The Van Wert County Courthouse

Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018

Former Cougar now professional runner

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

Former Van Wert High School track and cross country runner Craig Leon is a living testament to the power of hard work and a positive attitude to triumph over adversity.

Leon talked about his career as a professional marathon runner at the Van Wert Rotary Club meeting on Tuesday.

Professional runner Craig Leon speaks at Van Wert Rotary Club on Tuesday. (Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent)

Professional marathoner Craig Leon speaks at Van Wert Rotary Club on Tuesday. (Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent)

Calling himself a “late bloomer,” Leon noted that, while he was a competent runner for the Cougar track and cross country teams, he didn’t have the right stuff then to earn a running scholarship at his college of choice: Ohio University, upon graduating from high school.

Fortunately for Leon, OU got a new running coach, Mitch Bentley, prior to his freshman year who gave the former Cougar the go-ahead as a walk-on for the school’s cross country and track programs.

“He said, ‘You want to walk on? Sure, go ahead,’” Leon said of Bentley’s response.

The 2003 VWHS grad said he lived to rue that decision as he said he went through the “worst athletic experience of his life” as, for the first time, he ran long distances seven days a week.

Again, while Leon put together an impressive college career, finishing as a Mid-American Conference cross country runner-up and qualifying as an individual for the NCAA national championships — two things extremely rare for a college walk-on — he still wasn’t considered a top-rank college runner. For one thing, he didn’t win a conference championship while in college and didn’t earn All-American status.

Still, Leon is a guy who likes to set ever-higher goals, and this time he went for the top: to be a professional marathon runner.

On the face of it, the goal seemed an especially lofty one: primarily because Leon, who had run shorter races, including half-marathons while in grad school, had yet to run a full marathon race and had no clue how to train to run the 26.2 miles.

His college career also wasn’t impressive enough to earn him a professional running contract.

“Realistically … if you’re not in the top 10 of the NCAAs, you don’t have a contract waiting for you at the end of your college career, and so, if you want to continue running it’s up to you to make it work,” Leon told the Rotary audience.

Leon, who spent Monday speaking to elementary students at Van Wert and Tuesday morning at Lincolnview Elementary, said he “make it work” for a couple of years, working several jobs and training hard to find a key to running the longer distance.

The training worked and Leon won his first-ever marathon in Eugene, Oregon, the “running capital of the U.S.” and the city he now calls home. He also qualified for the 2010 Olympic marathon trials with a 10th place finish.

While Leon was starting to enjoy running the longer distance, he was also finding it hard to juggle work and the intensive training regime. Taking a risk, he quit his jobs and moved to Eugene in 2011.

Since then, he has made significant progress, finishing in the top 10 American marathoners in 2013 and was 15th last year. His banner year was 2013, when he became only the second American in a decade to have two top-15 finishes, including a 10th-place finish at the 2013 Boston Marathon and a top-15 finish at the Chicago Marathon.

“It’s what I love about running, this constant evolution, and this chance to kind of get better,” Leon said, adding that to really grow as a runner, he had to learn to get out of his comfort zone.

Leon talked particularly of the 2013 Boston Marathon, where terrorist bombs marred the joy he felt at finishing in the top 10 of one of the top marathons in the world. Surprisingly, since the runners who had finished earlier were kept in their hotel to keep them safe, Leon wasn’t aware of what exactly happened at the finish line until late that night.

Later, when he did learn of the tragedy, Leon said it made it hard to actually celebrate one of the greatest days of his running career.

Today, Leon continues to run well, finishing second in last weekend’s Columbus Marathon, for instance, but said he knows at 30, he probably only has a few years left to run professionally.

“It’s just been a fun ride, and, again, I don’t know how long I can do this,” Leon said, “but I will continue to do it as long as I believe that I can get faster and there is a little more in there.”

He also said that it’s important for athletes to believe in themselves, noting, with a smile, “I’m always my biggest fan.”

He stressed, though, that having self-confidence is essential if athletes are to compete successfully.

“When you’re stepping on the line against some of the best athletes in the world, if you don’t believe in yourself it starts and ends right there,” he concluded.

If there’s any one reason why a skinny unimpressive Cougar high school runner now competes each year against the crème de la crème of professional marathon racing, it’s Leon’s belief in his own capabilities.

POSTED: 05/06/15 at 12:17 am. FILED UNDER: News, Sports