Friday, March 6, 2015

Mary Cain Is Growing Up Fast By Elizabeth Weil

 
Mary Cain stood near the starting line with 31 other high-school girls at a track in Greensboro, N.C., in June 2011, waiting to run in the national championships of the 4 x 800 meter relay. With their long ponytails and soft bodies, racing numbers pinned to their hips, none of the girls looked like much — but Cain, a freshman, looked like less. She wore hot pink shorts and a black sports bra, and her shoulders slumped with the impatient awkwardness of being 15. The first two runners from Bronxville, N.Y., Cain’s hometown, ran their 800-meter splits (a little less than half a mile) in 2 minutes 13 seconds and 2 minutes 14 seconds. The two runners each from the Bishop Guertin track club in New Hampshire and the Achilles track club in North Carolina logged times within a second of that, because 2:13 is about how long it takes a good female high-school athlete to complete two laps of the track. The third Bronxville runner faded slightly and ran her 800 meters in 2:18. That left Cain, the anchor, shaking out her legs and waiting on the matte black oval.
 
Mary Cain ( Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times)
 
The 800 is a crushing race. Runners go out hard, then try to hang on to the pace in a showcase of will. Through the first six and a half laps of that eight-lap relay, the announcer called the event gamely, like a horse race — “Bishop Guertin! Bronxville! Achilles!” — playing up the tension, implying that anybody could win. But shortly after Cain took the baton, the race became disorienting. Everybody was running one speed and Cain — eyes down, body tilted forward — was running at another. Like watching a turntable with one record spinning at 33⅓ r.p.m. and another at 45 r.p.m., it scrambled the brain. Cain completed her first lap in 58 seconds, only half a second slower than Roger Bannister ran his first lap at Oxford on May 6, 1954, when he became the first man to break the four-minute mile. The announcer, flabbergasted, began shouting: “Bronxville! Mary Cain! Bronxville! Mary Cain!” at irregular intervals. She ran her 800 meters in 2:03.74.
Cain has always been fast. In fifth grade, she ran a 6:15 mile. Cain’s father, Charlie, an anesthesiologist, knew so little about track then that he had to ask Mary’s gym teacher if this was any good. In seventh grade, she ran a mile in 5:03, at which point, recalls Cain — a self-described nerd — “Everybody was like, what?! That wasn’t supposed to happen.” In ninth grade, Cain won the New York State 1,500-meter championship, breaking the freshman girls’ record. The summer after her sophomore year, she flew to the Junior World Championships in Barcelona and ran the 1,500 in 4:11.01, setting a new American high-school record for girls.
 
Alberto Salazar, Cain’s coach, in 1982, winning his third consecutive New York Marathon. He advises the athletes he coaches to avoid overtraining, which damaged his own career. ( Credit Lane Stewart/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
 
Prodigies, by definition, don’t fit in. Like Shaun White and Michael Phelps, Cain was not accepted by her athletic peers. For Cain’s sophomore year, the high-school athletic department decided that she would be better off training with the boys’ coach. But according to New York State high-school sports rules, a girl can’t compete against girls if she trains exclusively with boys. Not wanting to risk Cain’s eligibility, the school switched her back to training under the girls’ coach at the start of her junior year. By this point, however, Cain had outgrown her high-school program. Her needs departed so wildly from those of the other runners that the coach, for reasons that nobody would talk about, didn’t even prescribe workouts for her. “She’d show up to practice and do her own thing,” her father told me. “It was heartbreaking to be a parent of a kid who has all this potential and see her not getting any coaching at all.”
Then one night in October 2012, while Cain was in bed — she likes to sleep 12 hours a night — the house phone rang. Cain’s mother, also named Mary, answered. A man claiming to be Alberto Salazar, the legendary runner and coach, was on the line. At first she thought the call was a prank. But then Salazar explained that he’d recently reviewed the video of her daughter’s Barcelona run. An obsessive about form, Salazar said that Cain’s lower-body mechanics were excellent, good enough to make her the best in the world, but that her upper body needed work. In particular, if she wanted to reach her potential, she needed to keep her left elbow closer to her body, swing it straight, front to back, instead of out and across her torso. He referred to the elbow as her “chicken wing.”
When Cain’s mother realized the caller truly was Salazar, she felt profound relief. The Cains are practicing Catholics, as is Salazar. Had God sent Salazar their way? Mary and her parents spoke with Salazar several times over the next month. Salazar asked Cain what she liked best about running. “Winning and breaking records,” she said. Salazar, now 56, coaches Nike’s Oregon Project, the professional team of elite runners — including Mo Farah, the middle- and long-distance star — outside Portland, Ore. The goal of the project is to produce athletes fast enough to beat the best runners in the world. He founded the team in 2002, a year after the top American in the Boston Marathon finished a dismal sixth. Only once before had Salazar taken on an individual high-school student: Galen Rupp, who attended the same high school as Salazar’s son. Their coaching relationship began when Rupp was 14; he is now 28 and the American record-holder in the 10,000 meters. Salazar had vowed never to take on a young protégé again; teenagers are hard work. Still, he couldn’t pass up coaching Cain and agreed to train her remotely. He thought that she “ran like a colt or a baby deer or something, all over the place.” But he also believed that she possessed “as much talent as any young athlete I’ve ever seen in running in my life.”
The last truly dominant American girl runner was Mary Decker, who became a track star in 1973 — at age 14, weighing 89 pounds — when she won the 800 meters in a meet against the Soviet Union in Minsk. Decker trained relentlessly while in high school. She rarely took a day to rest, even after a hard race. In 1974, the champion runner Steve Prefontaine told a reporter that he worried that “her future could go up in smoke.” He called her when she was 16, shortly before he died in a car accident, and urged her to ease up. Throughout her career, Decker set 36 national records and 17 official and unofficial world records. She also endured more than 20 operations and countless stress fractures in her feet and shins. Salazar described her to me as “a racehorse that wasn’t held back.”
The focus on the long-term health effects of intense athletic training is especially important now. Nearly 500,000 American girls ran track last year. Cain, of course, is an outlier. She has broken records that existed for more than 20 years, shattering several of them by more than six seconds, an eternity in track. But she is also part of an expanding pack of very fast American girls. In 2001, only two high-school girls ran the 1,600 meters in under 4:50, and only one ran faster than 4:45. Last year, 46 girls ran faster than 4:50; eight broke 4:45.
This increased speed is an inevitable result of girls’ growing up not just after the passage of Title IX, in 1972, when schools first started rushing to put together girls’ sports programs to comply with the law, but several decades later, after those programs matured. Coaches no longer tend to baby female runners, assuming that they can’t handle as much training as boys. Gone, too, is the outdated idea that the best way to make a girl run faster is to make her skinnier, so that she carries fewer pounds around the track. The dominant philosophy now is that girls, like all other runners, should train to become very strong by lifting heavy weights. Running mechanics are fairly simple: Speed comes from a foot hitting the ground, loading with energy, like a spring, then exploding off with propulsive power. For years, sprinters have trained for strength. Recently this focus has spread to middle-distance runners and even marathoners. All Oregon Project runners do squats and dead lifts, some up to twice their body weight.
From the moment Salazar started coaching Cain, he set out to develop her talent slowly over the course of many years, building her up and holding her back as necessary, aiming for her to peak when most female track runners peak, around age 25. All athletic training depends upon a careful balance of physical stress and rest and is governed by the progressive-overload principle. It holds that if an athlete pushes herself slightly out of her comfort zone — ramping up the distance she’s running, or her pace in sprints, or the amount of weight she’s lifting — then once she rests and recovers from that workout, she’ll be stronger or faster than before. But this adaptation, or supercompensation, as it’s called, lasts for only a short time. The key is to apply training stress again, during that window, to spur more adaptation and increase fitness.
While Cain was still in high school, Salazar deployed John Henwood, a former Olympic runner from New Zealand who lives in New York, to monitor her workouts. His job included encouraging Cain to push hard and embrace discomfort, but also to make sure she didn’t go too far “over the red line,” as Salazar puts it, by adding too much speed or mileage too quickly. Cain responded well to Salazar’s program — to say the least. In 2013, the first year under his guidance, she seemed to smash a record every weekend. She broke the American female junior 1,500-meter record. She broke the American junior 800-meter record, becoming the first girl to do it in less than two minutes. She ran a 4:32.78 indoor mile, breaking the American girls’ high-school record, which was set 41 years earlier. That same year she broke her own record by four seconds. Cain describes that season with considerable understatement as “a lot of fun.” After races, she would give interviews to the doting track media, often holding Puddles, her stuffed duck.
 
Cain, right, during her record-breaking 1,500-meter run as a freshman at Bronxville High. ( Credit Tim Fulton)
 
Salazar’s cautious strategy for Cain grew out of his determination not to repeat the mistake that he made in his own prime: burning up remarkable talent early in life with a self-destructively ferocious drive and a more-is-better training philosophy. In 1982, at age 23, Salazar set American records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. He also won the Boston Marathon and his third New York Marathon in a row. But, he wrote in his memoir, he was living “a life of extreme athletic excess, as far gone, in my way, as a drug addict or alcoholic.”
Among Salazar’s gifts, he was especially adept at overriding what Tim Noakes, a University of Cape Town emeritus professor of exercise and sports science and the author of “Lore of Running,” calls the central governor, the part of the brain that tells a person that the body is nearly out of fuel or is building up toxic levels of byproducts like lactic acid and needs to slow down. This system kicks in prophylactically, creating a dire sense of fatigue well before the body will fail. Elite athletes excel at ignoring the signals from the central governor and pushing through exhaustion. Salazar sometimes finished races so depleted that he required IV fluids. Once, in 1978, at age 19, at the end of the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, he collapsed, his temperature spiked to 107 degrees and a priest read last rites.
Several years later, still near the beginning of what should have been a long career, Salazar’s body gave out and stopped responding to the progressive-overload principle. In the 1984 Olympic marathon in Los Angeles, Salazar, who was a favorite to win, finished a disappointing 15th. Through the rest of his 20s and early 30s, he suffered from an endless string of respiratory infections. He felt an unshakable exhaustion. He could barely run at all. Endurance athletes refer to this phenomenon as overtraining syndrome, a condition that is well documented but poorly understood, a result of too much exercise and too little rest. Salazar’s immune and endocrine systems malfunctioned; he became depressed. Eventually he recovered enough to train for and win the Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa in 1994. Yet he never regained his full athletic powers, and he never won a major marathon again.
The Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore., where Cain now trains, feels like the sports afterlife: beautiful pools, sun-dappled sand volleyball courts, acres of gleaming gyms. One day last October, Salazar, who retains a spry, coiled energy and wears dignified, rimless eyeglasses, set Cain to work running 1,200s, about four minutes each. In her last year of high school, Cain decided to give up N.C.A.A. eligibility and turn pro, a choice that is standard for top young athletes in sports like tennis but highly unconventional in track. But Cain knew what she wanted — to be groomed to win — and she believed that Salazar was her best route to that goal. “In Africa, in Europe, in Asia, they go pro, and the fact of the matter is, they are the ones kicking our asses,” she says. “Maybe they’re doing something right.”
Cain leads the enviable life of a pro athlete. She runs every day — three days a week especially hard, on Nike’s track, where a lush grove of trees fills the infield. The other days she runs at the University of Portland (about a 15-minute drive from Beaverton), where she is a student. Few on campus know she’s a world-class athlete, which suits her fine. Cain lives in a single dorm room with a dozen pairs of running shoes, the Jane Austen novels she reads for fun, snapshots of her Bronxville boyfriend, who is still in high school, and a small tent that she lays her head in while she sleeps, to mimic the low-oxygen atmosphere found at high altitude. (Some runners believe that breathing low-oxygen air will boost their performance.) In skinny jeans and a raglan sweater, she looks something like the teenage Chelsea Clinton. But the moment Cain strips down to a tank top and shorts and starts running, she transforms. Her gait, at top speed, is hypnotic. Her legs, stacked with muscles yet wrapped in a silky sheath of youthful skin, are spectacular.
Now that Cain is 18, Salazar has her training at about 85 percent of the volume and intensity of his older runners. She runs 70 miles a week, while the others, including Mo Farah, run 90 or more. Years of adaptation are required to make the body’s connective tissue and small stabilizer muscles in the legs, pelvis and back durable enough to withstand the older runner’s extreme mileage. It also requires experience to develop the ability to distinguish the kind of pain that is a necessary part of training and should be tolerated from the kind that signals incipient injury.
Cain’s best time in the 1,500 meters is 4:04.62. When I asked Salazar how fast he thought Cain would run someday, he said: “I’m very confident she can run 3:55. Maybe somewhere in the 3:52 range.” But 3:52 isn’t fast enough to break the world record, which stands at 3:50.46. That mark was set in 1993 by Qu Yunxia, who ran on a Chinese national team that aroused widespread suspicion of steroid use after it broke three world records at a single meet, after not even medaling at the Olympics the previous year. Women’s world records in track are among the longest-standing in all of sports. Most, like Qu’s, were established during the 1980s and early ’90s, in an era of state-sponsored doping in the Soviet bloc. Many are now considered unbreakable. The best clean time for a woman running 1,500 meters indoors is thought by some to be 3:55.17, set by the Ethiopian runner Genzebe Dibaba in 2014. But Cain is looking beyond her to the suspected dirty records. “I want to break them more,” she says, “as I know there’s a very good chance they weren’t done properly.”
No woman has run 1,500 meters in 3:52 in 18 years. To coach Cain there, Salazar intends to map and monitor all aspects of her athletic life for the next decade. Darren Treasure, the Oregon Project’s sport psychologist, talks or texts with Cain frequently, checking on her mind-set and the progress of her workouts. David McHenry, the Oregon Project’s strength coach and physical therapist, views runners’ bodies like Indy cars, requiring vigilant maintenance. He regularly checks Cain for small strength and mobility imbalances and analyzes data generated when she runs on a treadmill fitted with an OptoGait data-acquisition system, which uses timing sensors to gather information on her stride, including how long each foot is in contact with the ground. This process helps McHenry identify issues like ankle-joint dysfunction before they lead to plantar fasciitis or Achilles’ tendinitis, allowing a runner to stay healthy and keep running. In the three years leading up to the 2012 Olympics, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp missed fewer than 20 days of training combined. At the games, Farah took gold and Rupp silver in the 10,000 meters.
After Cain finished her 1,200s, Salazar placed orange cones on a green turf field to mark off an 80-meter course for her to sprint. Knees high in front, heels rising nearly to her glutes behind, Cain blasted through the first in 11.2 seconds. “Thumbs up!” Salazar yelled, correcting Cain’s hand position. Then he turned to me like a proud father. “There’s not another 1,500 runner who can sprint like that. That’s how you medal!”
Part of what makes Cain unique is her kick, her back-end speed. This is a thrilling and maybe even dangerous talent, as, Salazar wrote in his memoir, it derives from a “willingness to run your fastest at the very point when every cue your body and mind puts out commands you to slow down.”
Yet even with her kick, Cain had a tough winter. At the Armory Track Invitational in New York in January, Cain placed fifth in the 800 meters. In February, at the Wanamaker Mile, also at the Armory, she finished eighth. “The sooner I go through these growing pains, the better off I’ll be in the long run,” Cain told me, putting on a good face. She knew she’d be the least-seasoned athlete toeing the line when she decided to skip college track, and as anyone can see when she stands shoulder to shoulder with her competitors in their midriff-baring sports tops, the more mature runners have sculpted physiques; Cain does not. “Nobody goes into a sport saying, I want to be the fourth-best person,” she said. “We all want to be No. 1.” Until last year, she still enjoyed wunderkind status. Now she’s no longer a child, not quite an adult, the fastest of a cohort of fast young women, waiting for a future that’s slow to come.
 
© nytimes.com
 

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