Track and Field·Q&A

Cam Levins hopeful of reviving track career

Distance runner and Canadian 10,000-metre record holder Cam Levins is trying to get his career back on track, literally, with his old college coach after ending his four-plus year working relationship with Alberto Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project training group.

Canadian distance runner leaves famous Nike Oregon Project training group

Canadian distance runner Cam Levins recently cut ties with Oregon Project, a little more than four years after joining head coach Alberto Salazar and his famous training group. He’s now back working with Eric Houle at Southern Utah University. (Kevin Light/CBC Sports/File)

This conversation has been edited for length.

Canadian distance runner Cam Levins was still on a high, months after sweeping the NCAA 5,000 and 10,000-metre titles in 2012, and feeling "the sky was the limit."

Recently, Levins, 28, ended his four-plus year working relationship with coach Alberto Salazar and the famous Nike Oregon project training group to reunite with Eric Houle, who coached the native of Black Creek, B.C., at Southern Utah University.

"It's good to get back to what's worked for me before," says Levins, the Canadian record holder in the 10,000. "I'm hopeful this is what I need to reignite my career."

CBC Sports caught up with the 2012 NCAA top male track and field athlete during a break in training.

Joining Oregon Project was a big opportunity for you to further your career. Why leave now?

Cam Levins: Ultimately, I wasn't performing well in the training regime I was in. We tried lots of things, training-wise, but it wasn't working. There are obvious things like I wasn't running as much mileage as in college. Perhaps it was the way the workouts were structured or how often. I don't know. It's really speculation.

I felt I was joining a group that, as long as I was prepared to work hard, things were guaranteed to go well. I didn't want to jump ship at the first sign of something not going quite right, but I only had more doubts as I started to deal with this injury that ultimately resulted in surgery.

Canada's Cam Levins did have some success during his time with Nike Oregon Project, including a third-place finish at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press/File)

You have traced "this" injury back to the 2015 Canadian track and field championships in Edmonton, correct?

CL: I qualified in the 1,500-metre heats and had just crossed the finish line. Someone ran into the back of me, caught my leg and I fell hard to the track. I ended up bruising one of my ribs and that was mostly where my focus was. When that calmed down a couple of weeks later, I found my [left] ankle was starting to bother me. I obviously didn't treat it as much as I should and it got worse, a tear of the peroneal tendon.

I ended up with a stress fracture in my Navicular bone that required a screw, a stress fracture in my Talus bone, and then I developed a bone spur and bone chips in my foot that [doctors] had to shave and remove. It was ugly.

Describe your relationship with Alberto Salazar?

CL: It was pretty good. It was not as personal as coach Houle and I, but I feel he worked to try to keep us at least in decent contact. We weren't talking every day but he was at every workout for me. I felt we had decent communication.

Cam Levins, second from right, says he had "decent" communication with coach Alberto Salazar, left, during his time training with Nike Oregon Project. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images/File)

Did Salazar and other staff with Oregon Project fail you as an athlete recovering from surgery?

CL: I feel like they did the best they felt they could. They certainly weren't malicious in trying to get me to underperform. They wanted me to be a great athlete as well. There was a chance things weren't going to work out and I was one of those athletes.

What do you take away from being part of Oregon Project?

CL: I know a lot more about the commitment required to being a professional athlete. [Strength and conditioning coach] David McHenry's runner-specific weight workouts were great and something I hope to implement in my training now.

To say I didn't compete well at all as part of the Oregon Project would be unfair to them and to myself. It was inconsistent … and that's not the way to have a successful career.

What was the impact of the doping allegations against Salazar earlier this year?

CL: I would say it had more of an effect initially and unfortunately, it became part of being part of the Oregon Project, having a shadow of doubt around the room. But it has nothing to do with why I left the group. I have the utmost faith in Alberto and my former teammates that they're clean and have high morals.

You considered joining other Oregon-based training groups. Why was reuniting with coach Houle in Utah the right move?

CL: The one thing I underestimated when I left him [in 2012] was that we have a really good athlete/coach relationship. I have complete trust in him and I tell him when I'm having difficulties in some way. He has complete trust in me as well and it's been comfortable having conversations with him about what training I feel is good or what I need. That transparency is huge and something I haven't really had with anybody else.

What is your outlook, both short- and long-term?

CL: A lot of what I'm doing is looking towards next year. I really want to qualify for the Commonwealth Games and [IAAF] world indoor championships. I have no doubt I'll be very ready next year. Right now, with every race I get in, I want to see improvement and continue to show I'm moving forward. My next race is the Beach to Beacon 10-kilometre road race in [Cape Elizabeth] Maine on Aug. 5.

I still get occasional pain or soreness in the foot but, in general, once I start the process of warming up, it's gone quickly. I'm happy to get to the point where I'm able to train hard again and potentially race well again.

Do you still make money from your Nike contract?

CL: That contract expired at the end of 2016 and I don't have a contract with anyone at this point. I'm looking, but companies are waiting for me to show I'm back [to full health]. Ultimately, this is a business. I'm certain I'm going to be back at that level and beyond anything I've done.