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Navajo runner to compete for more than glory

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PHILADELPHIA (MCT) – Brandon Leslie is trying to break a curse with his feet.

When Leslie lines up for a race – as he did Sept. 17 in the Jefferson Hospital Philadelphia Distance Run – he runs for more than medals. He competes for American Indian children living on reservations, for his family, and to distance himself from a rocky past.

“I’m on a mission, not only for myself but for my family and all Native American people,” said Leslie, a Navajo. “I want to open eyes and open doors for them. There’s a lot who don’t get a chance.”

In Philadelphia, Leslie and the largest field in the annual event’s 29 years – 12,500 participants – competed on a course that winds 13.1 miles through Philadelphia and ends at Eakins Oval.

Leslie’s times have been competitive.

Wilson Kiprotich of Kenya owns the fastest half-marathon time of 59 minutes, 25 seconds. Abdi Abdirahman of Tucson, Ariz., leads the Americans after having finished third at the inaugural New York City Half Marathon in 1 hour, 1 minute and 34 seconds in August.

Leslie finished fourth at the 2006 USA Men’s Half Marathon Championship in Houston in January, in 1:03:09.

On the women’s side, Edna Kiplagat of Kenya is seeking the $25,000 Triple Crown bonus offered to an athlete who wins all three fall half-marathons of Elite Racing Inc., a sports marketing and management company. She recently won the Virginia Beach race on Sept. 3 and competed in San Jose, Calif., on Oct. 8.

Leslie is aiming to qualify for the 2008 Olympic trials and is using the Philadelphia run as a final warmup for the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 22.

Just three years ago, that would have seemed like an outrageous goal. Leslie looked more like a trudging middle-of-the-pack amateur, spending more time in taverns than on tracks.

Today, he is a svelte machine at 6 feet and 140 pounds.

“I’m so proud of him,” said Abdirahman, who trained with Leslie in California two years ago. “I’m glad to see him running well again. He’s a good runner and a good guy.”

Leslie, 30, calls this his “fourth or fifth comeback” from injuries and a loss of desire.

Growing up on the Navajo reservation in Gallup, N.M., Leslie began running at age 6. By high school, college scholarship offers poured in.

He was compared to Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota and the only U.S. runner to win Olympic gold in the 10,000 meters, which he did in an upset in Tokyo in 1964.

“Everyone asks me, ‘Are you going to be the next Billy Mills?’” Leslie said. “I just want to make a name for myself and my family now.”

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In 1995, he enrolled in Northern Arizona University, but his time there was more of a sprint than a long-distance journey.

Leslie competed in just one meet in the spring in his first year of college and left school. He returned to Gallup, where he learned he had fathered a child.

For three years, he did not run. Leslie said he gained about 25 pounds.

“I found myself giving up everything,” he said recently over the phone. “I was drinking more than I should have and eating too much. I could see disappointment in my family’s face.”

He has seen how alcoholism has plagued the American Indian community. Two of his uncles died from alcoholism, Leslie’s mother said, and his father has also battled it for years.

When Leslie was in fourth grade, he and his mother were homeless for a stretch, living on food stamps and eventually finding subsidized housing.

Leslie would try to comfort his mother. “He would say, ‘Mom, I’ll be a runner one day and I’ll take care of you,’” Sharon Leslie recalled.

Leslie said he was never an alcoholic but could see his lifestyle taking him in a negative direction. He eventually stopped drinking and rediscovered running.

He reconnected with coach Mike Daney, who helped Leslie win a scholarship to Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo.

“I wanted to be the first to break that curse,” he said.

Leslie found the spark again. He won the 10,000 meters in the Division II national championship in 2000 and earned the degree that his mother had always dreamed of for him. He got married and now has three children.

“I did not want to be known as a person who was good,” said Leslie, who is coached by Joe Vigil.

There are still struggles. For instance, Leslie is searching for a major sponsor.

When he is not training or competing, he is talking to American Indian children, encouraging them to break stereotypes and achieve dreams as he has.

“There’s a reason for everything that has happened to me,” he said. “I’m trying to open the door and say, ‘You can do this, too.’”

Copyright (c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.