In some ways, life has been different for Mary Cain the past three months.
She had just made it to her hotel Thursday night after a weather-delayed flight from New York to Boston, and she had an e-mail to send.
It was to her economics teacher. She had to let him know she wasn’t going to be in class on Friday.
She left school at around 12:30 on Thursday afternoon, and hopped on a flight an hour later to compete in the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix this weekend at the Reggie Lewis Center.
“It’s definitely kind of weird,” she said. “Earlier today I was in school and now I’m getting ready for a race.”
At just 17 years old, Cain has steadily carved out a spot as a prodigy in middle-distance ru
In 2012, she became the youngest runner ever to represent the United States in the IAAF world championships in Moscow. She owns five national junior records and seven national high school records.
In November, after weighing the decision heavily with her parents, she opted to run professionally.
Last month at the Boston University Multi-Team meet — just her second competition since turning pro — she set the world junior indoor record in the 1,000 meters (2:39.25), and came within .01 seconds of setting a world junior record in the mile when she clocked a 4:24.11.
And Cain is finishing up her senior year at Bronxville (N.Y.) High School. She’s still surrounded by the same faces she’s known all her life growing up in a town small enough for her to run laps around. Her friends are the same. When they see her, they congratulate her on her latest results, and because of that, Cain said, the balancing act that could be delicate has been relatively smooth.
“That’s kind of how I like it,” said Cain. “I have two different kind of lives and I enjoy both very much.”
As different as things could be for Cain as her star continues to rise in her sport, she said she feels the same.
“All of my friends and a lot of kids at school know what I do,” she said. “It’s really something that’s a big deal in my town. So it keeps it really special when people do congratulate me. Because I do that, it definitely makes it so much easier. I often kind of forget about my running. It’s not until I’m really at these competitions and at these meets that I really remember what I do.”
But the buzz around Cain gets to the track long before she does.
Cain ran 10 seasons for Bronxville, a K-12 school. She made waves on the national scene in June 2012 when she qualified for the 800 meters at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
A few months later, she got a phone call from a running legend. Alberto Salazar, winner of the 1982 Boston Marathon as well as a three-time New York City Marathon winner, had watched footage of Cain on YouTube and called to offer some advice.
When they realized who they had on the line, Cain and her mother (also named Mary) were starstruck.
“It was an amazing moment,” Cain said. “I was really, really surprised when it happened.”
At the time, Cain’s parents knew their daughter had outgrown high school competition and had started to think about what was next for her. They went as far as to consider the possibility of having her take a year off.
After talking with Salazar, they asked if he would take her under his wing.
“It really came at perfect timing because I was kind of at a crossroads,” Cain said. “I didn’t really know where I was going to go.”
Salazar became Cain’s official coach in October 2012, working with her from a distance from his home in Oregon.
“Looking back on that moment, it was the greatest thing that could have happened to me,” Cain said. “Of course, when I first got the call, I was really nervous. I was kind of tense, like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for this.’ But it’s been so amazing.”
A year later, Cain found herself having to make a difficult decision. She could run collegiately or forgo her NCAA eligibility and turn pro. Her talent was obvious, but the path she was considering had been taken by only a few. Sprinter Allyson Felix signed a professional contract with Adidas in 2003 at 17. A year ago, 2012 world junior 800-meter champion Ajee’ Wilson did the same.
“At the time, it was definitely a difficult choice, because I’m definitely going down a road which not many people have done before,” Cain said. “But at the same time, I have a lot of people I look up to who’ve kind of gone through similar things.”
Because of that, the decision was a lot easier. She also was comfortable with Salazar and the training staff at Nike’s Oregon Project.
“Everybody in the group, the whole coaching staff, all my teammates, are just so supportive,” Cain said. “So it’s just amazing to have this opportunity. Now that I’m officially signed with Nike to get to race with the Oregon Project, it’s definitely a dream come true.”
In the three months since she made her decision public, Cain said things aren’t as different as they could have been.
“I’m doing kind of the same exact thing I did last year except I’m just running in an official singlet,” she said. “So it’s definitely one of those things where I can take what I’ve learned from last year and take it to a new level. So I’m definitely so excited to see what the future holds.”
Cain plans to attend the University of Portland once she graduates from high school. But for now, there was the e-mail she needed to send her economics teacher.
“I’m very lucky because my teachers are very understanding,” she said. “They’ve been able to kind of help me through this. As long as I really stay on top of my school work, which I’m for the most part able to do, it’s really no problem, me missing school.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.