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Cain recovers to amaze as an elite runner

JANET CAIN runs to an age-group first-place finish at the recent 2013 National Marathon Championship for U.S. women in Minneapolis.

JANET CAIN runs to an age-group first-place finish at the recent 2013 National Marathon Championship for U.S. women in Minneapolis.

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The storied career of Sonoma’s master marathoner, Dr. Janet Cain, has covered many paths en route to an imposing record of achievement made all the more impressive by the physical handicaps she has had to overcome.

It would be difficult for Cain, 62, to choose her greatest accomplishment because there are so many. They include running both her 25th Boston Marathon and her 50th overall marathon in the women’s 55-to-59-year-old age group, feats that have taken on more meaning in the wake of her father’s death.

“My father lived a full 88 years and, having been a cross-country runner in his younger days, had supported me so much throughout my running career,” said Cain. “When I was running through Boston, I knew he was with me – I could feel his presence cheering me on. It was special.”

But a recent marathon finish will rank near the top of Cain’s achievement list because, for the second time in her running career, she had to overcome a major physical setback.

Cain suffered severe injuries from an accident in March after she sustained a concussion, broken shoulder and bruised body when she was knocked down by a pair of dogs while on a training run.

That trauma was compounded two weeks later when she came down with a case of whooping cough and was unable to compete in her 11th straight Boston Marathon. It may have been a case of good fortune that she wasn’t there, but the terrorist bombing that killed three and injured some 264 others added extra grief to her shattered psyche.

Cain’s long road to recovery was both physical and mental, because the accident left her with severe fear of dogs and falling, which is problematic at race starts where elite runners, even masters-age, start at the very front where the possibility of tripping or getting knocked down is magnified.

Finally reaching a point in her recovery where she felt able to compete again, Cain wanted to regain her Boston Marathon qualification. She could have easily done so using a medical excuse, but she was totally focused on extending her 2014 Boston entry her way.

So in July, Cain won her age group at the Napa-to-Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon by 5 minutes, and then, in August, she entered the “Run with the Bears” marathon in Greenville (Plumas County) and re-qualified for the Boston Marathon with 24 minutes to spare.

“After that race, I had the confidence to run at the national level again,” Cain said. “But I still have the fear of being knocked down at the front line of a big race. So, along with my support team, we came up with a plan and it worked.”

The plan for her return to national competition was put into play on Sunday, Oct. 6, when Cain ran in the National Marathon Championship for U.S. women in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., an event that marked her 63rd marathon and where she won her 55-to-59 age group in 2009.

Instead of beginning the race from the elite start area, Cain moved to the back of the first heat of 4,000 runners, who left three minutes later. This would eventually add 2 minutes and 43 seconds to her finish time, but would allow her to cross the start line without the tight, fast crowd.

The strategy proved beneficial to Cain’s performance, which was superb considering the recovery road she had to go down just to compete.

Cain ended up winning the National Marathon Championship for U.S. women aged 60-to-64 with a time of 3 hours, 54 minutes, 53 seconds. That bested the second-place woman by more than eight minutes, and successfully completed her return to elite masters marathon status.

“It took many people to make this happen, and I want to thank those doctors, therapists, friends and my husband, Dave,” said Cain. “It took all of them for me to realize this win.”

In the wake of her turbulent-to-triumphant year, Cain can reflect back to running her first marathon at age 29, the Cleveland Revco, in 1980, when women’s marathon running was in its infancy.

Women had been banned from Boston until 1968 and it finally became an Olympic sport in 1984, when Avon sponsored top women marathoners, including Cain, who went on to post strong finishes in the Ottawa and Paris marathons, and then won at the Rome Marathon in 1985 with an impressive time of 2.58.11.

But in 1987, Cain suffered her first major physical challenge, which nearly ended her marathon career after seven years and 37 races.

In August of that year, Cain was visiting her parents in New Jersey and ran the Asbury Park 10K. After the race she went for a swim, but the ocean water was polluted with medical waste, and, with a small cut on her left foot acquired during the race, she developed an infection in her left Achilles tendon and was told her foot would have to be amputated.

By December, Cain had 11 surgeries to save her foot, and she was wheelchair bound when, on Dec. 2, her husband Ken Richardson lost his 13-year battle with cancer.

Then, after the last of her surgeries, Cain lost her job at a major teaching hospital because she was too ill to write the grants her job depended on.

So, widowed and jobless, she sold her home and moved to a condo with a pool and, unable to run, she swam, which she never liked to do, every day for five-and-a-half years.

Then in January of 1993, Cain met her current husband Dave and, in March, started running again.

Finally, in May of 1994, she ran her first marathon in seven years and, in September of the same year, she and Dave moved to Sonoma.

But problems from her inflexible left ankle caused a tear in Cain’s knee and she had to go two more years without running.

Having already battled back from the threat of a foot amputation to running a marathon, Cain wouldn’t be denied her running career, and she became more dedicated and stronger in her comeback.

Then, after world-class marathoner Dick Beardsley became her coach in 2008, Cain became the 2009 USATF National Marathon Champ for ages 55-to-59. Next she was a member of the winning United States 60-to-64-year-old women’s team in the world championship marathon, and then she earned a third-place, 60-to-64 age-group finish, in the prestigious World Masters Championship Marathon in 2011.

With her running future bright again, Janet Cain will continue her healing by adding to her long list of marathon achievements.