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How refining his marathon training made Cam Levins a ‘stronger, more mature runner’

how refining his marathon training made cam levins a stronger more mature runner

Backed by strong training, Cam Levins believed he was fit and ready to perform well in the 2020 men’s Olympic marathon, despite the soaring heat in Sapporo, Japan. It didn’t take long to realize he was wrong.

Levins wasn’t comfortable early on and struggled to accelerate out of drinking stations. He was only one second behind the lead runner through 10 kilometres but decided to lose contact with the front pack near the 21.1 km halfway mark “when it was obvious” the race was over for him.

On Aug. 8, 2021, the Canadian men’s record holder faded down the stretch and finished 71st in a field of 106 in two hours 28 minutes 43 seconds, nearly 10 minutes behind top Canadian Ben Preisner of Milton, Ont.

“I was certain I was far more fit than I was,” Levins said in an interview with CBC Sports before returning to Japan for this weekend’s Tokyo Marathon. “It was an important race as far as being able to reflect on something and learn from.

“It’s easy to see how much I’ve been able to grow since then.”

Levins and coach Jim Finlayson took a closer look at his marathon build, having previously determined the 33-year-old had a nutrition problem and was underfuelling before races.

Levins dropped out of the 2020 London Marathon, saying his body didn’t handle the cool and wet conditions well. Through 35 km, the Black Creek, B.C., native was on pace to finish 5-100ths of a second off his then-2:09:25 Canadian record. Levins also fell off record pace three weeks later in the Marathon Project in Arizona.

Fuelling up on carbohydrates before and during exercise is important to prevent a decline in liver glycogen — the body’s main energy source for exercising at race pace — and help delay fatigue or hitting the classic marathon wall.

When Levins turned to road racing two years after foot surgery in 2015, he continued to concern himself with meeting a race weight entering competition from his days running shorter distances on the track, even if it meant cutting calories. He did the same for the marathon, but it proved costly.

“I’ve abandoned that [mentality] now. As the volume and amount of training I did [post-Olympics] became more of a focus, it became less about, ‘Am I eating too little?’ and more of a conscious effort of making sure I was eating enough,” said Levins, who signed a contract last fall with Japanese sporting brand ASICS through 2024.

Running 3 times daily

Levins, who averages 170 miles of running per week, left the Olympics wanting to improve “in every aspect” of his training and a month later started weight training with a coach twice a week.

The resident of Portland, Ore., also returned to running three times a day for three or four days a week early last year and does daily mobility work and exercises to keep his body balanced.

Before the world championships last July a two-hour drive away in Eugene, where Levins lowered his Canadian mark to 2:07:09, he did speed training on the track and noticed how well building for a 10,000-metre track race earlier in the year translated to his marathon build.

Last month, Levins won the First Half men’s half marathon title in Vancouver, breaking the 61-minute barrier in a men’s national mark of 1:00:18.

At 9:10 a.m. in Tokyo on Sunday (Saturday at 7:10 p.m. ET), Levins will aim for a personal best and under the 2:08:10 automatic qualifying standard for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

He’s always been an immense talent. I think he’s a stronger and more mature runner now.— Coach Jim Finlayson on Cam Levins from his 2020 training

Finlayson recalled a Levins workout in Kenya early in 2020 when he averaged two minutes 59 seconds per kilometre running at altitude on dirt roads split up over 28 km.

“He was probably a 2:06 guy then, so not far off where he is now,” Finlayson said. “It showed us there’s a lot of potential and we have to figure out how to get it out of him.

“He’s always been an immense talent. I think he’s a stronger and more mature runner now. I like what I’ve seen in his training and obviously the half marathon [in Vancouver] indicates we have the fitness level we want.”

Tokyo will also be the site of Krista DuChene’s final marathon in the professional, or elite, field. The 46-year-old from Brantford, Ont., has completed the other 5 World Majors in the last six years — London (2017), Boston (2018), Berlin (2019), New York (2021) and Chicago (2022).

“I’m only one of a handful of people in the world, and the only Canadian, to have competed at the six Majors, world championships and Olympics,” said the 20-year marathoner.

Canada’s Marathon Mom

DuChene, who plans to continue racing in 10 km road races and cross-country distances, stopped short of saying Tokyo would be her final marathon.

“It’s the last [marathon] I’m going to commit this much time and energy to at this point in my life,” said DuChene, who became Canada’s Marathon Mom after winning the 2009 Mississauga event after the birth of her second child, Seth. “Next year’s the last year that all three of my kids are at home because my oldest [son Micah] is in Grade 11.”

DuChene also keeps busy as a part-time dietitian, volunteer high school track coach and board member with the Brantford Girls Hockey Association. Her 11-year-old daughter, Leah, plays in the league.

Placing third overall among women in the 2018 Boston Marathon is among DuChene’s career highlights. She put on a late charge in the rain, cold and wind, finishing in 2:44:20. Her time goal for Tokyo is under 2:40.

“Any professional who’s retiring from their sport, they want the last to be their best,” said DuChene, who plans to write the No. 12 on her hand to mark Leah’s birthday on Sunday. “I’m not running the times when I was at peak [fitness] but training has been great.

“With any marathon you don’t want to overthink things, just be relaxed and be able to push when it gets difficult. I think that’s where my heart and emotional drive is going to help me.”

Preisner was supposed to round out the Canadian contingent in Tokyo, but returned to his Vancouver home after a few weeks of altitude training in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“Unfortunately have decided to postpone my spring marathon,” Preisner said this week in an Instagram post. “Had a bit of a hiccup in training and didn’t want to burn a match on a race I’m not 100 per cent confident my body can handle.”

Preisner, who added he’s “ready to continue building momentum for the next [marathon],” set a 1:02:42 half marathon PB in Houston on Jan. 15.

Racing in Tokyo would have provided the 26-year-old flexibility to race either at the Aug. 19-27 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, or in the fall while seeking the Olympic standard.

Before Houston, Preisner told CBC Sports he hit his goal pace near the end of a couple of marathon-type workouts in the 35-40 km range.

“It gives me a lot of confidence I can control that pace at the end of a two-hour-plus run and feel strong when the marathon becomes tough,” said Preisner, who placed 46th (2:19.27) in the 2020 Olympic marathon.

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