This week’s Sports Illustrated has a lengthy article by Gary Smith about Dick and Rick Hoyt that brings together three of my central passions: great writing; the Boston Marathon; and the human condition.
I grew up in Brookline just a short walk from Miles 23 and 24 from the Marathon. I loved every part of it: watching the wheelchair racers whiz by, seeing the top men and women look as if they were out for a morning jog, and then witnessing the grit of the later runners, their eyes squinting, stride shortened and shoulders hunched in pain as they gutted out the final miles.
For years it was a dream of mine to run Boston, something I did in 1988 in honor of Dr. D’Angelo, my best friend’s father who had died a couple of weeks earlier, and then again in 1999, when I raised money for the Massachusetts branch of the ALS Association in honor of Paul Tamburello, my former fourth grade teacher, mentor, friend and fellow blogger.
My fellow Massachusetts natives the Hoyts have become Boston fixtures in the 30 years since Dick first pushed Rick, his son who has a disability. By this point, the pair has participated in more than 1,000 races together across the globe-Rick in his wheelchair, and, during the swimming leg of triathlons, a boat, Dick pushing, biking or swimming.
The two have become an inspiration for people in all kinds of difficult circumstances throughout the world.
This, as Smith shows us, is part of the problem.
He opens the piece by writing, “The wheels are coming off Team Hoyt.”
This is a very effective lead-short, punchy and illustrative both of the scene with which Smith starts the story-a 5k race in which the wheels literally come off of Rick’s wheelchair-and the greater question of not only how long they can continue, but might they actually die in the process.
This is typical fare for Smith, who has long been one of my favorite sportswriters. This piece will, I am confident, enter the annals of some of his finest work. He has an uncanny ability to pick fascinating characters, truly get inside their heads and hearts to understand what motivates them, and to both pick salient details that advance the story and that illustrate the characters’ complexity.
With Team Hoyt, he picked a doozy.
Whereas so many of the other pieces I have read and videos I have seen about the father and son focus on their undeniably inspiring message, Smith’s pieces goes beyond that. He writes about the toll the running has taken on both men’s bodies, even as it has prolonged Dick’s life. He explains how the racing contributed to ending the marriage of Dick and Judy, his childhood sweetheart who died recently of cancer but summoned her former husband to reconcile hours before she passed. He does not flinch from exploring the jealousy the other Hoyt boys felt at Dick spending so much time with Rick.
And, finally, he explains that, for both men, this has become their essence.
At the end of the story’s first section, Smith writes, “It dawned on Dick as he stared: I run. I push. He is.”
This sense of being for both men has propelled them through around 70 marathons, including 28 Boston Marathons, as well as Iron Man triathlons.
The price they have paid has become greater and greater, yet, as Smith writes, on they go, driven by the debt they feel to others and to themselves as well as the fear about what will happen when they stop.
The ending is masterful. Smith returns to the the sense of meaning both men get from their joint venture that he introduced early in the piece while also capturing the combination of uncertainty about what lies next for the Hoyts as they prepare for what could be their final Boston Marathon:
“I don’t run. I don’t push. Is he? Am I?”
The race starts on Monday. The Hoyts will be there. I hope you read Smith’s story, too.