When Iram Leon crossed the finish line of the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont last month, he did what plenty of other winners do: He threw up his arms, tipped back his head and let out a victory whoop.
But this win was different.
The Austin runner won the 26.2-mile race while pushing his 6-year-old daughter Kiana in a stroller. It’s a memory he hopes she’ll remember long after he’s gone.
Leon, 32, has brain cancer, and doctors have told him they’re just hoping he sees his 40th birthday.
Next Sunday, he’ll race through downtown Austin in the Statesman Capitol 10,000. When he passes the crowds lining the street, most will only notice his fleet feet; they won’t realize he’s carrying a death sentence as he races up Congress Avenue, around the Capitol and west up the hills of Enfield Road. (Strollers aren’t allowed in the race, so Kiana won’t be along this time.)
Leon was born in Mexico and moved to South Texas as a child. He ran track in high school, and cross country in college. He quit but picked up running again years later after gaining 35 pounds. He got back into shape and ran his first marathon in 2010.
Then, that November, Leon collapsed at a birthday party. A biopsy a few days later showed diffused astrocytoma. A marble-sized tumor is entwined in the memory and language hub of his brain and has invisible “tentacles” that even doctors can’t detect. While an MRI in March showed the tumor is not visibly growing, the average survival time for the disease is four years. Only a third of patients live five years after diagnosis.
Leon started to fall apart. Running, he says, held him together. “For all my joking around, running is my therapy,” he says.
Leon’s marriage broke up. He gathered his friends close, spoke with counselors and sat with ministers. “I told them ‘If I didn’t have a kid, I’d tell you all to go to hell and I’d go climb in the Grand Canyon and die when I die.’”
Leon needed surgery, but he also needed to run. He asked his doctors if he could push the procedure back a month so he could run the Livestrong Austin Marathon in February 2011. They agreed, and Leon finished in a personal record time of 3 hours, 7 minutes and 34 seconds — enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which he later ran.
A 6-inch, horseshoe-shaped scar curls around the left side of Leon’s head. The cancer has affected his memory. Sometimes he can’t recognize faces. Other times he mixes up words. His short-term memory is spotty. He has to carefully study route maps before he heads out with his running group. Occasionally, he suffers a seizure.
Last May, after making several errors on the stand, he had to quit his job as a juvenile probation officer, which he’d held for six-and-a-half years. He can’t drive a car, so he bicycles or gets rides wherever he goes.
He takes anti-seizure medicine twice a day, and more on days when he races. The medicine makes him nauseous. He doesn’t care. Running puts him in a place where he can “zone out and feel good,” he says. “I always feel happy and pumped up when I finish a run.”
Once, he blacked out during a run. The last thing he did before collapsing was pause his GPS monitor, which calculates pace and distance. A fellow runner gave him a T-shirt that says, “If I collapse, please pause my Garmin.” Now he runs only if someone comes along, or is tracking him live via GPS.
“Everyone’s aware of what he’s going through; everyone’s very supportive,” says Summer Smith, president of the Austin Runners Club. She is in the same running group as Leon. “There’s always someone next to him.”
They give him rides; they make sure he never runs alone. And they treat him like anyone else.
“He is more than a cancer patient to us,” Smith says. “He is our friend, running partner, motivator, friendly competition on the track and in the hills, and competition on race day. I don’t think Iram would want it any other way.”
Somehow, Leon has stayed near the top of his running game. He recently broke a 5-minute mile for the first time since high school. He won the stroller division of the Turkey Trot in 2012, and the cancer survivor division of the Livestrong Austin Marathon in 2012 and 2013.
He’s also participating in a medical study at Duke University. He plans to donate his brain to science when he dies.
“I’m a poker player,” he says. “You play the odds.”
Leon registered just nine days before the Gusher Marathon and used a borrowed stroller for the race. He won the race outright, but modestly points out it was the slowest winning time ever for the event. Blame that on stiff winds, warm temperatures and high humidity.
Leon says he just wanted to run a marathon with his daughter, who lives mainly with him. He didn’t even realize he was leading until the second of two loops on the course, which overlapped with the half marathon race. Kiana spent the time napping, singing and asking questions like, “When are we going to start going faster?”
“I never thought I would win a marathon period, much less with a stroller,” he says. “The honest truth is I just wanted to run a marathon with Kiana. If she wasn’t into it, I wouldn’t have done it.”
At home, a row of medals, one for each race that Leon has finished while pushing her in a stroller, hangs from the bunk beds in Kiana’s pink-painted bedroom.
“My daddy always says I won and he got second,” the kindergartner says. “But I wasn’t even running.”
Today, Leon’s cousin lives at his home, too, so Kiana won’t be alone if her father has a seizure.
Organizers of the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont say Leon’s win has inspired the community, which has one of the highest obesity rankings in the state. That meshes well with their purpose in creating the race in the first place.
“We did not start a marathon here because it would be a neat place to have a run,” says Amy James, co-director of the Gusher Marathon. “We started a marathon in Beaumont because there is a need to give people a goal to get outside and run … and when you have someone like Iram, who has cancer and he has a stroller and he has 20-plus mile per hour wind gusts, it strips you of excuses. What we’re seeing in this town is a lot of ‘I can’ts’ turning into ‘I cans.’”
After his win, race organizers raised money to get Leon his own running stroller. They also started a scholarship fund for Kiana. So far, they’ve raised nearly $12,000. (To donate go to www.donationto.com/Sports-Society-Fund-for-Iram-Leon.)
Back at home, Leon thinks about his mortality daily. He takes Kiana to the track when he works out, and appreciates every moment he has with her.
“I’ll take the losses if this is the cost — getting to hang out with my kid some more,” he says.
“There may come a day when I can’t keep running, but until then I’ll keep going. We’re all going to die. I’m just trying to do some living.”