Keith Duggan: Dick Hoyt’s heroic feats with his son a study in raw courage

Duo competed in races propelled by father’s superhuman will to give his boy a sporting outlet

There’s a terrible parallel story to the life of Dick Hoyt, who competed in over 40 marathons with Rick, his quadriplegic son whom he pushed in a specially designed chair. It’s that the Hoyts had listened to the medical advice when Rick was a baby, in the unenlightened early 1960s.

“He’s gonna be nothin’ but a vegetable for the rest of his life,” is how Hoyt senior remembered the brutal prognosis during an award ceremony at which they were honoured a few years ago.

By then, the Hoyts were a reassuring and reliable fixture on the American marathon culture and part of folklore in their local race, the Boston marathon. They competed in 32 of those.

And it was Hoyt that Barack Obama invoked when he made his first public address after the Boston marathon bombing in 2013: “In the words of Dick Hoyt: ‘we can’t let something like this stop us.’”


Dick Hoyt died on Thursday at the age of 80, bringing to a close a story of supreme love and courage and, also, raging defiance.

On a purely athletic level, what the Hoyts did together borders on the miraculous. The father was 40 years old and a reluctant jogger when he pushed his son through their first competitive race, a five-miler in Boston which left him wrecked with stiffness for days afterwards.

But once he learned that the sensation of racing made Rick feel completely free within his body, he was hooked. They had a special chair designed. They shrugged when race officials told them they couldn’t enter a race as a tandem; that they defied all categories and ran anyway. Their times improved. Society caught up with them and they were allowed to enter races officially.

If you look at photos of Hoyt senior, he was built in the square-shouldered uncompromisingly athletic mould of Burt Lancaster: he looks as though he wouldn’t so much run a marathon course as pulverise it.

By 1992, when Dick was 52, the Hoyts completed a Washington marathon in a time of 2 hours 40 minutes. It’s insanely fast: it put Hoyt first place in the 50-59 bracket. Of course, none of the others were pushing anything.

But Hoyt shrugged off the idea that he would ever compete on his own.

“I just don’t have the desi-ah to be out running by myself,” he said once in an accent that is pure Jack-Kennedy-in-the-1960-primaries.“I think it is just something that comes from his body to my body and it makes us go faster. He’s actually the athlete.”

Sports nut

Rick was one of three Hoyt boys and was born quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, with no control over his limbs and an inability to speak. The young parents were told that the only sensible action was to have him institutionalised and to get on with their lives. Judy and Dick had never heard of cerebral palsy but decided on their way home to reject the advice.

Over the next 10 years, they learned to read their son through his eyes and movements and were certain of a sharp intelligence locked with his frame. In 1972, Dick persuaded engineers at Tufts to design a machine through which Rick could tap out letters using his head. His very first written communication was: Go Bruins. He was a sports nut.

From a distance, the Hoyt story sounds warm and inspirational and the various news stories down the decades invariably come with syrupy string music and talk about their story as inspiring.

On one level, it is. But when you actually think about what they were out there doing for 40 years, it is hard to see it as anything less than an unfathomable act of courage. Many people set out to run just one marathon in their lives and are justifiably pleased with themselves. For many people, it’s a gruelling act of endurance and self-discovery.

The Hoyts ran their races propelled by the father’s superhuman will to give his son a true flavour of the kind of tasks and pleasures most children can take for granted. They didn’t stop at marathons. Hoyt senior learned to swim so he could tow Rick on a dinghy during the swim sections of the triathlons they completed.

And the races must have been the easy part – the crowds, the cheering. Think of the countless afternoons they must have spent training and the preparation behind those sessions during the grim New England winters and you begin to get an idea of what they were about.

The aches and calloused hands and nobody out there but the two of them. It’s the relentless physical graft– hours and hours and, then suddenly, years and years – behind the cute father-pushes-son-through-race story that makes who the Hoyts were appreciable as a blazing and kind of frightening act of relentless love and resilience.

And on both their parts, because as the technology afforded Rick better opportunities to express who he was, the largeness of spirit and the optimism and gratitude came flooding out. He graduated from college, got to live independently and if he couldn’t ever run, then he got to experience the runner’s existence.

The most striking thing about their life together in road racing was that it traversed Rick’s journey from boyhood to middle age. The Hoyts ran their first race when Jimmy Carter was president of America. In 1977, Rumours was the best selling album of the year and in cinemas, Star Wars blew minds.

It’s a long vanished time and as the world hurtled towards the new millennium and everything speeded up, the Hoyts continued to do their thing, turning up at the start line, year after year, decade after decade, slowly becoming older, asking nothing.

Big fuss

They never made a big fuss of themselves and the matter-of-fact demeanour they share leaves so much of big time sport – the vanity and ego – seem ludicrous in comparison. But then, they made no claims about themselves other than that of being “ a couple of stubb-awn Boston guys”.

And when Dick Hoyt reached the age of 73 and his body couldn’t give any more, they stepped out with the same grace which had marked their early appearances.

It’s hard to know where the Hoyt story sits in the vast, messy empire we think of as “sport”. It’s never a place they sought. But in their own way they provoked the exact same sensation as Jordan or Messi in that their movement, their presence, had the power to pull people out of themselves and to provoke joy, tears, amazement, empathy admiration – the best of the childish escapism we draw from sport.

A few photo montages of the Hoyts have zipped through social media over the past couple of days. There’s a gorgeous photo of the father with his infant son in one of those quintessentially 1970s Christmas photographs that sit in every family album in the world– the tawny Polaroid light, the sparsely decorated tree.

And beside it, decades later, a profile shot of the pair racing on the road. Nobody else in the frame and the back wheel of Rick Hoyt’s chair bearing the slogan “It’s A Good Life”.

It belongs with the very best images in all of sport.