LetsRun.com Debates: Is It Time To Panic For Mary Cain? How Many World Records Will Be Set In 2016?

by LetsRun.com
January 8, 2016

2016 is here, and the LetsRun.com staff (co-founders Robert and Weldon Johnson plus staff writer Jonathan Gault) decided to ring in the new (Olympic) year by discussing some of the hottest topics in the sport right now and making a few predictions along the way. We began this week by trying to figure out how many distance medals Team USA will claim in Rio and then on Wednesday we discussed some legends of the sport (Mo Farah, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba) and what 2016 might have in store for them.

Today, we tackle the subject of Mary Cain and wonder whether her down year in 2015 is cause for concern before assessing Ajee Wilson’s gold-medal chances and which world records will be broken in 2016.

Jonathan: Cain was obviously a huge deal when she broke onto the scene as a high school junior in 2013 and she’s undoubtedly one of the best U.S. distance prospects ever. Her World Junior gold in the 3,000 in 2014 was the first medal ever by an American (male or female) in a race longer than 800 meters.

For a number of reasons — her youth, her ridiculous times, the fact that Alberto Salazar took an interest in her and began coaching her from across the country — Cain looked set to become the next mega-star in U.S. running. But very few athletes make it to the top without some sort of setback, and Cain’s 2015 season was certainly a major disappointment. She broke 4:10 in the 1500 just once, and her 4:09.08 sb was well off her bests in 2013 (4:04.62) and 2014 (4:06.34). Cain did make the final at USAs, but she finished just eighth overall after taking second the previous two years.

Cain will look to rebound in 2016 after a subpar (for her) 2015 season Cain will look to rebound in 2016 after a subpar (for her) 2015 season

Let’s be clear: for your typical college freshman, Cain’s 2015 season was still phenomenal, but given what she had accomplished in the previous two years, it was a step backwards. And now the question moving forward is, where does Cain go in 2016? I’m not ready to call this a make-or-break year given that she is still on 19 years old. I would not be surprised at all to see her make the Olympic team, but there are plenty of young women who succeed at a young age only to flame out by their mid-20s. Of course, none of them ran as fast as Cain…

Given that 2015 was not an easy year for Cain off the track either — the move to the University of Portland did not go smoothly and her coach was the subject of drug allegations and is still under investigation by USADA — I’m going to cut her some slack. And it’s not like Cain ran that badly — unlike fellow phenom Alexa Efraimson, Cain made the final at USAs and was .69 back of the final spot to Worlds. But if she struggles in 2016 as well, then I do think it’s time to start worrying about Cain.

What say you, Rojo? And to what do you attribute her 2015 struggles?

Rojo: Well it’s kind of funny as I was the one who realized going into last year that Cain hadn’t PR’d in the 1500 in 2014 so I wrote something along the lines of, “If Cain doesn’t PR in 2015, people are going to start asking questions.” I guess here are those questions.

I do think this is a big year for her. As you mentioned, there is a tendency to say, “This is a make-or-break year for her,” but I think that tendency is the result of the fact she’s so much in the spotlight.

I always try to let facts, not emotions, guide my analysis.

I looked up Alan Webb’s progression. In HS, he ran that glorious 3:53.43 mile at Pre on May 27, 2001. He didn’t PR again in the 1500/mile equivalent for almost exactly three full years. On May 22, 2004, he ran 3:35.71 in Carson (3:53.43 is equivalent to 3:36.02). That was a span of 1,091 days.

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Cain’s PR came on May 17, 2013, so three years isn’t for another 4 months. She’s at 966 days. And I’m willing to be more patient for a woman than I am for a man as there are more changes going on in the body and what not. Plus, I don’t think it’s fair to say she didn’t PR in 2014. Yes, she ran 4:04.62 in 2013 and 4:06.34 in 2014 but in 2014 she was focused on World Juniors. The only 1500 she lost all year was the USA 1500 where she was second in 4:06.34 to Simpson’s 4:04.96. Plus she ran a 4:24.11 mile indoors which converts to a 4:04.50 1500 and she also ran that ridiculous 4:07.11 to win USAs at altitude.

So one could easily say we are only dealing with a one-year struggle. What do I attribute that to? Freshmen struggling in the first year away from home is very common. Plus she tried to train for the 5k. Either one of those things or some combination.

Look at Genzebe Dibaba. Everyone was trying to shove the 5000 down her throat even though she ran 3:57 in 2012. She ran 3:57 again in 2013 and then 3:55 indoors in 2014 before the amazing 3:50 in 2015. So she’s another example of there not being a reason to panic. Sometimes it takes a little time.

My favorite phrase is, “Talent doesn’t go away.”

Cain earned a historic gold for Team USA in the 3,000 in 2014 Cain earned a historic gold for Team USA in the 3,000 in 2014

That being said,I don’t think Alberto Salazar talking about being certain about Mary Cain running 3:55 and maybe 3:52 helped. I think outsized expectations may have played a role last year.

All runners have to learn to adjust to the law of diminishing returns. When you are in HS, you are sometimes improving by 7-10 seconds per mile per year. That rate can’t continue forever. When Cain hears her coach say she can definitely run 3:55, she may not understand that may not be until 2020 or something. Given the fact she went from 4:11 to 4:04 in 2013, she probably thought a sub-4 would be easy.

Then she’s struggling being away from home, struggling with the 5000 training and just not in her best shape. Maybe she was capable of running 4:05 if she’d stuck it out last year but when you are running 4:09, that psychologically is so far away from 3:59 it’s better to just bag it and call it a season.

This year, there really are no excuses. She’s back at home and what not.

But last year sort of reminds me of Webb’s freshman year at Michigan. I remember hearing through the grapevine that Webb thought he’d run 3:46 in the mile as frosh. He’d gone from 3:59 to 3:53 the year before so in his mind, why wouldn’t he do 3:46 the next year? It’s hard being a coach as you want them to dream big and you don’t want to dampen expectations but at the same time you need to get young athletes to understand that the key is to train properly and let the results come.

Jonathan: Robert, I think your point at the end is well-taken. Lots of athletes make big early breakthroughs but it’s how they respond when the PRs are less frequent that defines their career. We’ll find out in the next year or two how Cain responds. But enough about Cain. I want to talk about world records.

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Wilson ran 1:57.87 at Pre in May before injury forced her to shut down her 2015 season after USAs Wilson ran 1:57.87 at Pre in May before injury forced her to shut down her 2015 season after USAs

Wejo: Hold on a second. I only have one thing to say about Mary Cain: do you all realize Alexa Efraimson is a year younger than Mary Cain and has a faster PR in the 1500?

And before we talk about world records can we talk about the young American prospect who has a very good chance at winning an Olympic gold…. Ajee Wilson.

I remember being at Worlds in 2013 with all the Mary Cain hoopla and an American track journalist who has been going to Olympics before I was born said, “Wilson’s the one to watch in 2016.”

And he was right. Ajee Wilson was #2 in the world in 2014 according to our rankings. She got hurt in 2015, so what do we think about her chances for 2016?

Personally, I think she’s our best hope for gold in 2016 on the women’s side. My only question: is she healthy?

Jonathan: I did realize that about Efraimson. But did you realize that by the age Efraimson is now, Cain had already finished second at outdoor USAs twice, made an outdoor WC final, won two U.S. indoor titles and won a World Junior title? Efraimson hasn’t even made a U.S. outdoor final yet.

Rojo: Great points Jonathan. Times are only half the story.

Jonathan: I do agree with Weldon about Wilson being the U.S. women’s best bet for distance gold right now. The 1500 is too loaded, there is zero chance an American wins the 5k or 10k. The only other American woman I could see winning in Rio is Emma Coburn, mainly because the steeple is not particularly deep.

Rojo: Gentlemen, I have a breaking update to report. Elliott Denman published a piece a couple of hours ago. It is full of good news on Ajee:

“She is fully mended, has rehabbed well, is running well and training well; and, well, very-very anxious to make up for the time lost. She is now planning  on a big indoor season (highlighted by the Millrose Games at the New York Armory Feb. 20 and USA Indoor Nationals three weeks later in Portland, Oregon) and an even bigger outdoor campaign on her personal vision of the Road to Rio…Millrose Games director Ray Flynn, who also is Wilson’s agent, has given this status report: ‘Ajee’ has been running well since late August. She is definitely looking to make up for lost time. She will run Millrose and other big meets. We all know how much will be at stake in 2016. If all goes well, she can run with anybody in the world.'”

I’m not sure if that’s really new news as the quote from Flynn is the same one that showed up in Denman’s piece on RunBlogRun in December, but I think it’s safe to say we know she’s healthy.

The thing about the 800 that scares me is the whole intersex issue. We just don’t know if the event will be put out of reach given the fact that the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that intersex athletes will be allowed to compete without treatment. I think Ajee is a great medal contender. Gold is a long shot. She’s 1-9 in her career against Eunice Sum.

Will we see another one of these in 2016? Will we see another one of these in 2016?

Jonathan: Okay, moving on to world records: we saw three in Olympic events in 2015: Dibaba in the 1500, Ashton Eaton in the decathlon and Anita Wlodarczyk (twice) in the women’s hammer throw. My question: do we see more or fewer world records in 2016? (For the purpose of this discussion, let’s restrict it to Olympic events only.)

For reference, let’s look at how many world records were set in Olympic events over the past few years:

2015: 4 (in 3 events: women’s 1500, women’s hammer, decathlon)
2014: 3 (in 3 events: men’s pole vault, men’s marathon, women’s hammer)
2013: 1 (in 1 event: men’s marathon)
2012: 5 (in 5 events: men’s 800, men’s 110 hurdles, men’s 4×100 relay, women’s 4×100 relay, decathlon)

Rojo: Hmm. Considering a slew of the women’s world records are off-limits due to PED usage in the 1980s, it’s not going to be real high. I am trying to think of what events where it’s even possible for the WR to be broken.

This is what I have.

Men: 5: 1500 (Kiprop is .69 away), high jump (Barshim’s PR is .02 away, Bondarenko .03 and Ukhov .04), pole vault (Lavillenie has highest jump ever indoors), triple jump (Taylor is .08 away) and decathlon (Eaton has it).

Women: 3: 1500 (Dibaba got it last year), 5000 (Ayana is 3+ seconds away and Dibaba 4+), hammer (set it last year)

I guess one could argue people like Bolt (m 100/200), Merritt (110h), Rudisha (m 800), Isinbayeva (w PV) Špotáková (w javelin), could break their own records but I think that ship has sailed. Am I missing any possibilities – maybe the women’s HJ?

Jonathan: I think you listed them all, Rojo. I’d throw in men’s marathon as well, but since it’s an Olympic year, I don’t anticipate the top guys going for it in Berlin like they usually do. I would be shocked if at least one world record doesn’t go down, and I’m predicting WRs in at least three different events in 2016. The women’s 5,000 record is on borrowed time and with Dibaba and Ayana going after it, I think it’s a formality that it gets broken this year. There’s a women’s 3k/5k scheduled for the Monaco Diamond League meet this year (and no 1500). I think the meet organizers make that a 5k and that’s where the record goes down.

Wlodarczyk seems to break the WR with regularity these days (three times since August 2014), so I’m saying she does it again in 2016. And then I see one more record going down. In order of likelihood, I’d say Taylor in the TJ, then Eaton in the decathlon (remember, with the Olympic Trials, he will get two cracks at it), then Kiprop in the 1500 and then the men’s high jump. Plus, we’ve seen at least one WR in each of the last three Olympics (three in ’12, five in ’08 and one in ’04), so some country could get the 4×100 relay in Rio.

Ayana came within four seconds of the 5k WR in '15; can she break it this year? Ayana came within four seconds of the 5k WR in ’15; can she break it this year?

Rojo: Jon, I think three is a good number. Women’s hammer. And then two of the following three – men’s TJ, decathlon, women’s 5000. If it’s not three, I think two is more likely than four.

I am not as optimistic as you are about the 5000 simply because you never know what the African federations are or aren’t going to allow. I pretty much think the best thing a federation can do is set their Trials as late as possible. Last year, I think America struggled at Worlds because there were 8 weeks between the US champs and the start of Worlds. That’s too much time. I’d much rather see three-four weeks but the organizers likely need more time to set up. This year, USAs are basically as late as possible (you can’t get the Olympic standard after July 11, which is the day after the Trials conclude) and there are only five weeks between the end of USAs and start of the Olympics.

Unfortunately for Team Kenya, their Trials are earlier. The Kenyan Trials are June 29. Will Kiprop even be allowed to go to Monaco? Regardless, I think the men’s 1500 is off because I just don’t see him focused on time. The key for him is a second Olympic gold.

It’s kind of a bummer that Monaco is July 15 as the USA Trials are July 1-10 so I doubt we’ll see too many Americans there in the 1500. Although who knows, maybe an American stud will fly straight there, go for a fast one and then relax for a week before doing a mini three- to four-week training cycle.

Wejo: What are we going to talk about tomorrow?

Rojo: Tomorrow is Saturday. The employees need a day off but I’m sure someone won’t be able to stop themselves from getting up at 8 a.m. to watch Mo Farah vs. Garrett Heath.

If any of the LetsRun.com visitors have topics they’d like us to debate while we wait for the action to heat up in the new year, please email us and maybe we’ll do it.

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