Mary Cain had some misgivings that evening. The night before, she headed out to the track with the intention of breaking a certain time in the 800-meter run and she did. This night, the aim was to break a 5 minutes, 30 seconds in the 1,500. Preventing her from attaining that desired time, she thought, was a big, fat, Sloppy Joe she ate for dinner.
Cain did it anyway.
It seems nothing can stop Mary Cain. Not even the weight of a hefty sandwich. What's more, the time arrived when the Bronxville (N.Y.)
sophomore was running for the first time—in sixth grade. Just to see what she can do.
You sensed then how special Cain would be. She currently has the best times in the country, according to dyestat.com
, in the 800 (2:03.34) and the 1,500 (4:17.10). She elicits comparisons in some track circles to another Mary - 36-time U.S. national-record holder Mary Decker.
"I knew right away she was something special when I first saw her," said Ed Stickles, her Bronxville coach. "You see her foot repetitions on the track. She has great running economy. Her speed on the track is great. I remember calling over one of the grade school coaches when Mary first began. You knew then she could be something, if she worked at it. She has."
Cain's goal is to qualify for the Olympic Trials June 21 - July 1 at the University of Oregon as a "Provisional B" qualifier, which is 4:17 flat in the 1,500. She's not far off that time, but Cain is no where close to the Olympic aspirations she had in 2008.
"I was dying to see Michael Phelps swim, because I used to be a butterflier; I had to see Phelps swim in all of eight of his events," Cain said. "That was the dream, to one day become an Olympic swimmer. What inspired me more was watching Michael Phelps win all these gold medals, I thought ‘Wow.'"
Swimming, by then, was ingrained into Cain. She started young and by the time she was 10, she was serious about it. But something interfered the spring of Cain's sixth grade year. Stickles runs a springtime after-school track program for fifth and sixth graders and the idea hit Cain.
"I thought it would be a fun thing to try and thought I could balance that with swimming," she recalled.
During informal workouts, Cain would always be in front. She had never run competitively before that. Most of her competitive races were in gym classes. And she was in front there, too, against boys and girls. Cain had no clue about pace or stride, yet she ran a 5:47 the first time she ever attempted the mile.
That's an amazing mark for her age and lack of experience.
On a whim, Charles Cain, Mary's father, looked up the time to see how fast that rated among other sixth graders across the country. Charles and Stickles found it rated very well. Soon, Mary found out one sport would have to go, since balancing the time demands of a competitive swimmer often coincided with track.
It was hello track, goodbye swimming.
It wasn't an easy choice back then, but Cain has no regrets.
"It was hard to quit swimming, that was my first love, but at the same time, I was excited to see where track would take me," Cain said. "When I realized I could do something with it, it's when I began leaning more to track and maybe think about doing something nationally."
She had a stellar freshman year at Bronxville, but emerged onto the national scene this season, specifically in April at the 118th Annual Penn Relays.
Cain shocked the prep running world and even herself by in the Championship of America mile, setting a meet and national 10th-grade record of 4:39.28. She smashed the old mark of 4:41.22 set by Stephanie Morgan (Barnsdale, OH) in 2008 and the national sophomore record of 4:40.24.
Cain also beat a field that featured two-time defending Penn Relays champion Angel Piccirillo (Homer Creek, Md.) and 2011 IAAF World Youth 800-meter champion Ajee Wilson (Neptune, N.J.).
To Cain, the lineup of runners didn't matter. Her focus was, is, and always seems to be time. Her largest priority is to simply to beat her previous best mark. Thus far, it's been a winning strategy.
"I really didn't think about winning the Penn Relays, to be honest," Cain said. "I try my best to do my best and try not to put too many expectations on myself. At the 800 mark at Penn, I snuck a peak at the clock and saw 2:25. I wasn't at my pace. At that point in the race, I know a lot of people if they're off their pace (it will) freak them out. I kept telling myself I have to keep running. It was really my last 400 that got me under the 4:40. I ran a 62.5 in the last 400."
After running a hard 1,200, that is cooking.
"I'm very much of a time runner, trying to get down and build my strength," she said. "If I get a fast time, and I'm third, I'm still very excited. My goal has always been to get faster, and for me, improving at the Penn Relays is what I wanted to do. Every race for me is about running faster to see what I can do. I think a lot of runners look much more at who's the best when they line up. I try to focus on getting my best time."
She doesn't mind some of the early comparisons to Decker, and her 1,500 mark is is second all-time, only behind current Oregon runner and former national prep cross-country champion Jordan Hasay (4:16.98 in high school). It's why it's easy to forget how old Cain is. When she ran in the Penn Relays, she was 15.
She's often asked where she's going to college next year. People forget she's a sophomore.
It seems she has a great road ahead.
"I think she does," Stickles said. "It would be a huge deal for Mary to run in the Olympic Trials. I think it's very possible. I think she can go 4:12, 4:13 right now. She can rely on her kick; she can't settle on the second lap to get ready for the third lap. I told her she has nothing to lose to go after these goals she set for herself.
"She's been a pleasure to coach. She's a golden ticket. The biggest part of why Mary is the way she is because she genuinely loves running. She loves to perform and being a competitor. She has an awesome attitude, and great drive and determination."
And apparently nothing can get in her way from a desired time.
Not even a Sloppy Joe dinner.