Mary Cain, the 17-year-old track phenom who was named 2013 IAAF Newcomer of the Year, may hail from Bronxville, NY, but she has deep ties to Boston. Last winter, at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, the bubbly teen-ager broke the U.S. High School Record and American Junior Record for both the 2-Mile (9:38.68) and 3000 meters (9:04.51) en route; last Thursday (January 16), the newly minted professional set a World Junior Record for 1000 meters (2:39.25) at Boston University.
But that’s just skimming the surface of her Boston roots: Cain is coached in the Oregon Project by 1982 Boston Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, who was a high school phenom himself in Wayland when he ran with the Greater Boston Track Club under coach Bill Squires (a Boston legend shown above with Mary after her BU race.) “I love Boston,” said Cain, whose ponytail on Thursday was wrapped in “Boston Strong” blue and yellow ribbons. “Any little bit of support I can give to Boston, I’ll give it.”
Cain says she’ll be wearing the ribbons again when she returns to the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on Feb. 8, this year to run the 2000 meters.
After her record-setting BU race, Cain perched on the high-jump mat in the infield for a chat before re-joining her teammates for a post-race workout on the track.
New Balance Indoor Grand Prix: You’ve set a lot of records in the past year, but this is your first World mark. Congratulations.
Mary Cain: To start off and get that it definitely is a confidence boost, especially when it has “world” behind it. That makes it a little more like, whoa. But after running that, I know I could have run faster, and that’s really exciting.
NBIGP: And now you’ll be coming back to the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. How did you like it last year?
MC: That was a lot of fun. My mom was funny; she was like, “oh, are you racing [Three-time Olympic gold medalist Tirunesh] Dibaba again?” If you can call that racing her, then yeah. She said, “no offense, but at times I was just watching Dibaba.” I was like, “hey, so was I.” I was watching the board and thought, “whoa, she’s about to lap me, I better move out.”
NBIGP: For a few steps after the gun, you were actually leading her.
MC: Oh, I was! That was awesome. Everybody was screaming and I was like, “I got this.”
NBIGP: And this year you’ll be running the 2000 meters there. Are you looking forward to it?
MC: Yes, I’ve never run one. I actually tweeted out that I was super-excited: No matter what, it’s a PR! I actually like these kinds of quirky distances. The 1K is just a little longer than the 800, and the 2000 is just a little longer than the mile, so I kind of like exploring those.
NBIGP: It’s a school night. Don’t you have homework?
MC: I was originally going to have an econ test tomorrow, so I’m flying out really early to get home. But it was actually pushed back. It would have been more intense if I had a test tomorrow. I’m taking it a little bit easier this year. (Her courses include AP Econ, AP Lit, and ceramics, which she called “awesome.)
NBIGP: Are you able to have something of a “normal” senior year despite racing as a pro?
MC: I’m in the yearbook club; every Monday night we meet. I wake up early to run, or I’m running during other people’s lunch periods. Last year I took harder courses but this year I knew it probably made sense to back off a little bit. Last year I didn’t go to my prom. I actually went to the Occidental meet, where I ran 4:04 (4:04.62, a High School, Youth, and American Junior Record). People were like “oh, you missed prom,” and I’m like, “I would have missed a 4:04, thank you.” If somebody asks me, I’ll go. But I’ll have to wait and see.
NBIGP: You think no one will ask you?
MC: Ah, yes. I was telling my mom, I’d probably have a better bet just taking one of my track friends. We’re a very small town, so it’s a little harder there, when you know all 100 other kids [in your class] since kindergarten. But I kind of like it, because next year I’m going to the University of Portland, which is also, as colleges go, a small school, so for me it’s within my comfort zone.
NBIGP: What’s it like being something of a celebrity in such a small school?
MC: It’s a K-12 school, so the younger kids are sometimes like “oh my gosh,” and the middle school boys will be like “race me.” But I’ve known these kids all my life so they treat me the same as they’ve always treated me. You know what’s really cute? When you see the little kids out on the track or at recess out running and sometimes they hop on my run with me. “Can we run with you?” I cheer them on until they fall off. “Good job, guys!” There was one girl who went for maybe three laps, and I thought, wow, I’m getting intimidated. I’d better pick it up.
NBIGP: If they keep you grounded, what do you think that you bring to them?
MC: I hope that I motivate people. I really do. I love track and field. I want to see it get on ESPN, get out there, be a bigger presence in the sports world. And if I can do that, that would be great. Or if I can motivate the person who DOES do that, that’s great, too.
NBIGP: And after you graduate in June, it’s off to the Pacific Northwest.
MC: Whenever I go out for a little trip to do workouts I’m like whoo, I’m going to have to be doing these workouts every day now; get ready, Mary. But I’m really excited. There’s a great group of girls in the program now, and when you have Galen Rupp and Mo Farah running next to you it’s a motivation, I’ll put it that way. I always say to myself, no matter how nervous I can get for my workout, in the scheme of things it kind of calms me down. They’re just so much fun, and they’re really calming. Sometimes when I’m a little nervous beforehand and they’re still talking and joking and stuff, I think, they’ve been through the ropes, they’ve done this. Most of them are anywhere from five to 10 years older than me, so it’s kind of nice to look at that and say, they know what they’re doing if they’re relaxed right now and having fun. But I do find myself at times kind of staring at them, especially after this race (in which Rupp broke the 5000-meter American Record in the event after Cain’s.) I was like, “oh, my gosh, Galen, what the heck? Can I have your autograph?”
NBIGP: It seems as if you’ve been breaking records every week in high school. That won’t last forever, you know, as you make the next transition.
MC: (Laughing) Luckily, my freshman year I’ll still have these junior records. But when I get on the line, I’m not thinking I’m a 17-year-old. I’m thinking I’m a competitor, I’m competing against you. I don’t care if you’re 32 or 15, I’m racing you. And so I think it’s one of those things where it won’t be any different for me. I think kids who go from high school to college to professional, the transition is very different. For me, I did this last year. I want to do it this year, and then by the time I’m 27
, same races, same meets, hopefully faster, but kind of the same thing.”