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Mary Cain raises women’s health issues in harrowing account of her time with Alberto Salazar

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In 2013, Mary Cain was the talk of the track and field world. The teenager with flowing hair and an irrepressible smile shattered high school records and became the youngest woman to qualify for a world championship 1,500m final. Surely Olympic glory and global athletics stardom would be next.

Instead, Cain’s performances dropped off. She had a solid year in 2014, winning the 3,000m world junior title, the Millrose Games mile and the U.S. 1,500m indoor title, and she took second in the U.S. 1,500m final. But in 2015, she was less competitive. Her struggles continued in 2016, and she finished 11th in her first attempt to make an Olympic team.

She enrolled in Fordham, near her Bronxville, N.Y., home, and took pre-med classes while dealing with a variety of injuries. In the last three years, her IAAF bio lists no results.

“Whatever happened to Mary Cain?” became a popular question among those who follow track and field, even casually.

On Thursday, in a devastating New York Times video, she answered. Her physical and mental health were destroyed — she claims, at the hands of Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar, who contacted the Cain family while she was in high school to say he wanted to coach the prodigy.

“I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” Cain said. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

Cain says she was told to lose weight — “thinner, and thinner, and thinner” — in order to get better, even to the point of taking birth control pills and diuretics. That staff, she points out, was all male. 

The problem was well-hidden. A March 2015 magazine piece, also in The New York Times, suggested Salazar was treating Cain carefully. The goal was to avoid ailments such as the “female athlete triad,” also called RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) syndrome, in which an eating disorder and the lack of a menstrual period are related to a weaker bone structure.

“Not eating appropriately for the amount of energy an athlete expends is really the root of this syndrome,” University of Wisconsin orthopedic surgeon Andrea Spiker said in an RED-S fact sheet that says missing just three cycles is a warning sign.

Cain said she missed her period for three years. And broke five different bones.

The mental toll was worse. She had suicidal thoughts and began cutting herself. She said she brought the latter to Salazar’s attention in May 2015, a couple of months after the magazine piece painted a rosy picture but a few hours after Salazar yelled at her in front of many athletes and meet officials gathered in a tent during a thunderstorm. Her parents soon brought her home to New York.

“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more,” Cain said. “I was just trying to survive.”

But she hid the depths of her problems. As recently as last year, Cain talked with Runner’s World about building back up to run in the outdoor season and expressed no regrets about her career choices.

The author of the 2015 magazine piece, Elizabeth Weil, says today she wishes she had spotted some red flags.

“I’ve thought a lot about the 2015 Mary Cain story I wrote over the years,” Weil said on Twitter. “[Because] in hindsight I got it so wrong.”

Former Nike runner Shalane Flanagan, who last month described her training group as distinctly separate from Salazar’s, also wondered aloud if she should have noticed the problems, reaching out to Cain on Twitter.

“I had no idea it was this bad,” Flanagan wrote. “I’m so sorry @runmarycain that I never reached out to you when I saw you struggling. I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business. We let you down. I will never turn my head again.”

Coincidentally, soon after the 2015 magazine piece ran, Salazar’s program fell under heavy scrutiny. In June, the BBC and ProPublica reported that the Nike Oregon Project was under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. That investigation finally ended with a four-year ban for Salazar.

One of the former Oregon Project athletes who spoke out in the BBC/ProPublica piece, Kara Goucher, told NBC OlympicTalk she had hoped Cain would be treated better because of her age but that Cain simply wound up isolated.

“She was all alone,” Goucher said. “She had no one to support her.”

Officially, the Nike Oregon Project has been shut down, but several of the coaches and athletes are still working together. The athletes Salazar trained are a who’s who of distance running, including Galen Rupp, Jordan Hasay and Mo Farah. None of the athletes have been charged with doping, and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart said this week he sees little reason for the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate any further.

Now Cain wants to change the system.

“Young girls’ bodies are being ruined by an emotionally and physically abusive system,” Cain said.

Goucher agrees: “I think this is a broader problem of the way we treat women athletes as objects instead of humans.”

Cain gave a road map for reform: Change the culture at Nike, including a closer look at the coaches who worked with Salazar and continue to work with Nike athletes, and put more women in power.

And she says her running career isn’t over.

“Part of the reason I’m doing this now is I want to end this chapter, and I want to start a new one,” Cain said.

Left ambiguous is whether that statement applies only to herself or to her sport and sports in general.

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Foot race or arms race? New York City Marathon runners enter high-tech shoe debate

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NEW YORK — Among the otherwise typical New York City Marathon storylines — like course records and prep for the U.S. Olympic Trials on Feb. 29 — is the debate over shoe technology that escalated after recent historic performances.

Sunday’s race is the first major marathon since the breakthrough weekend of Oct. 12-13.

Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon (not in a race, but in a non-record-eligible event where he was the only contestant, with pacers). The next day, countrywoman Brigid Kosgei won the Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04, shattering the 16-year-old women’s world record by 81 seconds.

Both Kipchoge, regarded as the greatest marathoner in history before his 1:59, and Kosgei, arguably the world’s greatest active female road runner before the 2:14, ran in versions of the Nike Vaporfly — uniquely tall shoes on the outside with a carbon fiber plate on the inside. Kipchoge has been running on versions of them for years, including when he lowered the world record by 78 seconds to 2:01:39 in 2018.

In the last 13 months, four men combined to run the five fastest marathons in history, all reportedly in versions of the Vaporfly. Other shoe companies have been tasked to catch up to Nike’s technology since the Vaporfly debuted in 2016.

“It is an arms race, and it should be a foot race,” said Des Linden, a two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champion who is sponsored by and runs in Brooks shoes. “We should find out who the best athlete is and who can cover 26.2 [miles] better than the other person. Not who has the newest, greatest technology.”

Linden said she will race Sunday in the latest version of a shoe that Brooks has been working on for two years but didn’t say how close its technology was to the Nike Vaporfly.

“I’m not sure how much I can say about the Brooks shoe,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with them where it was like, is this OK to wear? What’s your guys standing on this? They’re like, yeah, it’s absolutely widely available to the public. There’s plenty of Brooks athletes out there in that shoe. The technology isn’t something that isn’t available to the public. It seems like we’re in a good spot.”

The IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, does have rules regulating shoes.

“Any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics,” it reads. “Shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage.”

Days after Kipchoge and Kosgei’s breakthroughs, the IAAF said it commissioned a group to review shoe technologies and possibly recommend rule changes by the end of the year.

“It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport,” the IAAF said. “The challenge for the IAAF is to find the right balance in the technical rules between encouraging the development and use of new technologies in athletics and the preservation of the fundamental characteristics of the sport: accessibility, universality and fairness.”

Versions of the Vaporfly have been made available to the public, but Kipchoge ran his 1:59 (again, not in a race) in a prototype. Linden said she doesn’t think the playing field is level between athletes in Nike shoes and those who are not.

“Every company has a different pace that they’re working at,” she said. “So we’re all obviously behind [Nike] to begin with.

“Now that it’s available, it’s everyone playing catch-up. I think that we can get there, but also, are they going to put a hard stop against how far this can go?”

Another top American in the New York City field, Sara Hall, just chopped four minutes off her marathon PR last month wearing her Asics.

“I haven’t run in carbon-plated shoes at all,” she said. “But I think the upside of that is, I really feel like I have ownership over my PRs and stuff. I know I worked really hard to get that PR, and I didn’t just have springs and things like that.”

Jared Ward, who finished sixth at the Rio Olympics (not in Vaporflies), said he’s running Sunday in the latest version of a Saucony shoe that will be released in the spring. Ward, also a statistics professor at BYU, said he hasn’t put a lot of thought into the Nike shoes, but that the shoe industry “is on its side a little bit.”

“At some point, there’s diminishing returns because if you get taller and taller shoes, you have to build wider and wider shoes, and then they start getting heavy,” he said. “In a year or two, things are going to stabilize, and then we’ll be back to running.

“I’m looking more at what the athletes are doing. I think Kipchoge and Kosgei are some of the best, probably the best marathoners ever. And so we put them in good shoes, and they run well, but they’re going to run well in whatever they’re running in.”

The Vaporflies were created in part because athletes did not find the lightweight, minimalist shoe movement to their liking. Take Shalane Flanagan, the four-time Olympian, longtime Nike athlete and 2017 New York City Marathon winner who recently retired.

Flanagan said she and other marathoners told Nike around 2014 and 2015 that they wanted more cushioning. Eventually, Flanagan and Amy Cragg debuted a version of the Vaporfly at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

“Even within my training, I felt I was able to recover quicker because there wasn’t as much muscle breakdown, fiber breakdown, because the load of the landing was softened,” she said. “I was able to get through the training and not feel so sore all the time.”

Those first Vaporflies had a carbon fiber plate, but not nearly as technical as the newer versions, said Flanagan, now coaching a Nike group of runners in Oregon.

“At the time it was more focused on the foam than the shank that was within it,” she said.

Flanagan, before answering questions on the subject, admitted she has bias as a Nike athlete/coach.

“If you look at all different sports, there’s always been kind of a pivotal point in which the sport has decided we’re going to this direction or we’re not going to go a direction in terms of innovation,” she said, noting high-tech swimsuits (banned in 2010), tennis rackets, speed skating suits and baseball bats. “It’s up to our sport to decide which direction we want to go — innovate or stay the same?”

One of the high-profile Nike athletes running on Sunday is Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, the half marathon world-record holder, 2017 New York City champion and a training partner of Kipchoge. He will race in Vaporflies, but not the same version that Kipchoge had three weeks ago. Kamworor was asked what he would say to those who want them regulated or even banned.

“Vaporfly shoe is not only for the elite athletes, but it’s also for the average runners,” he said, referring to the IAAF’s mandate of universality. “It’s not limited to some people. It’s for everyone.”

MORE: Tokyo governor to IOC: Keep Olympic marathon in Tokyo

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Shalane Flanagan retires from professional running

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Shalane Flanagan, a four-time Olympian and 2017 New York City Marathon champion, retired after a 15-year professional running career to become a coach.

“With happy tears I announce today that I am retiring from professional running,” was posted on the 38-year-old’s social media. “I have felt my North Star shifting, my passion and purpose is no longer about MY running; it’s more and more about those around me. All I’ve ever known, in my approach to anything, is going ALL IN. So I’m carrying this to coaching.”

Flanagan, in recent years, shifted to coaching her training partners at the Nike Bowerman Track Club in Oregon. She is now a professional coach with the group, according to her social media.

“I hope I made myself a better person by running,” Flanagan said, according to the post. “I hope I made those around me better. I hope I made my competition better. I hope I left the sport better because I was a part of it.”

In the final race of her career, Flanagan finished third in the 2018 New York City Marathon, mouthing “I love you” and waving her right hand to the Central Park finish-line crowd.

“I just thought [in the final miles] if this truly is going to be my last race, a podium spot really would be special,” Flanagan said that day.

She underwent knee surgery in April and said then that she was undecided on whether to continue racing or focus on coaching.

“There’s not, that I know of, any female coaches at the Olympic level, professional level, and so I’d love to be the first at that level,” she said in April. “My clock for 10,000 hours has started while I’m still trying to get myself healthy and back to running and competing. If the running thing doesn’t work out anymore, coaching.”

Flanagan is best known for becoming the first U.S. female runner to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years in 2017. Flanagan, along with 2018 Boston Marathon winner Des Linden and others, ushered in an era where U.S. female marathoners have challenged top Kenyans and Ethiopians in majors.

Flanagan shares the record of four Olympic appearances for a U.S. distance runner. Her highlight was earning a medal in the 2008 Olympic 10,000m, a bronze that was upgraded to silver nine years later due to another woman’s doping disqualification.

“My personal motto through out my career has been to make decisions that leave me with “no regrets”…. but to be honest, I have one,” was posted on Flanagan’s social media Monday. “I regret I can’t do it all over again.”

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With happy tears I announce today that I am retiring from professional running. From 2004 to 2019 I’ve given everything that’s within me to this sport and wow it’s been an incredible ride! I’ve broken bones, torn tendons, and lost too many toenails to count. I've experienced otherworldly highs and abysmal lows. I've loved (and learned from) it all. Over the last 15 years I found out what I was capable of, and it was more than I ever dreamed possible. Now that all is said and done, I am most proud of the consistently high level of running I produced year after year. No matter what I accomplished the year before, it never got any easier. Each season, each race was hard, so hard. But this I know to be true: hard things are wonderful, beautiful, and give meaning to life. I’ve loved having an intense sense of purpose. For 15 years I've woken up every day knowing I was exactly where I needed to be. The feeling of pressing the threshold of my mental and physical limits has been bliss. I've gone to bed with a giant tired smile on my face and woken up with the same smile. My obsession to put one foot in front of the other, as quickly as I can, has given me so much joy. However, I have felt my North Star shifting, my passion and purpose is no longer about MY running; it's more and more about those around me. All I’ve ever known, in my approach to anything, is going ALL IN. So I’m carrying this to coaching. I want to be consumed with serving others the way I have been consumed with being the best athlete I can be. I am privileged to announce I am now a professional coach of the Nike Bowerman Track Club. This amazing opportunity in front of me, to give back to the sport, that gave me so much, is not lost on me. I’ve pinched myself numerous times to make sure this is real. I am well aware that retirement for professional athletes can be an extremely hard transition. I am lucky, as I know already, that coaching will bring me as much joy and heartache that my own running career gave me. I believe we are meant to inspire one another, we are meant to learn from one another. Sharing everything I’ve learned about and from running is what I’m meant to do now.(1/2)

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