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The last time that the Canadian men’s marathon record changed owners was back in October 1969. It was set anew at exactly two-hours and 12 minutes by Toronto’s Jerome Drayton some 49-years-ago in Detroit; MI. Fellow Torontonian Robert Moore had simply borrowed it from Ron Wallingford in September. Moore had the record for just one month. For three years it was in the possession of Wallingford of St. Hyacinthe, QC. In September 1966, Wallingford had run 2:19:24, Moore then went 2:18:55; Drayton crushed it.
Drayton would break his own record in December 1969 running a 2:11:12 at the Fukuoka Open Marathon Championships. He did it again six years later at Fukuoka, improving his time to 2:10:09. And that is where the national marathon record stood for nearly 43 years until Sunday, October 20 when Vancouver Island’s Cameron Levins ran the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in the time of 2:09:25.
The marathon race of 42.195-kilometres (26.2-miles) back in Drayton’s and Moore’s day was an event for the introverts and eccentrics – the so-called lonely, long-distance runner. In contrast, when Levins strode down Queen Street East he was fashioning a hip Hoka One One toque and matching kit and when he crossed the finish line, he celebrated not unlike a power forward in the NBA after going over-top of some hapless point guard for the hoop and the harm. Well, it was a win and a national record for Levins.
The record was long in coming. Attempted by many, but like a curse, it hung around way too long.
Once Levins and his coach Eric Houle got him into position to challenge Drayton’s record, there was much fanfare and little doubt that he would get it done. The two believed Levins could make the record happen – so did the entire Canadian running community – but there was still a collective exhale and a whoop when he crossed the finish line.
After the race, Levins told me, “I loved it. I think it’s my event.”
I asked Houle about the goal and execution on the day and he said, “There’s a lot of hype on breaking the record, but I was really just trying to get one (marathon) under his belt. This was really important for his confidence. So to break the record was an added bonus. I am excited to be here to watch him break the record in Canada!”
It was 1969 when the national marathon record was last run on Canadian soil – the one by Moore.
I remember the first time that I saw Levins race. It was in the small town of Chemainus on Vancouver Island, he was entered into a road 5K in late June 2009. I shot the race with a video camera riding backwards on a hog, while an RCMP officer drove. We rumbled through the streets and a pulp and paper mill, spewing gravel dust in our wake. Levins was up against fellow Canadian Ryan McKenzie who was known for running the 5,000-metres in 13:29. McKenzie won, but Levins was second in just over 15-minutes. Not bad for a 19-year-old. After the race I interviewed him for Flotrack and the one thing that stuck out about him was that he calmly and confidently said, “I will be up to 100-miles per week soon.”
The next time I saw him was in August that year when he registered last minute for a track meet that I was putting on at Oak Bay High School in Victoria. The 5,000-metre event included a collection of 13:30 to 17:00-minute runners. Levins was smooth as melted butter and calm in the latter stages of the race, like it was old hat. He won in the time of 14:09.0.
He later became two-time NCAA champion while running for Southern Utah University a div. 1 school. Post grad, he took the Canadian 10,000m record from Simon Bairu by running a 27:07:51 in Eugene, OR. Levins ended up running, albeit under the weather, in the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
In pursuit of Drayton’s record, Canada has gone through its distance runners, all capable of running fast enough, but for one reason or another, one by one, all fell short. Not for a lack of trying and certainly not for a lack of talent.
Reid Coolsaet, Canada’s all-time most consistent marathon runner came heartbreakingly close on a few occasions, including running a 2:10:28 at the 2011 Berlin Marathon; oh, for the want of 19 seconds. Nineteen seconds in a marathon can be gobbled up taking too many steps to get to water bottles, tying a rogue shoelace, getting caught leading a pack for too long or not running perfect tangents over the course.
The marathon course is laid out and measured several times with a device called a Jones counter on a bicycle by a certified IAAF course measurer. The air in the tires must have a very specific PSI and the course measurer must do things like come to a parked car on route, stop the bike, pick it up, move it to the side, calculate the distance from one end of the car to the other, put the bike in front and go again. The measurer adds 1-metre to every kilometre. The measuring needs to go over the shortest possible tangents, so that no matter how a runner runs, the least that they will cover is 42.195K plus 42.195m.
If Guelph’s Coolsaet – or any runner doesn’t run perfect tangents, they will – and most people do – run farther than 42.195K. It takes approximately 15 seconds for a fast marathon runner to cover 42m. This gives you an idea how close he was with his 2:10:28.
So was Vancouver’s Dylan Wykes at 2:10:47. There were others too. Eric Gillis from Antigonish, NS ran as fast as 2:11:21. Then there were all the runners who thought they could transition to the marathon and gave up; sadly it just wasn’t to be.
Regina’s Simon Bairu had demonstrated all the distance acumen needed to become a great marathon runner. He broke the national 10,000-metre record in Palo Alto, CA running a 27:23.63 in 2010 – the record that Levins broke with his 27:07:51. Bairu won a record seven consecutive national cross country championships and ran well in the half marathon too.
His fastest 21.1K race was 62:08, 34 seconds faster than Coolsaet’s best. In the Bowerman Track Club athlete’s two marathon attempts he ran a 2:19:52 in Houston and had a DNF at the 2012 Fukuoka Marathon. He subsequently retired at age 31.
New Westminster’s Jeff Schiebler looked promising before him. Schiebler’s half-marathon best continues to be the national record, exactly one minute faster than Bairu’s best at 61:28. Schiebler was the five-time national 5,000-metre champion. He attempted the New York City Marathon in 2002, ran a 2:14:13 and subsequently retired from the sport.
For a short period, two-time 2:09 marathon runner Jonathan Brown (2:09:31) of Great Britain wore the Canadian singlet near the end of his career. He did manage a 2:12:27 in Fukuoka as a Canadian. Peter Butler ran a 2:10:56 in the 1986 running of the California International Marathon. Art Boileau ran a 2:11:15 in the 1985 Boston Marathon and a 2:11:30 in the Helsinki IAAF World Track and Field Championships in 1983. Peter Fonsenca ran 2:11:34 in Toronto and 2:11:54 in Houston in 1995. Then there was Dave Edge who represented Canada, but was also British. He ran in the 2:11s at least five times including a 2:11:04 at Boston in 1983. Ottawa’s Peter Maher ran 2:11:46 in the London marathon in 1991.
When it was announced that Levins would be running the marathon and going for the national record, it seemed bold, due to his two-year stint coming back from surgery. But it also seemed well within his grasp – it was a compelling proposition for him to debut and go for the record. Few doubted his ability. In the process he said he wanted to “take back my career.”
Perhaps he was haunted by the length of his comeback and being supposedly jettisoned by Nike, who produce and spit out athletes like a Pez dispenser. At age 29, he should be at the top of his game. Running well in Toronto would almost launch a second career for him – a marathon career.
The first sign of him taking his career back came In March when he ran a 62:15 half-marathon in Valencia, Spain.
He now has nearly a decade to make the marathon national record a new standard that will elevate the athletes that follow, like the Ben Flanagans and the Justyn Knights.
Going in, he knew he could do it.
“That was his goal,” shared Houle. “He’s confident, strong and now with every race he should get closer to his next goal.”
Asked if that would be a 2:07 in London 2019, Levins simply said, “who knows, but I am excited for the next one though.” And so is the Canadian running community.