Junior College Track: Leon in the fast lane

Diego Leon, a former Anzar High standout, has posted some of the fastest times in the nation this season while competing as a sophomore at Hartnell College.

After Diego Leon completed his freshman season on the Hartnell College men’s cross-country team, Panthers coach Chris Zepeda said Leon could go down as one of the school’s all-time greats, and perhaps the best ever.
That was saying a mouthful considering some of the past runners who have competed at Hartnell, including Daniel Tapia, who made the U.S. Marathon team in 2013 and competed in the IAAF World Track and Field Championships that same year.
Turns out Zepeda wasn’t making such a bold statement after all.
To wit: Last November, Leon became just the second athlete in school history to win the California Community College State Cross-Country Championship. The 5-foot-10, 139-pound Leon has followed that up with a record-breaking season on the oval.
Leon, a 2013 Anzar High graduate, has nationally-ranked times in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, and enters Friday’s NorCal Championships as the odds-on favorite to win both events.
Last week the 20-year-old phenom easily won the NorCal title in the 10,000-meter run; his time of 31 minutes, 14.83 seconds easily outdistanced the second-place finisher by nearly 23 seconds.
It’s incredible that Leon, who has earned a cross country and track scholarship to Division I program Montana State, did nothing to distinguish himself on the track at Anzar.
Although Leon did win a Central Coast Section Division V individual cross-country title in his senior year, he only had the 40th best time overall among all divisions that day.
In other words, Leon wasn’t one of the section’s elite runners. But it’s safe to say that perhaps just a handful of athletes out of that 2012 crop of runners in the CCS Championships are putting up the times Leon has this season.
So how did a runner who had one standout season in cross country and none on the track at the high school level become a Division I-caliber athlete whose potential seems limitless?
Leon said it was a perfect storm of talent, hard work, great coaching and focus that converged in his two years at Hartnell.
“If you let him, coach Z is going to get the best out of you,” Leon said. “He’s a great motivator, and he’ll prod you to get you out of your comfort zone. Even if you think he’s saying something crazy, you’re going to try anyway because he’s setting a high standard for you. That’s what you get here at Hartnell—some of the top training in the community college system.”
What makes Leon’s times all the more impressive is the fact that he’s often competing against former Division I runners who have returned to community college for any number of reasons.
As of last week, Leon had the nation’s second best time in the 5,000 meters (14:26.65) and third fastest mark in the 1500 (3:53.24), both of which were accomplished at the power-packed Long Beach Invitational on April 18.
Leon, who was competing against athletes from four-year schools across the nation, already owned the Hartnell record in the 5,000 when he produced one of the best performances of his burgeoning career.
Upon crossing the finish line of the 5,000 race, Leon felt he could’ve actually gone faster. However, by the time Leon posed for pictures near the scoreboard a couple of minutes afterward, he knew he had done something special.
“At that moment it was all glory,” he said. “I was very happy to say the least.”
Leon had similar emotions after winning the cross-country state title at Fresno’s Woodward Park. Leon used a devastating kick in the final 100 meters to post a winning time of 20:09.4.
Even though Leon didn’t accomplish his goal of going sub-20 minutes, he took extra satisfaction in grinding things out that day. With a whopping 213 runners—yes, 213—in the field, the state cross-country race is often a matter of survival.
Once the gun went off, Leon immediately got shoved to the middle of the pack. Content to stay there in the first mile, Leon methodically worked his way through the field over the next mile before he caught the lead pack.
In the final mile, it was Leon and eventual runner-up Lucio Ramirez of Orange Coast in a dual to the finish. With 100 meters left, Leon surged ahead and beat Ramirez by three seconds.
The win took on added meaning for Leon, who finished a disappointing 54th in the 2013 state championship race. Indeed, Leon has been a runner on a mission after what happened in between the Coast Conference and NorCal Track and Field Championships a year ago.
During that time, Leon said he came down with the stomach flu, which made him bedridden for almost two days. Unable to eat, Leon grew weak and was unable to train, let alone keep food down.
It was a runner’s worst nightmare, and Leon was living it. Despite expecting a top-10 finish in both the 1,500 and 5,000 at NorCals, Leon finished dead last in both events.
It was a humbling turn of events for Leon, but he grew from the experience. Despite being in less-than-ideal shape, Leon had to finish the NorCal runs in order to qualify for state.
“Sometimes running a race isn’t about winning or getting a fast time,” he said. “It’s about testing your heart. In the 5k race, my stomach was on fire. I ran something like 22 minutes, and it was ridiculous. But I wasn’t thinking about how embarrassing it was or how bad I looked. If I was going to get last, I was going to get last in a painful way. It was a moment where someone could appreciate toughness in a race. That day was all guts.”
Realizing there was nothing to be gained from running in state, Leon was reduced to being a cheerleader as he rooted on his teammates in the state championships.
Not only did Leon’s performance in last year’s NorCals display his toughness and resolve, but it provided an extra dose of motivation entering the following cross-country season—not that Leon needed any more.
Leon entered Hartnell with big plans, partly as a result of winning the CCS Division V championship in his senior year at Anzar. That was the moment when Leon realized he could do special things as a runner.
“The whole goal of coming to Hartnell was to go to a university for free or almost free,” said Leon, who earned a 75 percent athletic scholarship, which is on the top end of what most athletes receive from four-year schools. “When I went up there for a visit, it was so beautiful and I fell in love with it. It hasn’t really hit me yet that I’ll be running on scholarship at the Division I level because it’s pretty special.”
Zedpeda deserves plaudits for seeing Leon’s talents and then nurturing them to an elite level.
“I don’t like to say I’m Nostradamus, but I’m pretty close to what I predicted of him,” Zepeda said. “He’s close to being our best ever; he’s just a different type of runner. He’s such a unique, motivated and disciplined runner.”
Just as important as being physically talented, Zepeda said Leon has separated himself from the rest of the pack by focusing on the intangibles: work ethic, desire and a willingness to battle.
“Diego inspires a lot of kids,” Zepeda said. “He has really become a model of our training program as far as expectations and what it takes to be successful.”
Zepeda added that Leon hasn’t come close to hitting his ceiling. Since Leon hasn’t logged as many miles as his competitors—most of whom started grinding away in high school—there’s no telling how low Leon’s times can go.
“Diego will continue to write his legend at Montana State,” Zepeda said. “I see him breaking four minutes in the mile and going 13:40 in a 5k.”
If Leon can reach those lofty numbers, he’ll realize a dream he never once thought possible: running professionally. Then again, no one—well except Zepeda—predicted that Tapia could run professionally, but now he’s competing for the Asics Mammoth Track Club, one of the elite running teams in the U.S.
In two years, Leon has gone from a solid high school runner to a potential pro. Leon plans to major in civil engineering before getting his master’s in environmental engineering.
Leon stays humble, knowing he could’ve easily strayed off course in his attempt to find running nirvana.
“I really appreciate when people recognize that part of me, of being a late bloomer,” he said. “I keep it in the back of my head to stay humble, and I try to focus on comparing myself to people who are better than me.”
Perhaps that is why Leon remains on the fast track to elite-level status: He’s always chasing someone, even though he’s attained a level few others at Hartnell College have ever reached.

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