Mary Cain, Mary Cain, what's to come of you? by Elliott Denman

Mary Cain, 2013 Moscow, 
photo by

Elliott Denman wrote this thoughtful commentary on the challenges for young athletes to make it to the elite level in this sport. Mary Cain, who finished tenth among the best in the world, Elliott Denman suggests that you take it slowly and observe to avoid the potholes that many young, enthusiastic runners have found during their journeys to the top. 

Mary Cain, Mary Cain, what's to come of you?
by Elliott Denman
MOSCOW - Even the world's greatest practitioners of Cystal Ball Science are pulling in different directions on this one.
Mary Cain, Mary Cain, what's to come of you?
Are you destined to be the greatest addition to the American track and field scene in eons, the phenomenal teen who graduates to full-fledged global stardom, who continues a relentless assault on the record book, who does huge things in race after race after race in amazing style, who actually generates so much recognition for her sport that she puts some people in the seats to see it all happen, just as she graduates to full-fledged womanhood? (And from Bronxville High School.)

Or are you destined for inevitable flameout, the crash-and-burn process that has swallowed so many young talents who did too much too soon and simply couldn't handle the collateral damage to their bodies, their psyches, their beings?  
We've all seen this too-much-too-soon process at work, incredible kids doing incredible things, until they realized they really didn't want to be incredible kids doing incredible things.

Until they decided they wanted to be regular kids doing regular things.

So the only answers will have to be "let's just wait and see."

Will we see Mary Cain playing the role of the former or the latter?

Should be most intttttttttttttteresting, a heck of a ride just ahead.

Some folks up in the Luzhniki Stadium stands the other night were brash enough to think she actually had a chance to win - or medal - in the women's 1500-meter final at the 14th World Championships of Track and Field.

Some even wagered a few rubles on their expectations, including a bunch in the press area. Most were wildly overoptimistic. The clever man who picked her for 11th won the pool. He was close, Mary ran 10th.

Later, she told the media folks, "Oh, geez, I'm not even sad. I'm just angry, and I think that is a good thing. "I think this is all a learning experience, this whole meet. I know I have to put things in perspective, and when I was on the line I was like, 'so many kids my age would die to do this.' But I'm a tough person, I expect a lot for myself, and I think later tonight I'll refocus.

"I don't know what happened, I really don't. I was in there, and I was running to win. That's crazy, I know. I think a lot of people didn't even think I'd get out of heats, kind of let alone myself. Then in the semis they were like, 'Did you see her race?' and they were like, 'no way'. I think a lot of people would have been like 'hell, I'm cruising it in, I'm just going to be smiling, waving that last lap,' but I knew I still could run faster and I just kicked it in.

"I think later tonight I'm going to be really, really angry in a good way, and I think I'm going to be really motivated. I think you guys are probably a little scared, normally you see me like, 'oh ducks, puddles' but I'm going to go home and I'm going to get into this. I think this is going to motivate me so much for next year. Next year there are no Worlds, it's just me and learning how to race." "I'm a student here, I'm just learning from all this," she also told you.

The celebrated Bronxville senior was wearing a brave-but-smiling face as she came in from the Luzhniki Stadium track. She tried to tell interviewers  that she wasn't really disappointed in letting nine runners beat her to the finish line, that just running her way into the 12-runner final was a major accomplishment for a 17-year-old.

But, deep down, you knew she was playing philosopher. You knew that she knew that she'd finally underachieved in a huge year that had been marked by overachievement after overachievement. This simply wasn't her time. This wasn't her time to hold off such international veterans as Sweden's Abeba Aregawi, fomerly of Ethiopia, who had come to Moscow owning the year's best time of 3:56.60, and won this one in 4:02.67; USA teammate Jenny Simpson, who'd won the Worlds 1500 title in 2011 in 4:05.40 and improved to 4:02.99 in this one and still settled for the silver, and Kenya's Hellen Onsando Obiri, a 3:58.58 runner earlier this year but a bronze medalist in 4:04.98 this time.

She'd never been a factor at the front of the pack and never approached her season's best performance, either. Back in May, she'd clocked a 4:04.62 in a meet at California's Occidental College, in one of the many brilliant performances, at distances from 800 meters to 5000 meters, that stamped her as "the future of American track."

Good as that 4:04.62 was, it still put her only 26th on the world list heading into Moscow. So perhaps it was unrealistic to expect more of her than 10th place.

But you'd never get Cain - an ultimate competitor with a fighting spirit that hasn't been seen by an American women's middle distance runner since the glory days of Mary Decker in the 1980s and 1990s - to admit any such thing.

"I'm kind of hard on myself," she said.

"I'm going to put this energy to work in a good way.

"I'm going to direct it, I'm going to attack it, I'm ready to go."

But not right away.

She'll cool it for a little while - knowing "it's been a long season," - so the game plan is to descend from the competitive peak she'd climbed under the coaching expertise of Alberto Salazar before recharging her batteries for her next run at the world's best.

Before this race, Salazar had told her, "Mary you can win, you can come in 12th."

But 10th it was.

No one doubts that Salazar is reckoned to be the mastermind of the middle and longer distance coaching world these days. We've all seen the magic he's done guiding the running lives of Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. We've all seen the successes these training partners have enjoyed. But some of us, who've been in this sport for a while, also remembered that Salazar's own running career eventually crashed and died, too.

We saw his early achievements at Wayland, Mass. High School.

We saw his formidable deeds at the University of Oregon.

We saw his string of astounding marathon feats.
But we saw his eventual flameout, too.

The self-inflicted regimen culminated in breakdowns, injuries, illnesses.  His immune system rebelled. And he'd never again reach the magical pinnacles.

So our own advice is this: Mary Cain, Mary Cain, study carefully, study your sport's history, take it slow(ly) before you go much faster.

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