Elite Marathoner With a Day Job

Elite Marathoner with a Day Job
Craig Leon relies on a support team, a weekly meal plan, and a good travel pillow to keep up with his life.

If you’re going to work a full-time job, compete at the highest levels, and be successful at both, elite US athlete Craig Leon has some advice: Every once in awhile you have to run a little bit less. And you have to be comfortable with that.

That might mean you skip an afternoon workout occasionally. Or you cut a run short. Or your intervals are five percent slower than you wanted them to be.

“Runners are often obsessive compulsive, and if they miss some kilometres, that’s a setback,” Leon said. “It’s just a run. It’s not the end of the world. Life goes on. You have to have the mindset that you do what you can, and that’s okay.”

Leon, 32, has a personal best in the marathon of 2:13:52, which he ran in 2013 in Chicago. In November at the New York City Marathon, he was 11th overall – the sixth American – in 2:17:14. He also represented the US at the Pan-American Games in 2015 in Toronto, where he finished fifth.

That’s his weekend work. Monday through Friday, he heads to his job at the University of Oregon, where he’s the MBA program manager for the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. His responsibilities include everything from teaching, advising and recruiting students to cultivating industry contacts and helping forge the strategic vision for the program. In addition, he teaches an undergraduate sports marketing class twice a week (35 students, no teaching assistants).

During the heart of training for New York – when he was trying to maintain 192-kilometre weeks – Leon was in Asia for two weeks with a group of MBAs. “The infrastructure for training as we know it is not there in Asia,” Leon said. “Drivers are crazy, there are no bike paths. I should wear a GoPro in Beijing. I’m amazed I haven’t been hit by anything yet while training. But you do what you can do.”

When he’s home in Eugene, Leon is out the door for his first run – 14 to 20 kilometres including any hard workouts – between 6 and 6:30 am. During the winter, that means it’s dark when he leaves and often just getting light as he returns.

After grabbing a bowl of cereal, a bagel or reheating some French toast he prepped over the weekend, he gets to the office at about 8:30 am. Then he goes through a full day of teaching and meetings with students before his second run of the day, usually 10K at about 5:30 pm or 6 pm. Throw in time for grading and prepping classes on the weekends, and his work hours during the school year easily total 50 per week.

Even though he does the bulk of his running alone – the other elite runners living in Eugene don’t want to get up as early as he does, Leon quips – the morning workout is when he gets his head on straight for everything that’s happening later in the day. “I’m a morning person, for sure,” he said. “It’s the best part of my day.”

Here are his six other tips for finding success in running and work:

Get a routine dialed in. 
Leon is in bed most nights between 10 and 10:30 and up around 5:30. He runs, works, runs again and repeats the cycle, a routine “like Groundhog’s Day,” he said. “If there was much more variation, I’d struggle.”

Assemble a team of advisors. 
Because of his work schedule, Leon can’t train with a group. He’s largely self-coached, but he relies on a few trusted advisors for training ideas. They include Mitch Bentley, his uni coach at the University of Ohio, and Ian Dobson, who was an Olympian in the 5000 metres in 2008. Leon also consults with three or four other people in town who know running. “They’re average runners, but they’re smart,” he said.

Plan ahead.
On Sunday, Leon and his girlfriend plan their meals for the week, and when they cook, they always make extra to have leftovers on hand. The last thing he wants to do after his second run of the day is figure out what to eat.

Leon also keeps running clothes in his office and has devoted a room in his house to medicine balls, resistance bands, weights and a Bosu ball. If he finds himself with unexpected pockets of time, he can do a few extra KMs or get a strength circuit in.

Pick your boss carefully. 
This one is pure luck, sure, but Leon counts himself fortunate to have a boss who understands – and encourages – his running. “Beyond my parents and my girlfriend, she’s my best cheerleader,” he said. He can get to the office a few minutes later on Tuesday and Friday mornings, which allows him time to get longer workouts in. And his coworkers in the sports marketing program understand what he’s trying to do with his running. “It’s so fun to have that support,” he said.

Travel smart. 
Leon wears compression socks on airplanes and books aisle seats so he can stand up and stretch. He also takes sleeping seriously, with a blindfold and a good travel pillow.

Appreciate the journey. 
He doesn’t have a five-year plan for running, Leon said, although he feels certain he’ll stop competitive running by the end of the next Olympic year, 2020. For now, he feels fortunate for the opportunities he’s had. Even if the training is sometimes a struggle, the race-day fire remains. “I know the feeling I get standing on the starting line of a race like the New York City Marathon,” he said, “and I won’t be able to duplicate that in any other aspect of my life.”


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