Mickey’s on deck

Named for family friend Mickey Mantle, runner Woolard heads to Boston Marathon

The Mick of Lawrence runs along Sixth Street. And runs and runs and runs. His passion for long distances has taken him all the way to Boston, all the way to the most prestigious of all marathon races not run in the Olympic Games.

Mickey Woolard, a Southwest Junior High teacher, leaves today for a trip to the Northeast, where he plans to compete in the Boston Marathon on Monday.

If Woolard, 54, breaks down during his trip, it’s not likely to be a physical collapse while running the hilly streets of Boston, rather an emotional one while standing still and staring straight ahead in the Bronx. Three days after running in the biggest race of his life, Woolard will make his first trip to Yankee Stadium, the old office of the man after whom he was named.

Al Woolard, late great football coach at Lawrence High and before that Mickey Mantle’s high school coach in Commerce, Okla., named his son after the Hall-of-Fame center fielder honored in Monument Park, behind the fence in left-center field. Woolard will visit The Mick’s monument before the afternoon game against the Cleveland Indians. At that moment, childhood memories are bound to consume Woolard.

Memories such as:

¢ Mantle spending the night at the Woolard house on 1940 Tennessee Street, the next day serving as the pitcher for both teams when the neighborhood boys split up teams and played ball in the front yard.

¢ The Mick signing a brand-new baseball that nobody thought to put away for safekeeping.

¢ Billy Martin joining Mantle for a visit to the house.

“Mickey used to like to chase me around the house,” Woolard remembered. “One time when I must have been very little, there was the sound of a barking dog in the house, and Mickey said I needed to go find where the dog was, which I found pretty interesting because we didn’t have a dog at the time. I couldn’t find where the barking was coming from. All the sudden, Billy Martin comes around the corner on his hands and knees barking like a dog. From then on, whenever the Yankees came to Kansas City to the play the Athletics (1955-67), I would tell my friends that Mickey Mantle and the Barking Dog were coming over. They had no idea I was talking about Billy Martin.”

Woolard found the Mantle-autographed baseball recently, and the condition it was in confirmed that the boys did what boys are supposed to do with a brand-new baseball. They played ball with it.

“When Mickey came over, we would always take the time to play catch in the front yard, and we would get the neighborhood kids together to play pickup baseball,” Woolard said. “We had a lot of fun with that and really thought he was a regular guy. The kids all knew he was with the New York Yankees, but New York is a long way from Lawrence, Kansas, and it didn’t quite make a lot of difference to the kids in the neighborhood. They more just enjoyed the fact there was someone willing to be the automatic pitcher for both teams.”

It wasn’t until Woolard visited the Yankees’ clubhouse that he appreciated the enormity of Mantle’s star status. During those visits, he had the chance to meet other Yankees.

“Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris and Elston Howard still stick out as players I remember talking to and visiting with,” he said.

Al Woolard, who counted not only Mantle but Kansas University legend John Hadl (as a halfback) and current Lawrence High football coach Dirk Wedd among his players, didn’t coach his son, and that was the son’s choice.

“I didn’t want to put him in a position he had to think about whether he had to play me,” Mickey Woolard said. “Coaches’ sons are in a tough spot. If you’re good and they play you, they say you’re the coach’s son, that’s why he plays you. If you’re bad and they play you, they say you’re the coach’s son, that’s why you play. It’s kind of a no-win situation. I just decided for his sake I didn’t want to put him in that position. So I was the manager with him.”

He remembered his father saying, “Mickey Mantle could have played any sport professionally and been great at it.”

Mantle and Martin both came to premature ends, fueled by their mostly losing battles with alcohol.

“Two sad endings, and I think that still lingers with me,” Woolard said. “As you learn more about how difficult it is to be a professional athlete, the demands that are put on them by the public, by the sport itself, the demands they put on themselves, the extremely high expectations because of the high salaries, it’s difficult at times for some of the athletes to remember what it was like playing a sport in high school. It gets so big it’s hard for them to be just regular people. With all the exposure they get now it’s very difficult for them to lead a life without somebody watching everything that they do.”

Alcohol is not part of Woolard’s training regiment. “It dehydrates you,” he said.

He said his diet is precise, with six or seven small meals a day. While training, the meals vary little, if at all from day to day, he said.

“That way your body knows what’s coming,” he said.

During Woolard’s runs, he said, friends will spot him so far from home they assume he is either having car trouble or is lost, and they offer him rides that he politely declines, no matter the climate.

Woolard took up running just five years ago, when he and son Andy started competing in 5K runs. Mickey’s self-described obsessive personality has constantly pushed him to extend the length of the races and push for personal records. His first ran a marathon in Chicago in 2002. Since that day, he has taken nearly two hours off his time. He needed to complete the 2005 Chicago Marathon in three hours, 35 minutes to qualify him for the next two Boston Marathon races. He ran a 3:30, and decided not to make the trip to Boston last year.

“I wore a pace band on my wrist so I knew each mile where I needed to be, what time,” he said of his qualifying race. “I was under two or three minutes on my pace band at about mile 21, 22. I thought OK, if you’ve got any extra boost or energy in you, this is the time to do it, and at that time I knew I was going to do it, because there was just this super surge of energy. I came around the corner – you come up over a hill in Chicago, up a bridge – then you turn a corner down to the finish. I will never forget that. It was just so emotional to come down, see that clock and know that I’d finally done it. To me it was such a tremendous accomplishment to run that fast and realize what had just happened.”

Woolard said that in his first 14 races, a mixture of 5K, 10K, and half-marathon runs, he set a personal record. Once he achieves his goal of finishing a Boston Marathon, what’s next for the distance runner? Longer distances.

“I have plans within the next year of running an ultra-marathon, 30 or 50 miles, or farther,” he said. “That’s one goal. The other goal is to run trail marathons, ones that aren’t run in cities. They’re run in the mountains.”

He doesn’t recommend you try that at home.

“I stress to people don’t measure yourself against anybody,” Woolard said. “Do what you need to do. For some people, walking across the living room floor is their marathon. I’ve run with cancer survivors with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, doing some work with them. I’ll tell you what, that’s another whole story, the marathons they run every day getting up. I have all kinds of respect for all distances.”

Respectful of all distances and intimidated by none, Woolard credits wife Berta, who meets him at various spots during all of his races to give him food and water, and daughter Kelsey, who makes encouraging signs she holds up during the races, such as “Go Dad Go!” for paving the way for him to pursue his passion. He also credits his father, the old football coach.

“It requires a lot of organization, a lot of discipline, from the training to the nutrition, and I think that discipline comes from my father,” Woolard said.

Mostly, though, it comes from within. Something inside Mickey Woolard tells him to keep on running, faster and longer.