Middle-distance phenom Mary Cain about to graduate to next level, college

Mary Cain finished fourth in the women's 800-meter

Mary Cain finished fourth in the women's 800-meter race at the Addias Grand Prix track meet held at Ichan Stadium on Randalls Island on June 14, 2014. (Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy)

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So not everything and everyone are in Mary Cain's rearview mirror. Six days from taking her driving test, track and field's most recent prodigy got caught in early traffic in the Grand Prix women's 800 meters and finished fourth Saturday on Randalls Island.

Jamaica's 23-year-old Natoya Goule, the NCAA 800 champion for both LSU and Clemson, won in 2:00.28. Cain ran 2:01.67.

But Cain, 18, who already has left a pack of high school and age-group middle distance records in her dust -- from 800 to 5,000 meters -- nevertheless declared herself happy with her effort in front of friends from her Westchester home.

"Getting boxed in like that, my actual 800 was great," she said merrily. "The problem is, I ran 820."

Still a week from her Bronxville High graduation, Cain long ago put the track world on notice as a sort of l'enfant terrible in the sport, doing embarrassing things to her elders.

Last summer, she was the youngest American to compete in the world championships, and the youngest athlete from any nation to reach the women's 1,500 final. (She finished 10th.) Since turning professional in November, she twice has broken the 1,000-meter world junior indoor record and won the U.S. national 1,500 indoor title.

Her coach the past two years is Alberto Salazar, three times New York City Marathon champion in the early 1980s and mentor of 2012 Olympic gold (Britain's Mo Farah) and silver (American Galen Rupp) medalists at 5,000.

Salazar lives in suburban Portland, Oregon, thus Cain's decision to attend college at the University of Portland, just up the road from the longtime track capital of Eugene.

"I like that kind of weather," Cain said. "Constant drizzle. At the Olympic trials in 2012" -- in Eugene -- "my mom was, like, 'It's pouring rain out there, Mary. You shouldn't even notice it. You're Irish.' "

It was with Salazar, Cain said, that "we made the executive decision to back off" her training after she developed nagging pain in her lower leg earlier this year, possibly from extensive treadmill work during the area's severe winter.

Thus the choice of the 800 Saturday, a race in which "I can go out and run a really good time, or I can be really confused the whole entire race," she said. "The 1,500, oh, I can wait all day; I can be in dead last [and recover]. In the 800, other people know what they're doing."

Moving right along, then. Cain expects to emphasize training over racing this fall while diving into her college courses, boosted by plenty of AP credits. "Latin AP was a struggle," she said. "There were a lot of people in class drawing pictures during that, but I took it seriously."

And she "totally won't have a roommate," she said, "because I sleep in an altitude tent," one of those now-fashionable athletic accessories to enhance the body's production of more red blood cells, boosting endurance.

Meanwhile, by competing professionally, instead of for a college team, Cain can better tailor her racing schedule for longer-distance goals, with the 2016 Olympics a strong possibility.

Still, she said, "to be completely consumed by track, that might be a little bit out of my comfort zone. I kind of like having friends who are less tracky.

"At this point, I just kind of roll with it. I don't really know what to expect these next few years. And I kind of like that. I kind of like it being a little bit of a mystery. For me and for everybody."

Except for that driving test. "Wish me luck," Cain said.

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