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Canada's Cam Levins: The best runner you've never heard of?

05/16/2012 11:53 EDT | Updated 07/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Cam Levins dreamed of beating the Olympic 5,000-metre qualifying standard. But he never imagined that, in the span of nine days, he would not only achieve that goal but also find himself ranked No. 1 in the world in the 10,000m.

Levins, a native of Black Creek, B.C., a tiny community on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, won the 5,000 at the Mt. SAC Relays in Southern California on April 20 in a time of 13:18.47. Then, in his maiden attempt at the 10,000, he recorded a stellar time of 27:27.96 at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, beating an Olympic standard for the second time. On both occasions he used his tremendous finishing speed to win the race.

Though he won the 2011 Canadian Cross Country Championship, Levins was largely unknown in his own country, not to mention the rest of the world, until this pair of results.

The 23-year-old punctuates his marathon-like training, which sees him log as many as 240 kilometres a week, with races for Southern Utah University. At the recent Summit Conference Championships, he was entered in four events. He won the 1,500, 5000, and 10,000, and finished third in the 800.

This seemingly reckless approach leaves him and his coach open to criticism, but few will argue it appears to be working. Levins seems capable of dropping his times even further once he reduces his training volume.

Regardless, he has always had his eye on an Olympic berth.

“I thought coming into the season that I could get the Olympic [5000] standard,” Levins says. “I didn't know I was going to get it early. I didn’t know it was going to be the ‘A’ standard. It surprised me a little bit, but I thought I had a shot at the Olympics.

“I can probably get another 10 seconds off [my time].”

Olympic double in sight

Levins is under no illusion about his place in the distance-running pecking order. Though he is currently No. 1 on the world 10,000m list, which ranks the year’s best times, 31 men ran faster than his time last year, including 20 Kenyans and five Ethiopians. Plus, many runners have yet to begin their 2012 season.

But, at the Olympic Games, each country is restricted to a maximum of three competitors per event, giving him hope for a good finish in London.

With the Olympic ‘A’ standards in hand, Levins need only finish third in either event at the Canadian Olympic trials in Calgary in late June to clinch a spot in London. After that, he will decide whether he runs both distances at the Olympics.

The Olympic 10,000m race is scheduled for Aug. 4, with the 5000m heats set for four days later. That should be adequate time for a runner like Levins to recover.

“I came into the season wanting to run the [5,000],” he says. “I had the [10,000] in the back of my mind. I hadn’t run one on the track yet. My heart is really in the 5k.

“I’m considering doing both events at the Olympics because I have a really good 10k time, but I can’t not do the 5k.”

Out of the wild

Levins was, by his own admission, a mediocre runner in high school and rather naive. He trained mostly alone as a member of the Comox Valley Cougars Track Club while attending George P. Vanier High School in Courtenay.

“I don’t even know how many people we have in Black Creek,” Levins says with a laugh. “I think it’s just a couple of thousand at most. Where I live I’m surrounded by forest. We live in a really secluded area along a dirt road and we have always been able to keep to ourselves. It’s a nice running area with lots of trails.

“There were certainly wild animals in the area. I ran into deer. I saw bears walk through our backyard. Often there are alerts that there are cougars in the area. It never really interrupted training. I would just stay near the more populated area near roads and houses and lights. I’m sure my parents were far more worried than I was.”

Looking to land a scholarship from a U.S. college, Levins put his credentials on an NCAA recruiting website. Eric Houle of Southern Utah was the only Division 1 coach willing to offer him a scholarship.

And so Levins left the seclusion of Black Creek for Cedar City, Utah — population 20,000. The school is nestled on a mountain range at an elevation of 5,800 feet (1,780m), ideal for a distance runner’s endurance training.

Levins has rewarded Houle’s faith in him by running personal bests of 3:57.16 in the indoor mile and finishing fourth in the 2011 NCAA Cross Country Championships. He graduated last month with a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science.

Next on his calendar are the NCAA outdoor track and field championships in early June in Des Moines, Iowa, where he plans to attempt the 5000m/10,000m double. Then he’ll take a breather before winding up training for the Canadian Olympic trials.

“I would like to get to one of the Diamond League meets during July before the Olympics and maybe run a fast 5000m,” he said. “I’m planning to race once or twice in Europe before the Olympics. “I don’t want to race too much. I feel like I raced some world-class runners in my last competition. I haven’t raced any sub 13-minute or 27-minute 10k runners yet, but I have faced some pretty good athletes. I do have a good idea of how to race.”

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