Cleveland, Oh. — Young Alexa Efraimson put her abundant talent on display last night in Portland, Oregon, clocking 2:01:13 for 800 meters at the Portland Twilight meet, a time which slots her # 3 on the all-time U.S. list for high school aged girls behind Mary Cain and the late Kim Gallagher. It was a fine piece of running by the Camus, Washington native who turned pro last year in lieu of exploring a collegiate running career, a decision that Cain had also made the year before.
But even as Alexa showed her stuff, we are reminded that Mary Cain has come off the boil. After two years of blistering performances, including a spate of records from 800 to 5000 meters, reaching the finals in the 1500 meters 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow, and a win at the World Juniors 3000 meter champs in Eugene last summer, the Bronxville, New York native has come into 2015 under performing. Her indoor season was lackluster, and in her three outdoor 1500s to date she has yet to break 4:15. Last Thursday she finished 11th in a 12-person 1500 at the Hoka One One Middle Distance Classic at Occidental College in L.A.
Efraimson and Cain are just the latest two high school aged phenoms who matured early and were capable of national and even international caliber performances. But there is nothing automatic about youthful talent, and the road ahead holds no guarantees of future success.
This past weekend I was in Cleveland for the 38th Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon and 10Km, races I have covered since 1978. Racing in Cleveland this year was another prodigious young talent with high hopes, and another former youth superstar who serves as a cautionary tale for all who follow. (more…)
Boston, Ma. — Had a nice sit down with old friend and Nike Oregon Project coach Al Salazar today after hosting the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix press conference at the Lenox Hotel. Al , who grew up in suburban Wayland, Mass., has Galen Rupp racing the one-mile tomorrow, while Bronxville, N.Y. high school sensation Mary Cain will go in the 1000 meters. Both athletes have already had great success this indoor season with Galen taking down two American records — the 5000m (13:01.26) and the two-mile (8:07.41), both at Boston University in January – and Mary knocking down the world junior record in the 1000m January 17th (2:39.25), then barely missing the world junior mark in the mile January 24th at the B.U. Terrier Invitational by 1/100th of a second in 4:24.11.
Galen had originally planned to take a shot at Hicham El Guerrouj’s indoor world mile record of 3:48.45 at B.U. tomorrow as the NBIGP was being run at the Reggie Lewis Center on the campus of Roxbury Community College, but after the two-mile record and 4 X one-mile workout that followed 45 minutes later (4:20, 4:20, 4:16, 4:01!) they thought better of it.
“It came down to realizing that the travel and effort for these record attempts was taking a toll,” Al said. “And doing another one was too close.” (more…)
It was around this time last year at Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon that Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar began touting his new pupil, Mary Cain, the high school sensation out of Bronxville, New York. Cain was in Portland making her NXN debut.
After Al found out Mary was essentially self-coached he spoke with her parents and decided to begin their long-distance coach/athlete relationship. Alberto began flying east every two weeks to evaluate then supervise Cain’s progress.
Bio-mechanics have long been a cornerstone of Alberto’s coaching philosophy, a direct result of an ungainly (though effective) form that carried him to a remarkable track, road, cross country and marathon career until his early flame out after 1982.
“We are running against so many talented East Africans,” he explained. “We are not going to out train them. Our only chance is to do everything perfectly with bio-mechanics and strength (training). That is where they don’t have an expertise. So we have to train perfectly to go against the survivors of their programs.”
Last year at NXN Mary placed second to Sarah Baxter of Simi Valley, California who won her second straight NXN title. Mary closed fast, but had lost ground to Baxter through the mid-section of the Portland Meadows mud bath of a course.
“I’m confident,” said Al before the race. “Some runners are unbeatable on the track, but you don’t know about cross country. I do know she is in better shape than when she ran 4:11 in July. I think she’s a 15:30 5K runner now, because she’s done things which only people who made the Olympic team have done.”
Looking back it was as if Alberto had the looking glass Windexed perfectly clean last December, because throughout the remainder of 2013 Mary Cain certainly outdid even his high expectations. Here is the USATF announcement. (more…)
San Diego, CA. — Track is back in San Diego! Hard to believe, but it’s been a quarter century since a professional track meet was last staged in America’s Finest City, and nearly a half century since its greatest days. That clock gets turned back this Sunday at 10 a.m. when Re-Run San Diego looks to recreate some of the city’s past track glory following a 5K road race through downtown San Diego and scenic Balboa Park in a unique track-follows-road-race format with $60,000 waiting on the line.
For those too young to remember, track used to be a big deal in this corner of the left coast. Not just because of people like Steve Scott and Thom Hunt, or in latter days with Meb Keflezighi and Monique Henderson. It was the meets that dotted the calendar, whether in Balboa Stadium downtown, or over at the Sports Arena for the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor meet.
San Diego Union Tribune scribe Nick Canepa has spent 40 years chronicling all things sports in this town, but as he wrote in a February 2012 column it was track that provided his most lasting memory.
“But, for me, nothing tops the night of (Eamonn) Coghlan’s mile on the Sports Arena boards during the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor Games. It was electrifying. He blew the roof off the joint. If you had never seen a track and field event in your life, even if you were the losers’ parents, you had to feel what it’s like to be a page in history.”
The thought of what track once was can raise goosebumps or loosen tears depending on your mood. But rather than escape into the past two young men with the future of the sport in mind hatched the idea for Re-Run San Diego over the last year. (more…)
While couch-surfing yesterday afternoon I came across the U.S. Bank NBC Sports Report with Liam McHugh. First up on the highlight reel was the Chicago Blackhawks continuing their record, non-losing streak to begin an NHL season as they bested the Detroit Red Wings in overtime 2-1. Next up came Lebron James leading the Miami Heat over the New York Knicks, 99-93, in Madison Square Garden. That was followed by Tottenham over Arsenal 2-1 in Premier League play in England. Finally, McHugh teed up the feel-good story of Mary Cain, the 16 year-old phenom out of Bronxville, New York capturing the mile at the U.S. Indoor Track & Field Championships in Albuquerque in 5:05.68.
“Look for her in three years in Rio,” McHugh said in closing.
Going back to 1967 when Doris Brown won the first of four U.S. indoor mile titles in 4:43.3, there has never been a single U.S. indoor mile/1500m title won in such a pedestrian time. In fact, the slowest winning time in the previous 46 years was 4:59.3 run by the Toronto Olympic Club’s Abby Hoffman in 1969 when she bested Shalane Flanagan’s mom, Cheryl Bridges (5:07.0).
Yet, it mattered not to NBC Sports that Cain’s time was the slowest in modern U.S. indoor history, or that it was nowhere near here best high school record 4:28.25 that she ran at the Armory in New York at the 106th Millrose Games in February behind Canada’s Sheila Reid. In this day and age when track and field has been all but dry-docked from the sporting mainstream, the fact that a runner made it to a major network’s highlight package goes to show what a winning personality can generate. (more…)
High school sensation Mary Cain, the junior out of Bronxville, New York, closed with a stride-lengthening rush at last Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix women’s two mile at the sold-out Reggie Lewis Center in Boston. Her strong final 50 meters delivered her to the finish line in third place, within one stride of Canadian 5000 meter Olympian Sheila Reid,though 25-seconds behind race winner and three-time Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, herself a former teen sensation dubbed the “Baby-Faced Destroyer” for the lethality of finishes.
Notwithstanding, Cain smashed the 21-year old U.S. high school indoor 2-mile record by 17-seconds (9:38.68). In all, another fabulous performance for the 16 year-old high school junior who continues her assault on the all-time U.S. high school record book.
And yet – yes, there’s an “and yet”, but it’s a good one. Though Mary Cain has broken three long standing U.S. indoor high school records over the course of the still budding 2013 season (unofficial 3000m, one mile, now two mile), her coach Alberto Salazar can still see room for vast improvement. Even a casual fan can see that her youthful physique still exhibits a mix-master, across the mid-line action in her upper body, an alignment which has profound effect on the action of her stride, its length, and overall efficiency.
“What I first saw with her was her shoulders hunched forward,” explained Coach Salazar in Boston. “But we can fix that pretty quick. And that will fix her legs and stride. I was talking to my wife about Galen (Rupp) hunching his shoulders forward, and our daughter (Maria) was listening. She’s an equestrian. She said, ‘Dad, there’s a thing I wear called Shoulders Back which helps us sit straighter in the saddle’. So I ordered it, and it has pulled her shoulders back. Both Mary and Galen run with it now. She still has form to improve. She’s weak on top, but at least it’s an improvement.”
There are many examples of teen sensations who never go on to open division heights. Melody Fairchild, whose 1991 indoor 2-Mile record Cain broke last Saturday, never approached the same level of track success in her post-high school years. More recent California teen queen Jordan Hasay, who famously qualified for the Olympic Trials final at 1500 meters in 2008 as a high schooler, has had a very good collegiate career at Oregon – she won the 2011 NCAA indoor championships in both the one mile and the 3000 meters – but not one that stands out like her high school years. BTW, Hasay and Cain will meet up at the February 16th Millrose Games in New York City over the one mile distance.
There are many complex reasons for teen female talent not to blossom further in running, or any sport, for that matter. Some of it has to do with changes in maturing body composition, the psychological pressure to succeed, and new, competing interests. There’s no telling where Mary Cain is headed. Tirunesh Dibaba took her junior success all the way to multiple world records and three Olympic gold medals. Mary Decker Slaney, perhaps America’s most celebrated teen sensation, captured double World Championship gold in Helsinki 1983 before infamously – and perhaps ironically – tangling legs with another teen wonder, Zola Buddof South Africa, in the L.A. Olympic 3000 meter final.
Noted throughout his own running career – and now as a coach – for his blunt assessments, Salazar believes the future is unlimited for Mary Cain, who, though restricted by Salazar to post-race interviews, exhibits both an ease and charm in the unforgiving glare of the spotlight that suggest that the stage will not be too big for her to handle.
“In the next couple of years you’ll see her become America’s top middle-distance runner, no question,” Alberto asserted.
The weight on her shoulders will continue to grow. But with her chin up and Shoulders Back, looks like she’s prepared to carry that load.
With rich dreams being brought to life yesterday in New York, Boston, and Glasgow by Mary Cain, Galen Rupp and Duane Solomon, each heralding a fruitful beginning to the 2016 Rio Olympic cycle, it was at a small all-comers meet in Chula Vista, California that I was again reminded of track’s enduring draw. On a dreary Saturday morning at the San Diego Track Club’s Mid-Winter Track Classic I witnessed track’s profound but timeless connection to effort, exhaustion, joy and frustration, the likes of which transcend the fanciful vogues of the moment while linking generations in a manner that the tastes of the day never can.
As wife Toya completed a finely paced victory in the 1000-meter run at Montgomery High School’s Al Prazak Stadium, my eye was drawn to a young competitor focused on her upcoming race as she was being advised by portly man many years her senior.
A seventh-grader at El Centro Junior High, 13 year-old Sabrina Benavides was running in just the second 3000 meter track race of her life. She had debuted at this very meet one year ago, notching a 12:07 time. Since then she had run a 20:27 5K at the Cougar Invitational, the cross country meet staged by Cal State San Marcos head coach Steve Scott, the former American record holder in the mile. Holding court with Sabrina before the start of her race yesterday was Alberto Bazan, 61, of Imperial, California, her grandfather. (more…)