‘Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped,” said Rick Hoyt back in 1977.

You may not have heard of Rick. When he was in the womb, the umbilical cord got twisted around his neck, and he was born with cerebral palsy.  

Doctors called him “a vegetable” and urged his parents to institutionalise him. But Judy and Dick Hoyt had noticed his eyes followed them around the room.

When Rick was 11, his parents took him to Tufts University Engineering Department to see if there was any technology that could help Rick to communicate.  

“No way,” they were told. “There’s nothing going on in his brain.”

“Tell him a joke,” said Dick.

They did. Rick laughed. 

They eventually got a computer that allowed Rick to spell out words. Judy spent hours teaching him the alphabet, and he caught on quickly, and eventually graduated with a degree from Boston University.

But that is not what made him famous.  

In 1977, Rick, aged 15, asked Dick if they could run a race together (Dick pushing Rick in his wheelchair).

The race was to benefit a lacrosse player at Rick’s school who had become paralysed in a car accident, and Rick wanted to prove that life went on even after such trauma.  

The race was five miles. They finished next to last, and Dick commented it was he who was the handicapped one for the next week, because of the exertion that he was unused to.  

But it was after that race that Rick told his father of the positive experience he had had when competing.

“Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.” 

With those words, a legend was born.

Dick, who was a retired serviceman of 36, had never run before, but he started training every day with a bag of cement in the wheelchair he pushed, because Rick was at college studying.

The statue of the Hoyts near the start of the Boston Marathon in Massachusetts
The statue of the Hoyts near the start of the Boston Marathon in Massachusetts (Creative Commons)

Their initial five-mile jaunt was never going to be enough to satisfy the drive that now burned so fiercely inside both men.

By 1979 they were ready for a marathon, but their early attempts to enter races met with frustration. They could be classed neither an individual runner nor a wheelchair competitor, and so were routinely refused entry. Well, they simply ran the Boston Marathon unofficially anyway. 

Then some bright spark suggested a triathlon!

Hmmm, it was one thing running, pushing Rick in his wheelchair, but what about the swim and bike sections of the three-sport challenge?

Of course, they found a way, and eventually, they even did the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon together.

Dick pulled Rick in a dinghy during the 2.4-mile ocean swim, carried him in front on a specially-designed tandem over the 112-mile bike course, and of course pushed him in his chair for the 26.2-mile marathon run.

Team Hoyt, as Dick and Rick became known, went on to compete in more than 1,000 endurance races, including six Ironman triathlons, as well as running and biking across America.

It was perhaps at the Boston Marathon – the world’s oldest race of that distance – that they were most famous, competing there 32 times.  

It was said the crowd noise as they passed was deafening and that, as they approached the finish, Rick’s smile would get broader and his waving more expansive, if that were possible!

In April 2013, a bronze statue of the Hoyts was unveiled near the marathon start in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

These endeavours naturally transformed Dick from a self-confessed “porker” into an extremely fit specimen, something about which his surgeons commented in 2003 when experienced heart problems during a race. 

Upon examination, one of his arteries was found to be 95 per cent blocked and he was told that, if he hadn’t been so fit, he would have probably died 15 years previously.

So maybe, it has been posited, Rick saved Dick’s life, as well as the other way around.

It was not all plain sailing for Team Hoyt.

As well as the negative attitude of those early race directors and fellow competitors (“you’ll just get in the way”), and Dick’s heart problems, they also encountered misgivings from the wider community, who thought they were doing this for Dick’s personal glory and not to benefit his son.

Publicity also took its toll on the family, with Judy, who had been Rick’s primary carer for decades, increasingly having to take a back seat, as Dick and Rick became more and more famous. Dick and Judy divorced in 2004, after 34 years of marriage.

But for anyone who saw them, there was certainly no doubt Rick was as committed to these events as much as, or even more so, than Dick.

And Rick knew exactly what his father had done for him – his broad smile through all their races together proved that – as did the nature of his impossible dream: “The thing I’d most like,” Rick typed, “is that my dad sit in the chair and I push him once.”

Well, if that did indeed prove impossible for this family of miracle workers, they certainly achieved more than anyone could ever have imagined when Rick was born “a vegetable” back in 1962.

As Dick put it: “The best that has happened to me in my life has come from handling the worst that’s happened to me in my life.”

Judy Hoyt died in 2010, aged 69. Dick Hoyt died in 2021, aged 80. And Rick died this year, on May 22, aged 61.  

Less than a month later, Riley Pathman and Sean McQuaid of Team Hoyt San Diego – there is now a network of Team Hoyts, raising awareness of and funds for disabled athletes – shattered the world record for the fastest marathon pushing a wheelchair, running 2:35.26 on June 17 at Grandma’s Marathon in Minnesota, USA. 

“We wanted to honour Rick Hoyt,” said McQuaid. “What better way to honour the man who started it all.”  

If you would like to learn more, there is inspirational footage online.

Author of this column Steve Till, from Alton, is a GB ultra-distance international athlete as well as a running coach. His new book, The Run of Life, is available now from Amazon and Waterstones.