During recess at Prune Hill Elementary School, most kids played wall ball, dodged each other in tag or crowded the swingsets.
Alexis Leone ran.
As a fifth grader, she did laps around the Camas school’s property. Not because she had to, but because it was fun.
She struck up a friendship with a boy, who also liked to run. It became a competition to see who could collect the most mile cards, given to any kid who ran that distance during recess.
By the school year’s end, Leone had run 100 miles.
Fast forward five years. Leone is still running a lot of miles. She’s also still winning.
Leone, a sophomore, won the Class 1A individual title at the state cross country meet on Nov. 6 in Pasco. In doing so, she led Seton Catholic to the first team championship in the history of the nine-year-old school.
For her accomplishments, Leone is The Columbian’s All-Region girls cross country runner of the year.
Leone’s father, Jason Leone, was initially apprehensive of his daughter running so far at a young age. As president of Portland-based Core Health and Fitness, he had seen cases where distance running put strain on growing bodies.
“One, I’m not a runner so I’m not sure where she gets it from,” Jason Leone said. “Two, I work for a fitness company and running can put stress on the joints, so I was concerned. I discouraged it for a few years.”
But Jason Leone didn’t want to deny his daughter something that brought her so much joy. That led the Leones to Vancouver-based Whisper Running and coach Dave Caldwell, who specializes in running programs for middle-school aged runners.
That’s where Leone strengthened her competitive drive. As an eighth-grader, she qualified for the U.S. Junior Olympics in cross country, finishing second in the 14-15 age group in 14 minutes, 47 seconds for 4,000 meters.
“For me, competing is really fun because you get to see where you’re at,” Leone said.
When COVID shut down athletics in 2020, running became the main outlet for Leone’s energy that had otherwise been shared with basketball and softball.
Jason Leone, now far from the initially apprehensive dad, studied every resource he could find about running.
“If I’m going to be a supportive parent, I need to know what’s going on,” he said. “So I started reading from the very best. Books, blogs, newsletters. I got very educated about the things we should be doing and began laying out a plan.”
But, after COVID restrictions led to a shortened freshman season, the virus itself threw a wrench into Leone’s sophomore year.
She was one of several on the team to get the virus, meaning Seton Catholic didn’t start racing until three weeks after most other teams.
Leone suffered symptoms that included shortness of breath and low energy that lasted more than two weeks.
“I struggled to run a majority of the week,” she said. “Just getting back to where I was, that was a struggle.”
Leone said she finally felt healthy at a Trico League meet in White Salmon on Oct. 13. With the league championships just a week away, there was no room for error for a runner and a Seton team that had state title aspirations.
But if Leone has one uncommon strength, it’s her ability to push through when a race gets tough. “Her drive is amazing,” Jason Leone said. “Her willpower is over the top.”
That drive led Leone to wins in six of the seven events she raced this season. It culminated with a state title, where Leone’s time of 18:05 was the fastest by any Southwest Washington runner this season.
Only four other Clark County girls have ever run faster at the state meet. Alexa Efraimson, a professional runner from Camas who set the state meet record in 2013, used to be Leone’s baby-sitter.
“She was a really good baby-sitter,” Leone said. “But I did not know she was a fantastic runner. When I found out who she is, I was really shocked.”
Inspired by greatness and with a love for the joy running brings, Leone is now charting her own course among Clark County’s best high school runners.
“Next year is a new day, a new season, a new everything,” Leone said. “There’s always that one spot you can get, the top in Washington. If I can get top in Washington, then it’s top in the nation. I know I’ll never be the fastest person alive, so there’s always one more step I can take to be a better teammate and better person.”
All-Region Girls Cross Country
Runner of the year — Alexis Leone, Seton Catholic
The rest of the team
Hanna Bailey, Columbia River
Junior placed 19th at the 2A state meet. Broke 20 minutes four times in 10 5K races, with a season-best of 19:28.
Sydnee Boothby, Washougal
Junior was ninth at 2A state meet and third at district meet. Season-best of 18:46 for 5K. Ran under 20 minutes in eight of 11 5K races.
Dani Buttrell, Fort Vancouver
Junior led Fort to first district title in program history and fourth place in state. Placed fifth at districts and 21st at the 2A state meet.
Gracie Buzzell, Camas
Junior was 4A district champion and runner up at bi-district Westside Classic. Ran a 5K personal best of 18:15 on Oct. 9 at Hole in the Wall.
Lara Carrion, Seton Catholic
Senior placed 7th in the 1A state meet, helping the Cougars win the team title. Season-best of 18:34 and ran sub-20 minutes in every race.
Elle Thomas, Washougal
Sophomore was sixth at 2A state meet and runner up at district meet. Broke 19 minutes in six of 11 5K races, with best of 18:25.