I felt like I had to risk something to get the results I wanted. —Cam Levins
Everywhere he goes, Cam Levins, the rising young distance runner from Southern Utah University and Canada, faces the same question: How does he run so many miles?
To prepare for 5,000- and 10,000-meter races on the track, Levins typically runs 150 miles a week and sometimes as much as 160, and that doesn't include twice-weekly speed work on the track. By comparison, the most mileage that Ed Eyestone, the two-time Olympian and former BYU national champion, ever trained was 130 a week — and he was training for the marathon. Then there's Doug Padilla, who trained only 50 to 60 miles a week, augmented by heavy speed sessions on the track, and made two Olympic teams at 5,000 meters
Padilla is both amazed by and wary of Levins' high mileage, but notes, "Everybody's different."
No one can argue the results. Levins made headlines last month with two monster performances. First he won the 5,000-meter run at the Mt. SAC Relays, clocking the second fastest time in the world at the time and outkicking three-time NCAA champion Lawi Lalang with a 55-second last lap. His time of 13:18.47 meets the stiff A standard for the Olympic Games and all but guarantees him a spot on the team Canada will send to London this summer.
Nine days later, Levins won the 10,000-meter run at Stanford University's Payton Jordan Invitational with a time of 27:27.96, the fastest in the world this year.
That makes Levins and his training methods all the more of a curiosity. Moments after his Mt. SAC victory, a reporter raised the issue of his mileage. Competitors have been known to ask about his mileage at the starting line.
"I get asked about this a lot," says Levins. "A lot of interviewers dial into it and other athletes. I'm getting known for the mileage, I guess."
It's the eternal debate in distance-running circles: How much is too much? It's no secret that one road to success in distance running is to pound out high mileage, but do so at your peril. High mileage risks injury and illness. The late Paul Cummings, who made the 1984 Olympic team at 10,000 meters, was another high-mileage runner (about 120 a week), but he was often injured and ill (which is why he ran poorly at the Olympic Games after a dominant performance in the Olympic Trials).
"Cam is definitely a mileage warrior," says Eyestone, now the distance coach at BYU. "It's great as long as you can handle it and not break down. Eventually, you will; it's not if, it's when. Hopefully, he can stay healthy through the NCAAs and Olympic Games."
"I trained 50 to 60 a week because that's where I seemed to perform the best," says Padilla. "I would have performed better if I had done more mileage, but I couldn't; I'd get sick. Everything is a double-edged sword. Cam is the other extreme. He might do all right this year, but my guess is, well, I can't imagine that he can maintain this mileage because it's so nuts."
None of this is news to Levins, who says, "I felt like I had to risk something to get the results I wanted."
Actually, Levins' relatively sudden emergence as a distance-running force coincides with his decision to try the high-mileage training plan. He grew up in Black Creek, British Columbia, a tiny town on Vancouver Island. His school didn't even have a track team until Levins and some of his classmates organized one and convinced a teacher to coach them so they could compete in school meets. There were about 10 kids on the team and Levins was the only distance runner. Training alone, he managed to run 4 minutes flat for 1,500 meters (about a 4:17 mile). That wasn't enough to attract a Division I scholarship from an American school, with one exception: Southern Utah. Coach Eric Houle found Levins on a recruiting website and offered him a scholarship.
Levins improved steadily at SUU, running a 3:47 for 1,500 meters as a sophomore, but he wanted more. He decided to increase his mileage dramatically.
"I thought I'd experiment with it," he says. "I thought I had to make another jump (in improvement) for my final season. Mileage was one of the only things I could do to make the jump I wanted to. I knew the Kenyans had done it. I'd heard of athletes in the '70s who did it. I thought it was the way to compete with the Africans. Some say (Kenyans excel) because of genetics, but I think it's a matter of understanding how hard they're working and how much they are running."
He bumped up his mileage from 15 a day to 20 a day leading up to his junior year and liked the results: a 3:59 mile and a qualifying berth in the NCAA championships, where he finished last in the trials. Last summer he decided to bump up his mileage again, this time to 30 a day. Again, the results were good: a 3:57.16 mile in the Millrose Games, third- and fourth-place finishes in the indoor NCAA championships at 3,000 and 5,000 meters, respectively, followed by the outdoor performances at Mt. SAC and Stanford.
Levins usually runs three times a day, totaling 25 to 30 miles four days a week, 20 miles two days a week, and 10 miles one day a week. That means he spends four to five hours a day on the run. It's an exhausting routine and one that requires him to take naps during the day.
"I seem to be holding together doing this kind of mileage," he says, "but I do have to be really careful and listen to my body. Running 30 miles in a day once isn't hard, but it was a while before I could string them together."
Looking ahead to the London Games, he says, "Like any young athlete, I dreamed of going to the Olympics. I felt like I was a long ways from it. It was the end goal and suddenly I'm almost there."
While wary of Levins' training methods, Eyestone says, "Cam is the real deal. He has all the tools to make it at the elite level. He has something that I would have loved to have had — the ability to change gears and sprint well at the end of a hard grinding race. Half the battle is making it to the starting line healthy. If Cam can continue to rack up the mileage without getting sidelined with tendonitis, stress fractures or a half-dozen other overuse injuries that are always waiting in the wings, he will be a force at the international level."