Spreading hope through living

Father-daughter duo focused on building memories while outrunning disease

Updated: July 10, 2013, 5:10 PM ET
By Amy Moore | Special to ESPN.com

Iram LeonCourtesy of Iram LeonDespite the brain cancer threatening his life, single dad Iram Leon has found peace through running.

Once upon a time, Iram Leon put off having brain surgery to run a marathon.

That's nothing, though, compared to the bravery of letting his 6-year-old daughter, Kiana, paint his toenails a "hideous" shade of green.

"My toenails are always weird from either the running or the paint," Leon said, with an easy laugh.

But if creating a memory for his daughter means toughing it out with painted nails, he's all-in.

A 32-year-old single dad, former juvenile probation officer and lifelong distance runner, Leon was diagnosed with grade 2 diffuse astrocytoma in his left temporal lobe in November 2010.

With just five weeks until a marathon he'd been training for, Leon's diagnosis came when he hadn't made time in his schedule for brain surgery and recovery.

Knowing the slim chance of ever running a marathon again -- doctors have said they're simply trying to get him to 40 years old -- Leon asked the medical team at Duke University if the risky brain surgery to remove the tumor could wait until after the race.

The doctor -- also a runner -- agreed, and Leon was able to run his marathon before going under the knife.

Iram Leon
Courtesy of Iram LeonAfter getting special permission for his daughter Kiana to join him in a stroller, Leon recorded a first-place finish at the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, Texas.

"I tell people to put off brain surgery to eat cheesecake; it's easier," Leon said.

The March 2011 surgery took out as much of the tumor as possible. Frequent MRIs since show everything in his brain is now stable, though his doctors joke he certainly can't be stable with all the running he does.

Now Leon is focused on living instead of just avoiding dying.

The cancer, which will affect his memory, language and motor skills, has already played a major role in Leon losing his job, his ability to drive, his marriage -- and it could take his life.

Leon admits that after his diagnosis and brain surgery, he didn't cope well. His actions, he said, ended up pushing his wife away and the couple, who had been together since high school, divorced.

In an attempt to get things back to "normal," he said, he returned to work too soon.

The side effects of the cancer caused him to forget pieces of information and make mistakes in reports -- things not taken lightly in the juvenile probation field.

Divorced and unable to work, Leon, who lives in Austin, Texas, spends his days making memories with Kiana and running -- either alongside her or while pushing her in a stroller for longer runs.

"Running has become my therapy," he said. "I tell people I'm running so fast because that's how much I need therapy. I listen to music and tune in and out. I'm not sure if I'm running to or from something."

The father-daughter duo ran to a first-place finish in the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, Texas, in March. It was their first marathon together.

It was a last-minute decision to run. He signed up just nine days before the race, and he had to get special permission from the organizers to use the stroller -- something they didn't agree to initially.

In response to his stroller request, organizers Amie and Richard James asked him why they should allow him and no one else to use a stroller in the marathon, a qualifier for the Boston Marathon.

Instead of telling his inspiring story of wanting to spend time and make memories with Kiana before the cancer takes his memories and possibly his life, Leon simply rattled off all of his previous wins in stroller races.

He doesn't want sympathy, he said.

"I don't even know what it means to use the cancer card, I just want to spend time with my daughter," Leon said.

After their other stroller races, Leon has proudly noted that Kiana has come in first and he placed second behind her. But after the Gusher, Kiana smiled as they crossed the finish line and told her dad that they both won.

She now displays their winning medal in her bedroom.

"Every race I do, I try to get my personal best, not break any world records," he said. "I just want to do better than I did before."

In April, Leon set a personal record (17.36) at the Angels Among Us 5K, a fundraising run for Duke's brain cancer research.

And though he missed his goal by one second in Beaumont, he and Kiana have gained quite a bit.

In fact, Leon has been humbled by his newfound fame and the generosity of others: The guy who gave up his own stroller wheel to Leon minutes before the race start to replace the busted one on Kiana's stroller. The cyclists riding along with him toward the end of the race who kept Kiana entertained after their iPod speaker stopped working. And the women who have asked him on dates after reading about him.

[+] EnlargeIram Leon
Courtesy of Iram LeonLeon's Gusher Marathon win caught the attention of a nonprofit group, which raised more than $12,000 for his daughter's college fund.

He's now close friends with the Jameses, the Gusher organizers, and will be back in the Beaumont area later this year for a half-marathon. No other runs are currently on his calendar, but because of their Gusher win he and Kiana are now getting invitations to participate in races, interesting because for so long he couldn't find races to allow him to run with Kiana.

Instead of running, the two recently volunteered at an Autism Speaks 8K in Austin. Leon said it was important to him for Kiana to see that some people race with their children in strollers because they have to.

What he's been most amazed of since his Gusher Marathon win is the college fund that has been set up for Kiana by the nonprofit organization, Sports Society for American Health, that hosted the Beaumont marathon. The site has already raised more than $12,000 towards its $30,000 goal.

The way Leon puts it, Kiana's future is far more important than his own.

"She's the center of my universe," he said of Kiana. "That kid is literally what gets me going and I'm going to get that right."

He knows that one day the 6-year-old won't want to give dad so much attention so because he can't work, Leon volunteers at Kiana's school and enjoys spending as much time with her as possible.

A tattoo of a lion and lion cub on Leon's right shoulder portrays the strength of their love and relationship.

"That tattoo took longer than any bike ride or marathon or brain surgery and it hurt more, too," Leon said. "But if all I manage to do is make memories with Kiana, then that's all right."