this month. Initially, Cain wanted to focus on setting a new world junior indoor record in the women’s two-mile. (She currently owns the record at 9:38.68.)

Instead, Cain will toe the line in the 800-meter. Not because she is trying to lower the world junior record at this distance — yet — but because after the fall spent building her aerobic capacity with longer runs, she is now focused on speed.

Last weekend at the University of Washington Indoor Preview, her first indoor meet of the winter, she competed in the 600-meter, finishing fourth in 1:30.03, and the 800, which she won in 2:07.21. In two weekends, she will compete in the 1,000 in Boston.

“We’re trying to attack my distance from the bottom up rather than the top down, meaning take a more speed training approach rather than doing a bunch of really long tempos that I’m bound to blow up every other one,” she said recently from her new home on the University of Portland campus.

Her ultimate goal for this season is the mile and the 1,500. Indoors, she wants to match the times that she ran two years ago outdoors — 1:59.51 in the 800 and 4:04.62 in the 1,500, both American junior records.

These indoor times will then set her up for personal bests during the outdoor season — and hopefully a spot on her second world championship team in August.

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Although her running goals are still the same, Cain’s life has seen many changes since last summer, when she won the world junior title in the 3,000-meter, handily beating two Kenyans down the home stretch.

Cain graduated from Bronxville High School in June, then moved to Portland in July, at first living with Nike Oregon Project teammates.

Then in August, she moved onto the University of Portland campus and began taking a full load of 16 credits in the university’s honors program. Her major? Chemistry.

Mary Cain celebrates winning the 3,000-meter final during the IAAF World Junior Championships at Hayward Field on July 24, 2014 in Eugene, Ore.

And she began running in person — rather than from afar in Bronxville — with coach Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project, a team that she joined in November 2013, choosing the pro ranks rather than the NCAA track.

The transition so far has been smooth.

“It’s been very seamless honestly,” she said, a few minutes before she had to run to class.

Already academically inclined, Cain has had no trouble adapting to the rigors of college assignments. If there has been any adapting, it’s to scheduling — “being able to balance a normal school day with a normal running day,” she admitted.

This semester, she is only taking 12 credits — just chemistry, biology and calculus — to better accommodate her training and racing schedule. Her earliest class begins at 10:20 a.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays she has time to drive to Nike’s track in Beaverton, 15 miles away.

Training with her role models, Jordan Hasay, Treniere Moser, and Shannon Rowbury, has been amazing, she said. Jumping into workouts with these senior women helped Cain build aerobic capacity. But she also struggled at times. It was more intense than the “more relaxed atmosphere” she had running with a pacer on tracks back home in New York.

“At 18, no matter who you are, you just can’t match a 25-year-old’s aerobic capacity,” she said. 

This spring, she is taking a slightly different approach, focusing more on speed, with the 600-, 800- and 1,000-meter indoor races on her schedule right now.

She is gunning for the Wanamaker mile at the Millrose Games on Feb. 14. She won the Wanamaker last year in 4:27.73 and owns the American junior indoor mile record at 4:24.11.

The following Saturday, at the Salisbury Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham, England, she plans to enter the 1,500, along with reigning 1,500 world champion Abeba Aregawi. Cain also has the American junior indoor record at this distance: 4:06.63.

“It should be really fast and really fun,” said Cain, with her usual enthusiasm. “If at that point, we feel like I could rip out a really mean, really fast time, it’s the perfect environment to try to do that.”

It’s difficult to remember that Cain is still a junior. And she has no qualms about adapting to the senior ranks.

“The whole idea of me moving up to the senior ranks doesn’t really scare me,” she said. “I already feel like I’m kind of there. When I’m 20 and can’t get a little pat on the back for getting a junior record, it will definitely be sad. But that being said, by the time I’m 20, I hope to be in contention for the senior records.”

But at the same time, Cain isn’t shooting for records. When she races, she wants to run as fast as she can, and she knows if she does everything right, records will fall.

“We don’t try to purely define ourselves as record runners because at the end of the day, at the world championships, (the 1,500) could be won in 4:10,” she said. “The 2012 Olympics were won in 4:10. It’s learning how to compete as well as race for times.”

One junior record she would like to earn back this year is the 800 (outdoor). In June 2013 at the Prefontaine Classic, she clocked 1:59.51, becoming the first American junior and high school woman to run a sub-2-minute 800. Two months later, at the 2013 IAAF World Championships, Ajeé Wilson lowered it to 1:58.21.

Still, the sub-2-minute 800 remains the record that Cain is most proud of breaking. It had been her goal since the eighth grade, after her mom suggested that she could be the high school girl to break the 2-minute barrier.

“I’m somebody who, once I get it in my mind, I can never get it out,” she said. “So that day, I was like today is the day. I remember other girls coming close, and I would be like biting my nails, like ‘Don’t do it, save that for me!’ Being able to finally say that I was the first high schooler to do that was absolutely amazing.”

Her overall goal for 2015 is to make the U.S. team competing in Beijing at the IAAF World Championships in late August. She competed at the 2013 worlds, becoming the youngest woman ever to compete in a 1,500 final (she finished 10th). Her ultimate goal is to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team competing in Rio.

“That being said,” she admitted, “I’m not one of these people who stresses out about it. I kind of push it away. I have a full year to prepare. Anything can happen from now to then.”

She also has age on her side. She will be 20 for Rio and still only 24 when the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games roll around.

“It’s hard to predict where someone’s going to be, but I expect (Mary’s) going to be someone that’s vying for more U.S. teams, and she’s already a finalist at 17 at the world championships,” coach Salazar told FloTrack last September. “Improving just a little bit would put her in contention for medals, hopefully at some point.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.