It’s 5:30 a.m., and Leland Jones’ alarm starts blaring. Looking out the window, he sees it’s still dark out, and he hears nothing but crickets as the rest of the street is in deep slumber. The Fulton House, however, is alive, buzzing with energy, as its inhabitants — members of the track and cross country teams — begin preparing themselves for morning practice.
This is a typical Monday (and Thursday) morning for Leland; the 6 a.m. practices are just a part of being on the team. On weekdays, around 2 p.m., he walks into Haas Pavilion in preparation for practice at 2:30 p.m., and on Saturdays or Sundays, depending on Cal’s racing schedule, he has long morning runs that also come with being on a Division I team.
“That’s that sacrifice,” Leland says. “It’s inevitable. But there are times when I’m absolutely overwhelmed and I have a huge project due, papers due, workouts. I’m up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. It’s just a little bit overwhelming, but stress comes with college.”
While it might seem that all college students spend Friday nights partying on frat row or hanging out at bars, there are those, like Leland, who give that up in commitment to their sport, tucked into bed by 10:30 p.m. With a schedule like his, Leland is often left having to plan carefully for any other extracurriculars.
Even as the top runner on the Summit High School cross country and track teams, Leland had the time and flexibility — not to mention a steel-strong work ethic — to fit all of his extracurriculars and side activities into his schedule. Upon graduation, he was able to cash in on the work he had put in the last four years and made the 3,000-mile leap from his hometown of Summit, New Jersey, to California — where he had always wanted to come.
In high school, Leland grew accustomed to the freedom he had to pursue his other interests. But when he got to Cal, he had difficulty finding himself outside the all-encompassing realm of the running that was becoming more and more a part of him. In the common crisis that affects every single person on every single college campus, he struggled to find an identity that was truly his.
Leland pushed away from being “just an athlete” — an umbrella that only formed faster the more he ran from it. The athletics he had worked so hard to participate in took up such a large portion of his identity that he felt like he needed more than solely being a runner to be happy. It was upsetting to him that his athletics infringed on other aspects of his life.
He had to stop skateboarding during the season, stifling a passion that he’s had since he was in seventh grade. Skateboarding has always been a source of comfort and excitement, and he developed an undying love for it, practicing tricks and sometimes reaching up to 40 miles per hour on downhill roads.
“It gave me a sense of belonging, it gave me a sense of individuality, when running didn’t do that. It was important to me that I had something that made me, me.”
“All the injuries and setbacks (skateboarding has) given me are worthwhile for just the exposure and just the excitement and fun and fulfillment that it’s given me,” Leland says. “It really is the one thing that really does make me happy when nothing else can make me happy.”
In high school, Leland and his friends went on spontaneous drives all throughout the Tri-State area searching for new skateboarding grounds, enjoying the inherent risk of it all. They filmed each other ripping down winding roads, unafraid of falling or the danger of passing cars.
“It gave me a sense of belonging, it gave me a sense of individuality, when running didn’t do that. It was important to me that I had something that made me, me,” Leland says.
This constant in his life was essentially pushed out, as the stakes for running increased and an activity like skateboarding became too hazardous.
“It was hard letting go of skateboarding when I came here because it had such a large impact on my life, especially in middle school when I wasn’t as confident as I am now,” Leland says.
Additionally, he had less time to prioritize music which has also played a large part in his life. It all began with Leland’s father, who shared his love for jazz and blues with his three sons. Music became a real point of commonality between them after spending hours discussing and sharing new music discoveries. His love for music also translated into something he enjoyed with his friends.
“We just start rhyming things, just very, very slowly free-style rapping for the first time, and then he starts doing it with us,” says his friend Pat Beljan. “And I’m not kidding you, within two weeks, it’s like a thing, every single car ride. … You bug out a little bit when you’re not hitting good rhymes.”
He no longer had time for some of his passions. As he had to take time away from his other interests, a frustration began to emerge within Leland: Would continuing to run leave room to develop an identity?
He would soon have ample time for this development, when his inner battle became magnified by a stress fracture and an IT band injury that complicated his ability to participate in the cross country season. Leland was barred from competing in the entirety of both the cross country and indoor track seasons, instead sitting on the sidelines to cheer on his teammates.
“I definitely doubted whether I wanted to continue to do something that took up so much time and energy, for the amount of fulfillment I was getting,” Leland says. “At the time, it didn’t seem worth it.”
For a while, Leland was caught in a bind. He was still a fully committed athlete but was given an injury-specified regimen separate from the rest of the team as it seemed like his ailments were never going to heal. Every day, before practice, he walked into Haas Pavilion with his teammates, but soon had to branch off from them, as he followed a different workout schedule that would hopefully lead to a full recovery. It wasn’t until a little after his second semester started that things finally began to look up for Leland. He didn’t make his debut until outdoor track, after only four weeks of training.
Before his injury, he was constantly pushing against running, fearful of its takeover of his life. But after having experienced what it was like not to compete with his teammates, Leland’s appreciation and love for running was revived — or maybe just rediscovered. There was little that could compare with the happiness he felt when his recovery was finally on the horizon and he began to train with the team again. The negativity he felt earlier in the year transformed into optimism for the future.
“You certainly make sacrifices, and I was, for a while, thinking that college is what it is, and you’re supposed to become who you really want to become,” Leland says. “I was thinking that being an athlete, does that detract from your capabilities of being who you want to be? And I think it actually ends up, in the end, heightening that experience, because it is really something special, to be able to hang out with the people I hang out with on the team, to travel to the meets that I’ll travel to and to work hard and be as fulfilled.”
Running isn’t a separate entity, it’s just another one of his passions. Sure, some have priority over others, but at the end of the day, it’s all about finding a balance between conformity and individuality.
“I would say he has become more of the person that I think he wanted to be”
“You start off as, ‘Oh, I’m on the track team,’ and you let that define your whole time here, but I really don’t see that in Leland (Jones) at all,” says former teammate Leland Later. “He’s very comfortable with who he is and able to express these many identities to many different people in a very open and authentic way, rather than just kind of play a part in some time and play a part in other times. He’s very just broadly based and a very authentic person.”
Running is no longer a drain on his time and his self but rather something that enhances his myriad other passions. He acknowledges and takes pride in his sacrifices and has even met lifelong friends that he does more than just run with.
He loves playing guitar with Seamus Land and can be found at the Fulton House free-style rapping with Ellis Newton and Jonte Turner. Late-night talks about politics and deep thoughts with his freshman year roommate Robert Brandt became a normality. In John Lawson, Leland even found someone to dye his hair with — something he had wanted to do since high school.
“I would say he has become more of the person that I think he wanted to be,” Pat says.
Although balancing running and the different aspects of his life was initially difficult, the internal struggle that Leland experienced is something that has helped him reach mental clarity. And his subsequent perseverance through it all has given him a different yet renewed love for running, one that is completely unwavering and 100 percent committed.
“Obviously when the alarm goes off, I don’t want to get up, but I get a lot of fulfillment from improving and sweating and all that,” Leland says. “But I definitely also get a lot of fulfillment out of other things outside of being an athlete, and I don’t feel like I’m ever unable to pursue what I want to pursue because of track and cross country. I can still be the person I want to be outside of the sport.”
Contact Taylor Choe at [email protected]