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Elite runners Mary Cain and Nick Willis have joined Boston-based running brand Tracksmith as full-time employees, the company announced Tuesday. In a new model for athlete partnership designed to remove the anxiety of performance incentives, Cain and Willis will continue to train for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics while working for Tracksmith as members of the marketing team.
“There’s no doubt that Mary and Nick are tremendous athletes,” Tracksmith CEO and founder Matt Taylor said in a press release. “But more than that, they’re well-rounded humans and advocates for change within our sport. They share our vision that running should be a cherished part of a full life. With this new model for partnership, we hope to provide Mary and Nick with the freedom and stability needed to succeed both as athletes and employees.”
Cain, who was a high school national record holder and the youngest woman to ever represent the U.S. in a world-championships competition, shocked the running world in 2019 when she came forward with her story of emotional abuse by her former coach Alberto Salazar of Nike’s now-defunct Oregon Project. After returning to New York and finishing her college education at Fordham, Cain, 24, has a renewed sense of purpose: to not only perform at the highest levels of the sport, but to be an advocate for mental health and women’s equality. Cain is currently training with the goal of competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2021 in the 1500 meters. She will be the New York Community Manager for Tracksmith.
Cain spoke to Women’s Running in a phone interview last week prior to the announcement about her new role and what it means for her future in running.
Women’s Running: So tell me, what’s the big news?!
Mary Cain: The big news is that I, along with Nick Willis [two time Olympic medalist representing New Zealand], have officially joined the Tracksmith crew and we’re starting kind of a brand new model of an athlete-company sponsorship; rather than being just athletes signed in the traditional contract method, we’re actually going to be coming on as employees and helping with functions other than purely focusing on our own training, but instead trying to help grow the running community as a whole.
WR: When you were in college, was this kind of career path ever something that had crossed your mind?
MC: So I had gone pro early; I forgoed my NCAA eligibility as a senior in high school, so I have an interesting take in that I’ve been very amateur—high-school and middle-school level—and then jumped straight to the pros without any intermediary like the NCAA system would have been. During my college years, I had this interesting relationship as a result with my running where I was balancing this professional career on one hand, but also growing as both a person and athlete outside of competition.
Once I was up with my previous sponsor contract, I took a year to figure things out and decide what I really wanted going forward with my career. And in many ways, I was pretty frustrated with the current model in that I felt like I was graduating from college and had a business degree and had all these dreams for the sport outside of my own personal ones, and it was hard to figure out how I could pursue these broader dreams and also focus on my own athletic career and have that be supported as well.
Once I started talking to Matt Taylor and the whole team at Tracksmith it clicked right away for me that this would be the perfect model to really achieve both my narrow focused dreams and broader community-focused dreams, as well.
WR: What will be your day-to-day job look like?
MC: I’m head of the New York City community. I will be working with our marketing and branding team to really help spread the community presence within the New York City running scene. Tracksmith has done such an amazing job creating this very recognizable branding, and in their Boston hometown they’ve been able to create a very specific kind of schedule to help embrace the local community of runners and encourage people to come out and spread the love for running. In many ways it feels like New York City is the next town over, if you will, and an amazing place to expand that sort of programming, and I’ll help lead that.
WR: When it comes to your professional running career, does it make it feel more stressful to be adding this extra layer of a full-time job?
MC: I believe I’ve always done better when I’ve had balance in my life. And I think this is really true for everybody—when you’re able to have different facets of what you’re focused on and what gives you satisfaction and joy in life, the better you’re going to do in your focuses.
Growing up, I always had school, and as many of us know your academic career can in of itself be a full-time job between homework and the hours a day you’re in school. I’ve always felt having that mental break—where I had to shut down, I had to forget about whether the workout was amazing or bad, I had to reconvene and focus on something new—was really healthy for me; it helped me find that balance.
I’ve had experiences where I’ve gotten a little too deep within the competitive and maybe negative side of the sport where it’s all-encompassing, and so I’ve always been seeking ways to balance my career. Even this past indoor season, I was able to do that because I was working a few part-time jobs, so this isn’t truly a 180-switch for me. It’s coming full circle and continuing to do what I’ve already been doing, which is find balance in life.
WR: In your experience with professional running, have you noticed that if that’s a person’s sole focus it has a greater chance of pulling them into the negative?
MC: I know amongst my peers there was often this recurring conversation of how running becomes so all-encompassing that I think it’s hard to take a step back and realize that there are people who run who aren’t pro, there are people who are out in life doing other things and pursuing other passions.
It’s hard to let things go, as well. I used to always hear that the best runners were those with a short-term memory. If they had a bad run, a bad workout, a bad day, they could move on quicker—and I just don’t think that’s me. Maybe some people are just so zen that they can balance having this be the only thing day-to-day, but for me, I have to think about what’s best for my longevity for the sport.
I was having a conversation with my PT earlier today, and I’ve realized that not being in the city where I was always commuting to and from an office or a studio, I’ve been walking so much less. And at first I thought that was just going to be the greatest thing for my training because it would mean I’m maximizing recovery, and can hit my runs harder and all this stuff—and I’m realizing I feel awful, because I’m not moving except for runs and a couple walks here and there. My step count is usually 25,000-35,000 steps a day and right now I’m like 10,000-15,000. I think in so many ways, we as runners think the more we can just hone in on our craft—the more we focus, the more we’re almost holding on for dear life—the better it will be; and I think sometimes that’s actually the one thing that’s going to break you down the most.
WC: When it comes to the business side, do you also feel there’s a pressure there to really capitalize on every second that you’re a professional athlete?
MC: Absolutely. I don’t know how other people’s contracts are structured, but when things are so performance based and that’s your exclusive means of capitalizing on the economic industry of track and field, it creates this weird dynamic, almost a sense of panic. It might be subtle, but it’s this “I have to be on every single day right now” from external pressure.
And longer-term, I think there’s this sense of fear toward the future. There’s less excitement about when you’re 40 or 50 or your whole life beyond track and field, because there’s this kind of cliff at the end of it—and a few people might be able to grab on to rope along the way and not fall off the cliff, but most people kind of do because once your contract is up and you can no longer perform at a certain level it’s like, what do I do next? And what does your resume really mean? That extra existential stress that many athletes have to deal with makes it feel exciting to be in a model where that’s not really going to be on my mind.
I’ve always been someone who does much better when I’m driven by internal factors; I’m just as competitive or just as driven, but it’s all coming from within and any external thoughts tend to be more doing it for the people who have really stood by me and are now standing by me and have become a group of family and friends to me versus having to. I think just that shift from have to want from a long-term perspective will be more healthy for me.
WR: Does it give you a sense of relief to be so young and know, okay I have a job and career path outside of whatever I accomplish in my professional running career?
MC: Absolutely. I think it also just gives me a sense of freedom with my career. I’m so used to feeling like I have to grind it out, I have to do it now, I have to catch up—this kind of constant frantic energy about my running. Now there’s this sense of, actually, I don’t have to. I’m choosing to. I want to.
As a competitive person, I want to win a lot of races, I want to do amazing things in the sport, but now I don’t feel I’m going to reach an age and almost be like, well, I kind of have to end because my contract’s up and I only came in 4th I didn’t come in 2nd, and now my opportunities are gone. I feel like I’ll be able to fight a lot longer and not feel that disappointment that I didn’t achieve x, y, and z; because even if I don’t, there’s meaning in my life. That kind of shift has been interesting because it sometimes fuels me to even try to run a little harder, a little faster, and it’s just because that “want to” and not “have to.”
WR: That sort of dovetails into my next question. After you opened up about your story, it launched a huge conversation around #FixGirlsSports. How do you think this kind of example, this kind of model, will help #FixGirlsSports?
MC: I think there’s two sides to it. First off, really encouraging people to reframe how they look at sports, which is that sport encapsulates so much more than performance outcomes. There’s so much more to it—like coming together, growing community, really just doing things for the love of it. I think this model of employee-athletes enhances that because it’s showing that yeah, we’re going to be supported in our race endeavors and everything, but we’re being valued outside of performance. I think that’s a really healthy thing for young girls to see.
The second end of that point: For me personally, it has taken some of the pressure off to almost still feel like I need to be representing myself in such a way to gain a sponsorship. I don’t feel that restrictive, well, I had to turn something down because I don’t know about the conflicts of interests or anything like that. Tracksmith is a community where we just want to expand the sport in every way that we can. It’s opening doors for me to have new connections with people—to really be on the forefront of the running community, and really get to know our runners, so that I can have more of a face-to-face impact and not merely be an athlete behind a screen.
WR: It’s hard to ask questions about goals right now, but when you think about starting this new job and keeping an eye on 2021, what are your goals in terms of both running professionally as an Olympic hopeful and also working as a marketer for Tracksmith?
MC: I expect 2020 to be a year of adjustment for me. I’ve only been running healthy for the last maybe 8 months after a very long hiatus, so really the rest of 2020 will just be getting integrated back into professional training and also the professional community at Tracksmith.
Once 2021starts, I hope to hit the ground running and look forward to a competitive indoor campaign and then ultimately trying to qualify for the Trials and then move from there. I think everybody who is shooting for those Trials next year is shooting for a spot on that team, and I’m just trying to see how close I can get to that.
Within my new Tracksmith role, I just really hope to help grow the community and connect more to my fellow runners. 2020 will be a lot of brainstorming, and then 2021 will hopefully be a lot of activations and just really looking forward to integrate myself more within the Tracksmith world and the New York City running world.
WR: I assume many athlete contracts have travel stipends or some type of coverage for events and races. Is that something that was factored in when you were discussing this new role, or are you guys truly just employees who also happen to be professional athletes?
MC: It’s honestly much more the latter. In truth, that’s what my personal preference was. How the classic model works is you’re paid quarterly; every three months, you’re written a check and depending on how your contract is laid out there’s different stipends; there are so many weird strings attached to your running in a way. I’m truly following a traditional employee relationship where I’m being paid the same as really any of my fellow employees. And of course there’s no reduction clauses built in, there’s nothing like that.
Although the contract itself is a unique structure, the idea of balancing your athletic career with a secondary career is not new in our sport or sport in general. You have people who are in graduate programs. I grew up a swimmer and I remember when Jenny Thompson was in medical school and she was balancing winning Olympic gold medals in swimming with going to Columbia Med. I think in many ways we glamourize and romanticize extremes, and so you look at the professional athlete who this is all they do and kind of see it as this great thing. And for some people it works really, really well, but I think there are a lot of us who if we had the opportunity to do that after a few months we’d start to kind of lose our minds.
WR: For any young girl out there who has dreams of being a professional runner one day, what do you hope she gains from hearing this part of your story and this next chapter of yours?
MC: I think in many ways my biggest psychological distortion a young age was the fact that there’s one way to do things. There was one way you had to look to be good, there was one way you had to run form wise to be good, there was one path to success in really any of the many facets of running. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized that’s not the case.
Everybody’s journey is different, everybody’s body is different, everybody’s life is different. Just because you maybe started a little bit later, just because you don’t look like the girl on the start line next to you, just because you come from somewhere else, doesn’t mean you’re not going to have success in life whatever you pursue, it just means you’re going to do your way and figure out the best path for you.
Sometimes for the Type-A runner personality that’s almost frustrating to hear, because you’re like “What do you mean X + Y doesn’t equal Z?” Instead there are so many different possibilities to that equation. I’m not the most zen person as probably many people have figured, but I really try to remember that, and any time I start getting into that warped “I have to do this” mindset, I realize that everybody who reaches their goals has to learn the best system for them.
So for any young girl out there, just know your journey is just as important, just as special, just as unique as anybody else’s, and just stay the course and don’t be intimidated or discouraged because it doesn’t look exactly like what your role model did or their role model did.