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?
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?
April 17, 2011

For the

1,036th time, the 70-year-old man and his spastic quadriplegic son await the starting gun's crack. It's a Good Life! say the big letters on the two larger wheels on their racing chair. But neither man can be sure those words aren't a lie when they're still, and gather truth only in counterclockwise motion.

The race director introduces them—Rick and Dick Hoyt!—and the spectators and 582 runners roar. It's September 2010. Breathe in. Breathe out. The old man's just hoping he can do that all the way to the finish line, that the pillow doesn't come down over his mouth and nostrils again. The gun sounds, and they're rolling: It's a Good Life!... It's a Good Life! ... It's a Good Life! ...

Curse the potholes in the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts. Twenty feet into the Canal Diggers 5K the ruts are jolting the chair, banging Rick's fragile body and making the front wheel crazy. Dick swerves to avoid the potholes, doesn't notice the front tire going flat and slipping off the hub, and they begin gathering speed: It'saGoodLife!It'saGoodLife!It'saGoodLife! ...

The grind of metal on macadam finally reaches his ears. Two hundred yards into the race the old man murmurs an oath and veers onto the sidewalk. He halts and stares at their motionless chair.

The wheels

are coming off Team Hoyt. Even Dick's friends and loved ones tell him it's time to face facts: The kid in the chair just had a feeding tube plugged into his gut because liquids keep invading his lungs and increasing the risk of pneumonia. The kid's back is killing him, crying for more surgery because the three rods in it can't keep his spine straight anymore, even when he's not bouncing for hours across roads. Hell, the kid's not a kid anymore, Dick; in nine months he'll be 50. And what about the pusher himself? What about the doctor who says Dick worries so much that he's a stroke waiting to happen? What about the three stents implanted in his arteries after the heart attack in 2003, the carpal tunnel syndrome keeping him awake at night after shoving the chair through nearly 3½ decades of races, the legs so agonizingly tight from pulling and pushing his son through all those 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, marathons, triathlons and Ironmans that he tore his meniscus in December, needed surgery in January and ripped a hamstring in his comeback race in March, reducing his training for this Monday's Boston Marathon to hours of trudging in a swimming pool ... and did Dick happen to glance in a mirror at the end of last year's Boston Marathon? Did he see that frightening gray pall?

I told him, that's it, Dick, enough. You've done enough. Cripes, time to pack it in! That's one of his buddies, Pat Forrest.

His body's breaking down. The last couple of Boston Marathons, I didn't think he would finish. He can't go through every barrier. He's walking the fine line between gutsy and foolish. That's the director of the Boston Marathon, Dave McGillivray.

I don't think either of them will make the choice in the end. An outside force will make it. That's the Hoyts' masseuse, Roseanne Longo.

Half the family thinks he's crazy. Dick's sister Arlene.

I don't go to races anymore. I don't want to be there the day it all ends. I don't want to see him lying on that street. Another sister, Barbara.

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!

One hour. That's how long Dick remained under the impression that their short, happy, hellish racing life was over. That's how long it took Rick to squeeze out a single sentence and get his father off the floor to read it.

Dad, when I am running, I don't even feel like I am handicapped.

It dawned on Dick as he stared at the screen: I run. I push. He is.

Dick takes

a deep look into the blue sky. Then he turns the chair and wheels Rick back toward the starting line. Realizing that he doesn't have the car keys, that he can't get into the van to grab his tools to try to fix the damn wheel, that this whole thing's right back at its roots, its essence: It's impossible.

Only, back then, at their first official road race—a 10K in nearby Springfield, Mass. in 1980—there were none of these sympathetic murmurs and head shakes from the audience and race officials. Only whispers and paper shuffling at the registration table, hand-wringing over safety and what category to place the Hoyts in, and the stares of 300 runners, the unease of the fittest with the misfit. Dick cringed. His partner, ever the optimist, hoped, They're staring at me because of my stunning good looks.

This time Team Hoyt was ready. For two years Dick had been training and searching for someone who could make a suitable racing chair, a precursor of the baby-jogging chairs that would one day be common. At last he found a man who achieved it with a welding torch, a few lightweight tubes, a molded seat, two bicycle tires and a smaller third wheel up front, all for the princely sum of 35 bucks—and who could dream that its final resting place would be the Sports Museum of New England? Off the Hoyts bolted, once the Springfield officials finally relented, sizzling the 6.2 miles in 38:30, dusting half of the field. Finally the memory of Rick as a nine-year-old, shaking and howling on the floor as his six-year-old younger brother climbed onto his first bicycle and pedaled away, began to loosen its grip on Dick's heart.

A short, wiry building contractor named Pete Wisnewski approached them after the race, undaunted by Rick's silence, spasms and drool, and started telling them about all the great road races in the region just waiting for Team Hoyt. Nearly every weekend from that day on, Dick would lie awake all night, convinced that his alarm would forsake him, then rise in darkness and roust Rick from bed. The kid was a zombie at dawn, a sack of spuds that Dick would hoist and haul to the bathroom to empty his bladder, bathe, shave, towel and dress, then to the kitchen to coax some blended mush and pills past Rick's reverse tongue and gagging throat—all the grunt work that Judy had always done because her husband had been too busy. All Dick's irritation on the road at traffic impeding his progress, all his impatience at home when family members didn't have what it took to get a chore done ... where did it melt to on those race mornings with Rick in his arms? That was the boy's gift. He showed his father the trail to his own heart.

Something else bloomed on the city streets and country roads of New England, something not so easy to find for a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes guy or a "vegetable": camaraderie. Their new buddy, Pete, glimpsed at once what most people missed: Rick understood everything, loved people and was a sucker for a joke, any joke, even at his own expense. Rick's eyes danced, his head flew back and his hands and mouth contorted at Pete's tomfoolery, a joy that turned to jaw-clenched fury just once, when Pete slowed at the end of a race to let Rick beat him. Slack was what Rick didn't want, and to make sure of it he banged out a proposition to Pete on the Hope Machine: From now on, loser has to pin the other's racing number to his wall at home till the following weekend's race. The rivalry was on, Rick flapping his arms as if trying to breaststroke when Dick slowed, his hands flailing as if to hold Pete back when they caught up with him.

Along came a fun-loving, race-loving bartender named Tommy Leonard who knew everyone in every bar and made sure everyone knew Rick, and a county cop named Eddie Burke, a Vietnam vet all volume and all heart, who strode up to Rick after races and bellowed, "Hoyt, get out of the chair, you rotten bastard, I need it more than you!" then lifted a monster plastic cup of 151 rum and Coke to Rick's delighted lips. Suddenly he'd be airborne, Eddie and Tommy hoisting his wheelchair to their shoulders and carrying him like a sultan into packed taverns to share their postrace revelry. Nah, there was just no payoff to busting Super Serious Dick's chops, but one well-timed "Hey, Rick, can we call a cab for your brain?" could convulse his son and make everybody's day.

So what was Dick to say to the people who, when Team Hoyt began appearing in newspapers and on television, called or wrote to him demanding to know why he was dragging this kid to races, and if he were seeking some sick sort of glory—Come see a race? Come see Rick's eyes squint with animal pleasure and his hair fly in the wind and his arms spread out and his torso pulse with so much excitement that sometimes Dick had to bark at him to cool it or he'd topple the damn chair. Come see and listen to the tune that played in Rick's head, the song that so captured how he felt when they raced that he had its title etched on a poster board and bolted to the back of his running chair. Come see a mute, spastic quadriplegic turn into Free Bird.

But hell

, what could Dick expect? Even his own wife, the fiercest warrior for the disabled who'd ever walked the earth, didn't get it. He pivots in the church parking lot near the starting line, looking for the person who's holding the van keys, his mind circling the unthinkable: Give up.

Rick blinks, infinite patience. Dick's eyes come to rest on the back of his son's head. Sometimes it still washes over him, the sadness over what Rick could've been. The old grief that first shuddered through Dick the day when he and his wife finally stopped pretending away the truth, when he finally had to accept that his baby boy—perfect for nine months until the last moments of delivery, when he'd inexplicably turned facedown and the cord had coiled around his windpipe—was not doing push-ups when he lay on his stomach and throbbed in spasms. The day Dick and Judy sobbed the whole way home from the specialist who'd told them their eight-month-old son was hopeless, pack him off.

They'd show that doctor and everyone else, they vowed. They'd keep Rick at home, they'd will him against the tide and into the mainstream. Yes, that would take money, so off hustled 22-year-old Dick at dawn to his military base and at dusk to his moonlight masonry job. Yes, that would take a miracle of a 21-year-old mother ... so wait, where was Judy? Peeking out her back window to see if it were safe to slip out and hang laundry without neighbors asking about her strange baby. Freezing when the doorbell rang, too ashamed to answer it and join the other new mothers on the block taking their babies for walks. Holed up in her closet, screaming out her anger that she—the class secretary and captain of North Reading High's cheerleaders, who'd wooed and won the captain of the football and baseball teams—had been handed a child that would never lift a finger for himself.

All that anger and fear had to be sent somewhere else, before it devoured her. How about out there? How about turning it on all the public schools and summer camps that still barred disabled children in the 1970s, all the builders of rampless buildings, all the politicians who rhapsodized about equal opportunity for people of all races, colors and creeds but stammered and fell silent about the handicapped? She began joining advocacy groups, haunting legislative sessions, pounding tables at policy meetings, haranguing congressmen, determined that Rick wouldn't sit in a corner staring into space in schools for the disabled such as his first one. Her children cringed when she ranted, but Massachusetts buckled in 1972 and became the first state to mandate that public schools admit disabled children, a civil right that soon became federal law.

Which meant Rick had damn better be ready to prove Judy right the day he entered public school, a 13-year-old sixth-grade Jackie Robinson on wheels. And so his first 12 years of life, whenever Judy wasn't storming the ramparts, she was prepping Rick. Scissoring letters and numbers out of sandpaper and running his fingers over them, holding fur against his hands and repeating soft, festooning the house with words identifying every item. "Do you have to bring him?" customers at nearby tables would gripe when Judy wrapped a bib on him and fed him at restaurants. "Yes," she would growl, "we do." Hiking, Dick ferried him in a fireman's carry to the tops of mountains; cross-country skiing, he laid him on a sled and pulled him with a rope; fishing, he knotted the line around Rick's finger.

"I wish I was Rick," his brother Rob blurted one day when he was six. But that sort of focus, in the few hours when Dick was home, made Rick feel more like his father's project than his son ... until Rick's eureka made them partners for life.

Just a few months into their new obsession, Dick noticed something odd. He actually ran faster, felt stronger, in the third race of their three-race weekends. Maybe Team Hoyt should take on the granddaddy of road races: the Boston Marathon. His application was rejected by the Boston Athletic Association on grounds that the Hoyts fit in neither the wheelchair nor the able-bodied runners' divisions. They could only run unofficially, as bandits.

They lined up without numbers that chilly April day in 1981, Dick tensing in expectation of getting the last-minute hook. His exhilaration, when they weren't, swept him through the first 20 miles, along with the adulation of the love-at-first-sight crowd. "The adrenaline rush," Rick would write later, "was unbelievable." Then the truth registered in Dick's body. His legs cramped, his torso froze, his chest and arms ached, his stomach turned with nausea. He looked down, at mile 22, horrified to see his legs walking. Spectators and runners, fearful that the whole human race was about to lose, kept shouting, "You're almost there, you can do it!" The noise became thunder by mile 24, and Dick found himself surging again, flying to the finish line as Rick's adrenaline wave nearly capsized them.

It hit Dick just as hard as the wall had: I run and push farther. He is more.

Surely their 3:18 marathon would open the BAA's arms for the following year's race. Nope. Sorry. Bandits once more. "Maybe we should wear masks," muttered Dick.

"It would help your looks," tapped Rick.

Dick plunked a 94-pound bag of dry cement in Rick's running chair and hit the road, flogging himself harder and harder. "How many miles?" the boy would type, glancing at the clock when Dad came panting through the door. "Fifteen," Dick would huff, and then, after a moment's calculation, his grinning son would tap, "That's not fast enough."

They did their second Boston in 2:59, astounding seasoned marathoners ... and ravaging Dick's feet. The friction at that velocity, compounded by Dick's need to brake on the long, early downhill to keep control of Rick's chair, tore off toenails and burst so many blisters that his sneakers were a bloody mess by mile 3. Eddie and Pete discovered the depths of Dick's devotion when they pushed Rick during two ultramarathon relays. Eddie ended up with 10 black-and-blue toes the size of eggs, four of which no longer had toenails. Pete came so close to losing control coming down a mountainside that the relay team's van had to race ahead of them, pull over and spit out two runners to catch them.

But the bandits had drawn so much media attention at that '82 Boston Marathon that the BAA relented ... sort of. To become official, Rick and Dick would have to enter another marathon and meet Boston's qualifying standards ... no, not in Dick's 40-to-44 age group—3:10 would do that—but in Rick's 18-to-34 division, requiring a torrid 2:50. Say what?

Dick targeted the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. that fall as their qualifier. When he entered Rick's hotel room that October morning, his son awaited him wearing a Marine camouflage uniform and a buzz haircut. Dick, wound doubly tight on race days, couldn't help but guffaw and relax. They unfurled a 2:45.23 marathon that, given the circumstances, veterans of the event to this day consider world class. The BAA admitted them to the party and the Hoyts, year by year, became the Boston Marathon's face.

Funny, how all that helplessness and hollowness—Dick's just as much as Rick's—dissolved when Dick grabbed those handlebars and they took off. Now Rick was an athlete, Dick said. A whole person. Showered by the girls at Wellesley with flowers that his gnarled hands tried to catch as they raced past. Cheered on by his new classmates as they flew by the campus of Boston University, which Rick entered in '84 as a special-ed major. Now Dick, a former catcher whom the Yankees had dismissed as too slow at a tryout in 1959, was an athlete again, a guy you'd take for your plumber being hailed as a hero by the three-deep mobs along the road and feeling like there's nothing I can't do. It just builds and builds in me. It's like I'm his arms and legs, but he's the one running. I have no desire to do this on my own. He drives me.

Dave McGillivray, looking for a little gleam for his new Bay State Triathlon in Medford, Mass. in '84, asked Dick to think about entering it, meaning—well, of course, it was a triathlon—Dick alone. "Only if I can do it with Rick," he replied. The race director, finding no words, just walked away. It took a year for McGillivray to digest that and approach Dick again, and thus was born the most wondrously absurd adventure in all sports.

Dick was 45. The Bay State Triathlon swim was one mile. He couldn't swim. The bike ride was 40 miles. He hadn't been on a bike since he was six. The run, 10 miles. Pushing and pulling 120 pounds of Rick the whole way, not to mention the custom-built bike ... that would cost four grand.

Judy blanched. Wasn't the idea to show society that a disabled person could do what anyone else could, not what no one else on the planet ever would? Dick bought a house on a man-made lake so he could learn to swim. He jumped in, thrashed like a five-year-old for 20 feet. He couldn't kick. He couldn't breathe. He tried freestyle, sidestroke, back float, dog paddle. Rob and Russ took him to a pool and gave him a kickboard. His legs drooped, his body lapsed into a V—he went backward. To hell with legs. He jumped into the lake every day after work and thrashed away, all upper body.

Rick was stoked ... and scared. He had one of his personal aides—they took care of him in shifts so he could live in a BU dorm—carry him to a pool to practice holding his breath underwater, just in case. He and Dick entered a duathlon as a rehearsal, a half-mile swim and a 3.5-mile run. Dick wrapped one arm around his son's chest and began stroking with the other, lifeguard-rescue style, but the icy pond sent Rick into spasms. Under he went, pummeled by a rival swimming over him, his legs getting tangled in the ropes beneath a buoy. Dick, near panic, finally freed him and tried to hoist him onto a rescue boat. The boat nearly overturned, filling with water. Rescuers had to flip a canoe and splay Rick across it to drag them to land.

All right, then. Team Hoyt was ready.

On Father's Day 1985, Dick fastened on a harness and ropes—discarded parachute straps from his National Guard base—attached to an eight-foot inflated dinghy on which Rick lay. Rain beat on Rick's head. He looked like hell, having pitched face-first to the asphalt from the van a day earlier.

It took nearly an hour for Dick to pull Rick's dinghy back and forth across Spot Pond. Then he peeled off his wet suit, cradled Rick in his arms and ran 200 yards to their bike, minutes vanishing as he made sure his sidekick was covered in suntan lotion, hydrated and Velcroed into his seat on a two-wheel cart behind the bike. The chair, buffeted by wind, whipsawed from side to side, dragging the bike with it, and finally toppled during a 90-degree turn and spilled them both.

Rick, accustomed by now to a mouthful of road, wanted more, so on they pushed, needing nearly four hours and finishing next to last. The new $4,000 bike and cart, much too precarious, were already obsolete. But now they were triathletes ... and what did time matter? Six triathlons a year were jimmied into their racing calendar; one year they did three Olympic-distance triathlons in a single week. Nothing could get in the way of the relentless training required to do this, nor the focus on logistics and equipment to preclude an accident that could bring down the world's wrath on Dick. It left Judy—hungry for notice of her groundbreaking summer camp where able-bodied and disabled children lived and played side by side—feeling ever more marooned, watching reporters and photographers stampede past her to get to them. But this is just what we've always fought for, Dick kept insisting. Look at the funds we're raising for your camp by hosting a Team Hoyt 5K race each year. Look at all the people we're reaching, all the awareness we're raising. Oh, no, this isn't what we fought for, cried Judy, choking on her husband's unawareness.

Ironman Canada called in '85. How about tripling the absurdity, Dick? How about a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and then a 26.2-mile footrace next year? Lunacy, thought Judy, and Rick did too, till Dick mentioned the lad's weakness—all the women they'd bump into, glistening in those Lycra racing microshorts—and Rick was in.

Race day came. Dick cramped in the frigid lake, his throat constricting, lungs gasping, arms and legs losing all feeling, and fell an hour behind the field but refused the safety boatmen who tried to fish him out. He stumbled ashore, trembling violently. He refused again when the doctor there told him he was done, and he climbed on the bike. Bees swarmed inside his helmet and stung his ear as he made the brutal ascent through Richter Pass, so exhausted that a photographer found he could perch right in front of Dick, barely backpedaling, and snap photos to his heart's content of Sisyphus going nowhere as fast as he humanly could.

Rick, normally lifted and repositioned once an hour to keep pain from seizing his crooked spine, had to endure the 10-hour bike ride without budging, his skin chafed raw, his bladder aching, his only recompense coming when they approached a well-packed pair of those microshorts and he'd turn and implore his dad not to pass; damn him, he wouldn't comply. Then they staggered through a six-hour marathon, reeling to the finish line 17 hours and 53 minutes after they'd begun. It was 1:30 a.m., with Chariots of Fire blaring on the speakers and spectators lined up four deep, cheering and reaching to touch them and dissolving into tears. "Isn't that the finest sight you'll ever see?" cried the P.A. announcer. "What a man! What a family!" Even Judy wept.

On Team Hoyt ran, and biked, and swam. With Rick so cocooned in panty hose and sheets and battery-powered heated hunting socks and five layers of clothes and sleeping bags against freezing winds and snow that people swore Dick was carrying a dummy—or a mummy. Through the lava fields of the Big Island in a half-dozen Hawaii Ironmans. Through Japan. Through Germany. Through the choked streets of Santa Ana, El Salvador, in the midst of a civil war, behind a wedge of 10 soldiers attempting to clear a path for them because so many people—convinced that TV images of the Hoyts had been a trick of American special effects—couldn't believe their tear-streaked eyes and had to take hold of the two men. And across the entire United States in 1992, Dick taking out a $70,000 loan against their house to finance the Trek Across America, awaking at four every morning to bike and run Rick from ocean to ocean in 45 days. Not a single day off, not after the nightmarish seven-hour bike climb to the top of the Rockies, not when the bike hydroplaned and spilled and Rick's helmet split open, not when Judy's dad died from throat cancer and cirrhosis.

She stayed at the helm of their donated RV when the news came, the toll mounting, the tension ratcheting. She stayed and kept watching her husband and son get showered with accolades and honors in town after town, unable to contain her suspicion that her son had been hijacked by Ahab's obsession, unable to bear another day on the Pequod but unable to leap overboard.

Until they got home. She was nowhere to be found when Dick and Rick poured a bottle of water from the Pacific Ocean into the Atlantic as the cameras whirred, or when 34,000 at Fenway Park stood and hurrahed as Dick and Rick put the ceremonial finish to their voyage by circling the field. A month before Rick's graduation from BU in 1993, a nine-year ordeal in itself, Judy wrote a letter to the family. The 33-year marriage of the Class Couple in North Reading High's 1959 yearbook was finished.

Rick would end up distraught. Because Mom always pushed me to be independent, he'd type, and she was not seeing the big picture, which was that I asked Dad to compete. He'd move into an apartment full of racing medals and photos, living on his own with the help of aides: If I can't live independently, then I want to die.

Dick would end up near bankruptcy just as he was retiring from the National Guard as a lieutenant colonel, having to take out a $60,000 loan to compensate Judy for half the value of their home, along with relinquishing half of his pension, as part of their 1995 divorce. Judy would end up battling manic depression, seeing Rick a half-dozen times a year and working on a goat farm selling goat cheese and goat soap. And the Trek Across America would end up raising $2,000, not the $1 million Dick had envisioned.

The day after they got home, Dick took Rick to compete in an Olympic-distance triathlon in Vermont.

So now

it's Kathy Boyer, Dick's girlfriend and office manager for the last eight years, coming on the double with the keys to the van in response to the page from the P.A. announcer in Worcester. And now Dick's a one-man pit crew, bent over the broken tire with pliers, air pump and duct tape as a siren screams to alert everyone that the leader of the race is within a mile of the finish.

Judy's dead. She took her last breath six days before this pothole-riddled race, summoning Dick only hours before the ovarian cancer finished her at 69, rallying just long enough to hug him and ask forgiveness and confess, "I'm stubborn," to one of the most stubborn human beings ever to walk, or run, or bike, or swim this earth.

He fixes the tire, pushes Rick back onto the street. The crowd, seeing them approach the finish line, bursts into applause: Either the old man and the quadriplegic are somehow about to win the damn race ... or they just pulled off the most brilliant ruse since Rosie Ruiz in the 1980 Boston Marathon. But no, they cross the finish line and keep rolling, It'saGoodLife!It'saGoodLife!It'saGoodLife! and it dawns on everyone: The Hoyts—16 minutes into the race, more than a mile behind whoever's in last place—are starting all over again.

Now they're the iconic image seen on billboards across the country—the father pushing his son headlong into the impossible, with the one-word caption below: DEVOTION. The pair that carried the Olympic torch through adoring mobs in Boston and was inducted in 2008 into the Ironman Hall of Fame in Hawaii, where Rick hit the stage squealing and flapping, the Ironman insignia shaved into the side of his head, and concluded his acceptance speech—through the voice synthesizer connected to his computer—by declaring, "A vegetable is in the Hall of Fame ... and my name is Rick, not Ricky." The duo that went global on YouTube in 2006, a five-minute clip of them on the run set to music that loosed a storm of emotion and landed, via a link, in the electronic mailbox of a 53-year-old Michigan executive in the throes of an existential crisis, a triathlete named Ron Robb who'd convinced himself that his recent heart problems meant that his life, for all intents and purposes, was over, and who'd just come home from a walk on a hot July night during which he'd begged God for direction, when he saw that YouTube clip and wept over his keyboard, and decided this was it, God's answer and plan for him: to find pushers for all the disabled people who didn't have a Dick Hoyt, so that they, too, could take a ride on Rick Hoyt's adrenaline wave.

And so, three years later, there are chapters of My Team Triumph in 10 states, hundreds of "angels" pushing hundreds of "captains" through scores of road races, hundreds of families crying at the sight of their disabled children or siblings pumping their fists and producing beautiful noises from some buried hollow, finally tapped. Not to mention Athletes Serving Athletes in Baltimore and Team Myles in Ohio and the Team Hoyt chapter in Virginia Beach, legions inspired to do like Dick and Rick.

And there are families with disabled children flying to Boston to see the Hoyts run, and 300-pound electricians who show up for work at Dick's house and turn into marathoners after seeing pictures of the Hoyts racing on the walls, and maimed war vets who've been told they'll never walk again running triathlons because of the Hoyts, and 200 e-mails a day arriving from people with all sorts of afflictions and addictions telling similar tales of salvation, of their self-pity and alibis spontaneously stripped away by the Hoyts, filling Dick's eyes with tears as he reads them. And coaches of college football teams and Swiss soccer teams showing DVDs of Team Hoyt to their teams to inspire them for big games, and corporations paying 20 grand to have Dick deliver his unpolished but heartfelt speech and lift their employees to their feet to roar Team Hoyt's motto, Yes you can! And Team Hoyt fund-raisers that have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase communications devices and running chairs for the disabled, to train dogs for the blind and create therapeutic horseback-riding programs and summer camps.

They've become like Lourdes to people with handicapped family members, says Jackie Shakar, Dick's physical therapist.

They don't need to race anymore, says Ron Robb. They have a legacy: They're the center of the disabled universe.

So why—if the legacy no longer needed legs—did last April's Boston Marathon have to be finished? Why did it have to turn into hours of terror for Kathy after she heard reports that Dick was struggling, and none of the friends watching along the course whom she called had seen any sign of Dick and Rick, and the website that tracks each runner's progress inexplicably showed no trace of them?

She broke into tears finally, because anything could happen to a man who'd suffered a mild heart attack during a half marathon in 2003 but didn't find out till four half marathons later, when he discovered that he had inherited the high-cholesterol disorder that had killed his father with a stroke. Anything could happen to a man who was all set to run the Boston Marathon two weeks after having three stents implanted, pulling out only when the cholesterol-reducing medication created so much muscle pain he could barely walk. Anything could happen to a man who broke his nose seven times playing high school football and came right back for an eighth. A man who refused to take ibuprofen or aspirin, no matter how crippling his pain, because, I figure you get helped by pain.

Finally, 5½ hours after the start of the Boston Marathon, Team Hoyt crossed the finish line, Dick ashen, dizzy and awash in sweat. Twenty-five minutes into the race, it turned out, he could barely draw a breath. Then came stabbing gut pains. He'd been warned by his cardiologist that difficulty breathing could be a sign that the stents had failed or that another artery had closed. He tried to run again, felt as if he were going to pass out and ended up walking half of the race, gasping and wondering what was happening to him.

But he couldn't stop. Because now, Dick sensed, Team Hoyt had morphed into something far more than a man's obligation to a task, or to his son.

We run. We push. They are.

Rick's headrest

flies off his chair a half mile into what's now just a two-man race. Dick runs back, grabs it and tucks it back behind his son's head. There it goes again a quarter mile later. Hell with it, decides Dick.

Devotion is a cocktail, not a jigger of anything straight. A dash of stubbornness and helplessness laced with a splash of compulsiveness and unawareness poured into a shaker, along with two fingers of deep love and sorrow ... but who has the time or patience for the list of ingredients when he's driving past that one-word caption on the billboard, or welling up as Dick cradles that kid and staggers with him from the boat to the bike as I Can Only Imagine crescendos on YouTube?

They're still all alone on the course at the halfway point, traffic cops and race officials clapping as they go by, cars honking and runners who've already finished, on their way home, calling, "Go, Team Hoyt, go!"

Dick's feeling his way through each mile, moving at an 8½-minute clip now that his hamstrings and quads have tightened to the snapping point and require hours of rehab and massage each week. Still hoping he can trust the battery of recent test results that found nothing wrong with his vital organs, still hoping that his difficulty drawing a full breath is a sinus problem he can remedy. But how does a guy like him ever know if all this stiffness and pain and shortness of breath are God closing down the show, or just one more obstacle to barge through?

They've whittled back on the long races in their yearly schedule, but Dick still wants to do half Ironmans and is mulling another Trek Across America, and how can they ever let go of the 26.2-mile rolling roar that accompanies them through the Boston Marathon? After all, Dick's cardiologist told him he'd have been dead 15 years ago, with cholesterol that high, if hauling his son preposterous distances hadn't gotten him into such remarkable condition. What happens if he stops? So yes, remember to garnish that cocktail with a sprig of fear. And remember that each of the Hoyts owes the other his life.

The e-mails have begun to arrive, people who've heard that Dick's body is breaking down, volunteering to replace him. Among them are three female triathletes, making Rick's heart flutter—Dad is always around at races, and I can't tell him to get lost when I encounter a beautiful woman, he laments—but Dick shakes his head, knowing the strength it takes to carry Rick in the transitions or to pedal 189 extra pounds of bike and human cargo up those hills, the concentration to keep from hitting railroad tracks or stray water bottles that have sent the both of them flying.

They're nearing the mile 3 marker of the 5K race and beginning to pick off the stragglers. They pass a little girl, a lumbering woman in her 50s and two elderly men. But somehow their races have become less of a competition between Team Hoyt and the field ... and more of one between Rick and Dick. Who'll cry uncle first: the father or the son?

Not the father: We'll continue till Rick says he's had enough.

Not the son: Stopping now is not an option. I'm not ready to throw in the towel and I pray to God every day that Dad is not ready either. Birds are free to fly anywhere they want at anytime, which is how I feel when we race. There are so many people who want to see us out there. I love the spotlight.... I have shown disabled people that they don't have to sit back and watch the world go by.... To this day, I don't know what kind of vegetable I'm supposed to be.

They pass seven other runners and keep accelerating as they enter a corridor of cheering fans in the final 50 yards. Courage, that's what it took to begin this journey 33 years ago and stay on it. Will it take even more to end it?

It will be the saddest time of my life, types Rick. I choose not to think about it. It will mean Dad passed away.

I envision them going off a cliff in some race and disappearing, like Thelma and Louise, says Rob.

It'll be harder to stop than keep going, says Dick. I don't think we're at the end ... but it could be ... if I can't breathe better....

They cross the finish line. Runners and spectators surround them, shaking hands, stroking Rick, kissing them and saying, "God bless you and your son." It's a Good Life! say the letters on the motionless hubs. Can they bear it?

I don't run. I don't push. Is he? Am I?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)