Cam Levins eager for marathon debut in Toronto after long road back from surgery

It was his lowest moment in a track career filled with many highs, including a 2012 Olympic appearance, NCAA Division I titles in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres and a Canadian men's outdoor record in the 10,000.

Distance runner Cam Levins was experiencing dizziness following surgery on his left ankle in July 2016, lost balance on his crutches and fell in a hotel hallway after exiting the elevator.

Fortunately, Levins' dad Gus was by his side and fireman carried the athlete to their room in Palo Alto, Calif.

"It's been a long road back from that and I'm so thankful that I've been able to run at all," says Levins, who will make his marathon debut Sunday at the Toronto Waterfront event that CBCSports.ca will live stream at 8:45 a.m. ET.

"I want to thank my wife [Elizabeth] and my family that has supported me through a tough couple of years when I wasn't certain I wanted to even continue doing this. I had very serious doubts."

Levins' struggles began at the 2015 Canadian track and field championships in Edmonton, where someone ran into the back of him after the 1,500 heat, catching his leg and forcing Levins to the ground.

The native of Black Creek, B.C., was later diagnosed with a tear of the peroneal tendon in his left foot, stress fractures in his navicular and talus bones, a bone spur and bone chips that doctors had to shave and remove.

While Levins admits the ankle doesn't feel the way it did pre-surgery, it no longer hinders his ability to run.

"I think I'm at peace with that whole situation," he says, "and I don't have any particular concerns whether I can put in the training to be an elite athlete again."

Last December, Levins tried his first-ever half marathon and crossed the line in one hour five minutes seven seconds at the Holiday Half Marathon in Oregon.

He ran 1:05:00 on Jan. 14 in Houston after signing a sponsorship deal with athletic shoe company Hoka One One and two months later, the 29-year-old placed 30th at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in a personal-best 1:02:15, less than a minute shy of Jeff Schiebler's Canadian mark of 1:01:28 in 1999.

That performance in Valencia, Spain, convinced Reid Coolsaet that Levins had a knack for the half marathon. The second fastest marathoner in Canadian history will tell you he believed Levins could handle marathon training in 2012, the same year he swept the NCAA titles and finished top 15 in the 5,000 and 10,000 at his Olympic debut in London, England.

"I think Cam is going to do well [Sunday] because he's been training at such a high volume for a long time," says Coolsaet of Levins, who averaged 150-160 miles a week during his senior year at Southern Utah University and maintained that range during his Toronto marathon build.

It's the most fit I've been post-surgery and in a lot of ways better than at any point beforehand. — Canadian runner Cam Levins ahead of his debut marathon in Toronto

Levins, who now lives in Portland, Ore., spent much of the last five weeks training at altitude in Cedar City, Utah, after finishing third in 1:03:10 at the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on Sept. 16.

While his 2018 results suggest a 2:13 or 2:14 marathon time, according to IAAF scoring tables, Levins, his college coach Eric Houle and Coolsaet believe there's a chance Jerome Drayton's 43-year-old national record of 2:10:09 could fall.

"The Canadian record is added motivation and I feel I'm in that sort of fitness," says Levins, the first Canadian male to win the Bowerman Award as the NCAA's top Division I track and field athlete in 2012. "It's the most fit I've been post-surgery and in a lot of ways better than at any point beforehand."

Adds Coolsaet, who raced Levins in Houston and ran a 2:10:28 PB at the 2015 Berlin Marathon: "I don't know if he'll run 2:08 but even if he runs 2:11, that would be the fastest marathon debut ever by a Canadian by a couple of minutes."

Twitter/@CamLevins

Houle, who reunited with Levins last year after the latter ended his four-plus year working relationship with coach Alberto Salazar and the famous Nike Oregon project training group, says the runner is ready for a marathon.

"Does he have the tools, knowledge and tank to [break the Canadian record]? Absolutely," says Houle, while also cautioning fans it's a process to reach peak marathon form. "It's like the [Canadian outdoor record of] 27:07.51 Cam put down in the 10,000 [in 2015]. It didn't happen in one race but a number of races.

T.O. marathon 1st choice

"I see a guy that has proven he can produce when he needs to produce. I think he's definitely going to thrive through the first half of the marathon [in Toronto]. If you can go in relaxed, enjoy it and hit [a goal pace] you think you can hit, you're going to run fine all the way through."

Levins, who had planned to run the half marathon at the Toronto Waterfront event last year before his left ankle started barking, says running the marathon in the city was always his first choice.

"The reality is I don't compete in Canada very often," says Levins, who won the Canadian 5K road racing title in Toronto last year. "To run in front of people that are fans of me and believe in me is important on many levels.

"I know it's one of the faster marathons in Canada and there's always a quality field. A lot of people have told me it's going to be the hardest thing I've ever done, so that's the mindset I'm taking into the race.

"I'm excited for the race as a whole," he added, "and prepared to take on the difficult sections."