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The Wheels Of Life
Gary Smith
April 18, 2011
Over the past 33 years, Dick Hoyt has pushed, pulled and carried his disabled son, Rick, through more than 1,000 road races and triathlons, including 28 Boston Marathons. But as time bears down on them, how much longer can they keep it up?
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April 18, 2011

The Wheels Of Life

Over the past 33 years, Dick Hoyt has pushed, pulled and carried his disabled son, Rick, through more than 1,000 road races and triathlons, including 28 Boston Marathons. But as time bears down on them, how much longer can they keep it up?

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Dick's fingers claw at the front tire, trying to stretch it back over the hub. Rick blinks. How many times must a sacrifice be repeated for its idea to remain alive? How many more pounds of flesh do the Hoyts have to lay on the altar?

C'mon, Hoyts, you can do it! holler the runners pounding past them.

It's a Good Life!, say the big letters on the hubs of the wheels.

The old man looks up. The herd has vanished around a corner. He and his son are alone. Funny. All the don'ts and doubts that they barreled over years ago, back on the first legs of Rick and Dick Hoyt ... are back again on their last. Somebody's going to get hurt. What's the point of this? Who's this really for, the old man or the kid? All the questioning phone calls and letters Dick had received during their first few years of racing, all the cold stares that the Hoyts had finally transformed into awe and standing ovations. Was he supposed to raise the white flag now, with e-mails and letters pouring in from alcoholics and drug addicts and suicidal teenagers and parents of disabled children who've turned away from the abyss and begun running toward life because of Dick and Rick?

What if he'd accepted "reality" that first day, back in the autumn of 1977, when he stood behind Rick's chair among 30 runners in Westfield, Mass., at the starting line of an informal five-mile fund-raiser for a college kid who'd been paralyzed by a collision during a lacrosse match? Dick was a 37-year-old captain in the Air National Guard, going flabby under a hairpiece. Outside of boot camp 18 years earlier, he'd never run more than a mile, and his 15-year-old son's wheelchair was a tank atop four tiny grocery-cart wheels. Dick had lain awake most of the night before, listening to worry whisper. What choice did he have but to run? His paralyzed, speechless teenaged boy—the one that a specialist had called a vegetable and recommended that Dick and his wife, Judy, place in an institution, the firstborn son with cerebral palsy whom Dick had both provided for and avoided by working crazy hours at two or three jobs—had just made the loveliest gazelle leap of imagination and heart.

The boy wanted to show a paralyzed stranger that life goes on after catastrophe, and to show the father he'd been named after that he, too—just like the two younger brothers who would later earn all-state honors in swimming and wrestling—was a gamer, a competitor worthy of Captain Hoyt's pride. So when Rick had finished tapping out a sentence on the communications device at home that biomedical engineers from Tufts had invented for him—a display monitor with rows of alternately lighting letters that he could select with a nudge of his head against a metal switch, nicknamed the Hope Machine by the Hoyts—Dick read his son's request to push him through the upcoming Race for Doogie with a heart that both swelled and sank.

Race day came a few days later. So closeted were the disabled in 1977 that many people, including Dick before the birth of his first son, had never laid eyes on a wheelchair or a quadriplegic, let alone one in a five-mile race. Dick's two other sons, Rob and Russ, wisecracked that the Hoyts' race number, 00, summed up their chances of making it to the finish line. Most people figured Dick would shove the kid as far as the first corner and peel off. None had a clue what happened inside Dick Hoyt's head when it bumped against a task.

Time and distance vanished, even people disappeared. The universe was emptied of everything except the task. Some family members may have noticed this quirk when Dick was a second-grader, the sixth in a brood of 10 blue-eyed blonds. When the stack of firewood dwindled beside the basement furnace in their sardine-can home in North Reading, just north of Boston—a house with no running water or indoor bathroom for Dick's first six years—the little fella would disappear into the woods after school with a hatchet and a handsaw and emerge at dusk bearing armloads of fuel, a habit that would astound his own children decades later. When Rob and Ross would start whining in their third hour of wood-chopping alongside him, he'd insist they'd only been out there, "What, 20 minutes?" Time, they discovered, had meaning only when it was the hour appointed to begin a task. When they showed up a few minutes late to help Dick move an old refrigerator out of the kitchen, they found it already outside: He had strapped it to his back and staggered it there alone.

He grabbed Rick's wheelchair that day 33 years ago and rumbled off, smack into one law of physics that he couldn't overthrow. The crown on the road kept turning the tires of the clumsy wheelchair to one side or the other, sometimes lifting them altogether off the asphalt, forcing Dick to create a constant counterthrust that appalled every muscle in his body. But he just kept going, across the road boda-bumping through his arms and his shoulders, through blisters shredding his heels because of his brand-new running shoes, past cars stopped so drivers could stare and call out, Look at that! Kept going, propelled onward by the kid's wide-apart arms flapping and feeling the air like a pelican on its fuzzy first flight ... onward, because Dick Hoyt had a task.

They crossed the finish line next to last. The crowd whooped. Rob, Russ and Judy wrapped them in hugs, and they headed home: Rick straight to the Hope Machine to assess and Dad straight to the living-room floor to collapse. Dick looked down. Hmmm. His new running shorts were wet, and no, that didn't seem to be sweat, and no, that didn't seem to be urine. Holy crap, that was blood he was peeing!

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