Mary Cain, the 24-year-old professional runner who set national records during her time at Bronxville High School, says she always dreamed of living in the city as an adult.
Having moved to Portland, Oregon, straight out of high school to train professionally at Nike’s world headquarters, she moved back to New York after several years to attend Fordham University and train remotely. Last fall, she went public with her account of being “physically and emotionally abused” by her former coach at Nike, Alberto Salazar. She told the New York Times that she’s not interested in training in an environment where “you are seen as a body rather than a mind.”
Now, in addition to training as a professional athlete, she works full-time as the New York City community manager for the running brand Tracksmith, has a part-time role with New York Road Runners, and lives in Manhattan.
The below interview between James Ramsay and Mary Cain is part of our New York City Tomorrow series, where we’re asking New Yorkers for their utopian (but often realistic!) ideas of how the city could look. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Cain: Among many runners, there’s so much conversation about what the city would look like if pedestrian access and bike access and the ability for runners to share the street with cars, it’s something that excites me personally. I know there was a piece in the New York Times about the insane amount of land, especially in Manhattan, that’s taken up with cars, either for parking purposes or for traffic.
We’ve seen that it’s both so great for the environment not to have so many cars on the street, but it’s also great for congestion and the ability for people all over the city, and parts where people don’t have as easy access to a track or a safe place to run free of cars. If more roads are shut down, if more limits are placed on who can drive a car and what cars are permitted on the streets, I feel like it would give people in communities across the city an opportunity to feel safe getting outdoors, especially people who don’t have that same ease of going to a safe park day in or day out, or don’t have the flexibility in their schedule of being able to commute somewhere to exercise. Instead, they can just go out their door and have a bike lane opened up, or part of their street used for their own recreation.
James Ramsay: Are there other cities with running cultures that stand out, that New York City should borrow from?
In terms of just the number of people who run, New York is really unlike any other city. We have such a culture of people who would qualify themselves as runners, and then we have a whole host of people who maybe wouldn’t consider themselves a part of that community, but who do actively run, whether it’s for exercise or whatever reason they want.
But I look at European cities that have great bike commuting opportunities and a great bike culture. I feel like in New York, we could of course open up more bike lanes, but I think it’s even more important to create access for people to run, because I think it’s more open to people of all socio-economic backgrounds. I think it’s even more of an equalizer, in terms of sports.
In early March when the shutdown began, gyms closed overnight, and there was this immediate running boom. How will, or should, that be sustained?
My attitude is, especially in New York, we have some pretty brutal summers in terms of humidity. So for me, if you survive a summer of running in New York City, you get your runner badge! You’ll move beautifully into fall and winter training — you’ve taken your lumps, getting out there without treadmill access and A/C. So I give kudos to anyone who’s starting out during what, for runners, is the least-desired training season.
For me, I hope this boom continues, and people who’d never been exposed to the sport, either because they weren’t encouraged to do it when they were younger, or they’re intimidated by it. Or they just didn’t have the access, whereas now, you could run through the grid and there’s less traffic. So suddenly you have this opportunity that had never been there before. So I hope people find joy in having that freedom to run, and as the city continues to reopen, they have that newfound excitement and knowledge of the sport, and hope to continue being a part of it, maybe in a stronger way going forward. Because races will hopefully start to open in the next year or two years, and maybe they’ll have the experience of being a part of a community, instead of just doing it solo.
Especially for people new to the sport, what do you see as the value of racing?
I work part time with New York Road Runners, I’m part of their virtual racing division. Virtual racing has always been an opportunity for people, but now we’ve had time to sit still and get to the bottom of why people want to race. It’s really easy to just run easy every day, and not really push it. So this has been a great time for us to dig deep into that psychological element of racing, to think about why people want to do it, and how we can enhance their why and make it as fun as possible.
I think for me, I’ve always come back to the fact that I feel most alive when I’m racing. That sounds very cliche, but for me the reason I feel that is because racing is that opportunity to really find your limit. When you think about your emotional limit, or mental limit, it’s so figurative. While in something like competitive running, whether you’re a professional or just competing against yourself, it’s such a physical endeavor, and I would daresay that running is the hardest sport in terms of the amount of impact you’re putting through your body. You’re truly just pounding the group, there’s so much force, and that level of physicality and trying to find your red line. Being able to be that close to it, and really feel like you’re fully living, fully pushing yourself and challenging yourself, I don’t think anything matches that except for racing.
Why is New York City, as you stated earlier, such a big running city already?
Part of it is that New York City, in a stereotyped way, is known for being very type-A. We’re busy, we’re driven, we’re go-go-go. And I think there’s truth to that lifestyle, and running is a great way to get a workout in pretty quickly. It’s super hard. You don’t have to go to the gym and be there for an hour.
And I think there’s also just something about the city — it’s under-appreciated as a great place to run. The people are great, the community is great, but the literal boroughs, the grid system, being able to go in the parks, there are some great places to run that are beautiful. Knowing that if you go out into Central Park, you’re on this gorgeous trail. You’re going to see hundreds or thousands of other people there, and there’s something encouraging about being in a location like that.
According to Strava, the GPS workout app, Prospect Park is the second-most-popular running location in the country. Are there other places in the city that are not getting as much love that should?
I grew up in Westchester County, so when I would come into the city, I would come into the Bronx on a weekly basis to run at Van Cortlandt Park, and I think among Brooklynites and Manhattanites, it’s a really under-appreciated park. There’s a flat area to run, there’s hills, there’s a full cross country course, there’s a track, there are all these trails. And I think it’s a really beautiful park, and one I’ll still have as my favorite park in the city.
Where do you live now? What’s your daily routine in terms of running?
We currently live in the East Village, but we’re moving to the Upper West Side.
But unfortunately, my favorite place to run was the East River Park system, which is seemingly going to be closing in September. Which is a terrible hit to the outdoor community, especially downtown on the east side. It’s closing so they can elevate the park for flood reasons, I have no idea how long that’s going to take.
This whole process is just another reason why, especially in areas of downtown, they should be opening up more roadways for people to have access to the outdoors. Because if they’re going to strip this thriving community of a way to get out of their apartment, they should be replacing that with something. It’s heartbreaking, at least for me, to know that those trails will be shut down for at least the foreseeable future. Hopefully they’ll come up with some Open Street opportunities.
Right now, we’re going through a pandemic, and running seems like a particularly smart kind of outdoor fitness activity to pick up. At the same time, running can be a hard sport to jump into. Partly because of the base level of fitness you might think you need, and also because there’s an intimidation factor when the West Side Greenway looks like spandex parade. How has your experience, being one of the fast people in the world, leaving Nike and now entering this new phase of your career, changed the way you think about what it means to be a “healthy runner?”
In middle school and high school, I was always the kid wearing meet t-shirts and cotton shorts and the cheapest shoes I could find, because to my family and I, it was like, why should there be a barrier to entry? Running should be in so many ways the most equitable sport because all it requires is a pair of shoes and then you’re out the door.
Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized there are so many barriers to entry. There’s the intimidation factor, or race entry fees, or just how expensive a pair of shoes has become. Even something like not recognizing faces that look like you on a start line.
For me, the message I would want people to hear is that running is something that everybody can do. You don’t have to be the fastest person on the start line, you don’t have to run the longest or wear the same gear as everyone else. Go jog around for a while, it doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to be long, just get out there and try it. And every day you might be able to do a little bit more.
The problem is, we as runners have created this image that you have to be a tall, skinny, white person who runs a marathon. The truth is, there’s so much more to running than that single event, that one classification of people. You can sprint. You can run-walk. It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s just about getting out there. And going forward, one area that needs to change is we need to challenge that stereotype. We need to say, that is not who we are. That image of a person is not what running has to be, should be, or is! If you go out and run a mile every other day, you’re a runner to me. If you enjoy the mile that you spend out there, whether it takes you 15 minutes or 5, it doesn’t really matter.