Road To The Olympic Games

Track and Field·Preview

Levins prioritizes Olympic berth over Canadian record at Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Cam Levins of Black Creek, B.C., will run his second Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Sunday, but his primary focus won't be lowering his Canadian-record time from a year ago. "I'll be perfectly satisfied if I qualify for the Olympics," he says.

Sunday's event doubles as qualifier for 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo

Canadian-record holder Cam Levins will attempt to automatically qualify for the 2020 Olympic marathon by repeating as national champion and meeting the 2:11:30 standard at the Toronto Waterfront event on Sunday. (Submitted by Canada Running Series)

Cam Levins continues to wrestle with the unknown while preparing for his much-anticipated return to the Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Sunday.

He shook off any pre-race nerves of running a new course in his debut marathon a year ago to finish first among Canadian men and fourth overall, in the process breaking Jerome Drayton's 43-year national record in a time of two hours nine minutes 25 seconds.

But the 30-year-old Levins hasn't run a marathon since. A right knee injury forced him to withdraw from the London Marathon in April, and he also exited the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia half marathon after five kilometres on Sept. 15 due to residual fatigue after an "atrocious" two nights of sleep.

"I felt ready to go and not being able to see where I was at [fitness-wise] in a race situation was frustrating," Levins said earlier this week in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. "It changed things [for Toronto] in that I don't have a complete understanding where I am in relation to last year."

Fans shouldn't expect another record-setting performance by Levins, said his coach Eric Houle, on what is expected to be a mainly sunny Sunday with a temperature around 10C at the start of the IAAF Gold Label marathon at 8:45 a.m. ET.

WATCH | Cam Levins break the Canadian record in his debut marathon:

In his marathon debut, Cam Levins of Black Creek, B.C., broke Jerome Drayton's 43-year-old Canadian men's marathon record by 44 seconds. Levins finished fourth in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon with a time of 2:09:25. 1:48

Levins has more pressing concerns than setting a new record at this year's race, which doubles as the Canadian Olympic trials.

"I want to make sure I'm on the start line at the Olympics," the Hoka One One-sponsored runner said of the Summer Games in Tokyo next July. "If I can lower the time [on Sunday], great, but I'll be perfectly satisfied if I qualify for the Olympics."

Back training on track

The native of Black Creek, B.C., will automatically qualify by repeating as Canadian champion and achieving the 2:11:30 Olympic standard. Other Team Canada hopefuls who meet the standard will have to wait until June 1 when selections are announced.

Levins' lone Olympic appearance came in 2012 when he competed on the track, placing 11th in the 10,000 metres and 14th in the 5,000. Instead of racing at the 2016 Games in Rio, he had surgery that summer to repair a torn tendon in his left foot, stress fractures, a bone spur and bone chips before transitioning to the marathon late in 2017.

It wasn't until this past July that the former Canadian-record holder in the 10,000 returned to training on the track and is excited to not be limited to one event.

"I would definitely like to race [on the track] again and see where things go," said Levins, who in 2012 was the first Canadian male recipient of the Bowerman Award as the NCAA's top Division I track and field athlete. "I'm glad the opportunity is there again, whether or not I pursue it."

I'm not particularly worried about my fitness. ... If I can run a strong last 10K like I did last year, that could be a big boon for me. — Canadian-record holder Cam Levins on Sunday's Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Levins, who attended Southern Utah University, returned to Cedar City for a month of marathon workouts running at altitude after the Philadelphia race to work with Houle, his former college coach.

Levins said the biggest change in this year's build toward the 30th edition of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon was changing speed during workouts while maintaining his goal pace. Houle was particularly impressed with a recent 10-mile run by Levins during which he covered each mile at a 4:45 pace.

Injury concern?

On Sunday, Levins plans to go out with the 2:11 group and run conservatively early on to see how he feels. In recent months, he has had a recurrence of a side stitch, an exercise-related transient abdominal pain on his right side that he has felt toward the end of long training runs of 24 miles.

"I've done everything I can [to treat it] at this point but that's one thing I'm being careful about," Levins said. "I'm not particularly worried about my fitness. There's a section between 20 and 30K [on the Toronto course] that will be important. And depending on the weather, the last 8K you turn back into the wind and that can really break [your pace] if you're not careful.

"If I can run a strong last 10K like I did last year, that could be a big boon for me."

Bonus money for Olympic standard

Besides prize money handed to the top-six elite men's and women's runners — including $30,000 apiece to the respective winners — each Canadian to meet the Olympic qualifying standard (2:29:30 for women) will receive a $5,000 bonus.

Those running 2:13:00/2:31:00 will be given $3,000, others clocking 2:14:00/2:32:00 or better get $2,000 and those achieving 2:15:00/2:33:00 receive $1,000.

Last year, Benson Kipruto ended fellow Kenyan Philemon Rono's two-year title reign in the men's race with a winning time of 2:07:24. Mimi Belete, who competes internationally for Bahrain, set a course record for the women with a 2:22:29 PB, defeating 2017 champion and fellow Ethiopian Marta Megra.

Here are six other elite Canadians racing in Toronto:

MEN

Reid Coolsaet, age 40, Hamilton: He will run the Toronto Waterfront event for a fourth time, bidding for his third Olympic berth. Coolsaet placed 10th last year in 2:17:36 and is aiming for 2:13 this time around. He clocked 2:17:37 to place eighth at the Ottawa marathon on May 26 but that followed a back injury in March. On Sept. 15, Coolsaet went 1:05:46 at the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia half marathon.

Two-time Olympian Reid Coolsaet, pictured here winning last year's Edmonton 10K, is aiming for a time of two hours 13 minutes at Sunday's Toronto Waterfront Marathon. (Todd Fraser/Canada Running Series/File)

Evan Esselink, 27, Courtice, Ont.: The BC Endurance Project runner will be making his marathon debut, coming off a personal best in winning the Vancouver Eastside 10K (29:50) on Sept. 14. The 2018 men's Canadian 10K champion, Esselink became the fourth fastest Canadian in the half marathon on Jan. 20 when he set a 1:02:17 PB at Houston that fell 49 seconds shy of Jeff Schiebler's Canadian record.

Sunday will mark the marathon debut of Evan Esselink of Courtice, Ont., who enters the Toronto race brimming with confidence after beating his personal-best time to win the Vancouver Eastside 10K in September. (Submitted by Inge Johnson/Canada Running Series)
Trevor Hofbauer, 27, Calgary: The 2017 Canadian marathon champion in 2:18:05 lowered that time with a 2:16:48 PB on April 28 in Hamburg, Germany. The 2018 national half marathon champ was sixth at the Edmonton event (1:06:29) on Aug. 18 and a month later placed second at the Vancouver Eastside 10K (29:58).

WOMEN

Kinsey Middleton, 26, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho: The former All-American at the University of Idaho is a Canadian/U.S. citizen as her mother was born in Guelph, Ont. She will try to defend her Canadian title in Toronto after posting the third fastest Canadian debut of all-time in 2:32:09. Middleton finished second to Malindi Elmore last month in the Vancouver 10K in 33:19 after winning a half marathon (1:15:29) in Woodlands, Texas, in March. Elmore had to withdraw from Sunday's race because of a hamstring injury.

WATCH | Middleton runs third fastest Canadian marathon debut:

Kinsey Middleton of Guelph, Ont., finished as the top Canadian woman, stopping the clock in 2:32:09 in her Toronto Waterfront debut. 1:19

Dayna Pidhoresky, 32, Vancouver: This is Pidhoresky's second marathon this year after she fell short of a top-five result and automatic Olympic berth for 2020 in May with a sixth-place finish at the Ottawa Marathon in 2:37:19. Pidhoresky has reached the podium in four of five half marathons this season and was second at the Canadian championships in Winnipeg on June 16 in 1:13:07. She last raced the Toronto Waterfront event in 2016, placing eighth among women in 2:40:39.

Vancouver resident Dayna Pidhoresky fell short of a top-five result and automatic Olympic berth for 2020 on May 26 with a sixth-place finish at the Ottawa Marathon. (Submitted by Canada Running Series/File)

Leslie Sexton, 32, London, Ont.: The 2017 Canadian champion at the Toronto Waterfront event was second to Middleton a year ago in 2:35:44. Sexton, who believes she has two Olympic cycles left, took nearly two minutes off her personal best with a 2:31:49 finish at the Prague Marathon on May 5 despite suffering from allergies. She's eyeing a sub-2:30 finish in Toronto after a 33:33 clocking in the Vancouver 10K on Sept 14.

About the Author

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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