The Underdog: An Unlikely Olympic Trials Contender
By: Mizuno Race Team Member, Craig Leon
In the coming days, I will toe the starting line at the 2016 US Olympic Trials, the 14th marathon of my career. Somewhere between 2012 and now, I’ve gone from inexperienced, newbie to marathon veteran. Four years ago, the Trials was truly my first real marathon and my expectations leading into that race are vastly different than the ones I have for Feb. 13th. Since 2012, I have gone on to race really well on some of the biggest marathon stages – 8th place at the New York City Marathon, 10th place at the Boston Marathon, 13th place at the Chicago Marathon. Seeing those results, it’s sometimes hard to remember how far I have truly come.
Let me take you back 10 years ago to 2006. I was a junior in college, running track and cross country at Ohio University. As a freshman walk-on, I was barely good enough to make the roster, but found myself steadily improving over the course of my first 3 years of cross country while at OU and was able to convince my coach that I should red-shirt the next 3 seasons of indoor and outdoor track and cross country to focus on building my mileage and allowing my body another year to mature. I had this crazy idea that with an extra year of eligibility, I could contend for a conference title and maybe even make an NCAA Championship. I say it was a crazy idea because it really was – I had never even finished in the top-10 of my conference meet and was so far buried in the descending order list for any NCAA Championship meet for any sane person to consider that a realistic goal. The crazy plan ultimately worked, as I finished runner-up in both cross country and the 10,000m in the Mid-American Conference that year and also qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championship meet.
But 10 years ago, if you were to have asked a 21-year me if I would still be running today – let alone competing for a chance to make an Olympic team – the answer would have been a resounding no. To be brutally honest, I just wasn’t that good. My fastest collegiate 10k time would have gotten me lapped by my peers and there wasn’t a hint of indication that there was any sort of opportunity to pursue running professionally for someone like myself.
It’s probably why I view these big races differently than many of my competitors. You see, I’m not really supposed to be here. I shouldn’t actually still be doing this. College walk-ons don’t finish top-10 in World Major Marathons. I feel like I’ve already won the running lottery, and that allows me to race with such freedom.
Sure, my story is unique – not everyone goes on to have the same sort of successes. But, there are valuable lessons to be learned: paving your own path, working through a long-term plan, and defining your own success.
It’s been a decade-long process. Long before becoming the person that sits here today, there was just a passionate boy who was just trying to be faster than he ever was before. And really, 10 years later, the goal hasn’t changed. On Feb. 13th, I hope to be a faster, better version of myself.
Craig’s mantra is “Ohio rasied, Oregon refined.” This long distance runner for the Mizuno race team has risen from the ranks of college walk-on, to top ten finisher at the Boston Marathon. Boasting a marathon PR of 2:13:52, this former Ohio University Bobcat currently trains under former Olympian Ian Dobson and Team Run Eugene. Most recently, Leon was the top-finishing American in the men’s marathon at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.