After winning the European U23 10,000m title this year, the British runner is back training hard and hoping to smash his PBs in 2024

“It’s been a very weird apprenticeship,” reflects Rory Leonard. “I never learned to race. I went from literally scraping through to English Schools to being ranked second in Europe as an under-18. I had one year where I just had fun with it, then the next year [2018] I made European Youths. You’re thrown in at the deep end and you’ve got no idea what to do, then you keep doing that over and over again.” 

Nothing worth having comes easy and Leonard knows that more than most. The 22-year-old, crowned 10,000m champion at the European Under-23 Championships in July, is now back in the UK after studying at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in the US since 2021. 

His gold is a remarkable high point in his career and marks a new chapter for the Morpeth Harrier who signed a professional contract with Hoka in July. Currently self-coached with the valuable input of his dad, Tony, he is in the process of finalising his new training set-up before completing his studies in English literature and philosophy.

Leonard started out at Loughborough University, but when his 80-year-old coach George Gandy died in October 2020, followed by the death of his best friend Olly to illness in early 2021, he felt lost.

“Because of it all going on, I was like: ‘If I can just get out of the UK, even if it’s just for a year to see if it works, I’m going to do it’,” he says of his decision to move to America. 

Rory Leonard (David Hewitson)

His parents, who were both athletes, had gone to the University of Arkansas and were supportive of the move. His soon to be coach Dave Smith, the director of track and field and cross country at OSU, had a good history of working with British athletes. 

Leonard also tried to find a record of athletes who had burned out and left the US system before profiling them against his own trajectory. 

“Looking at the history of OSU and the real heavy distance side of it, I was like: ‘It makes sense for what I need right now’,” he says. “At the time I thought: ‘It doesn’t hurt to get your degree paid for, the team seems pretty good and Stillwater is a pretty quiet place with no distractions. If you go out there you’re probably going to run quite well, because if you’re not running well, what else are you doing?’” 

Rory Leonard in Aarhus 2019 (Mark Shearman)

Leonard’s performances over that period – which included finishing 16th (2021) and 11th (2022) at the European Cross Country Championships, plus personal best times over 3000m indoors (8:07.97) and 10,000m (28:21.30) in 2023 – justified the move, but his focus on future success and the unsustainable balance of prioritising making GB teams while simultaneously delivering within the US collegiate system, helped make up his mind to return to the UK this summer. 

Back home in north Yorkshire, Leonard works in a coffee shop. He’s a coffee lover but, more importantly, it’s a job that “keeps him busy not thinking about running”. 

After a successful, albeit largely unplanned, summer over 10,000m, he’s making a conscious effort to focus on shorter distances and to significantly lower his 5000m best of 13:50.22. 

“I definitely learned a lot training-wise at OSU, but I could do what we did there, back here,” he concludes. “I went there to figure out how to get pretty good. A time of 28:20 [for 10,000m] is miles off from being anywhere really good. 

“It’s fine, but if I’m going to make an Olympics I’ve got to be running a B standard of 27:20 – and if I’m going to run 27:20 then I’ve got to be able to run 13:15 [for 5000m]. In coming back to the UK and prioritising running those standards and championships here, I’m going to have a chance.” 

» This article first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine. Subscribe here