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The push for 25

Injuries won't keep the Hoyts from silver anniversary run

You are behind this year.

Two knee injuries requiring surgery kept you from serious training until March. Doctors and trainers told you not to push it too hard. But by the last Sunday in March, you were finally able to get in a 20-mile workout, and that eased your mind.

So on April 17, you will take the handles of a 30-pound wheelchair and, for the 25th time, push your son the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in the 110th Boston Marathon.

You are 65 years old.

The silver anniversary brings out the memories for Dick Hoyt and his son Rick, who can hardly believe how quickly the years go by. There was the first time they stepped up to the starting line in 1981, when people stared at the father-son duo -- now familiar all over the world -- as a couple of freaks in the prestigious race.

''They didn't want us there," Dick Hoyt recalled at the 10-year anniversary of their run. ''The runners didn't think we belonged with them, and the wheelchair division wouldn't accept us, either. Now we sit at the head table. Quite a turnaround."

Now the Hoyts are an American fixture. At an age when most people allow themselves a few passes in the daily walk or gym routine because of a pain here or there, Dick Hoyt still hits the pavement as he did when at 40 years old, he and Rick -- then a teenager -- began their inspirational running odyssey.

In 1962, Rick was born with cerebral palsy, a result of the umbilical cord getting wrapped around his neck, causing ''a lack of oxygen to Rick's brain that caused brain damage," said Dick, who had two other sons with his wife, Judy. ''The doctors said. 'Forget Rick. Put him in an institution. He's going to be nothing but a vegetable for the rest of his life.' Those [doctors] aren't alive anymore, but I wish they could see Rick today."

It was Rick who found the story about a teenager, paralyzed in an accident, who was the beneficiary of a road race in his honor. Typing on his computer, Rick told his father that he would like to be involved in an activity to show that, no matter what the obstacle, life goes on.

To Dick, the idea came as a shock. ''I was 40 years old, and I was not a runner," he said.

Still, Dick pushed his son in their first race, a 5-miler in Springfield that felt good to complete. But even more than the sense of accomplishment was the power in his son's note. That night after the race, Rick wrote: ''Dad, when I'm running, my disability seems to disappear."

That sealed a bond between father and son that resulted in a lifetime of exertion, not only in road races and marathons, but in the nearly superhuman effort it takes to complete a triathlon -- 26.2 miles of running, 112 miles on a bike, and a 2.4-mile swim.

When they compete in the cycling, Rick rides in a seat pod attached to the bike, and for the swim, Dick pulls a 9-foot Boston Whaler attached by lines around his chest.

''It didn't seem as if we could run in a race, and then we never thought we'd run a marathon," said Hoyt, an understated man who would rather let his achievements (936 events) speak for themselves. ''And then we never thought we could do an Iron Man."

The first triathlon came after four years of running marathons, but first, before attempting to tow the inflatable boat, Dick had to learn how to swim.

''At first I tried and sank like a stone, and I hadn't been in a bike race since I was 6 years old," he said.

Mounting injuries
Dick sees no real end to the competitions, but he is plagued by some physical problems. Despite a strict diet and rigorous exercise, Hoyt has a hereditary condition of high cholesterol. The only Boston Marathon he missed was the 2003 race shortly after he suffered a heart attack.

But the cholesterol medicine had negative side effects, not the least of which was a liver ailment.

''I couldn't run, or breathe," he said. ''I was depressed. So I got off the medicine. I've got to think there's something natural out there that would help."

But last spring in California, as the Hoyts put on a presentation at an elementary school, he suffered the first of two injuries to his right knee. As he ran with Rick in an old wheelchair, the front axle broke, and as Dick attempted to hold the chair upright, missing a wheel, the strain tore his meniscus tendon.

Before he had a chance to heal, another calamity resulted in a broken right kneecap. Sleeping in a hotel in West Palm Beach last October, the Hoyts were awakened by a fire alarm and Dick got Rick in his wheelchair on the fire escape.

''It was circular, and as I tried to get Rick out, the back tires were on the first step and his feet were against the wall," he said.

Dick said he was forced to pick up Rick in his wheelchair and carry it down the steps, and the stress resulted in the injury. Throughout February, Dick watched the calendar tick away, fretting about whether he would be ready for Boston.

Even as late as March, when Dick began his workouts, it still seemed doubtful.

''I put on 7 pounds," he said. ''That used to be easy to lose, but not now at my age."

Changing attitudes
As the Hoyts' long career has unfolded, they became an example around the world that with effort and dedication, people can improve life and overcome huge obstacles. While acceptance for disabled athletes has grown in this country, Dick has noticed that even in countries where disabled people were ''hidden away" -- he specifically cites Japan -- the attitudes are changing, largely because of the Hoyts' impact.

''It's just unbelievable," said Dick. ''Everywhere we go -- Korea, Germany, and Japan -- the attitudes have changed just so much. At first they didn't know what to make of us, to now realizing they didn't have to be scared of us. And now people yell thanks to us for setting an example of what they were capable of."

Overriding their amazing accomplishments is the attitude that permeated Rick's development from the beginning. Far from shutting the child away at an institution, both parents rode a tide of changing attitudes in the 1960s, when special education legislation began to encourage mainstreaming. Rick's mother, Judy, pushed it as hard as she could, insisting that her son be raised like any other kid.

''Without her effort and pushing it, he wouldn't be where he is today," Dick said.

In fact, Rick lives independently, enjoys swimming and shopping, and communicates through his computer. And a couple of Rick's messages sum up the duo's amazing life together.

''Whenever we are passed [usually on the bike], the athlete will say, 'Go for it!' or 'Rick, help your dad!' " he wrote on their website, ''When we pass people, usually on the run, they'll say, 'Go Team Hoyt!' or 'If not for you, we would not be out here doing this.' "

And at another sitting, he wrote, ''Dad is one of my role models. Once he sets out to do something, Dad sticks to it whatever it is, until it's done. For example, once we decided to really get into triathlons, Dad worked out up to five hours a day, five times a week, even when he was working."

But at 65, an age when most people's lives face profound changes, the Hoyts are not contemplating retirement. It's just a couple of weeks to showtime, and as far as Dick's knee being ready for No. 25?

''It'll be ready," he said. ''It'll have to be ready. It's the Boston Marathon."

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