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2:57 pm
Fri April 11, 2014

Father-Son Team To Run One Last Boston Marathon

Later this month is the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, and this year’s race is especially significant because it’s the first time it’s being run since last year’s bombing at the finish line. Because of that attack, two people will be taking part in this year’s Boston Marathon who hadn’t intended to be there: Dick and Rick Hoyt.

For years, some spectators have come out just to see them — 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 end, though; they were among the almost 6,000 runners stopped on the course when the bombs went off.

Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer reports that Team Hoyt is running one last Boston Marathon, this time in honor of all the people killed and injured in last year’s attack.

Reporter

  • Sacha Pfeiffer, senior reporter and host of WBUR’s local All Things Considered. She also fills in as a host for Here & Now. Find her on twitter @SachaPfeiffer.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. This is HERE AND NOW.

Later this month is the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, and this year's race is especially significant because it's the first time it's being run since last year's bombing at the finish line. Because of that attack, two people will be taking part in this year's Boston Marathon who hadn't intended to be there, Dick and Rick Hoyt.

For years, some spectators have come out just to see them - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PFEIFFER: 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 end 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.

How Dick and Rick Hoyt first competed together is now a beloved Massachusetts story. Rick has cerebral palsy, the aftermath of oxygen being cut off to this brain when he was born with an 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.

DICK HOYT: When Rick came home he told me all about it. 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.

PFEIFFER: 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.

HOYT: Everybody thought that we would just go to the corner and turn around and come back. Well, we didn't. We finished the whole five miles, coming in next to last but not last.

(LAUGHTER)

HOYT: And when we got home that night, Rick wrote on his computer, dad, when I'm running, it feels like my disability disappears.

PFEIFFER: 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.

HOYT: He called himself free bird because now he was free and able to be out there competing and running with everybody else. And he actually had a sign made up that said free bird that he attached to his running chair.

PFEIFFER: 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.

HOYT: They made us qualify in Rick's age group, and that was kind of tough, you know, 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.

PFEIFFER: Hard?

HOYT: Hard, yeah.

PFEIFFER: 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.

HOYT: And so what I did is I replaced him with a bag of cement. And at that 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. It was unbelievable, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: 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.

HOYT: When Rick was born, you know, we'd take Rick in a restaurant, people would get up and leave. 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.

PFEIFFER: Team Hoyt didn't begin as a cause. But the Hoyts became, in a way, accidental crusaders. They started hearing from alcoholics, drug addicts, injured military veterans, struggling people who told the Hoyts they'd given them inspiration to try to turn their lives around.

HOYT: And the biggest thing is that we got all these other kids that 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.

PFEIFFER: 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.

HOYT: My body is starting to tell me, you know, after all these races and stuff, that it's time to cut back.

PFEIFFER: 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.

HOYT: We got to the 23-mile marker and I noticed a lot more police activity, 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.

PFEIFFER: At that point, Dick Hoyt knew the marathon was over. Did you know immediately this can't be our last marathon because of the attack?

HOYT: Oh, yeah, because we - well, we didn't finish it. But the big thing was - our concern was the people that were getting and wounded, you know? And so that's why we're running this year, is for the people who got killed and wounded.

PFEIFFER: 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 by finding someone other than his dad to push him.

RICK HOYT: The Boston Marathon is the one event that I look forward to all year long.

PFEIFFER: This is Rick's computerized voice, the one that lets him express all the ideas and feelings teeming in his head that his mouth can't produce.

HOYT: The people along the way are the best. When I hear them yell our names out, it gives me a great feeling inside.

PFEIFFER: Rick had arrived 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 computerized speech, so instead he played for me a recording he'd made.

HOYT: 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.

PFEIFFER: That sound at the end was Rick smiling as he listened along. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PFEIFFER: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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