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Craig Leon: An Untraditional Path to Professional Road Racing

Craig Leon returns to the Big Apple a year after placing eighth overall and second among Americans in his TCS New York City Marathon debut, having finished his fourth marathon of 2015 in 2:15:16, just behind Meb Keflezighi.

“It was a bit of a surprise for me,” Leon said. “I didn’t have a great build-up last year, so I went into the race feeling I was underprepared. But with each mile, I gained a little bit more confidence, and by the end in Manhattan, I started to get excited and thought, ‘I can do pretty well in this thing.’”

On Sunday, November 6, he’ll be back to race the five-borough course again—this time with all his key performance indicators right where they should be. A collegiate walk-on from small-town Ohio who dropped everything to move to Eugene, OR, America’s running capital, Leon is finding that his unconventional path to professional road racing is finally starting to pay off.

Leon didn’t see competitive running in his future until his senior year of high school. He walked on to the cross country and track teams at Ohio University, where he became an NCAA Cross Country Championships qualifier.

“It’s a nontraditional path I took, certainly,” Leon said. “What flipped the switch for me was having a taste of the marathon.”

In 2009, at age 25, Leon experienced the New York City Marathon from the sidelines, watching and cheering as a spectator. The next year, he found himself breaking the tape at the Eugene Marathon, and that’s when he really began to put the time and effort into racing as a professional.

In 2010, Leon placed 10th at the USA Marathon Championships, running an Olympic Trials–qualifying time of 2:18:29. At that point, he decided it was all or nothing. He quit his job, packed up his bags, and moved to Eugene, where he still lives today.

Now age 32, he’s recorded top-10 finishes at the 2013 Boston Marathon (10th, 2:14:38) and 2015 Pan American Games Marathon (5th, 2:19:34), and a personal best at the 2013 Bank of America Chicago Marathon (13th, 2:13:52), all while working as the MBA Program Manager for the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. He also competed at February’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials in Los Angeles.

It’s already been a surprisingly pronounced year for U.S. men’s long-distance racers, highlighted by Galen Rupp’s bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Marathon, and with a group that features 12 competitors from the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, the men’s professional runner field at the TCS New York City Marathon certainly won’t disappoint.

“U.S. marathoning is extremely deep right now,” Leon said. “If you look at how the U.S. team performed in Rio this summer, you see them up there competing for medals. All of us take a lot of pride in that—not just the ones who were there, but all of us who were back home watching on TV who are part of a U.S. running team right now.”

Leon is eager for that pride to grow in the Big Apple.

At this year’s marathon, he will be wearing a small electronic device that collects his biometric performance data. This data will be analyzed in real time and incorporated into the marathon broadcast and shared across other platforms. New York Road Runners has partnered with Tata Consultancy Services on this new initiative, which will focus on heart rate, breathing rate, cadence, and pace, as well as the relative conditions of the course and the environment.

“It’s hard to really put into words what New York City means for marathon runners,” Leon said. “You just get that rock-star treatment. When you show up on race day, the crowd support you get is unrivaled. Whether it’s in sports, culture, entertainment, or fashion, New York is arguably the capital of the world, so it’s also the biggest stage for running.”

By Stuart Lieberman

GET YOUR STORIES ON. Read more inspiring stories from runners chronicling their journeys to the TCS New York City Marathon starting line.

TUNE IN. The 2016 TCS New York City Marathon will be televised live on Sunday, November 6, on WABC-TV, Channel 7 in the New York tri-state area from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET, and for the rest of the nation on ESPN2 from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET.