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Father And Daughter, Enjoying The Ride

Inspired Texan Iram Leon keeps on running despite diagnosis.

Inspired Texan Iram Leon keeps on running despite diagnosis.

Iram Leon didn’t know he was winning the Gusher Marathon on March 9 in Beaumont, Texas, until he was past the halfway point. A race official on a bike came up alongside him and revealed that he was indeed in front.

“I knew the pressure was on then,” laughs Leon, who was shocked to hear he was leading the race.

That day was marked by 87 percent humidity and 20 mile per hour winds — far from ideal race conditions. It wasn’t the adverse weather that made the 32-year-old’s eventual 3:07:35 win remarkable, however. Rather, it was the fact that he did it pushing his 6-year-old daughter, Kiana, in a running stroller, all while managing terminal brain cancer.

Leon’s diagnosis came the day after one of the best hard workouts of his life. While working as a juvenile probation officer in 2009, Leon was taking a lunch break when the first seizure began. After some poking and prodding, doctors diagnosed him with a Grade 2 Diffuse Astrocytoma in his left temporal lobe. Having put in months of training for the 2011 Livestrong Marathon in his hometown of Austin, the doctors acquiesced when he asked if surgery could be delayed five weeks in order for him to complete the race. He ran that race and lowered his PR to 3:07:34, qualifying for the Boston Marathon in the process.

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A few days later, he underwent surgery to remove much of the brain tumor. While the procedure resulted in some negative effects to his language abilities and memory, he managed to score in the 99th percentile on an IQ test during a post-surgical psychological evaluation. Most of his faculties intact, the prognosis still wasn’t good. The best doctors could offer him was the hope he’d make it to 40.

Leon had long been a runner, running the 400, 800 and 4×400-meter relay in high school and cross country in college, but he didn’t start running with his daughter until after his diagnosis. Now 6 years old and about 50 pounds, she accompanies Leon during much of his training and racing, which, before the Gusher Marathon, typically ranged from 5K to 20 miles. They chit-chat, wave at the crowds, and listen to Disney music on his iPhone speaker as they run and roll along.

“We tried other activities, like soccer, but we worried about my head and we wanted to find something she could take an active role in,” he said. “She liked running right away.”

Medals hang off Kiana’s top bunk, marking the finish lines she has crossed with her dad. Winning the Gusher Marathon counts as the highlight so far. Kiana’s presence clearly made a difference for Leon, as he missed besting his sans-stroller PR by just one second.

“It’s a lot more fun with her,” he says. “Mentally it’s just easier.”

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As Leon continues to train with Kiana, she now is able to ditch the stroller for shorter races and do some running alongside her dad. Having just finished their first official family mile side-by-side this spring, the running gene appears to run in the family. Regardless of whether Kiana is rolling in front or running alongside, Leon’s goal is pretty clear.

“I want her to be there so we can share as much as we can in the time that we have,” he says.

Amid the running successes, Leon’s loss of short-term memory and spatial orientation means he can’t drive and was forced to step down from his job as a juvenile probation officer in Travis County, Texas, a position he had held for almost seven years. Understandably, he’s falling into deep debt. To help pitch in, the organizers of the Gusher Marathon have started a scholarship fund for Kiana.

In the meantime, Leon works to improve his memory and regain focus. Running, however, continues to be his greatest therapy, as well as the best time spent with his daughter.

“The cancer stuff is out of my control, but with running there are mile markers and a finish line and I have some say in when and how I cross it,” he says. “With running you just keep going as long as you can.”

This piece first appeared in the June 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.