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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”