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How Cam Levins delivered when it mattered most

More focused training, better recovery and fuelling are behind the Canadian marathon record holder's comeback, says his coach, Jim Finlayson

cam levins world championships 2022 Photo by: Kevin Morris

Cam Levins, the 33-year-old marathoner from Black Creek, B.C., has had a roller-coaster of a career, but on Sunday, when the stakes were higher than ever, he accomplished something he always knew he was capable of: a 2:07 marathon and a huge national record.

Coming into the 2022 World Championships, Levins was unsponsored and coming off one of the worst races of his career. Frankly, some had given up on the fastest marathoner to come from the Great White North. 

cam levins at world championships marathon 2022
Cam Levins after breaking the Canadian record at World Athletics Championships, Eugene 2022. Photo: Marley Dickinson

Levins has always had to battle adversity and deal with the highs and lows of being a professional runner. At the University of Southern Utah, he generated a lot of noise on Internet forums when track fans found out he was training 200 miles (more than 320 km) per week. In 2012, he became the first Canadian to win the Bowerman Award, (the NCAA’s annual award to the most outstanding collegiate athlete in track and field). That summer, he made his first Olympic team, doubling in the 5,000 and 10,000m in London and finishing in the top 15 at age 23. 

Coming off the London Games, expectations were high for the young, introverted runner, who just loved running. In 2013, he joined Galen Rupp and Mo Farah at the (now notorious) Nike Oregon Project (NOP), coached by Alberto Salazar.

During his tenure with NOP, Levins battled highs and lows, earning his first global medal in the 5,000m at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, but then battling injury after injury. A tendon tear and surgery kept him out of the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

Cam Levins at TWM 2018. Photo: Todd Fraser, Canada Running Series

In 2017, Levins left NOP and returned to Utah to train with his university coach, Eric Houle, in Cedar City. In 2018, he joined forces with the up-and-coming shoe brand, Hoka, and announced he was moving up to the marathon. In his debut, he smashed Jerome Drayton’s 43-year-old Canadian record by 44 seconds, finishing fourth at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2:09:25.

After his 2:09 run, Levins knew he could run faster. But the marathon is unforgiving, and the woes continued. He was six minutes slower at the 2019 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. He changed coaches again, and it took time to find a groove. He followed Toronto up with a 31st-place finish at the Houston Half in early 2020, then DNF’d at the London Marathon that fall. 

The Canadian record holder was running out of options for making Team Canada in Tokyo. The one-year delay of the Olympics opened up two more opportunities for him: he came just shy of the 2:11:30 standard at The Marathon Project in Arizona in 2020; then, one week before the qualification window closed, Levins ran 2:10:14 in horrendous conditions at the S7 Marathon in Fürstenfeld, Austria, which not only earned him a spot in Tokyo, but also on the team for Eugene.

 

Cam Levins finishes fourth overall at the 2022 World Championships in the men’s marathon. Photo: Kevin Morris

Tokyo and the post-Olympic period

Levins’s racing style is unusual; he has always been confident in his abilities, and he will often go out with the lead pack, regardless of the pace. In the Olympic marathon, he was there with the lead group until about halfway, then struggled to stay afloat in the humid conditions over the latter half of the race. Levins finished 72nd in 2:28:43.  

“The Olympics were a low point for me,” Levins says. “I felt like I was right there, but I realized I was so far behind the best in the world.”

His sponsor was the next to give up on him. It seemed the world turned upside down, and the only people who believed in him were his wife Elizabeth, his family, his coach Jim Finlayson, and Levins himself. But where many runners in his situation would struggle not to feel defeated, Levins’s self-belief was still strong, and he was motivated to do whatever it took to prove he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. 

“I’m running more miles than ever, I’m lifting better than ever. I’m taking on harder workouts and doing double workout days,” says Levins. Finlayson says Levins has largely avoided injuries due to his training style: “We know Cam runs a lot of miles, but something we started doing is reducing training density to proactively build a bit more recovery between bigger workouts.

“The only other element he’s changed is moving away from trying to get to theoretical race weight,” says his coach. “We think less about the weight we want to get to and more about making sure we are getting the fuelling he needs for his daily training.” 

I chatted with Levins two days before the start of the marathon. He told me he was in the best shape of his career, and even I had my doubts as I huffed and puffed alongside him for seven miles. But he laid our doubts to rest. Levins had everything to lose on Sunday; if he’d turned in a bad performance, Canadians would know his decline was more or less complete. But when the stakes were highest, he did what he does best–he bet on himself.