by Robert Johnson
July 6, 2018
Former Ivy League track stars Alexi Pappas and Kyle Merber have started an online book club and each month they record a podcast for their website Bookclubtracklub.com. This week, former US teen sensation Mary Cain was a guest on the podcast as they talked about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s children’s book, The Little Prince, which was first published in 1943.
As the three runners talked about the book, they tried to relate the protagonist’s journey to their own running. I listened to the 53-minute podcast and looked for nuggets of wisdom from Cain since she has been keeping a low profile during a hiatus from racing (Editor’s note: We did speak to Cain’s agent last November and Cain herself in February).
Cain, now 22, was a world championship finalist at 1500 in 2013 and in 2014 she won world junior gold at 3000, but that prodigious talent hasn’t been seen of late. When July 15 rolls around, two years will have passed since her last track race (a silver medal in the 1500 at the NACAC U23 Championships) and five years have already passed since her 1500 pb of 4:04.62 was achieved on May 17, 2013.
Here are my five biggest takeaways from her appearance on the podcast.
1. Mary Cain says she plans on racing later this summer (start – 8:00 mark of podcast)
The podcast was recorded during the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships in late June. After Merber talked about how an injury had prevented him from running USAs, Cain talked about how she and her coach decided it was best for her to skip USAs this year but start competing later this summer.
“I’m kind of in a similar boat in that I have obviously not raced in a while cause I just kind of got caught into a bit of an injury cycle. I’ve been training for the past few months now but my coach and I kind of decided to stay on our little planet and rather than try to force something and come back too quickly we decided that I’ll just start racing after USAs. Rather than try to force a time standard and force training and worry about what other people are doing, we are just kind of going to let my body do the talking or in this case do the running and I’m hoping to be racing in the next month or two. [Do] something just to get a nice little summer session in kind of because I haven’t been out there for a while but I think this particularly resonated with me because I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of kind of going with the flow and kind of being ok that I’m not out there this weekend,” said Cain.
When Merber asked Cain if she was the type that would force herself to watch USAs to motivate herself or the type that would avoid following USAs as it’s too hard to watch if you aren’t competing, Cain responded that she’d certainly follow how her friends were doing and said she may or may not watch it. “I think it’s just that emotionally I’m not in it right now in terms of competing. I think that I’m emotionally ready to compete but I mean more in terms of, ‘I’m ok that I’m not out there’ so I don’t feel that I have to force it… But I also feel if I’m in the mood, I’ll watch it.”
2) Mary Cain is learning how to balance running with the rest of her life and not judge herself solely on how well she is running (8:00-14:00)
Merber said that when he realized he was going to miss USAs due to injury, he had to step away from the sport for a while and clear his head so he called up some HS friends and asked them to take him to a Yankee game. Merber then asked Cain if she’s ever done anything like that and Cain said that she’s distracted herself from running in the past by focusing on school.
“For me this past fall, I decided – I’m a business major but I’m also pre-med – so I decided I was going to take those orgo (organic chemistry) classes this year. And I think it was actually really good for me because just besides making some friends within the class, it was also something where I could SO be distracted taking that because I kind of had to put so much energy and time and really get involved into the orgo world and really commit to it that it was kind of easier to kind of zone out from the running scene for a little bit which I think you know sometimes can be a good thing because I think it means we’re just going to come back that much stronger.”
A little later in the podcast, Cain talked about whether she thought it was a good idea for pros to solely focus on running.
“Yes and I know in that I think part of the issue quite frankly that year was part of the reason why I took a gap year was I was very confused with what I was doing with my life at that point in terms of I had just left Oregon, I didn’t know if I was going to go back out or should I be transferring to another school, so in a lot of ways the gap year was like, ‘2016 let’s go,’ but it was also because I had just had no idea what I was doing. And so as a result, I don’t feel I was in the best place mentally that year and so in a way I think it’s hard to judge being a full-time pro based on that year, but I think it also did teach me that maybe having a little something going on on the side and making sure you are super 100% committed to your running but also finding time to go the Yankee games with friends or something like that, I think it did kind of teach me that gap year that even when you are full-time (running) out of school, you should have a little time for non-running things.”
3) Mary Cain does not regret going pro early and says it “has been kind of a blessing” (17:00)
“I think you know in a lot of ways for me going professional at a young age has been kind of a blessing in that it’s given me kind of time to maybe experiment in a way and I feel like that while you are going through certain things it’s very easy to ** inaudible ** get antsy about it especially when you are only 18, but as I’ve gotten older.. I’ve still tried to keep at the same time – I don’t know – maybe that youthful bliss towards my running in that I do think it’s very easy to get kind of soured by negative experiences within the sport, because although it’s an amazing community and super supportive and you meet the best people, it can also be a little bit tough and I think the more you go into it with a kind of, ‘Hey I know the people who know me and they know me for being Mary and not some random runner who tries to run fast all the time. They know me for being the weirdo who is trying to take orgo and pulling her hair out for that.’ So I think kind of the reason why I liked this book is I did kind of feel I’ve been kind of going from that prince phase and I don’t want to one of the grownups, I want to be like maybe the pilot who can stay young but still has the experience.”
(Editor’s note: The prince and pilot are references to the book.)
4) Mary Cain has been trying to rejuvenate herself by falling in love with the local NY running scene, not the elite scene (19:40)
On a few occasions during the podcast, Cain talked about how she’s been enjoying the local NY running scene of late. Whether it’s been supporting her boyfriend as he chased a recent Boston Marathon qualifier (he got it) or being inspired by 40-year-olds, Cain has found the amateur side of the sport refreshing.
“I think that’s why for me too it’s been kind of nice being more into the local scene…I think what inspires me is when people work 9 to 5 and they still get up at like 7 a.m. to run or they are running at 8 p.m. – I’m like (thinking to myself), ‘I’m in bed already, how are you out running?’ but there is a motivation and inner drive there that as a pro it’s easy to get into your own head, but if you take a step back, there is so much more to running than we sometimes acknowledge.”
5) Mary Cain has been trying to teach herself not to obsess over the pace of her runs or how much she’s sleeping and enjoy the little pleasures of a run (22:30)
“I’ve been recently very proud of myself because I’ve realized I’ve kind of been able to step away from my number obsession a little bit because I used to never actually use a GPS watch, I would go purely based on time because I’d get really obsessed like ‘I’m not hitting sub-7:00 or I was supposed to be 6:30 pace or whatever I was doing’ but recently I’ve gotten back into it and I’ve been totally unemotional about the times that pop up on my watch so maybe I’m becoming younger [at heart]. Oh, I don’t even care.”
Later, around the 25-minute mark, Pappas talks about something in the book and asks Cain whether it’s too easy for humans to judge themselves and whether we tend to be harsh on ourselves.
“I actually thought that was an interesting quote because I at the time agreed and disagreed because I can be someone that is very hard on myself. I mean I was a person that would be like, ‘7:01 pace – that’s not good enough,’ but at the same time I do understand…As you said earlier Alexi, it really is just about effort sometimes and your body is going to know when it’s ready to step up and sometimes just trusting do its thing when it’s ready is the most important thing,” said Cain.
Later Cain said she’s gotten better at acknowledging, recording, and giving herself credit for her recovery. Cain said that she sleeps with a watch that records her sleep and sometimes she’ll note that while she was in bed for 12 hours, she only slept for 11.
Near the end of the podcast (Editor’s note: Roughly 34:30 mark), Merber almost begs Cain to admit that injuries can be a good thing and Cain agreed.
“Personally and maybe I’m naive to say this, but I think it can be like a nice reset and I think sometimes, especially if you are already kind of getting into a cycle, you kind of need that,” said Cain.
At the end of the podcast, Cain said she enjoyed the previous month’s podcast when American marathon record holder Deena Kastor was the featured guest.
“Going back to your last podcast and reading Deena’s book (Let Your Mind Run), you know she was always great in finding the little things, ‘Oh I saw a bird on the run today and it was really cute.’ I think that is something I’m trying to pull into my own life. You appreciate pulling the bucket from the well (a reference to how a child in the book appreciates helping with this simple chore).”
More: Talk about the Cain’s appearance on the podcast on our messageboard. MB: Mary Cain on Pappas/Merber podcast, says she plans on racing in next month or two.