The Mary Cain Effect

November 29, 2019

Perhaps you remember an opinion article written a few years ago in the New York Times titled “How The ‘Shalane Flanagan Effect’ Works. Written by Lindsay Crouse, the story celebrated Flanagan’s 2017 NYC Marathon victory. It highlighted her ability to lead teammates within her squad for the betterment and enlightenment of herself and others, while embracing the message that success doesn’t necessarily mean that others need to lose for us to win.  Our gain doesn’t have to be another’s pain; that “power in numbers” always trumps one’s own lonely rise to the top.  This article sparked a wave of female empowerment of “women empowering women” and the infamous “&%*K  Yeah” moment of female success.

Flash-forward two years later, another New York Times story is published about a lonely and hopeful journey of a young female runner and her pursuit to be the best. Also written by Lindsay Crouse, this story was titled,  “I was the fastest girl in America, until I joined Nike.”  It highlighted Mary Cain, a teenage distance phenomenon (now 24 years old), her past experience training with star coach, Alberto Salazar, and the collapse of her dream to become one of the world’s youngest and fastest female runners. 

Two contrasting articles; one of a seasoned veteran professional runner, Shalane Flanagan, who was surrounded by a support system in an environment she knew to be the key to her success.  The other article, about the mental and physical abuse of Mary Cain and her struggles with battling depression, suicidal thoughts, and her lack of support from a system that touted how it was nourishing her, when in fact, it was slowly crushing her.

In Cain’s article and accompanying video, we hear a current testimonial of a healthier Mary Cain and see past video highlights of her younger self.  One cannot help to notice the dark circles under her eyes, brittle hair, low weight, and legs doctored with kinesio-tape used as a strategy to squeeze a few more miles out of her.  Mary reflects about “weigh ins,” verbal humiliation, and lack of care by the coaches and “support professionals,” as well as their reluctance to favor her emotional, mental, and physical health.

I took sympathy to the image and words of Mary. In fact, most people did. A cold, yet faintly familiar, gut-wrenching feeling was resurrected within me, reminding me of my years as a collegiate runner (30 years ago) with similar experiences that I have not spoken much about. I, too, had a coach who did the communal “weigh in,” spoke hurtful words about runner’s bodies, and prescribed how many pounds his athletes were to lose. I was once a high school state hurdling champion and USA Track and Field Interscholastic National Honorable Mention athlete. However, my coach’s words mangled my confidence and criticized my strong body. Skinny became falsely associated with faster, menstrual cycles went erratic, and underperformance and doubt surfaced. The rest of my collegiate running career consisted of giving up an athletic scholarship, a transfer from a Division 1 school to a smaller school, and a gradual loss of passion and interest in track and field after being plagued with injury. I quit my sport entirely by my junior year, and I spent the following years searching for new identity and the confidence to believe in my body and abilities again.   Years later, I learned my college coach was dismissed from his position.  

We live in a current age where science has expedited human advancement in sport.  Cutting edge knowledge of human physiology, nutrition, and sport psychology has advanced human potential. Dominant sport companies produce documentaries about projects that utilize the top exercise scientists and athletes to shatter male records, and “Breaking 2” (in the marathon) has now become reality. However, how can it be that we still see young female runners being broken, like Mary Cain?   

Is it for the sake of monetary gain or fruitful endorsements on the professional level? On a collegiate level, is it pressure from the university or coach to perform at all costs? On the high school level, is it a coach’s self interest, lack of knowledge or ego? With younger teams, perhaps it is just basic lack of knowledge of coaches and parents about the cause and effect of aggressive training on a developing female. 

Being an athlete and coach for 30 years and raising three athletic daughters, I have become a bit of a “Mama Bear” on just about any topic that encompasses protecting our young female athletes. Those who know me well know that I will not hesitate to speak up when an athlete’s emotional and physical development is sacrificed. Not just with my own children, but any female athlete. I have faced it personally during my collegiate years, I have seen it during my professional career, and I have felt the frustration in regards to my own daughters’ personal experiences.

How do we protect our young female athletes from becoming the next Mary Cain?  

First, we need more experienced female coaches leading our daughters. Someone who knows what it is like to mature as female, think like a female, and who has first hand experiences as a runner on the high school, collegiate, and --if we are lucky-- on a professional level.  Women leaders in sport need to speak up, empower, protect, educate, and recruit the next generation of female coaches.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head women’s basketball coach, Muffet McGraw, says it best here. "We do not have enough visible women leaders. We do not have enough women in power. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It's always the men who are the stronger ones and when these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to, to tell them that's not the way it has to be. And where better to do that than in sports.”

Secondly, we need more male coaches who know the value of what a female coach can bring to a program and who can understand that “women are not small men.” Hence, females should be trained with special considerations to keep in mind. If you have not listened or read any of Dr. Staci Sims research, a leading expert on female physiology and endurance training, I encourage you to.  Here she is in a recent Ted Talk.

If one takes on the responsibility of coaching young women, then understanding the female physiology and psychology (and to place a female on staff who does) is hugely advantageous.  A great example of this is Greg Meehan, head coach of Stanford University’s women’s swim team. Upon getting hired in 2012, he quickly staffed Coach Tracy Slusser. He knew her presence and attentiveness to the needs of his female swimmers would be key to their development as athletes. They went on to win multiple National Championships.

Thirdly, we still have a long way to go, but more is being discovered about the uniqueness of the female body and its relationship with movement, exercise, nutrition, and sport psychology.  Coaches, parents, sport writers, and athletes need to have access to opportunities to be educated. High profile running sources such as MileSplit and FloTrack do a lot to glorify the success of these young female runners. Perhaps we should educate within the publications about the problems that can arise when we push too hard, too soon.

Next, parents and coaches should value establishing a high ceiling for all female runners exiting high school. What is a high ceiling?  It is potential for growth. A push toward the ceiling too early, and it may collapse. Instead of early success, equip the runner with tools to be a successful lifelong athlete, technique development, coping mechanism when dealing with the essential of “failure” and the potential to improve as an athlete after maturation.  Am I saying, “Hold back your runner?”  Yes, that is exactly what I am saying!  If left with a choice to push a bit more or to hold back, please take the conservative route. We would all prefer to see a healthy and vibrant athlete with potential for growth in her collegiate years, than a unhealthy runner who was tapped out way too early and has suffered debilitating physical and emotional turmoil from it.  MileSplit writer, Rod Murrow has presented astounding research about current female Olympian runners and how they were NOT the best in the nation as high school athletes.  

It is not our job as parents to make sure our children break records. It is our job to protect our children and place individuals in their lives that will not harm them, but allow them to grow a process mindset and appropriate physical and emotional tools.  The coach who promises a quick rise to the ceiling and short-term success for the young female runner is not the right coach and can be borderline abusive. 

When we think of typical emotional and physical abuse, we may think of violet acts or words. But with woman (and men) in sports, there is this other dimension of abuse that can transpire when emotional or physical need is neglected and success is tied to the numbers on a scale or a stopwatch. In some sports, body weight is seen as a direct effect with performance. Girls who come into the sport at an immature age may experience a recipe for disaster if we mix in improper approaches to improvement. 

Imagine a soft and unmolded car frame and wheels that are not inflated or secured to this frame. Place a sophisticated Ferrari “Colombo V12” engine inside this unfinished frame with wheels, and then ask the driver to put the “pedal to the medal.”  I can guarantee that the frame and wheels will not be able to withstand the demands of such an engine. The wheels may fall off and the frame may shatter. Yet, the engine will continue to roar to perfection.

Now, imagine a pre-puberty or maturing female. Estrogen and other maturating hormones are about, or in, the process of surging. She is asked to push too much and too far than what is appropriate for her developing age. At first she has tremendous success with performance, but as time goes by, her body begins to break down. Her energy need cannot keep up with the demands of her expenditure. Energy goes first to execute the physical training demands and secondary to the needs of her bone, reproductive and soft tissue maintenance and growth. Her menstrual cycle is delayed or stops, bones become brittle, and soft tissues weaken. Indeed, pushing a young runner to reach the top of her ceiling too early may set her up for a vicious cycle of injury and emotional frustration.

This is called RED-S which stand for Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport syndrome and can affect both males and females alike. It may occur anytime, before reproductive development, during, or after.  I will go into detail about this in a later article, but all who work with female runners need to know about RED-S.

Leaders in the running and sport industry must educate the upcoming female athletes in our sports. Teach them about mental training skills, being process mindset and how to make the mind body connection. Favoring strength and durability early will allow the athlete to become resilient while respecting the maturation process. All of these tools are of more value than an early rise to the top at the expense of physical and emotional health. Ignoring the issue will not help solve the issue, but open communication and offering support and knowledge will do much more for an athlete and her longevity in sport.

There is not doubt that we were inspired by Mary Cain’s story. My social media feeds were littered with reposts of Cain’s article/video accompanied with testimonials of women sharing their own sad experiences with coaches throughout their athletic years. In the last few weeks we have seen a “Mary Cain Effect” surface as liberation for women to finally speak up. Change is needed to educate and protect the next generation of female runners. Perhaps we should adopt the philosophy of the “Shalane Effect” (women empowering women) to advance the development of this “Mary Cain effect.”

Thank you Mary for your bravery in speaking up, and leading this new advocacy to protect our future generation of female runners. I wish I had your bravery and spoke up 30 years ago. But now I do, and I hope many others will continue to, also. 

~Amy Javens - QT2 Coach and mother to 3 daughters