Iram Leon has checked some of the biggest items off any runner’s bucket list.
He’s run nine marathons, including the Boston Marathon. He’s running faster now, at 33, than he did in college. And last year he won the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, while pushing a stroller.
But this weekend, he says, will top all that.
Leon, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2010, is skipping the Austin Marathon so he can run the Paramount Break-A-Leg 5K alongside — instead of pushing — his 7-year-old daughter, Kiana.
Running as a lifeline
Leon has become something of a fixture on the local race circuit. When race rules permit it, he’s pushing Kiana in a jogging stroller. Almost always, he’s near the front of the pack. He’s fast.
That, in itself, isn’t all that surprising. Until you learn that Leon has brain cancer.
He ran his first marathon in 2010. Nine months later, he collapsed at a birthday party. A biopsy showed diffuse astrocytoma, a type of brain cancer. A marble-sized, octopus-shaped tumor is entwined in the memory and language center of his brain. Doctors say he probably won’t live past 40.
Other than the 6-inch, horseshoe-shaped scar that curves around his head, though, the symptoms of Leon’s cancer aren’t immediately obvious. He forgets words. Sometimes he can’t remember people or faces. He keeps detailed notes of important conversations and fills his smartphone with reminders of appointments.
But the cancer altered everything.
Leon’s life unraveled in the months following the diagnosis. His marriage fell apart. He had to quit his job as a juvenile probation officer.
He can’t drive a car, so he bicycles or gets rides wherever he goes. He takes anti-seizure medicine twice a day.
Running became a lifeline.
“It’s where things feel normal,” he says. “It’s where I’m not a patient.”
Once, he sneaked out of his hospital room to log a few miles. He even delayed brain surgery by a month so he could run the Livestrong Austin Marathon in 2011. He ran a personal best time and qualified for Boston, which he ran in 2012.
Not ‘rocket science’
One day, though, he woke up on the side of the road after blacking out during a run. Now he runs only if someone goes with him or is tracking him live via GPS. A friend lives at his house, too, so Kiana — for whom Leon is the primary caregiver — won’t be alone if her father has a seizure.
The cancer has made Leon realize what is important in life.
“This isn’t rocket science. My doctors and MRI technicians are brilliant guys,” he says. “But what are they keeping you alive for? For me, it’s one foot in front of the other with someone you love.”
For Leon, that means creating happy memories with Kiana.
He walks her home from school most days. Kiana skips along, picking up leaves, feathers and other treasures along the way. At home they sit in front of a glitter-strewn easel, working on art projects. “I just want her to remember that I was there,” he says.
And they run.
“She’s my running partner,” Leon says. “I would much rather do any distance with her than run without her.”
Until now, that’s meant that Kiana rides in the stroller while Leon pounds the pavement. They talk and sing as they roll along. Along with “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “Man or Muppet,” they sing “Cinderella,” by Steven Curtis Chapman. They both know the lyrics by heart.
“I will dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms, because I know something the prince never knew,” Leon recites. “Oh I will dance with Cinderella, I don’t want to miss even one song, because all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone.”
Favorite race yet
Leon started pushing Kiana at races in October 2012, when he realized he’d rather have her with him during the run than cheering for him on the sidelines. He talked his mother into training for a half marathon, and the three of them lined up at the start of a half marathon in Odessa together.
That was just the beginning. Since winning the marathon in Beaumont last year, Leon has set a personal record in every distance except 26.2 miles — which he missed by just 1 second — while pushing a stroller, which he figures slows him by 10 to 15 seconds per mile. He’s won the cancer survivor’s division of several races and placed in the top 10 overall of others.
Now Kiana likes to show off the medals hanging from the bunk bed in her pink-painted room, one for every race that her father has pushed her across the finish line in a stroller. (That means she crossed first, she’s quick to point out.)
Leon speaks about running with brain cancer at races around the country. He writes a blog, too, titled “Picking Up A Hitchhiker.” (Read it at www.pickingupahitchhiker.blogspot.com.) He posts a steady stream of comments and photos about life with Kiana on his Facebook page.
This weekend’s Paramount Break-A-Leg 5K will be Leon and Kiana’s first real side-by-side race.
Kiana’s growing too tall and heavy for a stroller, and she likes to run. Just two weeks ago, she trotted 2 miles without stopping. She also participates in her school’s Marathon Kids program, in which students run a marathon incrementally over many weeks.
She’s sure she can keep up with her dad. “Sometimes I can go ahead of him, too,” she says.
At the track where they practice, Leon runs a lap in one direction while Kiana heads off in the other. When they meet in the middle, they slap their hands in a high five. Afterward, they play on the monkey bars or eat ice cream.
“I love you more than ice cream, but it’s close,” Kiana told her dad after a recent run.
Kiana knows her dad is sick, that he won’t be there forever. She’s visited with a counselor about it, and her dad has taught her how to call 911 if he collapses. But it’s hard for a 7-year-old to understand what it all means.
Leon’s prognosis hasn’t changed. “Nothing’s growing, nothing’s shrunk,” he says. “I haven’t woken up in an ambulance lately.”
He cherishes the time with Kiana. Running together keeps them close.
Leon says he’ll miss running the full marathon on Sunday, which he’s done each of the past four years, but running next to Kiana will more than make up for it.
“I don’t care whether she walks or runs,” he says. “I ran the Boston Marathon and I’ve won a marathon. But I think watching her do her first 5K is going to be my favorite race yet.”
If you go: The Paramount Break-A-Leg 5K Run/Walk starts at 7:30 a.m. Sunday at the corner of Congress Avenue and 16th Street. Registration is $37 for adults or $32 for ages 13 and younger at www.austintheatre.org/5K. The Austin Marathon and Half Marathon Presented by Freescale starts at 7 a.m. Feb. 16 at the same spot. Registration is $135 at www.youraustinmarathon.com.
Watch a video of Iram Leon and his daughter, Kiana, at www.statesman.com.