Imagine how the young man felt going to the hospital. He was twenty-one years old and not much more than a kid himself, and now he and his wife were about to have a kid of their own. It wasn’t that he was irresponsible; he was a hard worker who had grown up in a family where everyone had to pitch in. Hard work and perseverance came naturally to him and had helped him excel as a high school athlete in football and baseball. After graduation, he joined the military. He had been through boot camp. He could handle tough. But this was different. Maybe it was tougher.
Imagine how the young man felt when he heard that there was something wrong with his son — that his boy had been nearly strangled on the umbilical cord during the birth. It was like a hole opening up in his heart. It would be many months before he and his wife were told how profoundly the lack of oxygen had affected the boy’s brain, and thus his body. He would be incapable of controlling his limbs, incapable of speech, incapable of living life outside an institution. Imagine the darkness he felt when the doctors told him that his son wouldn’t play, learn, live a normal life; told him to give up on the boy.
He and his wife wouldn’t do that. They were both stubborn, and not prone to giving up. They’d find a way to take care of him at home, get him the care he needed, teach him what they could. That was going to take money, so the man worked two and sometimes three full-time jobs, which didn’t leave a lot of time to be home. His wife cared for their son, and then two more sons who followed. There was nothing easy about the life they led.
When his disabled son was 11, the man got some engineers at Tufts to build a device that enabled the kid to spell words using movements of his head. Although ingenious, the device itself wasn’t a miracle; the miracle was that when the kid suddenly had had the means to communicate, it turned he knew a ton about what was going on in the world around him. It turned out the kid was sharp. And funny. Suddenly it seemed possible that the kid might be able to be in regular schools with other kids. The man’s wife now dedicated herself to advocating for her eldest son, getting him access to educational opportunities. This was in the early 1970s and it was an uphill battle.
When the son was 15, he told his dad he wanted to participate in a fund-raising event for a kid in their town who had become paralyzed in an accident. The event was a five-mile road race. The dad, who had never been a runner and probably hadn’t run more than a few steps at a time since boot camp, agreed to push his son in a wheelchair. He suffered badly but quitting wasn’t in his nature and the two of them managed to finish. They were next to last.
The dad peed blood afterwards and felt like he had been through Hell, but the kid loved it. He felt like he and his dad were athletes together. He wanted them to race again. That was in 1977. That was before marathons, triathlons, 45-day runs across the United States, and a life in athletics that crowded out everything else for more than thirty years and made them two of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
2013 was supposed to be the last time.
Dick and Rick Hoyt would run the Boston Marathon one last time and then it would be over. At 72 and 51, father and son had spent the better part of their lives as Team Hoyt — the iconic image of persistence in the face of obstacles so great as to border on the incomprehensible. They hadn’t set out to inspire people, and at first race directors didn’t want them. But something happened to people when they saw the Hoyts competing, something that reached down through layers of complacence and spiritual inertia and changed people’s lives. The Hoyts didn’t set out to be heroes, but when they did their thing, they couldn’t help it; they became heroes for thousands of people.
It didn’t take long for the Hoyts to become a fixture in the world of endurance sports. Over four decades, they competed at over a thousand events ranging from local road races to major marathons to triathlons to a 45-day dash across the United States. As Dick got older, family and friends told him it was too much, worried about his health and the toll that the races took on both of them and on their family. Dick had suffered a minor heart attack, had stents in his arteries, was breaking down — as we all eventually break down. Now, thirty-six years after that first 5-mile road race in 1977, they had finally decided to wrap it up. They would hear the gun in Hopkinton one last time, roll through Ashland and Framingham and Natick to accept the roar of recognition and love that followed them like a tsunami. It was time to let the crowds see them climbing heartbreak hill for the final time. No one would care that by that point younger, faster runners would be passing on either side offering words of encouragement. And then — God willing — it would be down Beacon Street, through Kenmore Square, and onto Boylston Street hoping that the pain and fatigue wouldn’t keep them from enjoying their poignant farewell to Boston.
But the Hoyts never made it to the finish line. They were among the thousands of runners stopped a mile before the finish. Bombs at the finish turned thousands of storybook endings into chaotic nightmares, and hopes for a triumphant run down Boylston Street were forgotten in the bedlam.
It’s a year later, and along with everyone else the Hoyts are a year older. This really is it for them. Maybe they should have given it up years ago, and maybe its too much to hope that the old man and his middle-aged son are up to it one more time. But whether they meant to or not, the Hoyts became an iconic sight at the Boston Marathon. After what happened last year, how could they not be part of Boston 2014?
I wish for the Hoyts’ sake that they have a good day. I hope the old man gets through it all right. I can hardly imagine the emotions of such a day, but I hope those emotions rise up to make a hard task more bearable, rather than settle down like the weight of the world on shoulders that have pushed a chair through the streets of Boston for more than thirty years, inspiring grown men and women to catch their breath and cry at the outlandish devotion of it all.