Jason McLeod almost gave up competing and now he’s nearly 3 minutes away from an Olympic Trials Qualifier.
There are many things you could call 27-year-old Knoxville runner, Jason McLeod: humble, kind, hardworking, and generous, but what you can’t call him, is slow.
In his debut marathon at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 2017, Jason (by his own admission) found himself pushing the pace from the gun forward, clicking off a 5-flat mile, and running behind the elite field in the half marathon.
“I was running with the half marathoners not even thinking about it…by the time I realized it, we were at the split at 7 miles, and I was with 7 guys, and all seven of them [split off] to the half marathon, and literally for the rest of the race I was by myself from then on.”
For most runners, the consequences of this would spell the end of their race plan, and while he experienced difficulty at mile 21, he would go on to finish at a blistering 2:29:55, coming in 14th overall. A time and place that most anyone would agree are astounding for a debut race. Especially one as large as Indianapolis.
It’s hard to imagine someone who wills themselves across the finish line of a marathon on their first try at 2:29 got into running as a high school baseball hopeful with a 5k time of 23 minutes, but Jason’s path wasn’t necessarily one of over-zealous obsession, but serendipity.
“I started kind of by accident. My freshman year, I didn’t make the fall [baseball] team, and they didn’t have a JV team, and I thought ‘I’ll just run with the cross-country team to stay in shape.’ I wasn’t actually going to compete, the plan was just to train with them because my sister was on the team and they were fine with it. Come the first race they were like ‘do you want to just race?” and I was like ‘I guess, sure, why not?’”
He continued competing in baseball as well but soon discovered his talents were better applied as a cross-country athlete. So, he switched his focus entirely to the track, hoping to leverage the opportunity to help pay for college tuition. He continued to chip away at his fitness. Which showed in his 5k times.
“By the time I graduated high school I was running 16-flat.”
His college search landed him at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee where he competed on the cross-country team for four years. It was here that Jason says he began to truly love the sport. What he previously viewed as an opportunity for an education turned into a passion.
“I wound up growing to love it the more time I put into it. At college I had people to train with, learning to enjoy the sport, learning to run fast and to have people around you who run fast and interested in getting better.”
This same advantage of being around a like-minded community of runners is what Jason eventually found in Knoxville. One week after graduating from Bryan he jumped into the Secret City Half marathon, taking home first place in 1:11:53. Eventually, he moved to Knoxville, taking a job at Fleet Feet, and running recreationally with a local cross-country team.
He didn’t train seriously at first, somewhat giving up on ambitions for running altogether. At Fleet Feet, he learned about the Knoxville Endurance running community through his co-worker Andrew Ogle.
“When I moved to Knoxville I hadn’t been running for a year. Andrew was telling me about all his goals and [his coach] trying to help him hit maybe an 800 meter Olympic Trials Qualifier or trying to break 4 in the mile. All these things, and I was like ‘man, I haven’t thought about that stuff since college. I guess I better get some goals.’”
Jason competed in the Farragut Half marathon and caught the attention of Knoxville Endurance owner, Bobby Holcombe, who took Jason on as a student. It didn’t occur to Jason at the time that he had serious potential to pursue an OTQ (Olympic Trials Qualifier) in the marathon, but he knew that the longer distances were his strength.
“I figured the longer the distance, the better I do. We talked about getting into the marathon. Kind of in the background the Olympic Trials was something maybe we talked about. It probably wasn’t super serious at that time. It was like ‘let’s see where you can go.’”
He continued competing in half-marathons and sharpening his speed in the 5k. It wasn’t until a full year later of training that Jason would attempt his first full marathon in Indianapolis. Initially, the plan was for him to focus on a 2:30 pace, but he held pace for a 2:25 all the way until mile 21.
“After that race, and seeing how long I held the pace, for Chicago we were like, ‘let’s actually try and hit the [OTQ] time.”
Jason decided to throw himself into training for the 2018 Chicago marathon, which several KE athletes also attended. His fitness had grown considerably, but it was a gamble on taking a chance at attacking it aggressively to run a 2:19 and risking more fatigue in the later miles, or opting for a more conservative race in an effort to avoid bonking. Jason decided to risk a more aggressive approach.
“Based upon my fitness we probably would have shot for a 2:20 or 2:21, but if I’m that close I’d rather go for it and blow up a little bit and still run a PR, and that’s fine.”
He did not blow up in Chicago and held steady 5:20’s, and slowed only to 5:40’s in the last few miles. Holding the pace consistently and finishing in 2:22:22 (yes, all 2’s). Shy of the qualifying time by 3 minutes and 22 seconds. Needless to say, taking a chance and going for it still ended in an astonishing 8-minute PR.
When he was still competing in college a similar situation occurred, but on a smaller scale while racing the 1500m. After tempting fate with an aggressive strategy, he still felt good with a lap to go, but he was in 4th. With 300m left in the race, he outkicked everyone to finish first in 3:54. “I thought if someone’s gonna beat me they’re gonna have to work really hard.”
It’s a fair assessment to say that Jason has a lot of talent, and an even harder work ethic. However, it is all too easy to think of him as just “the talented guy that runs fast.” They say it takes a village. In Jason’s case, it was a community that kept him going:
“The people that you surround yourself is what helps. I had thought the competitive running side of my life was over. I didn’t even know there was an opportunity like KE to go and train. With people like Gina, Matt, and Ethan. These people with full-time jobs who have lives and are still running fast. With people that started out as 5-hour marathoners that are now Boston qualifiers, and having someone like Bobby who knows how to coach athletes, and get people faster. There is definitely a God-given talent to part of the running, but the fact that I had kind of given up on it and met all these people that are excited about it, and I was like ‘wow. I want to keep doing that.’
Jason’s story and his performances aren’t just a testament to his talent, or his work ethic but rather are indicative of the spirit of the sport. Something that has brought him, and lots of athletes to KE. That there is buried treasure to be found in taking chances. That we don’t need to resign ourselves to think about what we “used” to be able to do but challenge ourselves to see what we can do. That risking failure is not just a good way to meet a goal, but in reality, the only way to do it.
1/30/2019 – Mike DiGirolamo