Criag Leon (Photo courtesy of craigleonrunning.com)
By Brian Bassett
Times Bulletin Sports Editor
HOUSTON - On January 14, Van Wert native Craig Leon got a chance to take part in a special and rare opportunity, he raced in the United States Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston for a chance to earn one of three spots on the 2012 US Track and Field Team which will compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Of the 100-plus athletes who ran the race - and 85 who finished - Leon placed 26th with a time of 2:15:42.
"Overall, I'm definitely happy with the time and happy with the place. Going in my goal was to be in the top 30 of the race and to run under 2:16:00, and I was able to accomplish both of them along the way," Leon said. "Anytime you are able to run a PR, by almost three minutes at that. I felt great through 21 miles and was on pace for probably around 2:14:00. At 21 miles I thought maybe I had a chance to break 2:14:00 and really kind of move up in the last couple of miles. Then things really set in with the marathon, the last couple miles were really tough."
Leon said the dynamic of marathon running has changed, and with that comes faster times. That was on display this year in Houston.
"This was the deepest field ever for on Olympic trials marathon race. There's never been as many guys run as fast as what ended up happening. Four years ago if I run a 2:15:00 or run my time of 2:15 and some change, I'm looking at being close to the top ten. Things have changed over the last couple of years, and it's a good thing. It's a good thing that the US is as competitive as it is on a world level. It was fast right from the beginning. The leaders took out hard and kind of set the tone early on that it was going to be a fast race."
Fortunately for all the runners, the weather was in the mid-40's and the sky was clear - a perfect day for a marathon. Leon also applauded the city of Houston for putting on such a quality event.
"Houston put on a great event. It was the first time that the mens and womens trials had been on the same day in the same city at the same time. That's tough to pull off with all the logistics of it. They did a great job - it was an awesome experience," he said.
The most daunting part of running 26.2 miles may be the mental aspect. "You're kind of having this internal conversation with yourself. You're constantly monitoring everything that is going on. Inside you are monitoring your breathing and how you are feeling. Maybe what muscle is starting to hurt here and what muscle is starting to hurt there."Obviously you are kind of focused on what is ahead of you, maybe who is in front of you who looks like they are starting to slow down. Maybe they are starting to hurt a little bit and you can continue to move up. More than anything you're focused on yourself - trying to get the most out of yourself without putting yourself in that danger zone," Leon said.
The 'danger zone,' as Leon described, can be disaster for a marathon runner. "Once you get in that danger zone in a marathon, you go into complete survival mode of just getting one foot in front of the other. I probably got into that mode the last mile. The last mile was definitely the toughest mile I've ever run in my life - for sure."
Leon, who lives and trains in Eugene, Oregon, benefitted from having family who lives in Houston. He said it was a chance for his family from all over the country to meet and celebrate. The athletes were given plenty to do during their down time leading up to the race, such as dinners with guest speakers who have competed in the Olympics in years past.
According to Leon, one of the best parts was getting to see runners from all over who he has gotten to know over the years. "We were able to get together as athletes. We're all pretty good friends, we see each other at races and we race against each other...It's good to kind of catch up and see some friends."
Being only his third marathon, Leon is relatively new to the sport and said he can and will learn from the experience. "I really feel like I got a lot out of the weekend from just a learning standpoint. One of the things I'll do is sit down and make a list, while it's still fresh in my mind, things I would do differently. Not just the race but also things I would do differently leading up to the race itself - some of the preparations for it. Even some little things like who to have around before the race and that kind of thing, in terms of learning. So, hopefully, in four years if I'm lucky enough to get back in this position again I can say, 'okay, that's right, I would like to do it this way this time.'"
Having now had a taste of marathoning at the world level, Leon's drive will only increase to get better. "From a short standpoint, it helps now that I'm a 2:15:00 marathoner, it means a lot going forward in my career. I'm looking forward to getting back into here in the spring and I'm potentially targeting a fall marathon in either Chicago or New York."
Leon said it is important for him to keep running marathons. "I consider myself a marathoner so I want to continue to do one or two a year, just to continue to gain experience. This is still only my third marathon, so I feel like I have a lot of room for improvement, not just from a physical side but mentally as well."
With four years ahead of him to refine his skill, Leon hopes to return for the next Olympic Marathon Trials a better and more prepared runner. "I hope in four years I have a chance. I kind of knew going in that the 20-40 range would probably be what to expect. So, hopefully, four years from now I can be saying I want to be top 10. And at that point, when you put yourself in that top[group], you never know what can happen," he said.
Still only 27-years-old, Leon has plenty of time before he peaks - especially since the top qualifier, Meb Keflezighi, is 36. "I read a fact coming in, that nine of the top 10 fastest qualifying times in the marathon were run by guys who were 30-and-over. So, I'd like to think my best days are still ahead of me. I'm really excited to get back to Oregon and get back to training, and to get back out and race," Leon said.