Each Sunday, we send newsletter subscribers one piece of longform journalism we call The Sunday Long Read. In this edition, Michael Doyle takes a very deep dive into the career thus far of Cameron Levins, a tantalizing marathon talent who has just one shot left this spring at making the Tokyo Olympics.
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Just two years ago, it seemed like Levins was a shoe-in for the 2020 Olympics, and that he might also be the only male marathoner representing Canada. While the country was in the midst of a golden era in women's marathoning, it appeared that men's distance running was in decline. Levins, a prodigious 5,000m and 10,000m track runner, had been talking romantically about the marathon since at least 2015, and his legendary high-mileage training regimen suggested that he was destined to become the next Jerome Drayton, Canada's last truly world-beating marathon talent. His dream of becoming a great marathoner seemed to be taking shape with ease after he shredded Drayton’s 43-year-old national record of 2:10:09, replacing it with a confident 2:09:25 in his 2018 debut in Toronto.
After recovering from a devastating ankle injury in 2016, not qualifying for the Olympics, getting dropped by Nike and discarded from the Oregon Project, the most prestigious (and controversial) training group in the world, Levins was finally discovering his true nature by turning inward and embracing who he truly is — a marathoner.
With that discovery came a renewed desire to be great. But Levins’ uncompromising prerequisite that he be a brilliant marathoner may cost him in the long run, dearly.
Now, with just a few months left to qualify for Tokyo, Levins has tried and failed three times to nail down the required 2:11:30 performance to even be considered for the Canadian team, mainly because in each attempt he’s refused to settle for merely checking that box. Instead, he has tried to do something special in each marathon, and has sputtered in the final 10K all three times, left stammering towards the finish line, forced to watch even 2:11:30 tick away as he is still out there, battling his own failing body and mind.
Levins has backed himself into a very narrow corner. In a turn of vicious dramatic irony, Levins’ marathon debut seems to have inspired a sudden Canadian men’s marathoning resurgence. Since 2019, three talented young runners have taken bold shots at a Tokyo qualifying time, and each has succeeded, jumping ahead of the trailblazing Levins. In an additional twist of the knife, each qualified in a race where Levins failed.
As we enter an Olympic year (for real this time), Cam Levins has one shot left at running his way onto the Olympic team. The 31-year-old may find himself missing a second straight Olympics, clouding his future and leading to four long years of uncertainty, going into the final act of his complex career.
If he can return to his debut form, and deliver on the immense talent he exhibited years ago on the track, Levins will be able to cement his legacy, and free himself to further explore his own greatness with the marathon as his continued muse. The only catch is that, in order to get there, he has no other option but to make his next run his greatest performance yet.
The Perfect Race, Twice
Late last fall, if you were asked to conceive of the ideal next marathon for Cam Levins, you would have created something that looked pretty much exactly like The Marathon Project.
Its organizers had one goal: to put together a high-calibre race for North America's fastest marathoners in order to give them one quality marathon at the end of a year that was otherwise gutted of opportunities.
The event couldn’t have come at a better time for Levins. He needed a race, badly.
The Marathon Project should have been where the talented distance runner with a troubling injury history finally solidified his position on Canada’s 2021 Olympic team, clarifying his path forward for 2021 and beyond. It came a little more than two months after the London Marathon, Levins last failed attempt at an Olympic berth.
Listen to our podcast conversation about Cam Levins' options for making the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games:
Levins entered The Marathon Project last month one of the key headliners. He would be a part of the lead group receiving pacers and would have plenty of company, including fellow Hoka-sponsored athletes Scott Fauble and Scott Smith, who both planned on pushing the pace at right around 2:09. Another competitor in the field, Jared Ward, shared Levins' exact personal best of 2:09:25, and also came to Arizona looking to redeem himself after failing to run well throughout 2020. Both he and Fauble were favoured to make the U.S. Olympic team, and neither executed at the Olympic Trials last February in Atlanta. Luckily for Levins, the Canadian team has a more complex, drawn out selection process, which has allowed him multiple shots at proving himself.
The organizers found a four-mile loop on the outskirts of the Phoenix area and the elite-only, highly-controlled and otherwise low-key event was set. Levins was even able to move in with another Hoka teammate and fellow countryman, Rory Linkletter, for a six-week high altitude camp in Flagstaff, just a three-hour drive north of the race's location. Interestingly, he'd be facing off against his temporary landlord for a coveted spot on Canada's Olympic team. And at just 24, Linkletter represented a new generation of marathoners opting to skip a professional track career in favour of the roads, in the process serving as both fans of Levins while challenging his primacy at the marquee distance.
The Marathon Project also fell roughly 10 weeks after the London Marathon, on Dec. 20, allowing him to recover on the fly and ramp back up for another attempt at finally securing a spot on Canada's Tokyo marathon squad. The pomp and circumstance around the London Marathon, Levins' previous attempt at an Olympic qualifying time during the pandemic, featured a head-to-head battle between running legends Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele, and functioning as one of the few big-ticket global sporting events of the pandemic, it became arguably the most scrutinized and hyped distance running event of all-time. It was like participating in the running nerd Super Bowl, if the race were set during the second act of the film Contagion. The event came with many intangible negatives, including wearing a tracking device, and for Levins, a Portland, Ore, resident, a significant time change. Levins was able to fly under the radar in London, but that also meant he'd be on his own figuring out how best to approach his two main objectives: claiming a spot at the Tokyo Olympics, and recasting himself as a much faster marathoner than his 2:09:25 national record.
The latter goal appeared to heavily outweigh just getting to the Games. Levins oscillated his pace with each loop of the 1.9-kilometre course, flirting with a 2:05-2:07 marathon on a cold and drizzly morning. As he had in his previous marathon, Levins began to bleed time after about the 30K mark. Ultimately, he slowed to a walk, and then stepped off the course soon after he realized that even running the 2:11:30 Olympic cut-off time would not be possible.
2020 London Marathon Splits Breakdown:
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This is why The Marathon Project seemed so perfect: it was like a do-over of London for Levins, but this time he would have pacers and closely matched competitors. The race should have saved him from his own grand ambitions and the incredible pressure he places upon himself. All he had to do was go out there and run a steady, controlled 2:09 marathon behind a wall of pacers and with others to keep him company, then spur him on in the tough final kilometres of the race in order to break free and become that marathoner he knew he could become.
That exact script played out, until precisely the 30-kilometre mark. Just as with his two previous flame-outs, Levins seemed to be managing Canadian record effort at what looked like a jog at one moment, completely composed at low-3:00/km pace, only to unravel at the exact instant he had in previous races when, as the cliche goes, the real race begins in the marathon.
The Marathon Project Splits Breakdown:
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Destined to Be A Marathoner
At the onset of 2020, Levins was a clear favourite to represent Canada in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. The one minor wrinkle was that Levins hadn’t yet run qualifying performance within the window for Team Canada consideration. As the national record holder with a personal best more than two minutes faster than the required 2:11:30, locking up a spot on the Olympic team seemed like a formality — all he needed was a fast race to continue exploring his intriguing potential at the distance.
Levins had run just two marathons going into last year. His first, at the 2018 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, was the equivalent of a brilliant debut performance from a radiant new musician. Levins was like Lady Gaga’s character Ally in A Star Is Born, and this was his “Shallow” moment. He walked on stage, took the mic and after a tentative first few bars, belted out an uproarious chorus. We were watching Cam Levins fully realizing what he was put on this Earth to do.
When Cameron Levins crossed the finish line of the 2018 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, for a moment everything felt right in the running world. Admittedly, it also felt like a happy ending to a sports drama more than it did the first plot point in a Hollywood blockbuster.
And it certainly didn’t feel like the beginnings of a Greek tragedy.
The Levins biopic would start in a small community hanging off the edge of the West Coast of Canada. The reserved yet driven kid loved running, and instead of playing it safe, he bet on himself and his own sense that running was what he had to do.
First, Levins decided to attend a small NCAA school in Utah instead of staying closer to home just so he could get a shot at racing the best runners in North America. In school, he doubled down on his highly unorthodox training methods, piling on upwards of 200 miles a week, most of it run very slowly, much as a mature East African marathoner would train, not a young track runner.
Levins swept the 5,000m and 10,000m events at the 2012 NCAA Championships, and became the first Canadian to win the Bowerman Award as the top collegiate track athlete in America. He capped off that dream year by qualifying for and running both of his preferred events on the track at the London Olympics, showing incredible poise on the global stage. The two words uttered most often about Levins at the time were "talent" and "promise."
In 2013, Nike saw a potentially useful marketing chip within Canada, and its influential coach Alberto Salazar recognized Levins' immense upside, incorporating him into the Nike Oregon Project, at the time the single most desirable and exclusive training group in the world.
But distance running is essentially one long gamble, where the athlete must put up their body as the collateral, season after season, spending much of that time chasing national team spots and Olympic qualifiers. As with everything else in distance running, the returns always eventually diminish, and early professional success came at an extraordinary personal physical and mental cost to Levins.
Levins began to falter at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. He went into the 5,000m final as the overwhelming favourite. The race was supposed to be a breezy homecoming and a local coronation of sorts, queuing up the narrative that Levins would be Canada’s next great Olympic star going into the Rio Games the following year.
Levins took the lead with about 600m to go, but was swallowed up by the charging pack, and finished a disappointing fifth. Afterwards, the usually polite and accommodating Levins uncharacteristically refused to engage with the trackside media and immediately left the stadium. He rode the shuttle bus alone back to the athlete's village. In the darkness, he ran a one-mile loop around the compound, over and over again.
It turns out that Levins had been slowly destroying his left ankle, which of course takes the bulk of the thrashing during thousands of repeats over the course of a career on the track. In July of 2016, after failing to qualify for the Olympics, he underwent surgery to remove and correct all those years of slowly accumulated damage. The doctor told Levins afterward that when he’d opened the ankle up, there was a shocking amount of work to be done in an attempt to restore his ankle so that it would hopefully be functional once again.
The lowest point in Levins’ life came shortly after the surgery, which took place in a clinic in the Palo Alto area of Northern California. After leaving the clinic with the help of his father, Levins attempted to stand on his own while exiting the elevator to his hotel hallway. The professional track runner couldn’t bear his own weight, and collapsed to the ground. His father carried him to his room.
One of the great tragedies in distance running is an athlete's financial and existential dependence on the Olympics — an event that defines legacies and pulls a marathon runner’s entire attention towards it for years at a time, and yet does not compensate its performers a dime. His future on the track uncertain, Nike dropped Levins in 2017.
For Nike and other large athletic brands, athletes are pawns in a bigger marketing strategy. Levins was selected as a tent pole into Canada, just as Galen Rupp is their American poster child, Mo Farah their marquee Brit for the London Games and beyond, and Suguru Osako identified as the ideal vehicle for Nike's future efforts selling products domestically during the Tokyo Olympics. When Nike realigned their global marketing strategy and Canada was reduced as a key region of influence, Levins became expendable, especially now that his career appeared perhaps a flash of brilliance more than a progression towards world-beating consistency.
Running His Own Race, Then Someone Else’s
As he began to heal from his surgery and with his career bottoming out, Levins began to embrace his true nature. He found a mutually fitting partnership with Hoka One One just as he decided to become a marathoner full-time. Levins showed up in Toronto in the fall of 2018 for his debut as a changed man. He was calmer, more self-assured, less self-critical and relaxed. But one attribute in him had not changed: he was also determined, stating immediately and confidently that he would be going after the Canadian record in his first try at the distance, and that he would achieve his goal.
2018 Toronto Waterfront Marathon Breakdown:
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Back in 2015 at the Pan Am Games, Levins said he'd wanted to run his first marathon in Canada, and that he wanted to be the one to finally cast off Drayton's long shadow over the marathon. And on a crisp, sun-drenched October Sunday morning, he did just that. For one moment at about the 30K, Levins momentarily struggled, falling off the pace. But he seemed to summon something different within himself — a calming recalibration of his effort — and he ran a near perfect final 10K. He crossed the finish line and unleashed a primal scream. It was both jubilant and perhaps therapeutic. Cameron Levins seemed free when running a marathon.
His second effort came a year later, again in Toronto at the 2019 edition of the race, which also doubled as the Canadian marathon Olympic trials. Levins’ run could have been framed as a sophomore slump. He seemed tight throughout the race, not running freely or with the tenacity he’d exhibited deep into his first marathon. If his debut was his “Shallow” moment, this was his version of Ally’s SNL performance. He sputtered at that crucial moment around 30K, fading away, and with it his first shot at locking down an Olympic berth. Levins seemed to be running someone else's race instead of his own.
2019 Toronto Waterfront Marathon Breakdown:
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Suddenly, 2:09:25 Doesn’t Seem Untouchable
Levins felt like the saviour of distance running in Canada in 2018. Then, at the 2019 edition of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which doubled as Canada’s Olympic trials, fellow Canadian Trevor Hofbauer shadowed Levins through 30K, then dropped him, running a 2:09:51 seemingly out of the blue. It guaranteed Hofbauer a coveted slot on the national Olympic team — a position that pretty much everyone assumed would be Levins’ by the end of the race.
Hofbauer’s performance paired a slew of other extraordinary runs in the past two years, including Canadian record holder Malindi Elmore’s 2:24 on the women’s side, has ushered in a new, populous movement at the distance, no longer reliant on one single bright star. In the coming years, it feels as though Levins’ national record will surely be eclipsed. The collective memory is short in the distance running community, and singular performances are forgotten quickly if they are surpassed.
At The Marathon Project alone, two runners jumped ahead of Levins on the North American all-time list (Martin Hehir and Noah Droddy), and that race produced an impressive seven sub-2:10 performances. In the history of the sport, there have been a total of two Canadian sub-2:10s, and only 51 previous American runs breaking that mystical elite barrier. A combination of boldness and the added advantage of new shoe technologies could be bursting the floodgates open, leaving a 2:09:25 buried in a mound of similar performances by lesser heralded American and Canadian marathoners than Levins.
Let’s take a moment to put Levins’ talent and performances into further context. In terms of North American talent, Levins is, for the moment, still in the upper tier of all-time performers. Levins’ 2:09:25 is ranked 2,409 best performance all-time in the world, which doesn’t sound terribly impressive on the face of it, but this is taking into account every marathon ever run, by anyone, in history.
More impressively, his best run is 29th all time performance in the U.S. and Canada combined, and is only behind such names as: Rupp, Salazar, Meb, Fauble, Hall, Greg Meyer, Abdi, Beardsley, Bob Kempainen, Khannouchi, Leonard Korir, and Dathan Ritzenhein.
The American record is either Ryan Hall’s 2:04:58, if you are counting performances at the Boston Marathon. The Mexican national record was set by Andres Perez Espinosa 2:07:19, also in Boston.
Levins on the Track Vs. Levins In the Marathon
Another interesting way to analyze Levins’ talent is by looking at his various track and road personal bests through the lens of the World Athletics tables. This scoring system was created in order to empirically compare different distances. Obviously, the marathon feels as though it’s just an entirely different animal than even a 10,000m, but the end results of the tables are worth mentioning for Levins:
1,500m: 3:36.8 (2013); 1,151 pts
5,000m: 13:15 (2013); 1,155 pts
10,000m: 27:07 (2015; a national record at the time); 1,214.5 pts
Half-marathon: 1:02:14 (2020); 1101 pts
Marathon (2018): 2:09:25; 1,172.5
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Levins’ lowest score stems from the half-marathon personal best, as it came at the beginning of what was supposed to be the buildup for his spring 2020 marathon. His highest score, a brilliant 10,000m run at the 2015 Prefontaine Classic, when he ran much of the race alone and somehow managed to break the Canadian record, is also somewhat of an outlier in the other direction. At 1,214.5, this performance would suggest Levins is capable of a 2:07 marathon. Of course, his other bests, within the 1,150-1,155 point range, predict about 2:10:30. The haunting question is now: did Alberto Salazar get the best out of Levins with that 27:07, or is he able to pull that sort of performance out of himself in the marathon?
During his debut build up, Levins decided to graph together a steering committee of sorts, working with Eric Houle, his college coach from Southern Utah University, who had him doing all that high mileage in school. The Victoria, B.C. based exercise physiologist Trent Stellingwerff also consulted with Levins, helping him build a successful nutrition plan for race day.
Levins decided to move away from the looser collaborative approach after his debut, and tapped Canadian Jim Finlayson to work more closely with him for his next three marathons. Finlayson is a former 2:18 marathoner himself, and coaches Canadian Emily Setlack, who has done well with him, but didn’t make it to the start line of The Marathon Project in December.
Levins has said Finlayson’s workouts terrified and impressed him, which is daunting, considering an entire mythology has been built on LetsRun message board threads around his mileage and punishing workload. As Levins’ Strava profile attests, he’s been doing big, demanding blocks of work. But Levins seemed enlivened by the challenge, and said he’s felt healthy and confident going into each of the three marathons for which Finlayson has coached him.
Marathoners of Finlayson’s calibre are typically like bench players in the NBA or fourth line hockey players who turn to coaching after a long career of grinding away. They are often the wisest athletes coming out of the sport, because they had some talent, but not so much that it clouded their judgement. They learned from the best, paid close attention to every training detail and worked exceptionally hard in order to even have a career at the highest level.
The opposite, of course, is that 2:12 guy who never quite understood his own talent, couldn’t deliver on his potential, and had a 2:18 personal best on his resume instead. The most talented players often make the worst coaches because they never fully grasped how much a role their natural gifts played in their career. Think: Wayne Gretzky or Magic Johnson (yes, Magic coached; it wasn’t pretty).
It’s unknown which sort of athlete Finlayson was; but as long as Levins is positive about the dynamic and the plan, that’s all that really matters for now. That said, there will be questions if Levins struggles for a fourth marathon in a row and misses the Games.
What Could Come Next
The current presumed Team Canada marathon team looks as though it will feature Trevor Hofbauer, who has a guaranteed spot after winning the 2019 Canadian Olympic marathon trials in Toronto (running stride for stride with Levins and dispatching of him at that haunting 30K mark), Ben Preisner, who passed Levins in the closing kilometres of last month's Marathon Project in Arizona, and Tristan Woodfine, who hung on in London after Levins stepped off the course.
Levins’ most obvious path to Tokyo would be to simply run better than Woodfine's 2:10:51 from London. But Woodfine’s performance shows that he can perform in very demanding conditions, and (like both Preisner and Hofbauer), he has beat Levins head-to-head.
In order for Levins to convince Canada's selection committee that he's deserving of either Woodfine or Preisner's spot, he will probably need to run a confident and controlled marathon on a big stage in order to show that he can take care of business when the spotlight is at its brightest. A 2:11 and change is no longer good enough. Although, it would produce an intriguing dilemma for Canada’s Olympic team selection committee — do they take an inconsistent but perhaps more talented runner in Levins, or someone like Woodfine, who has run faster more recently, and shows upward potential? For Levins to avoid such a complex situation, he’s probably going to have to run closer to his national record, and break the 2:10 barrier once again.
The first challenge for Levins will be to find a race this spring that could even facilitate such a showcase. London and Rotterdam have both already moved to the fall, so for now there is only Hamburg in April or the Prague Marathon in May, which is cutting the Olympic qualifying deadline extremely close, as the window closes on May 31. That’s if these races even materialize this spring.
Sure, there will be a number of smaller marathons, mostly in the U.S. But it’s highly unlikely Levins will be running the “Run with Scissors Marathon” in Brighton, Colo., or the “Circular Logic Marathon” in Seymour, Ind., or the Martian Marathon in Dearborn, Mich., (which is literally little green men themed). None of these events meet the strict criteria for Olympics qualification.
Ideally, another pop-up event like The Marathon Project will come together mid-spring, preferably on the west coast, close to Levins’ homebase in Portland. Even though he has struggled in three consecutive races that involved pacers and good competition, it still appears to be the best setup for Levins to be spurred on to run a great race.
Unfortunately, Levins is now also forced to repeat a strategy that has not worked for him in the last three marathons: he must show that he can be better than merely an Olympic qualifier. He’s going to have to do something special, for real this time. It's commendable that Levins refuses to settle for a 2:10 and an Olympic qualifier, but he's now faced with having to run the perfect race — and if he doesn't, the consequences are dire.
The vast majority of marathoners’ sponsorship contracts are pegged to Olympic cycles, and brands depend on the attention that the Games generate for their marquee athletes. Presumably, Hoka signed a contract with Levins envisioning that he would make the Tokyo Olympics and evolve into a high-level marathoner (Surely, they did not sign him for his IG presence, although Levins is a good sport when it comes to engaging with both social media and the media in general). Not qualifying for a second Games in a row would be financially costly, and also no doubt emotionally taxing.
If Cam Levins fails in his next race, the marathon will serve to be a mental prison of sorts. It will trap both his career and his potential forever within the ever tightening walls of those 10 final daunting and bewitching kilometres, like a maze he’s wandered through successfully once, but is now lost within for all time.
Here’s hoping that, instead, Cam Levins finds his way back to being free running the marathon.