The Fifth Quarter

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    As a youngster Doug Padilla sat on the bench. Though he didn’t know it yet, in his chest beat the heart of a champion.

    When Doug Padilla was a high school freshman in Oakland, California, he decided to join a basketball team. Unfortunately, he was only four feet eleven inches tall. Fortunately, there was a special lightweight league for short people. “They took your age, weight, and height and rated you. If you scored low enough, they let you compete. If you scored really low, they put you in the D division. They put me in the D division.” But even in the D division there were challenges. “I had to play against some tall guys—some as tall as five feet four. And even the guys my size were better than I was, so I sat on the bench.”

    But that was just for the first four quarters. “After every game they’d have a fifth quarter, where everyone would get to play. So I played in the fifth quarter.” Game after game, Doug rode the bench for the first four quarters, and then went out on the floor to do battle against the other fifth quarterites, fighting valiantly for rebounds against five-feet-four-inch giants. Although the rest of his body didn’t know it yet, the heart of a champion was beating in the thin little chest of Doug Padilla.

    Doug had always loved sports. Maybe it was because they almost all required running, and running was his favorite activity. As a child he ran everywhere. If you saw someone walking you knew you weren’t looking at Douglas Padilla. “I didn’t like to just wait around. Why walk if you can get there faster by running?” And of course there were always races for an aspiring young runner—impromptu school ground and back lot challenges as well as the prestigious 50 yarders sponsored by the grade school. There was only one problem. “I was always getting beat. In fact, the girls all beat me.”

    This was a great boon for equality, but it wasn’t a real ego booster, especially for a boy who already carried the burden of being the smallest boy in his class. But rather than throwing away his sneakers and giving up, Doug just kept running.

    He is still running today. Seven times an All-American during his track career at BYU, he now runs for the Athletics West Track Club. He has been ranked number one in the world in the indoor 3,000 and 5,000 meters, and fifth in the world in the 5,000 meters outdoor. He has enjoyed wins in many important national and international competitions, including the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland. He was the top American qualifier for the 5,000 meters in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he had health problems at the games and finished a disappointing seventh. Like the seasoned competitor he is though, he put it behind him as “just another race” and is back working his way to the top. He enjoyed a spectacular indoor season this past winter, winning five of the seven races he entered. He was the fastest American in the 3,000 meters, the 5,000 meters, the two mile, and the three mile.

    Doug’s rise from neighborhood “also ran” to world-class runner didn’t happen overnight, of course. It took some fifth quarter effort along the way. Even when he was still the slowest kid around, Doug always ran in every race he could. Finally, in junior high school he got on the track team.

    At last, all the running and fifth-quarter determination started paying off. Doug’s speed and endurance began to soar. His time in the two mile improved from 11:50 his freshman year to 9:17 his senior year, when he went undefeated in cross-country and won the league meet. He went all the way to state in the two mile, finishing 13th with a personal record of 9:15.4.

    After high school, Doug was not deluged with scholarship offers. By college standards, he was still a very average runner. He did finally receive an offer from a junior college near his home, however. At the end of the first year there he surprised everyone, including himself, by running a 4:10.7 and winning the mile at the Northern California Championships. At this point, Doug decided to go to BYU. He didn’t have a scholarship or even an invitation, but he went anyway. When you’ve spent a whole year in the fifth quarter, you’re game for about anything. That fall he went out for cross-country and finished as the eighth man on the team.

    Soon after the end of the cross-country season, Doug was called to serve a mission in El Salvador. His track career was a little shaky at best, and he had no particular reason to think that a two-year absence would improve it much, but his desire to follow the counsel of the General Authorities was strong. As he served the people of El Salvador through his calling, he began to change in many ways. He began to have a different perspective on sports and life in general.

    “When you look at a high school athlete, he grows up with sports. He eats it and drinks it. That’s his life—everything. As you grow up a little more, you find out there’s a little more to life, and then you go on a mission and find out you don’t have to run and compete to be successful and to feel important as a person. Then your emphasis changes, and running isn’t necessary anymore. Many times sports are a means by which individuals can gain self-confidence and self-esteem. Many people go through an identity crisis. How important are they as an individual? As you go on a mission you realize that the Lord loves you and cares about you and is concerned with your being a good person regardless of how you are athletically. You come to realize that your relationship with people, school, your church callings, a number of things—all are important, not just athletics. You become a little more aware of life.

    “I was always very small in high school and had little self-confidence, but now my confidence is in the Lord.”

    The two years in El Salvador proved to be a blessing athletically. Even though Doug had little opportunity to run in the mission field, his body had a chance to mature. He returned stronger and faster than when he left. He was the 23rd American finisher in the NCAA cross-country championships that year, earning all-American honors. He was also part of a distance medley team that took second in the nation.

    His junior year brought only moderate success. In the outdoor season he finished sixth in the nationals in the 5,000-meter run.

    In his senior year he finished 15th in the cross-country nationals. Then came the golden indoor season that was to vault him into the aristocracy of the running world. He somehow managed to talk his way into the Sunkist Invitational meet, even though his times really didn’t qualify him for that level of competition. There he went head to head in the two mile with the great Suleiman Nyambui, the University of Texas at El Paso star. Doug had never beaten Nyambui, the silver medalist in the 500 meters at the Moscow Olympics, although as members of the same college athletic conference, the two had competed many times. This time Doug stayed right behind Nyambui throughout the race.

    “When Suleiman moved out to take the lead, I stepped right out behind him. I stayed right on his tail. I decided that what I needed to do was surprise him when I went around him. It’s twenty-two laps on the indoor track for two miles. So I said, ‘with two laps to go, I’ll make my move.’ So that’s what I did. I made it right at the top of the turn. I cut a little close, and I just brushed him with my arm, and I think that kind of surprised him. I brushed by him on the outside just as he looked to the inside to see where everybody was. I think he was kind of startled, and by the time he recovered I had six or seven yards on him. And then I just ran like crazy. He never caught me. Indoors the race is often won by the man who makes the first move and doesn’t die. The crowd was amazed that Suleiman could be beaten, especially by me.”

    This was a victory that any athlete could treasure for life, even if it was followed by no others, but in this case both Doug and most knowledgeable track people sensed that it marked a great turning point in his career, the beginning of something big, a rite of passage from just another good college runner to something different. Doug was edging into that elite circle of athletes who can be described as “world-class.”

    In the Western Athletic Conference indoor track meet, Doug once again shocked everyone by beating Suleiman. Some had assumed that the first victory was a fluke—a very impressive fluke notwithstanding.

    This set the stage for the indoor nationals. “I knew that Suleiman would be expecting me this time, and that I would have to move earlier than I had before. So I made a move with five laps to go, almost a half mile. That was quite a race. It was rough. He ran in lane two for almost the last five full laps. He tried to pass me repeatedly. I won by four-hundredths of a second.” Less than an hour later, Doug had to run the 5,000 meters. Not knowing how much he had left, he dropped to the back of the pack. With two and a half laps to go, he made his move, swinging wide around a group in front of him. He moved into third place with a lap to go, took second on the backstretch, and kicked hard in a grim charge to overtake Suleiman. He couldn’t quite catch him, finishing second.

    In the outdoor nationals that spring, he finished fourth in both the 1,500 and 5,000 meters. His college career was ended, but he was still getting faster and stronger all the time. It was time again for the fifth quarter.

    Even though there are many rewards in competitive running, it is not exactly what the average person would describe as fun. It hurts. It hurts a lot. Somewhere in the course of the race all the body’s needs and desires become reduced to one—to stop. “It’s a matter of losing your concentration. You slow down, and all of a sudden you look up and realize they have ten yards on you. You lose contact with what’s going on and they break you.” The successful runner must resist this, forcing his body to do his mind’s will.

    “You have to decide beforehand what you’re going to do in a race, and then you go out and you do it. With my style of running I need to decide that I’m going to stay with certain runners no matter what until I start my kick at the end. Then it’s a matter of staying with that decision regardless of how I feel. Once you’ve gone through about half the race at a good pace, you lose a little bit of the awareness of how you feel. You just learn to concentrate more on staying with an individual. You put all your energies into it, and you mask out everything else. I used to wonder how bad I wanted to win, if I wanted success enough to be willing to hurt for it. It’s a matter of determining if it’s really worth it to you or not.”

    If a runner wants to know the limits of his own potential, there is a price to pay. “If you go by how you feel, you’re always going to decide you don’t have enough, and so you’ll fall back. And if you push it, there’s always more than you think. And even if there isn’t, you’ll at least know where you stand.”

    Does the gospel help Doug in his running? “It has given me confidence in myself. My mission had a lot to do with that. Realizing that I could go out and do something, that I could seek the Lord’s help in accomplishing something, helped me believe in my individual worth as a person, that I was important.”

    How important is the gospel in his life? “There isn’t anything more important in my life than the gospel. It is much more important than running. There isn’t any comparison. If running is the most important thing in your life and you get injured or become too old to compete, then you are left with nothing. When I was a teenager I didn’t have this kind of a testimony or perspective. I was still learning. The Church was important, but I didn’t realize how important. My mission taught me that I can do whatever the Lord wants me to do—anything.”

    Where does running fit into Doug’s vision of the gospel? “The Lord wants us to develop the talent that we have, and it’s a responsibility each person has, so in that sense, it’s something that I need to do. But I’ve always felt that it’s something the Lord wants me to do also. If I didn’t have the feeling that he wanted me to run, I probably wouldn’t be running now, just because in the years after I got back from my mission, I didn’t handle the pressure very well. It was a lot to go through, especially when you’re not doing that well, and there are other things more important to me in my life. Now it would be hard to imagine not running. But there’s an awful lot of pressure before a race. I’m extremely nervous. I have to eat five or six hours before I run or I will throw up. It’s just very unpleasant. Just imagine yourself standing up to talk in general conference, and you’ll have some idea. If I didn’t feel the Lord had some purpose for me in this I wouldn’t be doing it.”

    Doug gained a great strength in his life on July 14, 1983, when he married Lynette Nielson of Golden, Colorado, in the Salt Lake Temple. “Marriage has been good to me,” he says. “I’ve got a great wife. She gives me a clearer perspective on running and on life.”

    When will Doug stop running? “When the Lord wants me to stop.”

    How will he know when that happens? “I just won’t have any desire to run anymore.”

    That time isn’t in sight right now. The short, skinny kid who lost to the girls in grade school, who had to wait for the fifth quarter to play basketball, who ran just because he loved running, has grown up into one of the finest distance runners on the planet Earth. He knows now that if you work and wait long enough, giving it everything you have, your fifth quarter will come, because the fifth quarter is only for those with the courage to endure to the end.

    Photos courtesy of family and Eldon Linschoten

    Determination typified Doug’s attitude on his first day of school in 1961, and made him keep on trying when as a seventh grader he was “always getting beat.” It’s the same determination he exudes today, even when he’s just stretching out his muscles before his daily workout.

    By the time he was in high school, Doug made it to the state finals, finishing 13th. But his best college years didn’t come until after his mission. Now he’s a world-class athlete any coach would love to work with, and he’s gained the added strength and perspective temple marriage can bring.