The Atlantic

Running for His Life

One Marine learned that you can’t outpace your demons or suicidal thoughts. But it doesn’t hurt to try.
Source: Max Temescu

A thick fog hung over Mission Bay. Still dark out, it was early morning in San Diego, and Ryan Leighton was nervous. A lot was on the line that December day in 2013.

Chaos broke out in the frigid water a short while later. People climbed over each other. Feet and elbows flew. Leighton was claustrophobic as the sprint triathlon got underway; a blow to the face disoriented him. He thought of tapping out but silently talked himself into continuing. Quitting, he knew, would haunt him.

A bunch of bikes were still sitting around when he got to the first transition area. Leighton was freezing. His feet were numb and his hands wouldn’t work as he struggled to rinse sand off and put socks on. Wheeling away, he made his first mistake. He had forgotten to take off his wetsuit and had to stop and change. Finally ready to go, the then-40-year-old pedaled off.

Two laps around Fiesta Island zipped by. Leighton passed one cyclist after another. By the third lap, his mind was racing.

This is for everyone who said it would never happen.

This is for everything I fought for.

In his excitement, he forgot to take off his helmet before the five-kilometer run, his second miscue. It was understandable; besides, his goal had been just to finish.

His feet were still numb from the water. His legs felt like Jell-O. Compared with the cycling, the first half of the run was like slow motion. The triathlon was the most sustained exercise Leighton had done since the night he nearly died more than a year earlier. Leighton started worrying: Maybe that was it. Maybe he had hit his breaking point. Maybe he had nothing left.

Just don’t walk.

Now, Leighton was the one getting picked off. Somehow he wasn’t done, though. There was a little something left in his legs. He all-out sprinted the last quarter-mile. Tears flowed down Leighton’s cheeks when he crossed the finish line. He placed third in his age group at San Diego’s Beach Blast Sprint Triathlon. After a decade of pain and self-destruction, Leighton was finally one step closer to getting his life back.

Ryan Leighton is 6-foot-1 and built like a lumberjack. He has short brown hair, a disarming personality, and a thing for crawfish étouffée and old-school punk—the band Fugazi is a favorite.

Leighton is a guy’s guy. He’s someone you’d want to spend a Saturday afternoon with barbecuing and drinking a beer. And if you were in trouble, you’d definitely want him in your corner because he’s quick to offer a hand.

Born in 1973 and originally from Bradenton, Florida, Leighton was a self-described “military brat” who grew up hopping around the southeastern United States and parts of Canada. Both his father and grandfather served in the military, and Leighton followed suit in 1992 after graduating from high school.

The Marine Corps was his pick. Over time, Leighton found his calling as a crew chief on Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopters. “You’re kind of like a flight engineer,” he says. “You’re a mechanic. You’re a door gunner. You’re basically anything they need.”

After four years in the Marines, Leighton returned to civilian life in 1996. But he re-upped just two years later when he heard the Marines needed crew chiefs. In 2002, Leighton was sent to Arizona as a weapons and tactics instructor at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. In 2003, he deployed to Iraq—that same month he turned 30.

Ryan lost four close friends while in Iraq. They died in a crash at the end of a runway. The deaths got to him. At the time, Leighton says, “it was probably the worst thing that ever happened [to me].”

The first time Leighton thought of suicide was during his final month of that tour in Iraq. He didn’t think

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