Cam Levins’ Unusual Year

On Friday, April 20, Southern Utah’s Cam Levins ran 13:18.47 for 5k at the Mt. SAC Relays, the eighth-fastest ever by a collegian. Nine days later at Stanford’s Cardinal Invitational, he ran 27:27.96 for 10k, the second-fastest ever by a collegian. The times are great, as are how he won the races (with big kicks off a fast pace) and who he beat (some of the fastest collegians of all time).

His improvement curve has also been very steep. Prior to this school year, his most notable accomplishments were all in cross country, so they’re a bit difficult to quantify. Jon Gugala, writing for Running Times last November just prior to the NCAA Cross Country Championships, called him “the best runner you know nothing about”. But let’s look even at this school year alone: two weeks ago, his 5k PR was 13:38.12. He’s now beaten that twice in two weekends—once with that 13:18.47 win at Mt. SAC, and then with the last half of his 27:27.96 win at Stanford.

The improvement is off the charts, adn the runs are some of the best in collegiate history. But the more I think about it, the thing that really sticks out to me is a) his heavy racing schedule and b) that nine-day gap between the two huge races. The first is highly unusual in this day and age, and the second is highly unusual, period.

There’s a thread over at the Let’s Run message board discussing what he might be able to do at the Olympics, and top-5 finishes are being thrown around. But this guy has yet to finish higher than third at an NCAA Championships! And he didn’t underachieve in any of his four runs at those national meets (two at the ’12 indoor, one each at ’11 cross and ’11 outdoor). He ran up to his abilities or even beyond them. He’s just that much better now.

The conventional wisdom these days is that over-racing will wear you out, make you peak too early, and leave nothing left for when you need it most. Levins is making a mockery of that idea. He ran a full cross country season, winning four meets before taking second at the Mountain regional and fourth at the NCAA Championships, then turning around and winning the Canadian cross country championships just six days later.

Levins’ indoor season saw a 7:48.25/13:42.90 double win at Washington on back-to-back days, followed by a mile PR at the Millrose Games a week later and a 3000 meter PR at the Boston Indoor Grand Prix another week later. He ran five races in two days to lead his Thunderbirds to the Summit League title, and then went 3rd and 4th at the NCAA Championships 3k and 5k, the former in a near-PR and the latter in a PR.

Just a week after those big efforts at the NCAA Indoors, he ran on the Canadian team at the NACAC Cross Country Championships and won with relative ease. His outdoor season this year consists of three races in four weeks, all PRs, the last two being the historically fast runs that I mentioned at the top. If I count correctly, we’re looking at 23 races in one school year with three to eight more to come (plus the Canadian Trials and the Olympics). And he’s not getting worn down, but getting better with almost every race.

These days, college athletes don’t compete week in and week out. They race sparingly (or jump or throw, as the case may be). It didn’t use to be this way; back in the 70s and earlier, west coast teams ran dual meets almost every week and midwestern and eastern teams ran a mix of relay meets and duals, again almost every week. In the middle of a heavy weekly racing schedule, Rudy Chapa once threw down a 13:19.22 in a dual meet just because he felt good and went for it.

Levins is a throwback in this regard. But his two-week double of high-level racing at Mt. SAC and Stanford is more than that. It has been reproduced only once, in Henry Rono’s fantastic 1978 season.

In 1978, Rono was on a tear. He broke world records in four events in the space of 81 days, and ran a crazy double at the NCAA Championships. Here’s his 1978 collegiate season:
13:22.7 Pullman, Apr 1
13:08.4 Berkeley, April 8 (world record)
8:14.75 Eugene, April 15
8:24.4 Pullman, April 29
7:43.04 Westwood, May 7
8:05.4 Seattle, May 13 (world record)
27:46.6 Corvallis, May 19
13:20.2 Corvallis, May 20
13:21.8 Eugene, June 1
8:18.60 Eugene, June 1
8:12.39 Eugene, June 3

Rono went on to a great summer season, setting two more world records and winning the Commonwealth Games 5k/10k double. He never lived up to his 1978 season again, but he was an alcoholic, and while alcoholics can be brilliant people they are not noted for their dependability.

Rono is obviously the greatest collegiate runner ever in terms of repeated high-level performance. How does Levins match up in history? Very well. In collegiate competition (meaning by collegians, at or before the NCAA Championships), there have been 20 sub-28:00s and 20 outdoor sub-13:25s. Only three athletes have run more than one in a single season. Rono hit five of them in ’78 alone. Ian Dobson did it twice in 2005, running 27:59.72 and 13:22.54, forty-one days apart. And then there’s Levins’ double, nine days apart. In the last 14 years, the only thing even reasonably close to Levins’ accomplishment was Sam Chelanga going 27:28.48/13:28.31 on consecutive weekends in 2009.

Explanations for either Levins’ unusual resiliency or his continued and amazing improvement are scarce, but he’s also noted for having started an extremely high milage program this year. Totals of 150 miles a week are being talked about and Levins isn’t denying them.

I had the honor of meeting Arthur Lydiard in 2004, just three weeks before his death. While 100 mile weeks were what became popularly associated with his training system, that was in the main training session of the day; some athletes totaled as much as 160 when all running was considered. In his speeches and writings and coaching, he said that it’s almost impossible to overdo aerobic endurance-type training (provided the speeds are kept within the athlete’s abilities) and athletes can get to a “tireless state”. Lydiard also said it was the key to long-term and continued improvement. The other thing people forget is that Lydiard’s athletes raced a lot, and only avoided competition for a few months of the year.

This is how most runners trained in the 70s, when heavy racing schedules were the norm and the USA produced many more excellent runners than we do now. Is Levins’ old-school training the key to his old-school racing? It’s just a thought, and impossible to prove either true or false. But I can say without a doubt that this year’s NCAA Championships races at 5k and 10k look like they’ll be the most interesting clashes in a generation.

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5 Responses to Cam Levins’ Unusual Year

  1. runbei says:

    Masterful analysis and conclusions. Something Lydiard claimed is that high mileage allows a runner to finish strongly while his competitors are flagging. Nowhere was this more evident than in Cam Levins’s dominant finish at Stanford.

    Lydiard also believed that the U.S. college system with its three tightly sequenced seasons destroys runners, by preventing them from returning to base training. We see this time and again, for example with (I believe) Jordan Hasay. Hasay progressed wonderfully as a high-schooler under the wise direction of Armando Siqueiros, her physician-coach who had her best long-term development in mind.

    Here’s a hypothesis: when Hasay arrived in Track Town, long-term development vanished as a goal. It became all about meeting the expectations of the Eugene track fans who, like American concert audiences, expect a little miracle at every event to stimulate their emotions and egos. Like not a few other college distance runners, perhaps Hasay will have more sanity and balance in her life as a pro. (Jordan, the day you graduate, give Jerry Schumacher a call…)

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  3. In today’s sports world many athletes attempt to be the new, up and coming star who is known for their uniqueness and flare. Fiddling with new training techniques, new diets, and new apparel can only get athletes so far. This post about going back to the roots of track and field training and Cam Levin’s extreme success by instilling these rare and forgotten tools was really enjoyable. I definitely think there is a connection between his training regime and schedule and the amazing performances he has continued to produce. I also really enjoyed your connection between Levin and Rono’s collegiate careers and how they matched up in terms of repeated high-level performances.

  4. In today’s sports world many athletes attempt to be the new, up and coming star who is known for their uniqueness and flare. Fiddling with new training techniques, new diets, and new apparel can only get athletes so far. This post about going back to the roots of track and field training and Cam Levin’s extreme success by instilling these rare and forgotten tools was really enjoyable. I definitely think there is a connection between his training regime and schedule and the amazing performances he has continued to produce. I also really enjoyed your connection between Levin and Rono’s collegiate careers and how they matched up in terms of repeated high-level performances

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