Although Mary Cain didn’t look like much as she waited by the starting line among 31 other girls in high school in Greensboro, North Carolina, she was about prove the onlookers exactly what she was made of. In fact, 15-year old Cain was even smaller than the other girls as she slouched her shoulders awkwardly in her black sports bra and pink running shorts.

It was June 2011 and the national championships of the 4 x 800 meter relay was about to begin. Cain’s hometown was Bronxville, New York, and the first two runners completed their 800-meter splits in 2:13 and 2:14 respectively. Their competitors from New Hampshire’s Guertin Track Club and North Carolina’s Achilles Track Club finished their own laps within a second of their times.

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For a girl in high-school, 2:13 is a good time to complete 2 laps around the track. The third runner from Bronxville struggled and finished in 2:18. The anchor of their team was little Cain, who waited patiently on the black oval as she shook out her legs in anticipation to contribute her part to the race. Spectators who didn’t know who she was doubted her ability to make up for her teammate’s lost time.

The 800 is a crushing race. Runners go out hard, then try to hang on to the pace in a showcase of will. Through the first six and a half laps of that eight-lap relay, the announcer called the event gamely, like a horse race — “Bishop Guertin! Bronxville! Achilles!” — playing up the tension, implying that anybody could win. But shortly after Cain took the baton, the race became disorienting. Everybody was running one speed and Cain — eyes down, body tilted forward — was running at another. Like watching a turntable with one record spinning at 33⅓ r.p.m. and another at 45 r.p.m., it scrambled the brain. Cain completed her first lap in 58 seconds, only half a second slower than Roger Bannister ran his first lap at Oxford on May 6, 1954, when he became the first man to break the four-minute mile. The announcer, flabbergasted, began shouting: “Bronxville! Mary Cain! Bronxville! Mary Cain!” at irregular intervals. She ran her 800 meters in 2:03.74.

Cain has always been fast. In fifth grade, she ran a 6:15 mile. Cain’s father, Charlie, an anesthesiologist, knew so little about track then that he had to ask Mary’s gym teacher if this was any good. In seventh grade, she ran a mile in 5:03, at which point, recalls Cain — a self-described nerd — “Everybody was like, what?! That wasn’t supposed to happen.” In ninth grade, Cain won the New York State 1,500-meter championship, breaking the freshman girls’ record. The summer after her sophomore year, she flew to the Junior World Championships in Barcelona and ran the 1,500 in 4:11.01, setting a new American high-school record for girls.

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