EUGENE, Oregon — There are times when Van Wert native Craig Leon has to pinch himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming.
During his high school days at Van Wert, Leon was a solid runner who strived to be near the lead pack in both cross country and track. He then walked-on at Ohio University, where he eventually became a frontrunner for the Bobcats, but was never a conference champion or All-American.
Now, 31, he finds himself running nearly stride-for-stride with some of the best runners in the world.
Most recently, at the New York City Marathon (Nov. 1), Leon ran with the lead pack for the majority of the 26.2-mile course, finishing eighth overall in a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 16 seconds. He was the second American to cross the finish line at New York.
“Sometimes I think back about how I couldn’t finish in the top 12 in the Division II (high school) state meet,” Leon said. “Then, I go to Ohio University as a walk-on. Now, I can run with some of the best.”
Leon said the early pace at New York worked in his favor.
“I think the way the race played out (slower pace, early on), it gave me a chance to compete,” Leon said about New York. “To be able to run with these guys for 16, 17, 18 miles, was such a thrill. The one thing I take from New York is that I got sick weeks before the race and didn’t train the way I wanted, but was still able to compete at a high level. So, I was happy at the way I ran. I always want to give myself a chance with about 10k to go. At New York, I thought I might be able to get a couple more (runners down the stretch), but I’m still happy at the way I ran.”
Leon has recorded several stellar performances in the marathon.
His all-time personal best is 2:13:52, at the 2013 Chicago Marathon, where he finished 13th overall.
At the 2013 Boston Marathon – the year of the terrorist bombings – Leon finished 10th overall in 2:14:38. In 2013, Leon was ranked the 10th fastest American marathoner.
On July 25th of this year, Leon competed at the Pan American Games, where he finished fifth in 2:19:26.
This coming Feb. 13, Leon will be competing at the U.S Olympic Trials in Los Angeles, in hopes of competing in the 2016 Olympic Marathon in Rio de Janeiro. This will be his second attempt at making the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon. In 2012, Leon finished 26th at the Olympic Trials in Houston with a time of 2:15:42.
“The top three (finishers at the trials) get to go (to the Olympics),” Leon said. “There are like 150 runners, but I think there are probably 20-25 guys who have a really good shot. My ‘A goal’, of course, is to make it. My ‘B goal’ is to be in the top 10 of the race. I would be happy to finish like in the top 10 with a personal-best time.
“What I like about the trials – and like in New York – there are no rabbits (pacers). … You just go out and race. I feel like since I’ve been on a big stage – Boston, New York, Chicago – that I’m prepared. For me, I just want to have a shot in the last 10k.”
After enjoying early success in the marathon, Leon decided to move to Eugene, Oregon, in 2011, where he lives, works and trains.
In preparation for the upcoming trials, Leon will be upping his training.
“Right now, I’m running 120-130 (miles) per week. I’ll keep it up there, and I’ll probably get one or two higher-mileage weeks,” he said.
When it comes to distance running, Leon points to his demeanor as one of his biggest assets.
“I think maybe my personality helps. I’m pretty even keel. … I don’t get too high or get too low. I also think the fact that I played other sports and that I come from a family of coaches, helps too,” he said.
The former Van Wert and Ohio University standout has posted impressive finishes in different distances as well. His personal best in the half marathon is 1:04.01. Leon’s best time in the 5,000 meters is 14:23. In the 10,000 meters, he’s clocked a 29:49.
Leon said running will always be a huge part of his life. However, he does realize the “window for success” will not always be there.
“There’s definitely an end in sight, but I don’t know when that is. I don’t necessarily enjoy the training, but I do enjoy the racing. I’ll probably quit when I get to the point when I don’t get that same kind of high. I still want to be active when I get to be 50. So, who knows how long I will compete,” he said.