Story by RYAN COMER • Standard-Examiner Staff
SYRACUSE — With about 30 meters to go in his 400-meter race at the 5-A state championships at BYU last month, Syracuse's Hunter Woodhall started to feel intense pain.
It’s a moment, Woodhall says, every sprinter knows will come at some point during a race. Stephen M. Roth, a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, said in “Scientific American” that “the production of lactate and other metabolites during extreme exertion” is the cause.
Lactate, according to Roth, is created to facilitate energy production anaerobically when oxygen is limited.
“It’s like somebody stabs a knife into your legs,” Woodhall said.
It wasn’t enough to stop him from breaking his own state-record time, however. Woodhall finished with a time of 46.24, beating his previous state record of 46.56 which he set less than a month earlier at the Davis Invite.
“It’s just the line,” he said. “At that point, you can definitely see the finish line and you can hear the people screaming and you can hear the people behind you and you know how far you’ve gone.
“You’ve got to that point and you just need to get across the line and finish.”
It takes more than will to get to the point Woodhall has reached.
“Lots and lots of reps,” he said.
Last summer, Woodhall moved to Chula Vista, California, to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center ahead of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. He estimates he trained from four to six hours a day, and that training involved repeat 400-meter sprints.
“You run a rep, you take a second, you get back on the line, you run another one,” Woodhall said.
This year, Woodhall left June 1 to go back to the training center. He likes to go whenever he feels he has time in his schedule.
Running repeat 400s last summer is just one example of how Woodhall has pushed himself over the years.
During the summer heading into his junior year, Woodhall did a workout that involved running 18 consecutive 200-meter sprints.
Then there’s “Fartleks.”
Woodhall said Fartleks involve “being on” and “being off” for different intervals of time that gradually descend. He starts at two minutes, then goes to one minute and thirty seconds, then to 60 seconds, then to 45 seconds, then to 30 seconds and finally to 15 seconds.
“And what I mean by on and off is when you’re on, you’re running as fast as you can for that amount of time,” Woodhall said. “When you’re off, you’re jogging that amount of time. There’s no walking or laying down.”
The reward for completing one cycle? A five-minute rest before another one starts.
“The first one hurts, the second one makes you want to quit track and the third one kills you,” Woodhall said with a chuckle.
His training program is every day for 10 months. When he goes to California, all 24 hours of his day are dedicated to becoming a better track athlete.
Woodhall also focuses on nutrition. When he was in California preparing for Rio, a nutritionist planned his “exact amount of calories, fats, carbs.” He would also do body composition tests and hydration tests.
“So pretty much just making sure that everything that I was doing was helping to elevate myself as an athlete,” Woodhall said.
It’s all worth it when he sees his results.
“I think when you’re working at something and you can see what it’s producing, what results it’s creating … I think those things are extremely motivating to keep going,” Woodhall said.
Not Always A Success
While it doesn’t seem like any obstacle is strong enough to break Woodhall now, he admits he wasn’t always so persistent — or successful.
Woodhall still remembers his first race. It was in St. George at the Utah Summer Games prior to his sixth-grade year. He was running the mile, and after two laps he wanted to quit.
“I walked off the track crying,” he recalled.
His mom gave him a cup of water and told him to get back on the track. He subsequently finished the race.
Woodhall called it a “horrible experience,” but one that gave him a taste of running that catapulted him forward.
He joined the track team at Syracuse Junior High, but he still struggled. He never made the Davis School District championships and never ran a 400 in less than 60 seconds while he was in junior high.
An Olympic Mentor
Woodhall caught a break while in Arizona for a Paralympic competition in 2014. It was there he met Joaquim Cruz, a Brazilian who won the 800 meters at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles with a time of 1:43.00, then an Olympic record.
Cruz later ran the 800 with a time of 1:41.77.
At the time Woodhall met Cruz, summer training was a concern.
“(Syracuse High) coach (Roger) Buhrley worked with him well, but then in the summer and the offseason, it’s like, “OK, what do we do?’” said Woodhall’s mother, Barb.
Cruz took Woodhall under his wing after their initial meeting and started sending him workouts.
Woodhall said Cruz’s involvement has been “absolutely huge.”
“If you just look at the transformation that I made as an athlete from before I met him and after I was on his training program … you can see that my times started to drop extremely fast, and everything about me being an athlete just went to a new level,” Woodhall said.
In 2014, Woodhall finished fourth in the 400 at Region 1’s track and field championships with a time of 52.41. The time was a personal record and allowed Woodhall to qualify for the 5-A state championships.
Two years later, Woodhall was a state champion in the event when he finished with a time of 47.63. Less than two months after taking first at state, Woodhall qualified for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Track and Field team.
On April 29, 2017, at the Davis Invite, Woodhall set a new Utah state record with a time of 46.56. He then broke that record at the 5-A championships with a time of 46.24 as he claimed first place for the second consecutive year.
He calls the 400 “his baby,” but it’s not the only event he’s capable of dominating.
At the Rio Paralympics, Woodhall earned a silver medal in the 200 with a time of 21.12.
He set a Utah state record in the 200 with a time of 21.32 in a 5-A championship preliminary on May 19. He then broke that record in the finals the next day with a time of 21.17.
I can't believe it.
— Ryan Comer (@RyanComerSe) May 20, 2017
He also anchored Syracuse’s 4x400 team that set a Utah state record with a time of 3:16.66 at the Grizzly Invite on April 15. Woodhall ran his split in 45.8.
He improved on that split at the 5-A championships with a time of 45.64, nearly catching the first-place finisher despite starting in last place and knowing before his leg that his team would be disqualified because of a handoff penalty.
The scholarship offers started piling up over the last six months, and in May, Woodhall signed to run on the track team at the University of Arkansas. He’s the first double-amputee to receive a Division-I track scholarship.
On Thursday, Woodhall was named to Team USA for the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships to be held July 14-23 in London. Woodhall participated in the championships two years ago and took silver in the 200 and bronze in the 400.
He’s glad he decided not to quit track forever after the Utah Summer Games.
“I’ve never been raised as a quitter,” Woodhall said. “If I start something, I finish it, and track was just something I decided to take a second chance on and ever since, it’s just been a blessing to me.”
Syracuse High track and field coach Brian Berrong, who has been the head coach the last two years and has known Woodhall since junior high, believes Woodhall has “a lot of ceiling left in the 400” because of his work ethic.
Berrong said a week after the 5-A championships, Woodhall was at the school training at 6 a.m.
“When anybody works that hard — I don’t care if it’s playing the piano, dance — they’re going to be successful,” Berrong said.