Craig Coon sets his sights on the horizon

Craig Coon sets his sights on the horizon
Jonathan Cohen
Craig Coon will set his long-distance running aside to begin working with sailors on submarines.

Craig Coon ’10 decided to lower his Boston Marathon expectations when he woke up on race day and listened to the weather forecast.

“When I heard it was going to be 85-90 (degrees), all thoughts of (race) time went out the window,” he said. “It was like, ‘Well, let’s just try to survive.’”

Coon, a 24-year-old who graduated in May with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, did more than survive the 116th Boston Marathon on April 16. He thrived, finishing in 28th place — and 14th among all U.S. participants.

Even more impressive was that the Boston race was only the second full marathon that the former Binghamton University cross-country and track standout had ever run.

“For me, I always liked going longer as opposed to going faster,” Coon said. “I didn’t have the foot speed that a lot of guys did. Along the way, the distance just built up.

Coon, from the Rochester suburb of Penfield, was captain of the 2009 cross-country team that won the American East title and the 2010 team that was conference runner-up. He also was captain of the 2009 track and field team and finished fifth in the 10,000 at the America East Outdoor Meet.

“Craig was both a great leader and runner for us,” cross-country head coach Annette Acuff said. “He really helped create a competitive and positive running culture at Binghamton. He has an incredible work ethic and always gave us everything he had.  We were very fortunate to have him be a part of our program.”

After using up all of his athletic eligibility during his first year of graduate school in 2010-11, Coon decided to continue his distance running while also working on campus to improve flight simulator performance. Although he had never run a race longer than 6 miles, he entered the 13.1-mile Greater Binghamton Bridge Run last spring.

“It felt good and made me think that I needed to go do a full marathon,” he said.

Coon immediately set his sights on one of the world’s premier marathons: Boston. But he first needed to find a 26-mile event that he could use to qualify for the race. Coon’s first choice — a marathon in Quebec City, Canada — was canceled and changed to a half-marathon after rainy weather last August. So Coon appealed to the directors of the Lehigh Valley Health Network Marathon to let him enter the Sept. 11 race.

The Lehigh Valley directors made a wise decision to let Coon race. Not only did he qualify for the Boston Marathon, but he won Lehigh Valley with a time of 2:30:43.

“I shocked myself,” Coon said. “I thought, realistically, I could run 2:40-ish. I really had no idea how to race it, since I had never done a full marathon before.”

With more than 22,000 entrants in the Boston Marathon, Coon said his initial mindset was “happy to be there.”

“Boston is such an experience,” he said. “I wanted to enjoy it. The crowds are great. If I went in with the mentality of ‘Let’s just run as hard as I can,’ I would’ve missed out on what makes it Boston.”

The warm weather took its toll on many race participants, as more than 2,000 received medical attention. Coon admitted that the heat is “part of the race.”
“Everyone has to deal with it,” he said. “Once you’re in the race, you kind of forget about it and it takes its toll. But before the race, I tried to stay seated and not go out into the sun.”

Other runners provided him with sunscreen and there was plenty of cold water and oranges from fans along the race route, he said.

“Little kids wanted high-fives, so that would give you a boost, too,” he said.

Coon said he knew he was running well when “I looked around and didn’t see many people.”

“But it hits you in the final quarter,” he said. “You think, ‘OK, don’t fall off the wagon. The wheels are starting to jiggle.’ There are more rolling hills and the crowds are more at the sides, so you aren’t getting as much cold water. The last three miles or so are definitely a challenge.”

Coon finished the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:32:20. He didn’t immediately know what place he finished, but there were indicators that he had run a great race.

“I knew I did well because I saw they were starting to interview the Kenyans on my right,” he said. “There weren’t many guys ahead of me and I couldn’t see anyone behind me.”

Wesley Korir won the race with a time of 2:12:40.

“I loved it,” said Coon, who was happy to be greeted by strangers who noticed the Boston Marathon medal around his neck after the race. “I was happy with how I finished, but I still would’ve been happy if I had finished a half hour later. It was the experience: Every chance I got to slap hands or grab water, I did. It was an experience I wouldn’t give back for anything.”

While Coon plans to take part in an Ironman event in Lake Placid this summer, he has put marathons on hold to start a job with Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL) in Niskayuna. After graduation, Coon will work in the plant operations program of KAPL, which is operated for the Department of Energy by Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corporation. He said he will train sailors to operate engine rooms of submarines. It’s a job that combines his love of engineering with hands-on work and dealing with people.
“I have a tough time sitting still for long periods,” he said.

Working in mechanical engineering professor Frank Cardullo’s man-machines systems lab prepared Coon for the working world, he said. Coon worked on flight-simulator technology and was part of a team that included workers at the NASA facility in Langley, Va.

Dealing remotely with people in Virginia was beneficial, Coon said.

“It mirrors the real world because you’re not always doing research on your own huddled in a corner,” he said. “You have to deal with others and different research, philosophical and personal views. It really helped me land the job I’ll have.”

Six years and two mechanical engineering degrees later, Coon said he has enjoyed the academic marathon at Binghamton University.

“I’ve had a really good time here,” he said. “I’ve met great friends and the professors have been willing to spend time with me. In some ways, I’ve enjoyed being here for six years instead of just four. It has been a fun journey.”