BOSTON — Along the Boston Marathon course each year, some spectators are there just to see Dick and Rick Hoyt: the compact, muscular man and his quadriplegic son, the father running while pushing a wheelchair all 26.2 miles. Team Hoyt, they’re called, and they’ve been Boston Marathon stalwarts since 1981.
But last year, after three decades of competing in the race, Dick and Rick Hoyt decided 2013 would be their last. They never made it to the finish, though; they were among the almost 6,000 runners stopped on the course when the bombs went off. So Team Hoyt is running again — one last Boston Marathon, they told me, this time in honor of all the people killed and injured in last year’s attack.
I met the Hoyts at Dick’s home in the small central Massachusetts town of Holland, a few miles from Rick’s apartment in neighboring Sturbridge. The house is a shrine to Team Hoyt — walls lined with medals and plaques they’ve won in their nearly 1,100 races, and photos of them with luminaries they’ve met over the years.
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They didn’t imagine becoming such VIPs back when they first raced together when Rick was 15 years old. Rick has cerebral palsy, the aftermath of oxygen being cut off to his brain when he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Rick’s mind is intact but he can’t speak or control his limbs. He did attend school, though, and one day he used his computerized voice to tell his dad about a charity road race. It was for a student lacrosse player who’d been badly injured in an accident.
“When Rick came home he told me all about it,” Dick recalled, “and he said, ‘Dad, I have to do something for him. I want to let him know life goes on even though he’s paralyzed. I want to run in the race.’ ”
At the time, Dick Hoyt was far from in top physical condition; his responsibilities as a husband and father of three boys didn’t leave much time for exercise. He didn’t want to say no to his son, though, so they entered the race.
“Everybody thought that we would just go to the corner and turn around and come back,” Dick remembered. “Well, we didn’t. We finished the whole five miles, coming in next to last, but not last! And when we got home that night, Rick wrote on his computer, ‘Dad, when I’m running it feels like my disability disappears.’ ”
For Rick, being on a race course — even though it was his father’s legs doing the running — gave him the sense he was as able-bodied as all the other competitors.
“He called himself ‘free bird’ because now he was free and able to be out there competing and running with everybody else,” Dick says. “And he actually had a sign made up that said ‘free bird’ that he attached to his running chair.”
The Hoyts knew they had to keep running. So they had a special racing wheelchair made for Rick, a streamlined three-wheeler that wouldn’t keep veering off course. Then they began doing longer races, and eventually set their sights on the Boston Marathon. Race organizers turned them down at first but finally relented, although the Hoyts got no special treatment.
“They made us qualify in Rick’s age group,” Dick said, “and that was kind of tough because Rick was in his 20s, I was in my 40s, and they were using Rick’s age for us to qualify. And that meant we had to run a 2:50 — hard!”
But they qualified, and ran Boston, and that was the beginning of a legendary father-son partnership. The Boston Marathon became an annual event for them. Then came triathlons and Ironmans. They use a specially designed tandem for their bike rides and a boat with a cord Dick pulls for their swims. Training got tricky when Rick went away to college at Boston University.
“So what I did is I replaced him with a bag of cement,” Dick recalled. “And at the time he weighed 95 pounds and the bag of cement weighed 94 pounds, so it made sense. So I put a bag of cement in the running chair and in the bike. But you should have seen the looks of all these people — me riding downtown, carrying a bag of cement.”
They competed all over the world. And the more Dick and Rick raced publicly, the more they wanted the world to know that a physical disability doesn’t have to be insurmountable. It hadn’t been for Rick. That’s even though doctors had said he’d be a life-long vegetable best put away in an institution, and even though some people thought Rick — with his flailing arms and legs — shouldn’t even be out in public.
“When Rick was born, we’d take Rick in a restaurant, people would get up and leave,” Dick said. “Then they didn’t want him in school. Then they didn’t want us competing. And our message is: yes you can. There isn’t anything you can’t do as long as you make up your mind to do it. And there’s no such word as no.”
Team Hoyt didn’t begin as a cause. But the Hoyts became, in a way, accidental crusaders. TWEET They started hearing from alcoholics, drug addicts, injured military veterans — struggling people who told the Hoyts that they’d given them inspiration to try to turn their lives around.
“The biggest thing,” Dick added, “is that we got all these other kids who are physically challenged out in the public now, and they’re able to live, learn, work and play just like everybody else. We have been able to help change all of that.”
They’ve done that through their Hoyt Foundation, which raises money for nonprofits that help disabled kids. Last year, though, the Hoyts paused to reassess. Dick is now 73. Rick, his kid, is now middle-aged; he’s 52. And all the competing has taken its toll on Dick especially. He has carpal tunnel syndrome from the miles spent clutching a wheelchair. He had a heart attack a decade ago. His back constantly aches.
“My body’s starting to tell me, after all these races and stuff, that it’s time to cut back,” Dick conceded.
And a Sports Illustrated story three years ago suggested that Team Hoyt had been pushing too far for too long. The 2013 Boston Marathon, Dick and Rick decided, would be their last as a team. Their announcement made national headlines, and they were commemorated with a life-size bronze statue in Hopkinton to mark their final crossing of the starting line. On race day — April 15, 2013 — they almost finished.
“We got to the 23-mile marker and I noticed a lot more police activity,” Dick recalled, “and so I stopped and I talked to a police officer. I said, ‘Is there anything going on?’ And that’s when he told me that two bombs had exploded at the finish line.”
At that point Dick Hoyt knew the marathon was over. I asked Dick if he and Rick decided immediately that because of the attack, 2013 couldn’t be their final time doing the Boston race.
“Oh yeah,” he replied. “Because — well, we didn’t finish it. But the big thing, our concern, was the people who got killed and wounded, you know? And so that’s why we’re running this year, is for the people who got killed and wounded.”
The Hoyts say their racing days won’t be entirely over after this year’s Boston. They still plan to do shorter runs together. And some Team Hoyt supporters want to help Rick keep competing in Boston without his dad. I asked Dick how he thought he’d feel seeing someone else push Rick.
“I think it will be awesome,” Dick replied. “He’s even got three women who want to do triathlons with him — one to do the swim, one to do the run, and one to do the bike!” he added with a laugh.
I inquired again: it won’t feel even a little poignant with him not being the one behind the chair or pulling the boat? “No,” Dick said. “It’s time for other people to take over.”
Rick had arrived at the house in Holland, Mass., midway through my conversation with his dad, quietly rolling through a back door with the help of one of his personal care attendants. It’s laborious for him to create new speech, so instead he played for me a recording he’d made using his computerized voice, which lets him express all the ideas and feelings teeming in his head that his mouth can’t produce.
One portion describes his feelings about the Boston race: “The Boston Marathon is the one event that I look forward to all year long. It is definitely my favorite race. There is such excitement and electricity throughout the air. The people along the way are the best. They have such enthusiasm when my dad and I run by, the adrenaline rush is unbelievable. A lot of people recognize us because we have run so many times that when I hear them yell our names out, it gives me a great feeling inside.”
In his recording, Rick also says: “Many people have asked me what I would do if I weren’t disabled. I have thought long and hard about what I would do if I weren’t in a wheelchair. Maybe I would play hockey, basketball or baseball. But then I thought about it some more and realized that what I would probably do first is tell my dad to sit down in the wheelchair, and now I would push him.”
I asked Dick Hoyt about that: the idea of him in the chair, with Rick running behind.
“Wouldn’t that be awesome,” Dick said. But he told me Rick already pushes him now with that big smile on his face as he rides past the waving, cheering crowds.
A “free bird,” just like the sign on the wheelchair says.