Like thousands of running nerds around the world, Cam Levins cleared his schedule so that he could watch the Boston Marathon. The 34-year-old Canadian professional marathoner was watching for one specific reason: the course’s notoriously tough profile was remarkably similar to that of next year’s marathon at the Paris Olympics—lots of heart-pounding climbs and quad destroying descents. Eliud Kipchoge, the reigning gold medalist and world record holder at the distance, was racing in Boston. Levins has become obsessed with mastering next year’s Olympic marathon so that he may author one last big breakthrough in his already brilliant career, and he wanted to see how the best would negotiate all those hills.
Going into Boston, Kipchoge had a near flawless marathoning record, and tended to make one of the most gruelling sporting events appear effortless, closer to Swan Lake than a death march. But Kipchoge had never run a hilly marathon before. In one of the most shocking upsets in distance running history, Kipchoge struggled mightily, fading to a sixth place finish. “For me, it brings up questions regarding the Olympics next year in Paris,” Levins says. “It’s going to be a tough course, maybe more difficult than Boston. Seeing someone like Kipchoge struggle in Boston was eye opening to me.”
For Cam Levins, racing the 10K presented by Otto’s Ottawa on Saturday night at the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, everything is now about taking his career to the next level at next year’s Paris Olympics. This may sound absurd, given what the Canadian has accomplished in the past ten months alone: placing fourth in last year’s World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, and lowering his own national record from 2:09:25 to 2:07:09 in the process. Then, this past March at the Tokyo Marathon, he once again lopped off a shocking chunk of time, running 2:05:36, which established Levins as the fastest marathoner in North American history. But Levins only achieved these last two significant breakthroughs after a crushing failure at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where he faded badly and watched Kipchoge methodically ratchet up the pressure on the lead pack, and then float away, eventually finishing more than 20 minutes ahead of the Canadian. Levins came in 71st that day, and it could have spelled the quiet end to an excellent career. Instead, it haunted him.
“I asked myself, ‘If I retired right now, would I be OK with the effort that I put forth, or would I have regrets? But it wasn’t about performances or times. I felt like I hadn’t yet given myself entirely to the sport. And that bothered me.”
A Star is Born
As a teenager living in Black Creek, B.C., Levins showed promise, but wasn’t sought-after by the top U.S. collegiate track programs. He ended up at Southern Utah University, a smaller Division I school with a forward-thinking distance coach in Eric Houle. Levins’ partnership with Houle led him to experiment with massive mileage weeks, eclipsing 300 kilometres—more than doubling the workload of his peers. The school is situated at an altitude of just over 5,800 feet, making it an ideal training environment for a distance runner but a punishing one, as the oxygen depleted air improves red blood cell development, key to becoming a top-level endurance athlete. In the spring of 2012, Levins swept the 5,000m and 10,000m at the NCAA championships, and became the first Canadian to win the Bowerman Award as the top American collegiate athlete.
That summer, at just 23, Levins qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, in both the 5,000m and 10,000m (where he would go on to finish in 14th and 11th, respectively). He also turned pro, signing with Nike, in a move that would both broaden his horizons and notoriety as an international athlete, but also lead him towards a period of future turmoil.
In the winter of 2013, the video streaming platform Flotrack featured Levins’ unusually demanding regimen in a Docuseries entitled Driven, and the young Canadian became something of a running folk hero as the documentary crew filmed his spartan and ascetic lifestyle, seemingly completely consumed by a higher calling devoted entirely to running. Soon after the series streamed online, Levins was recruited by Nike’s Oregon Project, headed by coach Alberto Salazar. NOP was seen as the top training group in the world, and Nike spared no expense in funding the project. Levins moved to Portland, Oregon, where he trained at the Nike global headquarters on its idyllic, tree-lined track, alongside American track star Galen Rupp. (After years of speculation that Salazar had been pushing his athletes to use grey-area performance enhancers, the coach was banned for life from sport for sexual and emotional misconduct in 2020. Levins says he never witnessed any inappropriate actions by his former coach. NOP was disbanded in 2019.)
Under Salazar, Levins reduced his mileage and focused on more intense workouts, with mixed results. He won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal in 2014, but the following year, he flamed out at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. His struggles worsened in 2016, sustaining a severe ankle injury and failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics. By July 2016, at 27 and in what should have been the prime of his career, Levins hit rock bottom, undergoing a substantial surgery to his left ankle, while Nike elected not to renew his contract. Levins was left to rehab his destroyed leg and salvage his career on his own.
Reborn as a Marathoner
After a lengthy period of recovery, Levins decided to embrace the event that many had long felt was the most natural fit for his talents: the marathon. He signed a contract with the shoe brand Hoka, which allowed him to focus on training full-time. Levins committed to debuting at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in the fall of 2018 and delivered on the hype, running 2:09:25 and breaking Jerome Drayton’s 43-year old national record. He seemed destined to be the next great North American marathon runner in a time when interest in the event was skyrocketing due to the popularity of Eliud Kipchoge, and the emergence of super shoe technologies.
When the Olympic qualifying window opened in 2019, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the new Canadian record holder would make the team. All he had to do was run under 2:11:30, and Levins decided to return to Toronto, hoping his familiarity with the course would set the stage for a favourable result. “The entire time I was running, I was thinking about the time I had to hit, not how I felt,” Levins says. “I wasn’t running the race the right way.”
Levins faded badly after the 30K mark, and finished in 2:15:01.
The pandemic forced the postponement of every major qualification race in the spring of 2020, and eventually the Games were pushed back by a year, which allowed Levins a few chances to make the standard. First, he got himself into an exclusive elites-only London Marathon, seemingly an ideal opportunity to run a fast time. Levins paced well under 2:10 past the halfway point, but began to suffer in the rainy, cold conditions, eventually dropping out.
Becoming increasingly desperate, Levins travelled to another COVID-era elite-only race, The Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona. There, he joined a group of 85 Americans and a few fellow Canadians also looking to qualify for Tokyo. But again Levins struggled after the 30K mark, and slipped to 2:12:15.
In late May 2021, on the last weekend of the Olympic qualification window, Levins travelled to southern Austria for yet another one-off marathon, this time staged on a highway still under construction. Levins’ pacers couldn’t keep up with him, and he was forced to run much of the S7 Marathon alone. It rained heavily, but Levins managed a 2:10:13, securing a spot on the Canadian Olympic team for the first time in nearly a decade.
The 2021 Tokyo Olympic marathon, held in the more northern city of Sapporo due to concerns over the heat and humidity in August in Japan, was destined to be a challenging experience for even the best runners in the world. Levins trained diligently, prepared for the adverse conditions the best he could, but ultimately wasn’t able to adapt to the extreme physical and mental challenges. “Nothing went wrong leading up to it, but I had to be honest with myself,” he says.
“What I was doing just wasn’t working.”
During their planned post-mortem FaceTime call between Levins and his coach, Jim Finlayson, Levins told him he was willing to rebuild his approach from scratch. And this included his shoes. After the disappointing finish in Sapporo in late 2021, Hoka decided not to renew Levins’ contract, which allowed him to explore his options for the first time as a marathoner. Eight months before Eugene, Levins reconnected with his old strength coach at Nike, David McHenry, who continues to train some of the top track athletes in the world. Levins wanted to talk about racing shoes, but he also needed guidance in adding strength training back into this routine.
“I think that Cam may have thought that, transitioning into the marathon it might not have been as imperative to continue with a strength program,” McHenry says. “After a couple years in the marathon he realized: ‘Wow, there’s a hole in what I’m doing.’”
Levins brought a collection of super shoes from different brands into McHenry’s facility, and they tested how Levins performed in each pair while connected to a Biomechanical Solutions treadmill designed to provide a detailed breakdown of how Levins’ body performed in each shoe, including a 3D scan of how his spine moved during his stride. “You put on all these reflective dots all over your body that tracks how you move, along with force plates in the bed that senses how you distribute weight, how your feet are landing,” says Levins.
“We did a side-by-side analysis of the ASICS MetaSpeed and the Vaporfly, and we realized that the Asics was a far better shoe for him,” says McHenry. “It had far better biomechanics. I was pretty astounded. I do a lot of work with the Nike shoes, and I honestly didn’t think anyone would catch up, but the Asics shoe on Cam’s foot, it’s remarkable.”
McHenry and Levins then went to work in the weight room. McHenry had fine tuned a program specifically for marathoners. “At first it was really demoralizing, because I wasn’t making any progress,” Levins says.
“Working on our weaknesses is hard,” says McHenry, “and improvement takes time.” But by the beginning of 2022, Levins began responding to the regimen, which includes doing a strength session immediately after finishing a long run. He now alternates between triple run days, and double run days with a lifting session. The latter includes mobility work, single-leg balance exercises, higher reps with less weight, followed by deadlifting and squatting fewer reps with more weight.
Running, Running and More Running
Levins also decided to resume running higher volume weeks, in the range of 300 kilometres, including revisiting his unusual practice of tripling. “For some reason, it’s always allowed me to recover better from each of my runs,” Levins says. “If I wanted to get in the mileage I’m aiming for with just two runs a day, I’d have to run each of them for a considerable amount of distance. I’m able to cover more mileage without having to pound myself in a single run.”
Levins gets the workouts and the overall concept of the week from Finlayson, and then decides for himself what to run on non-workout days. Usually, Levins will finish each day, particularly when he’s tripling, running on a treadmill he has within a custom-made altitude tent set at around 7,000 feet, a leftover from the Oregon Project days that he’s reconstructed in a spare room of his house. He also sleeps in a mini tent each night. “It’s just me in there, covering about half my body,” Levins says. “We had the bed-sized one before, but my wife hated sleeping at altitude.”
Another significant change was to move away from obsessively running large blocks of marathon pace workouts, realizing that hitting these numbers for the sake of it could operate like training fool’s gold. “Nailing a big block of marathon pace in a workout fooled us into thinking I would be able to just repeat that on race day; but marathons aren’t run that way,” Levins says. Instead, Finlayson has researched the “double threshold” approach, which focuses more on layering in 5K and 10K pacing so that, come marathon time, even 2:05 pace doesn’t feel too overwhelming for Levins.
All of these alterations led Levins to run what he thought was the race of his life in August 2022 at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. He should have been satisfied, as he’d nearly reached the absolute apex of marathoning, particularly for a Canadian athlete. But he couldn’t shake the thought—he could go faster. And he didn’t just want to be in the race at the end, watching the best in the world finish right in front of him. He wanted to be there with them. He wanted to be one of them.
And then his phone rang. It was Levins’ agent. “ASICS wanted to meet with me,” recalls Cam.
This felt serendipitous to Levins, as he’d responded extraordinarily well to the ASICS shoe in the lab. Levins had been racing in the Nike AlphaFly, but was intrigued by the ASICS product. “I performed well in them, and more so than even the money, the most important thing for me is that I can be competitive with the best in the world and that I’m on an even playing field.”
Levins signed with ASICS in February, 2023.
The Final Piece
He now had a revamped and battle-tested training plan in place and reestablished financial security without sacrificing shoe performance. But that creeping feeling remained that he had not fully unlocked every aspect of the marathon.
Levins began working with Toronto-based sports psychologist Dr. Judy Goss in November 2022, as he was contemplating a return to Japan in order to run the Tokyo Marathon in March.
“Athletes get obsessed with the time, but the time is not the true indication of performance,” says Dr. Goss, who helped Levins develop positive self-talk strategies while training and racing, and staying present and in the moment. “There’s being associative or dissociative; you don’t actually want to be too associative at all times,” she points out. “It’s about being where your focus is. Your focus is like a flashlight. If I’m focusing on the finish, I’m starting to think about what others are doing, or how I am going to execute in these final moments of this race.”
Dr. Goss developed a series of mental exercises Levins practiced during hard workouts, so that he would fall back on them like muscle memory at the later stages of the marathon. He now has a sort of diagnostic checklist he goes through in the opening kilometres of a race, something he employed for the first time in the Tokyo Marathon in March. “I now disconnect how I’m racing with how I’m feeling,” says Levins. “I know I’m not going to feel amazing throughout the entire race, but I remind myself that I can do it, and that I’ve done these paces before, and that helps me relax. It’s not unknown territory.”
Levins chose Tokyo in March because he knew there would be a deep field of athletes and that he wouldn’t be alone in the last 10K of the race. But now he was prepared to manage any scenario. At the start line, Levins went through his newly modified routine. Instead of running a specific set of strides, he focused on feeling his heart rate and getting his body warm and ready to go without obsessing over paces. “I don’t think about numbers,” he says.
He’d also made a bold decision for the start—that he would not get preoccupied with what those in front of him were doing. “One of the things I spent a lot of time working on leading up to Tokyo was practicing getting into a rhythm, a pace that felt like it was good for me. But I disconnected from what was going on in the front of the race. In the past, if I focused on that, I would tighten up and not conserve energy.”
Japan is a running obsessed country, and the course was lined with spectators for the entire gruelling 42.2K. The pacers dropped at 30K. “That’s the point in the marathon where, in the past, I’ve had difficulty,” he admits. “But that’s not been the case over the past year. With the weightlifting and mileage, when the pacers stepped off the course, I knew I was going to do well.”
With just a couple of kilometres to go Levins was in the lead group, as a desperate sprint to the finish line ramped up. Levins let his guard down just at that crucial moment. “I let my mind wander. I needed to be focused on being in the race and focused on winning the thing. I still have some work to do.”
A video of Levins in the finishing chute shows him nonchalantly saying, “Meh, not bad.” It wasn’t until Levins was waiting in doping control that he looked up the North American marathon record. “I honestly thought I’d just missed it. I was pretty happy when I realized I was wrong.”
Levins says he is now focused on the journey to the next marathon, a process he hopes will forge him into a truly world-beating racer. “I want to get down to being as close to a 2:03 marathoner as I can going into Paris,” he says. But watching Boston, and what happened to Kipchoge may have also altered Levins’ approach for the next year. “I think I’ll only do one marathon between now and the Olympics next year. I’ll do what’s best so I can be the best athlete I can be for Paris.”
Levins is blunt when asked what he wants to achieve next: “I want to become a Major winner and a Worlds or Olympic marathon medallist. Sure, right now I’ve run the fastest time by a North American. But I am not the greatest. I don’t have the hardware to back it up. What needs to stand alongside the times is how well you’ve run at big competitions. My hope is that I’m putting Canadian marathoning in a different stratosphere for more athletes to come. I’d like to cement my legacy as one of the best marathoners that North America has ever seen.”
Photographs of Cam Levins shot near his home in Portland, Oregon exclusively for iRun by Sean Michael Meagher.