Welcome to our “Lift You Up” series, where we feature individuals who are lifting up the communities around them through their health and wellness talents and efforts. In this series, we hope to inspire, motivate and encourage you in your health and fitness goals, as you read the stories of everyday athletes making a difference in their own lives — and the lives of others.
In third grade, Iram Leon was sent to the principal’s office because he was running in the hallway. Now, 30 years later, he’s still running. As president of the Austin Runners Club, he acts as an ambassador for the sport and the Austin, Texas-based club, encouraging his community to get involved in the sweaty, but rewarding activity. But, as a cancer patient, he’s proof that nothing should come between living your best life and lifting others up along the way.
“When people call me inspiring, I tell them to work on their spelling, because they should say ‘perspiring,’” he says, laughing. But in some ways, it’s only partially a joke, because he advises people who are struggling to focus on simple hard work — and breaking a sweat.
“You put one foot in front of the other,” he says. “Keep on doing that. You’ll get where you need to go.”
In 2010, Leon was 29 years old and caring for his 3-year-old daughter, Kiana. He’d finished his first two marathons just 13 days apart and decided to focus on qualifying for the Boston Marathon since he was only 10 minutes away from the cutoff. Then, one day at a friend’s birthday party, he had a grand mal seizure.
As he waited for the biopsy results of a mass in his brain, Leon needed to run. He enlisted an EMT and ran loops around the hospital campus, trying to clear thoughts of “what if?” and what he would do given the potential outcomes.
The results came back as astrocytoma, a brain tumor that affects the language and memory regions of the brain. Leon knew a long road of surgery and treatment was ahead of him, but he never questioned whether he should stop running. Instead — with medical approval — he put Kiana in a jogging stroller and kept going.
A few years later, he won the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, Texas, with Kiana bouncing along in front of him. After that, he kept going. Having qualified for the 2015 Boston Marathon, he finished his bucket-list race in just over 3 hours, 10 minutes on a cold and windy day. Then, he kept going.
In 2017, he logged the highest annual mileage of his life, and although he’s had to make numerous adjustments because of memory and language issues, he still signs up for tough races, saying it keeps him strong.
FULL HEART, CLEAR PURPOSE
Since his diagnosis, the now-37-year-old has connected with many cancer patients and runners who are following his journey through his Facebook page and his blog, Picking Up a Hitchhiker. He talks often of hope, perseverance and gratitude, infusing his running and medical updates with a kind of happiness he calls his default setting.
The long-term survival stats for Leon’s type of cancer aren’t good. Only 12 percent of people diagnosed with astrocytoma are still living 10 years later. But, he notes, long-distance runners tend to be in that higher-survival group, and his last brain scan shows the tumor hasn’t grown.
Besides, he says, he has way too much going on to let cancer win now. With his daughter now running, too, he sees plenty of family training runs and races ahead. He’s also about to get married to his fiancée, Elaine — the wedding has a marathon theme, of course, with the newlyweds standing at a starting line — and he’s just getting into trail racing, already winning his first 10K trail race.
Every day he can lace up and get outside is a gift, he says, and even without cancer, he knows he’d feel that way. That’s the message he tries to impart to those in his running club, at races and to anyone following him online. One foot in front of the other, he emphasizes, because “right now” is all any of us have.
“You might as well make it the best ‘right now’ that you can,” says Leon. “Everybody dies, you just have to focus on truly living before you do. Get going.”