Chasing Finish Lines, Overcoming Adversity, and Contending for Boston
When Craig Leon crossed the 2013 Boston Marathon finish line, he was having the best run of his life. But hours later, tragedy struck—making that race unforgettable for every runner in the world. Today, Leon shares what he learned from this experience. From overcoming adversity, to the importance of chasing finish lines, and the discipline required to climb the ladder to success, discover why Craig Leon is ready for the next race to begin.
Meet Craig Leon
Craig Leon finished 10th at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Placing third among American runners, he had a PR of 2:14.38. Based out of Eugene, Ore., Leon placed 26th at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
A walk-on to the Ohio University track team as a freshman in 2003, Leon later qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2007.
“I RUN FOR THE FINISH LINE.”
On your personal website and blog, you share your running story—complete with a list of life lessons. What life lesson are you learning now as you prepare for the Boston Marathon?
Given everything that happened last year at the Boston Marathon, I think the life lesson is our ability to overcome adversity. The people that are running this year—especially those that were there last year—really feel like they are doing it for a bigger reason than themselves. We want to show the world that we are fine. We are coming back and doing this bigger and better than ever before.
The BAA recognized that and opened up more spots than normal. So there will be more runners. And I think they gave an opportunity for anyone who wasn’t able to finish to come back and finish this year. There is that Boston Strong feeling for everyone to come back, overcome what happened last year, and cross that finish line. It’s definitely a special year.
If you think about it, people run for different reasons: family members, charities, and other things. It’s about finishing what you started. I think it’s going to be really emotional for them to say, “It may have taken a full year, but I’ll finish the race.” I think that is the life lesson that a lot of people are focusing on. We will finish that race.
I’ve always appreciated one thing about running—that anybody can do it. You don’t have to fit a mold. If you want to play professional basketball, you generally have to be 6’5”. But with running, you can be anywhere in the world and all you need is a pair of running shoes. It’s very inclusive. Running is something that unites people. So for something like that bombing to happen, it felt really weird. Everyone was shocked and didn’t understand why this would happen. It affected so many people and not just here in the U.S. but internationally as well, because Boston is such a big international race. It felt like it could have happened anywhere at any event. So people felt vulnerable.
Last year you had a one-minute PR and finished 10th overall. Tell us about that experience.
You couldn’t have scripted a better race for me that morning. It was the race people dream of having. And running my best race on the biggest stage was incredible. As I got closer to the city, the crowds just kept growing and growing. I remember finishing and thinking, “Gosh, that was the most fun I have ever had running.”
All the hard work that I put into it for months—and years, really—paid off. And then to have such a tragedy happen in the afternoon, I struggled with that. I will always remember the 2013 Boston Marathon.
What goals do you have for this year’s race?
I think every runner looks to improve on what they’ve done before. That is where I start. Every time I am building up for a big race, I think back to what I have done in the past. And then I say, “I want to try and raise the bar.” I’ll go and try to run faster.
When you get to that level where you are competing for those top spots, it’s interesting. This year I could potentially run faster and finish lower or run faster and finish higher. But I want to be competitive. I want to put myself into the race and give myself a shot—and potentially finish in the Top 10 again. The main goal for me is to continually improve on my time.
From your perspective, how is Boston different from other marathons?
It’s the pinnacle for any marathon runner because there are the qualifying standards. It is the Olympics for the general running population. They are judging themselves against those qualifying standards and trying to reach their goals. That is part of what makes Boston special. It is kind of this selective, exclusive race.
On top of that, I can’t think of any other marathon that is run on a Monday. It’s run on Patriot’s Day—a holiday. There is no work, no school. The city and the region come out and support that race. I mean that is a big deal. If you aren’t running that race, you are watching that race.
The crowd support makes it special and the history behind it—it’s one of the oldest marathons in the world. This is the 118th year. And the course is challenging. I think people spend a lot of time, once they’ve qualified, preparing for that specific course. It’s a hilly course. I think all these things make it such a unique race atmosphere that you just can’t get anywhere else. It is the race as runners you want to run.
What is your motivation for running?
I run for the finish line. A finish line can be defined as the actual finish line at the end of a race, or an end point to your everyday run. It’s about reaching our goals—and then setting new ones. But you are always chasing something. Always chasing that finish line. It can be simply getting out the door that day and going for a run, or something as big as finishing the Boston Marathon.
What keeps me coming back and wanting to chase after that goal is the feeling you get when you cross the finish line. When I think about why I run, it’s always to test myself. I want to continually improve.
“When I think about why I run, it’s always to test myself. I want to continually improve.”
Tell us about running in Eugene. What does that community offer runners?
Moving to Eugene changed everything for me. It is a community that is very passionate about running and track and field in general. There are very few places in the U.S., or in the world, where you would go down to the grocery store and the person at the check-out lane asks you about your training. It’s fun to be in that environment.
I feel like I have all the resources there that I need. The weather is very ideal. It’s pretty temperate through the year—never super cold or super hot. I grew up in Ohio where I was a big fish in a small pond. In Eugene, I am a small fish in a big pond. I am surrounded by some of the best runners in the world. It only motivates and inspires me to continue to work hard.
Living in such an active community as an elite runner, do you find it easier to maintain the strict nutrition and recovery requirements demanded for the marathon?
Before Eugene, I was living in a college town where I was really the only one that was trying to do what I was trying to do. And it wasn’t just any college town—Ohio University is always ranked in the top 10 party schools. It was very socially active. There weren’t any weekends—it was a party all week long. That lifestyle changed when I moved out to Eugene. My nutrition is definitely different than it was four years ago.
I still love desserts and chocolate, but for six weeks before a marathon I will go cold turkey and stay away from the sugars. I have definitely been more cognizant of what I eat. Certainly it’s tough. I’m still young and most of my friends that aren’t runners want to go out to happy hour after work. And I want to join them. But there is just this discipline you have to have, especially in marathon, because the margin for error is so small.
When you started running, did you see yourself getting this far?
I grew up in a small town in Ohio. My first year in middle school, I didn’t even know what cross country was. My mom recommended that I do something in the fall to get involved. They didn’t have a golf team—or I would have played golf—but there was cross country.
Our very first practice, our coach had us run two miles. He dropped us off at the park and we started running. He didn’t tell us beforehand that we would finish at the Dairy Queen, which was two miles. He bought everyone ice cream that day. So I thought this cross country team is pretty awesome. You just get to run and then you get ice cream all the time. But that was the only time he bought ice cream the whole year. But it was smart of him—because it at least got someone like myself to come back.
Starting from that point in middle school, there is no way—not even in college—I would have thought I’d be running professionally. Now, I work with youth in Eugene and back in Ohio because I think it’s important for them to see that everybody has to start somewhere. I promise that if you stick with it you’ll see improvement. Running is one of those sports that takes a lot of work. But the more work you put into it the more you get out of it. And that applies to everyone whether you’re trying to win the Boston Marathon or just to finish the thing. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to start somewhere and I guarantee you’ll see an improvement in your fitness as you move along.
People are shocked when I share my story sometimes. They just assume that if you’re good now you’ve always been good. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been a steady progression. I’ve seen improvement basically every year. So as long as I see improvement I will continue to pursue this as a profession.
As told to Erica Colvin, ProForm writer