UC San Diego senior Kellen Levy has been at or near the top of the pack since breaking in with the Triton cross country squad as a freshman. A veteran of three CCAA Championships and as many NCAA West Regional races (in cross country), last May the six-foot Fresno native outlasted a solid field to win the CCAA 10,000-meter title (in track and field), providing a clear reason for confidence heading into his final cross country season. UCSD head coach Nate Garcia gives Levy high marks. "Kellen is a fierce competitor," says Garcia, "and he has established a certain attitude that our guys have responded to. We've seen that approach start to pay off when we race against the top teams, and I expect that his leadership is going to continue to pay dividends this year." With preseason camp and competition rapidly approaching, Levy took time to talk about his big 2013 track and field season, his evolving role for the Tritons, and expectations for one final cross country campaign.
Q: The first race of your senior season is in 42 days (UCSD Opener at home on Friday, Sept. 6, at 4 p.m.). What thoughts go through your mind when you read that?
LEVY: Yikes! It seems like less time than it actually is because we usually think of the season in terms of weeks, so if I view that as seven weeks, then I give a huge sigh of relief. But, I've also already been training for 10 weeks, so when I think about it, I feel just fine and ready for the new season.
Q: As an athlete, what's the biggest difference between the Kellen Levy of 2010 (freshman year) and Kellen Levy circa 2013?
LEVY: My attitudes about training and racing are completely different today than when I began college. I'm much more patient and trusting in myself through the training. When it comes to racing, I'm more aggressive, but more importantly, wiser to the sport.
My freshman year, the only chance I had at winning a race would have been against a field much weaker than myself. Today, I feel more willing to engage in a scrappy race, stay relaxed and trust that my speed will carry me through. Sometimes in a race, you can get worried early on that you aren't in the right position, so being able to stay calm and read the field is an important skill I've picked up over the years.
Q: Last May, you won the 10,000 meters on the second night of the CCAA Track & Field Championships. Were you surprised at all by that career-best (30:58.93) performance?
LEVY: In the last 50 meters of the race, when it was clear I'd be earning 10 points for the team, I was definitely shocked. I think you can see it on my face in the video of the last 100 meters when I cross the (finish) line. The more time I had after the race to think about what had happened, the more it made sense and the less surprised I became. Not that it was a certainty I was going to win, not that I "knew it all along." In fact, going into the race, as low as fourth place seemed not only reasonable, but likely given the field. However, as the race progressed and it became clear that Johnny Sanchez (second place) wasn't going to do anything to the effect of dropping me with any crazy moves, I knew that the race plan Nate (Garcia) and I had worked out was becoming a perfect scenario.
That's pretty rare in racing, so when it started to happen, I took command and did exactly what we had talked about and exactly what had been going through my mind the entire season. I started to kick and there was nothing else anybody could do, so in a sense, the race was given to me and all I needed to do was grab onto it. In summary, because the race panned out the way it did, I was not surprised to have won.
Q: Can you take us through that race? What was your strategy going in and how did it play out?
LEVY: Nate and I knew going into it that I was probably the runner in the race with the most speed, so the goal was to hang on at all costs until 900 meters (were left to go), a typical point in the 10K when the lead runners start kicking. I had learned from my first experience that if I could make it to that point, I was going to be fine.
Nate and I discussed every possible scenario that might play out in the race. The most optimal for me was exactly what ended up happening—an honest pace to form a lead pack, but one that was not outside a comfortable limit for myself since some of the other racers were potentially more equipped to handle a faster pace early on. After the first mile, it became clear that the pace to keep was around five-minute miles.
At about six laps to go, the pack turned into six guys after one of the leaders made a huge move. If I recall correctly, we went from around 75 seconds per lap down to 70 seconds and maybe faster in an instant. That continued until there were five runners, and then four runners. The pace continued to quicken, and although at first I felt shocked from the increase, after I adjusted, I knew in my heart that a victory was extremely possible, because I still had my speed left. We came to the 500-meter mark and my body took over. It's something that's hard to think about in retrospect when I'm not in racing mode, but a sort of animalism takes control of your body, and it does what it wants even when your mind is screaming at you not to do that very thing. But Nate and I had prepared for that exact moment for weeks, and I had to do nothing except not get in my own way.
Q: How, if at all, do you think that win will affect this year's cross country season, for you personally and for the team?
LEVY: I'll definitely be racing with more confidence this season, especially knowing that the distance will be more than manageable. Perhaps more importantly, I know where I stand in the conference, and that I can be a power player. My win was a small part of a more significant happening this track season. Along with phenomenal races by Daniel Franz in the steeplechase (second place at conference) and Matt Lenehan (fifth place in both the 10K and the steeple), there were a series of outstanding performances throughout the year, more than a few coming from younger guys like Tanner Collins (who ran a killer 5K), his high school teammate, freshman Tareq Alwafai, and freshman Scott Acton, who proved himself deadly at the 10K distance. The team is more than amped after such a huge jump in performance from not only last track season, but also the cross country season earlier in the year. I think we all feel more highly of ourselves in general.
Q: What type of training have you done over the summer to prepare for cross country? Was this summer any different than the previous three?
LEVY: I'm currently entering the peak of mileage this week. So far, the majority of the preseason up to this point has been basic base-building. That is, we drudge through miles, more and more each week to build fitness, so that the current moment in the training cycle is manageable. The only difference in my training so far has been a more mature approach to self-care. I've definitely neglected my body over the years, and the consequences have been very real, although thankfully not season-ending.
Q: One of the major elements of UCSD's preseason training is the annual trip to Mammoth for some altitude work. What are some of your best memories of previous Mammoth excursions? What are you looking forward to this time around?
LEVY: Every night at camp, Coach Garcia comes up with some sort of competition between the girls and guys to determine which team eats first—we do buffet-style, self-cooked dinners. The summer before my sophomore season, former teammate Jeremy Riley (graduate in peace) and I proposed a 2v2 card game against the girls to determine the dinner order. Card games are a huge part of camp, and because we spend hours each day playing them, it can get pretty heated. Jeremy and I were clearly going to lose, so we traded cards under the table right in front of the girls, and they somehow didn't notice. This gave each of us killer hands, and we made a huge comeback, which was good because we had smack-talked so much beforehand. We held that secret for quite some time, so I guess it's fair that I tell the girl's team now! Sorry! I look forward to more shenanigans like that.
Q: Cross country and track and field seem to offer different experiences. What are your favorite aspects of each?
LEVY: Cross country has a very intimate feeling that I've never gotten from any other sport. When you're out on a beautiful course with no one around but the other runners, something uniquely natural pervades the atmosphere. There's no one out there to hold you accountable, or to take note of the good or bad things you do in the race. There's no sound except foot strikes and heartbeats. You can really start to understand a lot about yourself in that environment, some of it good and some of it bad.
I like track for the complete opposite reason. It turns out that against my better judgment, I'm a sucker for a crowd. I love nothing more in the world than coming down the home stretch in front of a home crowd knowing that I've won the race. Being a part of that experience is undeniably great. Track is also great because you can run so many different races, each one having a completely different style and language unique to its distance. Both are great because I think they're the most natural forms of competition: men against men in a battle to see not only whose body is better, but also whose mind is most capable of handling the agony of "100 percent." There's a reason why the Greeks ran in the first Olympics.
Q: Before a cross country race, what kind of advice or information does the team typically get from coach Nate Garcia?
LEVY: Nate is an incredible coach because he spends countless hours analyzing previous races, runners and courses. When we meet the day before a race to discuss it, Nate comes equipped with years of data about each team, the course we're running on, and thoroughly constructed plans about it all. Not only does he do the work, he does it well, something that speaks volumes about his abilities as a coach. Mostly, we discuss how our race plan will work around other teams' plans, and how to best go about maneuvering a course and all its unique character.
Q: You talked earlier about the influx of solid, young talent to the men's cross country squad last year. What kind of a role do you think that group will play going forward and what do you anticipate, competitively, from the 2013 squad?
LEVY: I was lucky to have joined the team at a time when the entire dynamic was changing. Each year since my freshman year, the team has evolved through different stages until this upcoming season, which I consider to be the future of UCSD Cross Country. So, to answer the question, the younger guys on the team have the intense responsibility of continuing the progression from a Division II team, to a Division II powerhouse, and hopefully over the years, it will only continue to get better until UCSD is a known and feared squad across the board.
For this season specifically, I am confident that the younger guys will have learned from last year's disappointments and be ready to apply that knowledge in order to compete at our full potential.
Q: As a senior, what are your expectations of yourself as a runner? As a leader?
LEVY: All I can do is my very best. If I prepare properly and have confidence in myself and my team, I expect that I'll do everything possible of myself at this point in my career. As a leader, hopefully I'll be seen in a position of wisdom, and I look forward to continuing to cultivate a championship mindset within the team that will last well after I've left.
Q: You're part of a group of music aficionados on the cross country team. Do you have any musical talents yourself, or do you just enjoy the listening and watching? What can you tell us about your musical tastes?
LEVY: As to talents, I'm limited. I try my hand at a few things, but have not produced anything of merit. Mostly, I like to mess around with my roommate for fun. I've been really lucky to have met certain friends in my life who have exposed me to a variety of different music. After a certain point, you get to be very involved in a culture of music some people might call hipster, some other people might call it indie. Either way, it's hard to talk about without seeming pretentious.
I like music that does something different, approaches a style in a way not done before. I like music that I think is artful, made by musicians whom I think are artists and not just entertainers. I really don't like rap. I really don't like country. If music were paper towels and hand towels, I would buy the hand towels, durable and long-lasting and with a unique design. The music I don't listen to is like paper towels. Maybe this one has a diamond pattern and this one has a square, but they're all white and after a few goes it's used up and you throw it in the trash.
Q: How about a little background from the Levy musical file? First concert? Favorite musical act when you were in high school? Favorite now? Are there any individuals or groups you can tout as future stars?
LEVY: My first concert was oddly enough a Big Boi show at UCSD my freshman year. I'm from a town where the only concerts that happen are for total superstars who can sell out our biggest concert halls no problem, and I've never been interested in that sort of thing. I remember knowing all the words because Big Boi had just released a new album and my summer roommate, (teammate) Matt Lenehan, was a big fan, so I, of course, became a big fan.
Unfortunately. my favorite musical act in high school was Coldplay. I'm not proud of that, and I wish it weren't true, but when you're 15, 16, everything is really emotional and Coldplay is all about that. Currently, I think Animal Collective is the greatest, most unique band to have come around. I don't know about them ever being über-famous, but I'm positive that in 30 some-odd years people will look back at them the way we look at Pink Floyd now: having been extremely influential and novel in their time.
Q: You're a literature/writing major at Roosevelt College. What do you consider your best work to date? What would you consider the best book you've read and movie you've seen lately?
LEVY: My best work to date is a piece I wrote about a homeless man near the UCSD campus who owns a cell phone that he pays a monthly plan for, and doesn't know that the girl he emails back and forth is actually an Internet scammer who tricks him into making hundred-dollar deposits at a bank once a month. Sounds unbelievable, I know.
The best movie I've seen recently is Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, because it involves one of the most interesting characters (possibly THE most interesting) I've seen in film. The best book I've read in a while is The Fall by (Albert) Camus. I really like Camus, and the absurdist philosophy in general.
Q: How does that field of study fit into what you hope to do in the future?
LEVY: I hope to be somewhere in the film industry in the future. I wanted an education that would expose me to many different things in the humanities world, and I've gotten just that. Even if I don't accomplish all of my goals, in the future I just hope to be someone who is well-rounded and aware of the world. This field of study has certainly prepared me for that.
Q: What is one thing you would like to accomplish athletically before graduating? Outside of athletics?
LEVY: I have to make it to nationals in both cross country and track. I can keep running forever, but I only have this one last chance to make nationals. Outside of athletics, I would like to write something that can get published.
Previous Triton Q&A Features
Izzy Pozurama (Women's Soccer) July 8, 2013
Colin Truex (Women's Crew Head Coach) June 28, 2013
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