Canada’s Cam Levins never lost his self-belief.
And after nearly four frustrating years of disappointing finishes, dropouts, and the loss of his sponsor, Levins wrote a remarkable comeback story on Sunday, shattering his own Canadian record, racing to an historic fourth place in the marathon at the world track and field championships.
“I’m thrilled, obviously. I’m over the moon,” Levins said.
The 33-year-old from Black Creek, B.C., ran two hours seven minutes nine seconds to crush the 2:09.25 he ran in Toronto in 2018. The previous top Canadian finish was 10th by Peter Maher in 1993.
Tairat Tola of Ethiopia pulled away over the final kilometres to win gold in 2:05.36. Teammate Mosinet Geremew won the silver in 2:06.44, while Bashir Abdi of Belgium took bronze in 2:06.48.
Back in 2018, in his marathon debut, Levins achieved what had eluded Canadian marathoners for decades, breaking Jerome Drayton record that had stood for 43 years.
The future looked bright.
But he failed at three attempts to run the Tokyo Olympic qualifying standard before hitting it with a week to spare. At the Olympics, he faded to 72nd place in sizzling 34 C temperatures in Sapporo.
Levins wasn’t re-signed for 2022 by HOKA, the team he’d been with since 2018. He has no sponsor.
He posted on social media that he’s seeking redemption in Eugene. And did he ever deliver.
“It was crazy going from one of the last-place finishers at the Olympics, to one of the top finishers at the world championships,” Levins said. “I took so much away from the Olympics last year, I just realized I need to be better, in just like every aspect of my training.
“I really had an incredible buildup, like the last six months, I’ve trained really well, the hardest I have in every conceivable way,” added Levins, who won the Canadian half-marathon championships recently in Winnipeg. “When I got to the start line, I knew I was ready.”
But the marathon is difficult to predict. Anything can happen over the last 10 kilometres, no matter how well-prepared athletes are, Levins pointed out.
“I felt great throughout the race. But even despite that, it’s still really hard on your legs, hard to keep going like that,” he said. “I was feeling great, but it was still a difficult last 10K. When I was coming into the last lap, I was telling myself ‘I’m here to medal, I’m gonna do this.’ I was definitely telling myself that I was here for a big performance.
“I think that’s part of the big result is always believing that was going to happen, besides just preparing for it.”
Levins hung in amid a large group at the front on the fast and flat course that featured plenty of scenic views. The 30-year-old Tola broke free over the final couple of kilometres.
“I tried to prepare myself for a long time for this,” Tola said through an interpreter. “It was my dream.”
The real race was for silver, with the 33-year-old Abdi pushing Geremew all the way to the finish before running out of steam.
Fans lined the course several people deep, a welcome sight after so many marathons over the past two years were contested in bubbles due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadian friends and family members weren’t permitted to travel to Tokyo for the Olympics
On Sunday, Levins had his parents Barb and Gus, his wife Elizabeth, and his in-laws there.
“There were tons and tons of people in the crowd itself. I heard my name a zillion times. It was super cool. The Oregon crowd here was so, so great,” he said. (My family was) jumping back and forth on the course, I saw them quite a bit. Mostly I heard my parents, rather than saw them, I recognized my mom’s voice pretty good a couple of times.”
Levins hadn’t had the chance to find his family in the crowd just minutes after his finish. But his thoughts were already about how thankful he was that they’ve had his back.
“It can be hard for your family, someone like my wife, to keep supporting me even when I lost my contract and funding in general, so it’s been really amazing,” Levins said. “It’s been a tough last year. It’s also been a really rewarding last year as far as training goes. I couldn’t be more thankful for them.”
Levins, who lives a couple of hours north of Eugene in Portland, is coached by Victoria’s Jim Finlayson.
The runners were able to push the pace with the temperature hovering at a comfortable 13.9 Celsius with cloud cover. That’s quite a contrast to the conditions at worlds in Doha when the men’s marathon was held at midnight to avoid the searing heat. The temperature was still around 29 Celsius.
Levins moved up to the marathon after a decorated track career. He won bronze in the 10,000 in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and raced to 11th place in the 10,000 and 14th in the 5,000 at the 2014 London Olympics, despite catching the flu before the finals.
Rory Linkletter of Calgary was 20th on Sunday in a personal best 2:10.24, while Ben Preisner of Milton, Ont., was 28th in 2:11.47.
“All three of our Canadians I think ran really, really well today,” Levins said. “We’re just in kind of an amazing era of marathoning, and I’m happy to have my name up there with some of the best ones.
“I’m going to, I hope I have a long career still ahead of me, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.”
After a slight delay, 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter signalled the start of the race that sent the runners along a three-loop course that finished in front of the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium. The route wound through the cities of Eugene and Springfield.
The course crossed over the Willamette River and ventured alongside Pre’s Trail, the bark running trail that’s named in honor of University of Oregon running icon Steve Prefontaine, who died in a car accident in 1975.
The field was missing Kengo Suzuki after the Japanese team had a few cases of positive tests for COVID-19. Also not racing was Kenyan marathoner Lawrence Cherono, who was provisionally suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit after testing positive for a banned substance used to treat chest pain resulting from lack of blood supply and oxygen to the heart.
— By Lori Ewing in Toronto. With files from The Associated Press.
The Canadian Press