Do Run, Run, Run
April 2021 Issue
By Cynthia Robinson
Nancy J. Reynolds Photography
Avid runner and race director of this year’s Sunshine Festival 5K and 1-mile fun run, Lesley Leonard didn’t start running seriously until after college. Once she got hooked on the sport, there was no turning back.
“I was the little girl who hated P.E. and much preferred to be in the library, reading books,” said the St. Simons Island resident and member of the Golden Isles Track Club. “I didn’t run until I was in college, and only as a part of my P.E. requirements.”
While she continued to run occasionally after college to stay in shape, she didn’t take it up seriously until she was in her thirties. “In my twenties I really enjoyed lifting weights, and I still do regularly, but…when my daughters were babies, I started running on a treadmill I had at home, while they were napping. When I was 35, a friend of mine was going to run a full marathon, and I decided to try a half marathon. At the time, I was running, at most, six miles at a time. But when I went to sign up, the half marathon was booked. My friend convinced me to sign up for the full marathon. So, my first real race was a full marathon! It was great, and I was hooked. I loved the training and how it is so organized, and I loved the way running made me feel.”
While she continued to enjoy running and training, Lesley’s professional and personal life went through changes, including becoming a single mom and deciding to switch careers. Back in college she started out in pre-med since she had always loved school, especially math and science. “I quickly realized I didn’t have the stomach for all the blood and guts,” she laughed. So she switched to engineering and excelled. After working 15 years as a professional engineer in hazardous waste and wastewater treatment, she had an epiphany. “I was always passionate about health, fitness and nutrition, and at about age 40, I had the opportunity to return to school to help others achieve their health and fitness goals.”
After earning her master’s and doctorate degrees, Lesley worked as a research assistant, then an adjunct instructor in the Department of Exercise Science and Community Health at the University of West Florida in Orlando. While there she became a member and joined the board of the Pensacola Runners Association, even serving as a pacer for the Pensacola Marathon.
In 2018, Lesley and her family relocated to the Golden Isles when she began teaching as an assistant professor of health promotion at The College of Coastal Georgia. She held that position for a year, before deciding to spend more time with family. “I especially wanted to concentrate on my oldest daughter’s education—she was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum when she was 11.”
Lesley said her greatest race experience was running the 2015 Boston Marathon. Her “running bucket list,” includes the New York City Marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., and returning for the Boston Marathon. “I’ve also enjoyed traveling for races, including ones in Chicago, Seattle and New Orleans. Another favorite was the First Light Marathon in Mobile, Alabama. The awards were created by adults with disabilities. It was really special.”
Training for Lesley continues to be a year-round activity, no matter the weather. “I try to run five days a week and cross train by biking. I have a road bike and a mountain bike. I love being outside and don’t like running on a treadmill anymore! Although I love running in the cold and in the rain, I admit summers can be challenging.”
Currently, Lesley is working on the Golden Isles Track Club’s upcoming Sunshine Festival 5K Race and Fun Run scheduled for July 4th. “We’re being proactive in addressing COVID-19 and have put a plan in place since we don’t know what it’s going to look like in July,” said Lesley, who overcame her own battle with the virus in January. “If COVID-19 is still an issue, we will have a wave, or staged, start. We are also not going to have volunteers at the water stops. They will be contactless and we’re also encouraging runners to bring their own water.”
Other safety precautions include a shortened awards ceremony, socially distanced snacks and water after the events, and no after party. “We want it to be a safe, but fun experience,” she said, adding that proceeds benefit local school running programs.
Whether the restrictions will be needed or not, Lesley said COVID-19 hasn’t kept her from running, and she encourages others to get outside and enjoy the sport. “Running not only burns calories, but it also releases endorphins and is calming and stress relieving. Even if you’ve never been a runner, it’s never too late to start. I find I can have some very good races and some not so good races, but I always learn something.”
Tips for Beginning Runners: “Number 1: Invest in a good pair of running shoes. Go into the store and get properly fitted. Number 2: Start slowly and build up the distance. Number 3: Research different training plans. You can find plenty online, or purchase a how-to book. Number 4: Find your plan, and stick with it. Don’t give up.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and Master’s in environmental engineering, both from Georgia Tech; Master’s degree in exercise science and Doctorate in education, both from the University
of West Florida.
Family: Husband John, whom she married in 2016, and two daughters, Morgan and Langley.
Mantra: “Exercise is medicine, and running is my therapy.”
Fun Time: “I run with a group called the Fasties. It’s all about a spirit of fun.” She’s a member of Island Newcomers and a book club. “I really like learning about local history. My husband and I are sailors, and we love to go kayaking, too.”
Mentoring: Board member of the local chapter of Girls On The Run. “This organization empowers elementary and middle school girls. We meet at local schools twice a week during the running season (February through May) and celebrate their accomplishments with a 5K run on Blythe Island.”
Advocacy: She is a passionate advocate for autism education and awareness and was a volunteer coordinator for Autism Pensacola while living there.
Sunshine Festival 5K & Fun Run: For more information, or to register, visit www.sunshinefestivalofraces5k1mile.itsyourrace.com or Golden Isles Track Club Facebook page.