This Ones for You Dad: Loving Memory of Orrin H. Woodward
I was wrapping up my sophomore year of sports at LakeVille High School. Personally, it was another dismal year as I played baseball and struggled all season. (Later, I discovered my glasses were no longer the proper prescription for my severely degraded eyesight, making me as good as blind, but that’s a story for another day.) In sum, my two years of high school sports had yielded intermittent play on a winless freshman basketball team and benchwarmer status on the sophomore baseball team. I had earned my spot on the bench and my self-talk wasn’t helping. Simply put, I didn’t believe I measured up to the level of competition and I fulfilled my low expectations with amazing consistency.
Nevertheless, I loved athletics and when asked to participate in raising money for LakeVille’s sports programs I readily complied. For this particular year, the track coach had suggested a lap-a-thon contest, where people sponsor the athletes for the total laps around the quarter-mile track in an hour. Although I had never run a mile in my life, I felt I was in fairly good shape (since all I did was play sports when not in school) and set an aggressive goal to help the sports programs. Don’t ask me how I arrived at 30 quarter-mile laps in one hour, especially since I had never run more than 2 laps around the track in my life, but that was the goal I set. Further, I rashly proclaimed this goal to every person I asked to be a sponsor of me in the lap-a-thon.
In hindsight, this was not the best plan of attack. For every single person I asked to sponsor me laughed out loud when I told them I was going to run 30 laps. In fact, most of them degenerated into arguments (my people-skills were non-existent) as I told them unequivocally that they could count on me running 30 laps. This only increased the level of laughter and they sought to reason with me and my crazy goal. The comments from my friends ranged from, “Your crazy,” to “The track stars can barely do 30, so you certainly can’t” and finally “Orrin, you said you have never run a mile in your life, so quit embarrassing yourself by committing to run 30!” Dejected, I went home that day with zero sponsors, zero dollars raised, and practically zero confidence in my ability to run 30 laps.
Fortunately, I sought out my Dad’s thoughts on the unfolding saga and received a kinder albeit tentative response. When he was younger, my dad had been an excellent athlete in the army, promoted to be one of the first Green Berets. However, he cautioned me that running 30 laps with no experience would be a painful ordeal. If possible, he suggested I might want to shoot for a smaller goal. Looking back today, with time, experience, and as a dad myself, his advice was right on the mark. It truly was crazy for me to think I could run 30 laps, risking my health, pride, and peace of mind for this absurd goal. Nonetheless, when I explained to my dad how I had already committed myself to hundreds of people, reluctantly, he agreed to support my efforts. He even agreed to attend the lap-a-thon and time my lap pace to ensure I hit 30 laps.
With Dad on my side, I boldly returned to school the next day and announced to my classmate doubters that if they sponsored me and I didn’t run 30 laps, that they would not have to pay the cost of sponsorship. In other words, I would have to pay for everyone who sponsored me leaving me without money or my pride. With this disclaimer, practically everyone volunteered to sponsor me since none of them believed I had a prayer of running 30 laps in an hour without ever having run even a mile previously. I wrapped up the day with nearly $100 (perhaps not much today but around a million dollars for a broke kid!) in sponsorship dollars. Not surprisingly, I became the talk of the high school as people predicted how many laps I would do before collapsing. In fact, the increasing drama led to higher attendance at the event so they could witness Orrin Woodward go down in flames. Even then, I tended to be a little polarizing.
With all the advance hoopla, I realized I should probably practice a little before the big event. Accordingly, the day before the race, I laced up my tennis shoes (that’s right, I didn’t even have running shoes) and ran one time up and one time down my street. This may sound impressive until one realizes that my street dead-ended after an eighth of a mile! In other words, I prepared for this grueling hour long run with a quarter mile jog. Yes, I was clueless on proper running preparation, but with only a day left, I didn’t think I ought to do too much. In truth, there was nothing I could have done to prepare my legs for the physical beating they would endure the next night.
My inexperience led me to make another huge mistake. For some reason I put on a pair of sweat pants underneath my running shorts. This forced me to run the entire race while wearing ridiculously sweatpants despite unseasonably warm weather with start-time temperatures in the mid 70s. Nonetheless, although physically unprepared, I was mentally ready. I took the verbal sparring of my friends as personal challenges which helped me focus on the task at hand. I reviewed each of the names on my sponsor list ensuring I remembered the names during the race. This allowed me to dedicate each lap to different people who sponsored me, especially the ones who told me (along with everyone else) that I would fail.
When the gun sounded, I quickly found a comfortable pace and settled into my routine. I even found a song that I played in my head (for the life of me, I cannot recall which one) and matched the beat of my feet hitting the ground. Lap after lap progressed without incident by dedicating each one to one of my many naysayers. The first 15 laps went flawlessly. I felt great and was halfway home with over 35 minutes to go. The two track stars (predictably) were first and second, but the buzz in the stands (probably fueled by my dad’s enthusiasm) led many to ask who was the kid in third place. I followed on the heels of the two track stars lap after lap as the gathering crowd cheered us on. Do divert myself from the increasing pain of each lap, I focused on how I would feel collecting the nearly $100 dollars from each of my sponsors for the sport programs. The second half, however, did not go nearly as well as the first half. In essence, it became a mental game of pain management, choosing to endure the pain of the laps over the pain of defeat.
The combination of running further than I had ever run before, in sweat pants that refused to release any heat, was debilitating. On top of it all, I barely drank any water because I refused to walk to drink and had no idea how to drink and run simultaneously. Thus, my body was severely overheated, dehydrated, and exhausted. Each added lap narrowed my focus to three options – collapse, quit, or continue. As I ran, I heard my internal voice practically screaming at me to quit and admit that my friends were right. Yet, somehow, deep inside I mustered the mental strength to ignore it, continuing to place one foot in front of the other. Another key was my memorized list of sponsor dedications. Their criticisms kept me going when nothing else did. It helped me focus past the immediate pain and onto the upcoming prize. In a word, I simply refused to let this dream die. Although physically beaten, mentally, I was winning.
I distinctly remember finishing lap 29. I was only one lap away from the greatest victory in my young life. Suddenly, from up in the stands, my dad yells at the top of his lungs, “Son you have under a minute left!” Upon hearing the news, my mind and body went to war. Should I just surrender, since its impossible to run a 60 second quarter in my current condition? Or, should I just sprint with everything I have since its crazy to come this close to a goal and miss? Thankfully, I had no idea how fast I could run a quarter mile so I resolved to unleash an all-out final kick sprint! Racing past everyone else on the track, I pushed my aching muscles and at-capacity lungs beyond the breaking point. I feared the gun sound any second, signifying the end of the event, and prayed it would hold off long enough for me to finish the last lap. Just imagine the joy I felt as I collapsed across the finish line for my 30th lap! I was so happy, yet so physically spent that I just laid there with my head facedown on the track wondering why the gun still hadn’t sounded the end of the contest.
The answer wasn’t long in coming. Laying prostrate on the ground, the track coach tapped me on the head, informing me that I still had nearly 4 minutes left. Apparently, the coach had chased me around the track, attempting to get my attention and tell me not to start my final kick. However, I was so focused that I didn’t hear him or anyone else for that matter. I rolled over onto my back and looked up into the stands, trying to understand why my dad had yelled out one minute left. Embarrassed, he explained later that, although the race was supposed to start at 7 pm, it was delayed and didn’t officially start until 7:05 pm. Somehow, my dad had missed the new start time and I lost five minutes on his time watch. My closing kick, in other words, began with 6 minutes to go. Undaunted, yet exhausted, I gathered my composure, stood back up, and proceeded to walk one final lap dedicated to my dad. I finished the lap-a-thon with 31 laps and went home victorious, but more importantly changed. I learned a valuable lesson that night, namely, it isn’t what other people believe about your abilities that matter near as much as what you believe. Critics and nay-sayers will always be present in a dreamers life and must be used for inspiration and perspiration, not exasperation. Learn to use criticism as fuel and you will never run out of energy.
Speaking of energy, for the next week at school, I had to hoist myself up the stairs with my arms holding on to the handrail. My legs simply didn’t work. I could barely walk and couldn’t do the stairs without help. Even so, no amount of pain could deprive me of the self-respect I gained from following through on an audacious goal. Furthermore, the collection from my lap-a-thon sponsors was a treat as well. That crazy lap-a-thon night was life-changing for me. Indeed, my remaining two years of athletics was drastically different than the first two years as I went on to varsity letter in cross-country, wrestling, and track both my junior and senior years. This culminated in winning the prestigious Garth Yorton award for best male athlete of my senior class. All from a kid who just dared to set a big goal and dare to follow through.
Remember, life is a series of test and no matter how many test one has failed, today is a new day to begin again. My dad and I discussed that lap-a-thon many times over the years. In fact, even after I was in college at GMI-EMI, I visited my dad at work and discovered many of his co-workers knew me as the son who ran the 31 laps. My dad passed away in 2001, but the memories we shared will never pass away. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without my reflecting the many lessons I learned growing up in Columbiaville, Michigan. Thank you dad for investing your time in me. Because you encouraged me to follow through, you had a front row seat in one of my defining life moments. For that I salute you and say – this ones for you dad!