Marathon Runners are both Crazy and Patient

Even if we lived in a world where we had to jump through a ring of fire every time we wanted to change the channel, marathon runners would still make us look lazy  —  and at the same time much more sane.

Think about it. Marathoners run 26.2 miles, while at any second, their bodies could “hit the wall.”

Look to 1996, when Uta Pippig famously won the Boston Marathon for the third consecutive year, this time, with her own diarrhea and menstrual blood dripping down her leg as she crossed the finish line.  Marathoners train too hard to pull themselves from a race, especially if they think they can still win or set a personal best.

Ohio University Zanesville professor Kitty Consolo has won more than 400 races ranging from the mile to two RevCo Cleveland Marathons despite suffering from severe asthma and multiple allergies. In 1985, she said she was in fantastic shape but developed a sharp pain in her right side.  It turned out to be a grapefruit size ovarian cyst, and she had to have major surgery to remove it.

“(It was) kind of like having a C-Section without the baby,” she said. “I was told not to drive or work for 8 weeks and wait even longer to run. The next day, I jogged 15 minutes in the hospital parking lot and did not need morphine.”

She said she went home in three days instead of seven and went back to driving and teaching the next week.  Four weeks later, she flew to Barbados and won a 10km.  Three weeks later she ran the Cleveland marathon and won for the second time.

Craig Leon, a former Ohio University runner and coach, is now a professional marathoner having finished 26th at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Relatively new to the sport of marathon running Craig still marvels at how he is able to complete such a grueling task.

“It’s (finishing a marathon) hard to even describe,” he said. “It’s such a surreal feeling. Even at any point in my training, I never go out and run 26.2 miles. My biggest workout is a 30K, so you’re thinking to yourself, I’ve got to run X number of miles more and do it at a faster pace when I get to the race. I’d be lying if I did not say it doesn’t scare the crap out of me.”

That feeling eases with experience but always looms before a race, he said.

“Each one I feel more comfortable, but I’m always nervous because you never know what can go wrong in such a long race.” Leon said. “On any given day you can really pop, but at the same time, even if everything is going well up until the race, you can wake up with a sinus infection or get a blister on mile 15 and you’re done. It’s really a cruel race.”

It’s not just the race that is spoiled by something as petty as a cold or a blister. It is the months of training and sacrifice. Leon runs twice a day every day whether the middle of summer or Christmas day. Still in his 20s, Leon wishes he could cut loose more.

“I’m at the point of my life where I’d love to go out with my friends and live it up, but as a runner you’re so reliant on your body you can not abuse it, like say a golfer,” he said.

Consolo is now making her return to running as an Elite Masters Runner. She trains 37 hours a week including physical therapy. She has also written for Runner’s World and other magazines. She said she thinks patience is important to distance running and holds most of America back from competing with the rest of the world.

“One has to be able to focus for long periods of time and be patient,” she said. “Many today want a quick fix. Marathon excellence takes years of persistence to develop, and maybe that is why countries like Ethiopia and other African nations excel.”

Leon also said he thinks patience is the greatest skill a runner can have.

“You won’t see a return on investment tomorrow,” he said. “It will be months, years.”

In spite of all these sacrifices, the reward is not winning. There are not enough major marathon victories to go around. The competition fuels them, but the places they see and the people they meet make it sweeter.

“Runners go through these struggles together, even though we compete against each other,” he said. “We’re friends outside of the races and were constantly traveling to places that are nice enough for a marathon to be run there.”

Ohio’s marathon man, Craig Leon, barely misses Olympic cut

Craig Leon winning the Eugene Marathon. (All photos used with permission of Craig Leon)

As he made his way through the scenic town of Eugene, Oregon and up through the gates at famous Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, Craig Leon had to marvel at what he just accomplished.

“It was a weird feeling,” he said. “At no point during training did I think I was going to win that race, I just wanted to finish.”

Not only had Craig Leon just completed his first marathon, he had completed his first marathon in first place, and was just four minutes off U.S. Olympic trial qualifying pace.

Bobcat Lineage

Craig Leon is not the first athlete in the family to go to Ohio University. Bob Leon was a four-year letterman basketball player from 1975-1978. Craig grew up playing basketball, and it was his first love. Basketball is a winter sport though, and his mother, Marilyn, also a Bobcat, wanted Craig to be involved with something in the fall.

“They didn’t have a golf program at the junior high level, or I would have done that,” he said. “So my mom said why don’t you give this cross country thing a try, I think you’ll like it.”

Leon believes he would not have lasted long as a junior high cross country runner if it wasn’t for how the first practice played out.

“The very first day of practice we started at this park and then we ran two miles to Dairy Queen and we had ice cream, I thought we were going to do that every day. We never went again,” Leon said.

When Leon got to high school, he was an above-average runner, continually placing in the top 5 on a talented Van Wert High School cross country team. His junior season, he joined the track team which helped him to shave off a full minute from his personal best in the 5k and he placed 11th in the Ohio State High School Championships in both cross country and track.

Leon as a late bloomer, had limited scholarship offers, but he always knew he’d be an Ohio Bobcat. He walked on, joining Ohio’s cross country team. He was raw, but he improved as he made the rolling hills of Athens his newest friend. By the time Craig’s career was over, he was the team’s top runner, a MAC Cross Country runner-up and an individual qualifier to the NCAA championships. His biggest accomplishments lay in front of him, however.

The Internship

Leon graduated in the fall of ’07 with a degree in education, but he decided to stick around Athens in order to pursue a master’s

Craig Leon with one of his heroes, world champion Bernard Lagat. (All photos used with permission of Craig Leon)

degree in athletic administration in the College of Health and Human Services, as well as help out coaching OU track.

Leon also applied for and won an internship at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon thanks in large part to OU alumnus Mike Young, a sport scientist with USA Track & Field. Leon’s responsibility was to film all the action at Hayward Field, so the athletes and their coaches could go back and study their mechanics frame by frame.

Leon was in a lame-duck phase in his running career at the time. He was still running but not training for anything. He was at the point in his life where he had to decide if he was going to run professionally. The internship helped him make a decision that would shape the course of his life.

“Being out there re-energized me,” he said. “It was the turning point. It made me decide I wanted to do this. Had I not done this (taken the internship) I do not think I would still be running.”

Leon met the athletes he idolized on this field. Just two years later, coincidentally, he would be a champion on this same field and would call these athletes some of his best friends.

Still the Boy Who Wanted Dairy Queen

To pursue his dream, Leon didn’t have to watch his diet.

“I’m like a garbage disposal,” he said. “Actually travel portions aren’t big enough for me and I’m not going to pay for two dinners. There are some runners that literally count the number of calories they eat, I tell people I’m on a see-food diet, I see food, I eat it.”

While he does not sacrifice on food, he sacrifices a lot socially.

“I’m at the point of my life where I’d love to go out with my friends and live it up,” Leon said. “As a runner you’re so reliant on your body, you can’t really abuse it, like say a golfer.”

The sacrifices are ultimately worth it.

“I have traveled to 40 of the 50 states in the last 8 months,” said Leon, who answered this question in the heart of Piccadilly Circus in London.”It’s a pretty sweet gig.”

Marathon Man

When Leon arrived at Ohio University, he had never run for 60 straight minutes in his life. He had a successful collegiate career running times between 23 and 27 minutes. As a pro, however, he decided to focus on the marathon.

Craig Leon running for Ohio University. (All photos used with permission of Craig Leon)

“Ultimately, the marathon is where I’m going to have my most success,” he said. “There are about 5 or 6 guys who have separated themselves, but then the difference between 8 and 40 isn’t much. If we were going to run a 5k on that track I wouldn’t even be in that top 40.”

Leon is admittedly not a world-class sprinter, but he makes up for it by honing the skills that the best marathons need to be elite, skills that have little to do with your athleticism. The key skill is patience, he said.

“Patience in training (because) you won’t see return on investment tomorrow. It will be months, years. Patience even in the race (because) it’s a 26 mile race. If you get too excited, too early, you can really get yourself in trouble the last three or four miles. There is a certain blue-collar toughness, running twice a day, running twice a day on Christmas, running twice a day on Thanksgiving, I also think there is this element of confidence, a belief that you can push your body farther than maybe it would go. I don’t think we were put on this Earth to run as hard as we can for 26 miles. I feel awful for 10 days after it. It hurts to walk.”

Enjoying Running

Growing up playing basketball, Leon understood that the only way you get better at running is through practice. Now, he mixes speed and strength training into his regimen, but at the end of the day there is only one way to improve as a runner.

“When you go to the gym to play basketball and you work on your dribbling, shooting, different drills,” he said. “With running, you go running. There is not another way to become a better runner than to go running, so you have to find a way to make it fun.”

Most people cannot wrap their heads around running for fun. Leon somehow makes a career off of it.  Competing and goal setting are the only ways to enjoy it.

“You’re going to have days where it’s not fun, but every once in awhile you get these runs that just bring you back, whether it be a nice day or if it’s a crappy day and you make it through it and it’s not that bad,” he said. “The thing for me with running is, this is what my next big goal is and knowing that every little thing I do from now until that time whether it be a month, three months, six months, a year, working toward that goal and makes it so much more meaningful and fun for me.”

Minnesota and the Olympic Trials

After Leon realized he was just four minutes away from qualifying for the Olympic trials, he set that as his next goal. He attempted to do that at the 2010 USA Marathon Championships, held in Minneapolis.  To accomplish that goal, Leon needed to run under 2:19:00 or finish in the top 10.

“At mile 25, I was in 10th place and I knew no one was catching me and that I was way ahead of the time I needed,” he said. “For a mile I got to truly soak in what I did. It’s very rare in any sport where can you soak in what you have just accomplished and all the work you put in as you’re doing it.”

Next up for Leon was the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, Texas, where he finished 26 of 121 racers, 26 of which did not finish. Leon ran a time of 2:15:42, almost three full minutes faster than his time in Minneapolis. Oddly enough, that same time would have placed him 22 at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

What’s Next?

When just three men can qualify to run the marathon each Olympics, and the Olympics come around just once every four years, Leon has to wonder what will define his career.

“If I stopped running today, and asked myself from where I started would I ever accomplish this much I’d say no, but I know I can do so much more,” he said. “There are certain things I think about that are top things. I want to have top-10 finishes in the major marathons. I’m doing Chicago in the fall or the Boston marathon or the NYC marathon and the US championships. And at the end of the day, I don’t know how I will quantify, but those are the races that are important to me. And if I can continue to do well with that, and I like to think I can continually improve, and as long as I see that improvement over the last few years, then I’ll say hey you did it right, and you had fun.”