In Memory of Her Son, Lisa Barton Readies for My Big Run

Two smiling women hold out their race medals

Lisa Barton, 53, of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is ready for My Big Run on June 3, 2020. She posted on Fleet Feet’s Strava group that she will run this year in honor of her son.

“I am so excited for this! Last year I PR’d at this event! I haven’t done much since then because my son passed away but I’m back at it and my goal is to PR this year again! Running in his memory and his name!”

In an interview with Fleet Feet, Barton says that the past 20 months were the most difficult of her life. She was tested by her own near-death experience followed by the death of her son, the loss of her job and the uncertainty of COVID-19.

But just before her world turned upside down, Barton started running. She says the journey helped her find meaning despite the difficulties she has faced.

In the beginning, my son, Ben [Woodward], was the one who got me out the door to run,” says Barton. “In a way, I feel like he was teaching me how to one day run without him and keep his legacy alive.”

Today when Barton goes for a run, she does so in her son’s memory. She writes his name on each new pair of Brooks running shoes and talks to his photo as she laces them up.

Ben Woodward runs on a park path

Ben Woodward: Teacher, Coach, Mentor

Woodward coached track and cross country and taught French to middle and high school students. In July 2019, he was killed by a fall while hiking alone. He was 30 years old.

Barton says that over 800 people attended her son’s funeral. Woodward’s high school cross country coach, Keith Williams, says delivering Woodward’s eulogy was one of the most difficult things he has had to do.

He remembers Woodward as a quiet, hard worker with an adventurous spirit. Williams told mourners Woodward’s legacy in life was to serve others. He had “passed the baton” to those he taught, coached and mentored. He encouraged those in attendance to continue that legacy.

Chris Kvech (18) says he still carries the life lessons Woodward taught him in middle school, like how to be the bigger person in a conflict. “He was that guy you could talk to about anything,” Kvech says. “He wouldn’t judge you.”

At the funeral, a group of student athletes from Loch Raven High School approached Barton. “One said that Ben gave him his first pair of running shoes,” she says. “It turned out about six kids said that he gave them shoes.”

As the group shared stories, Barton says, everybody started to laugh. Each student thought they were the only one Woodward had helped. “I think he gave in secret because he didn’t want anyone to feel shame,” Barton says.

She and Woodward knew how it felt to need shoes they couldn’t afford. Barton was a single mom who worked two jobs in order to provide for her four kids. She couldn’t afford new running shoes when Woodward started his first cross country season. So, another family offered to take him shopping.

They bought Woodward shoes, and wouldn’t let Barton pay them back. Instead, they requested that Woodward and Barton help someone else when they could. “I had no idea the extent to which he would fulfill that promise,” she says.

Garrett Harris, 19, was another student who Woodward coached and looked out for. He says, “I didn’t grow up with a father and he kinda took that spot.” Woodward taught him how to be mentally tough, something he also helped his mother with.

What Woodward saw in his mother

“I was overweight as a kid,” Barton says. “I never tried any sports because I didn’t want somebody to make fun of my weight.” Her struggle with negative self-talk and fear of failure got in her way.

Woodward challenged her in March of 2018 at his half marathon in Virginia Beach. She was there to cheer for him and his younger sister, Olivia, 20. Ben crossed the finish line, and she ran to greet him.

“Mom, don't you ever get tired of waiting at the finish line for me?” he said, and held up his finisher’s medal. “Don't you ever want to cross it yourself, and have one of these around your neck?"

In that moment, Barton realized that she did want to run a half marathon. But she wasn’t sure if she could. She was 51 and had never run a step in her life. Ben was an experienced runner and coach. He insisted on training her. They made a goal that she would run the same half marathon the following year.

Lisa Woodward and family in race bibs with dogs

Starting to run

Under her son’s guidance, she started by speed-walking on the hills and mountains near her home. Slowly, she progressed as planned and added running into the mix. It was painful at first, but she persisted. She registered for the half marathon, despite the anxiety that it triggered.

She called Woodward to say she didn’t know if she could do it. He told her if she wanted a pity party, he wouldn’t give it to her. But if she wanted help, he would get her ready. It worked.

By May, Barton completed her first 5K, running and walking behind her two daughters. Gradually, running got easier. By August she had covered a 10K on her own.

By September, she nearly lost everything she had worked for. While hiking on the Loyalsock trail with her husband, her boots slipped on wet terrain. Before she could catch herself, Barton slammed into a rock, crushing the left side of her face.

Her sinus, cheek and nose would have to be surgically repaired. She was lucky to be alive. Training could not continue until she had recovered.

But Barton's reaction to this setback surprised everyone. “Instead of the typical negative voices coming into my head, a warrior came out,” she says. “I was going to do that half marathon no matter what and I worked closely with my surgeon to make sure that would happen.”

Sure enough, with two months to recover from the fall and her surgery, Barton got clearance to keep training. She completed a turkey trot 5K with her family that November. “My face went numb but I kept running,” she says. “I cried when I crossed the finish line. I was so stinking proud of myself.”

Barton continued to train, and made it to the Yuengling Shamrock Half Marathon in March of 2019, joined by her daughter, Olivia. Ben’s school had scheduled a student trip to France, and he had to miss the race.

Barton ran farther than she ever had. By the ninth mile, her knee was hurting and her toes were asleep. She called Woodward to ask what to do. Incredulous that she would call during the race, he walked her through it, then told her to call back when she was finished. She got past the pain and crossed the finish line. When she texted her son to thank him, he responded, “I gave you the idea, but you did the work.”

Lisa Barton with a PR sign at The Big Run

Moving forward, passing the baton

A few months later, Woodward passed away. At that time, running simply felt too hard for Barton.

“I miss my son so desperately,” she says. “Sometimes when I ran I would fall on my knees and just sob. I kept thinking, my coach isn’t here and it’s not fair that I keep living, that I’m able to run. I couldn’t stand to see anyone else running when Ben couldn’t do it anymore.”

But by the end of 2019, Lisa decided it was time to get back on track. She needed a challenge to keep her accountable. She got back to running just before lockdown began for COVID-19 in March 2020. She plans to complete a 5K for the My Big Run virtual race on June 3, 2020, and has her sights set on a new PR. What’s more, she wants to help others experience the empowerment that she found through running.

“I want to help women my age realize that they are more than just moms, they are more than just a paycheck and they are more than just an age. They are so worth the time and effort to push toward a goal whether it be running or any other dream they may have.” Barton is working with twelve of her friends to get more active. Most of them are in their fifties.

Barton recently lost the job she held as a caregiver for the past 17 years. Despite the hardships and uncertainty, Barton says she knows that she is capable of going in a new direction.

“Those voices in my head don’t speak very loud anymore,” Barton says. “They can’t. I already proved them wrong.”

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