NEW YORK — Mary Cain is bringing Hemingway, an altitude tent and Puddles to the University of Portland.
There are just a few more tasks here in her home state before the self-professed science nerd hailed and cautioned last year as the next U.S. middle-distance prodigy begins her freshman year of college.
First, the Adidas Grand Prix on Saturday.
Cain, born three months before Michael Johnson‘s 200m-400m double at the Atlanta Olympics, will run for 2 minutes in front of loved ones at Randall’s Island, between East Harlem, the South Bronx and Queens. She’s a high school senior (for seven more days) a half-hour north of Icahn Stadium.
The distance, 800m, is the shortest of her gaggle of high school records (up to 5000m) plucked before she turned professional in November, hired Usain Bolt‘s agent and joined the Nike Oregon Project.
Cain, who eats pancakes before races and Starburst after, was the youngest American to make a World Championships team last summer and youngest athlete from any nation to make a 1500m final. She finished 10th.
“Next year will be more of a jump because all of a sudden I’ll be in college and in a new city and everything, but the literal idea and concept of actually going professional, it hasn’t changed anything for me,” the joke-cracking and swoosh-wearing Cain said sitting at a Grand Central Terminal hotel mezzanine floor table, to a dozen or so reporters Thursday. “I wanted it to be how it has been.
“I don’t really know what to expect these next few years. I kind of like that. I kind of like it being just a little bit of a mystery, for me and for everybody.”
Cain is the youngest woman in Saturday’s 800m field, but only by 25 days. In May, she turned 18, took AP exams in literature, economics and Latin, enjoyed the Bronxville High School prom and somehow had enough energy to open her outdoor season 3,000 miles away at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., finishing eighth in an 800m.
“It was a struggle,” Cain said specifically of taking the AP Latin test in a room with the school crowd she runs with, other high honors students. “There were a lot of people I saw who were drawing very nice pictures.”
Does she feel Saturday’s meet is her last fling as a high school kid?
“Not really,” she said, pausing to build up a joke. “I still have the whole summer.”
More tests are coming. She’s interested in competing at the U.S. Junior Championships and World Junior Championships in July, both in Eugene. After that, more Diamond League races.
But the one that’s causing consternation, even two days before she runs at Adidas, is her driver’s exam. That’s next Friday.
“I can drive,” she said, reassuring reporters and herself. “I’ve driven on highways. I know what I’m doing, but it’s just a matter of passing the test. I can parallel park, but what if I don’t?”
The day after that she will walk at graduation at Bronxville High School, which Cain said does not do class rankings that typically determine which students give speeches.
“We’re a little too competitive for that,” she said.
Cain will leave Bronxville and miss the handwritten, advice-seeking letters teenage runners mail her. Also her family, especially her old white poodle, Albus Dumbledore (named after the silver-haired “Harry Potter” headmaster).
“I’ll be Snapchatting him,” she joked.
She will spend the summer keeping tabs on the World Cup (she has Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina in the top four places in her bracket) and gradually moving her life to Portland.
“I probably won’t have a roommate,” Cain said when asked about her dorm situation, “because I do sleep in an altitude tent.”
This is not an unusual setup for Olympic sports athletes. One of Cain’s early sports heroes when she was a young swimmer, Michael Phelps, has done the same to boost oxygen production. It was the idea of her famed coach, three-time New York City Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, who also guides Olympic medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.
“My parents probably hate it, but hey,” Cain said. “My parents at first were just like, ‘You have to have a tent in your room?’ I was like, ‘It’s the new thing. Everybody’s doing it.’”
She will also bring less cumbersome but just as valuable essentials, such as Puddles, the fuzzy yellow duck she carried during interviews at last year’s U.S. Championships.
And the thoughts of Ernest Hemingway. Cain was recently discussing books with Salazar — “Some people in the Oregon Project are like, we don’t read books. I’m like, oh, OK, this is awkward,” Cain says — and her coach suggested “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” inspired by Hemingway’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War.
Hemingway opted to write for the Kansas City Star rather than attend college after graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago.
Cain couldn’t tell you where and what distance she might be running next week, but she’s mapped out studying chemistry and taking 18 credits in the fall, the maximum number of class hours at some major universities.
On the track, there are times she feels her age.
“A lot of people are always like, ‘Oh, you’re only 18,'” said Cain, who gets recognized in airports now. “The thing is this, there are 17- and 18-year-olds who dominate swimming, gymnastics, tennis.”
Facts she was reminded of watching 17- and 19-year-olds win Olympic figure skating gold medals in Sochi on TV.
“Just because I’m 17 and, yeah, maybe I’m not at my peak for a runner, it still doesn’t mean I can’t compete internationally,” she said. “Whenever I’m having my poor Mary, I’m only a little kid moments, I kind of remember that. I remember Missy Franklin.”