Record-setting runners Ahmed, Levins taking ‘friendly rivalry’ to the road at Ottawa 10K

Last spring, Moh Ahmed and his Bowerman Track Club teammates were training in downtown Portland, Ore., when he ran into fellow Canadian distance runner Cam Levins, who had just finished a workout.

Unaware his 2012 and 2020 Olympic teammate still lived in the city, Ahmed spent a few minutes catching up and invited Levins to join him for a 70-minute run.

It felt like 2012 for Ahmed, who was reminded of Levins’s powerful and sturdy form “when he was at his best.” That year, Levins won the Bowerman Award as most outstanding male track and field athlete of the year after his NCAA Division 1 double gold-medal performance in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.

“It was like he used to run,” Ahmed, who was seventh in that 5,000 final at NCAAs, recalled of that spring run during an interview this week with CBC Sports. “He looked really friggin’ good.”

They haven’t raced each other since the men’s 5,000 final on July 7, 2016 in Edmonton at the Canadian track and field championships, which doubled as the Rio Olympic trials. Ahmed won in 14:00.93 while an ailing Levins was seventh, nearly 16 seconds behind.

The next day, an MRI revealed a tear of the peroneal tendon in his left foot, stress fractures in two bones, a bone spur and bone chips that doctors had to shave and remove that month, forcing him to miss the Summer Games.

“I didn’t get to give him a great final race [on the track] but we had lots of fun battles up to that point. I would describe our relationship as a friendly rivalry over the years,” said Levins, who transitioned to road racing in 2017 and hasn’t looked back. He has improved upon his 2018 Canadian record in the marathon, added the national mark in the half marathon and set a North American record in the Tokyo Marathon in early March.

Bronze medallist Levins celebrates with Ahmed after the men’s 10,000-metre final at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images/File)

‘The entire race is going to be challenging’

On Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET, Ahmed and Levins will stand on the start line for their Ottawa 10K debut. It will also mark the 32-year-old Ahmed’s first road race since he ran the 5K and 8K as a high schooler in St. Catharines, Ont.

The Somalia-born athlete noted road racing is a different stimulus and added: “You’re not going round and round [a track] and returning to the same point [multiple times]. The pace is probably going to be quick and the entire race is going to be challenging.”

I’m not going to get ahead of myself, just compete and [put forth] a good effort.— Distance runner Moh Ahmed on his 1st road race since high school

It’ll be Ahmed’s season-opening race and first since last July 24 when he placed fifth in the 5,000 final at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Ore. The 2019 bronze medallist also clocked 27 minutes 30.27 seconds for sixth in the 10,000.

The Ottawa 10K course record is 27:24, held by Deriba Merba of Ethiopia since 2009. Ben Flanagan of Kitchener, Ont., boasts the Canadian mark of 28:11, set last year in Boston.

“I’m not looking for any goal paces, said Ahmed, a three-time Olympian whose fastest 10,000 is 26:34.14. “I’m not going to get ahead of myself, just compete and [put forth] a good effort.”

His first Diamond League race of the season will be June 2 at the Golden Gala event in Florence, Italy, with subsequent 5,000s on the professional track and field circuit in Monaco (July 21) and Zurich (Aug. 31).

In between, the Canadian record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 will double at the Aug. 19-27 worlds in Budapest, Hungary, and hopes to end his season at the Sept. 16-17 Prefontaine Classic, host of the Diamond League Final in Eugene.

“I’m feeling good, training hard, said Ahmed, who became Canada’s first Olympic medallist in the 5,000 with silver in Tokyo in 2021. “I’m doing the same stuff [I did] when I ran 12:47.20 [in July 2020 for a personal best and then-North American record].”

Levins, 34, is racing Saturday in preparation for the Canadian half marathon championships being held in Winnipeg for a third straight year on June 18. He won a year ago, setting a course record of one hour three minutes 23 seconds before the race was called due to the heat.

Solid 10K needed to improve in half marathon

Three months ago, the native of Black Creek, B.C., ran a men’s national record of 1:00:18 to win the half marathon title at the First Half event in Vancouver. Levins told CBC Sports he needs to perform well over the 10K distance to lower that time.

He added while Ahmed’s appearance is “very exciting for fans of the sport,” it will make the goal of setting either a Canadian and/or course record more challenging. His 29:24 PB on the road is 90 seconds slower than the 27:53.58 he ran on the track in Stanford, Calif., as part of his marathon build for worlds last year.

“He’s on a completely different level than when we competed [11 years ago],” said Levins of Ahmed. “I felt I had an advantage against him [then] and now I feel very much the underdog.”

In February, Athletics Canada named Levins and four athletes to its team ahead of others for this year’s worlds but he withdrew recently, saying he wants to devise a different race plan leading up to the Paris Olympics next summer “mostly because it’s a difficult course.”

The two-time Olympian changed his mindset last month when he saw Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan widely regarded as the greatest marathoner of all time, struggle late racing the challenging Boston Marathon for the first time. He didn’t keep pace with the leaders and finished sixth, a distant three-and-a-half minutes behind fellow Kenyan and winner Evans Chebet for his first marathon loss since October 2020.

“I realized I could put myself in the same position going into Paris if I don’t pre-sync what I’m doing between now and then,” Levins said. “Having a really good [PB of 2:05:36 from the Tokyo Marathon] I don’t think I need to overload how many marathons I’m doing.

“There will be another marathon [for me] in the fall. I just can’t say [which one] because I’m working out a contract [with the organizers].”

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