Father, paralyzed son ready for final Ironman race

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- When Rick Hoyt developed cerebral palsy at birth in 1962 after his umbilical cord became wrapped around his neck, cutting off oxygen to his brain, doctors suggested to his parents that he be institutionalized. But Dick Hoyt and his wife refused, insisting that their son have as normal a life as possible.

Although some might question whether running nearly 1,000 marathons and triathlons over 27 years is normal, the Hoyts think it is. On Saturday, Dick and Rick will attempt their fifth Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championship.

The normal life saw Rick, who cannot talk or walk, graduating from a public high school and going on to Boston College, where he earned a degree in special education. After teaching for one year, Rick turned to his interest in computers, and helped Boston College develop the "Eagle Eyes" computer system that uses eye and head movements to help him communicate.

While attending a college basketball game, he heard an announcement about a benefit run for a cross-country runner who had become paralyzed in an accident.

Dick remembers his son coming home and saying, "Dad, we have to do something for him. I want to show him that life goes on even though he is paralyzed."

"It was Rick who was the motivation," for their racing career, Hoyt said. "He asked me to race."

That first race, in 1979, was a five-mile run with Dick pushing Rick in a two-wheel running chair.

"We started building up to marathons, and entered our first marathon in 1981," Hoyt said. Their list of racing accomplishments includes 64 marathons, a distance of 26.2 miles, including 24 consecutive Boston Marathons.

"We did our first triathlon in 1985 -- a one-mile swim, 40-mile bike ride and a 10-mile run," Hoyt said.

In 1988, they attempted their first Ironman race, featuring a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a full marathon. They had to drop out when Dick became nauseated during the swim and failed to make the cutoff time. They returned the next year and finished the race. In 2003, they crashed at the 85-mile mark of the bicycle ride and spent five hours in a hospital emergency room. But they finished again in 2004.

They also completed a triathlon over the Ironman distance that was not sanctioned by Ironman. That race, in 1986 at Cape Cod, Mass., gave them their best finish time of 13½ hours.

"Rick loves sports," his father said. "He really looks forward to the Ironman and gets very excited. He is getting the same benefits I get. His adrenelin really gets going."

During the swim, Hoyt tows his son in a 5-foot-long rubber inflatable boat, with a tow line attached to a belt around his waist. Rick sits in a seat in front of the specially built bike, and in a three-wheel chair for the run.

"The chair has been updated to make it lighter," Hoyt said.

The long bicycle ride takes athletes from the pier in this seaside village over barren lava fields to the rolling ranch lands at the northern end of Hawaii Island.

"I don't mind the hills, but the winds can be brutal," said Hoyt, who pushes a total of 365 pounds during the bike ride.

"I don't know how much longer I can do this," said Hoyt, 66, adding that this will be their last Ironman-distance race. "But we're not giving up on triathlons."

He said he and his son, now 44, plan to compete in the new Ironman 70.3 series of races, which cover a distance half that of the regular Ironman course.

Now retired from the Massachusetts Air National Guard after 37 years, Hoyt spends much of his time traveling extensively as a motivational speaker. He also promotes the book he wrote during the first six months of his retirement. The book, "It's Only A Mountain," book chronicles how Rick's parents "went about raising him," and "is selling all over the world," the father said. "It was recently translated into Korean and is in the process of being translated into Japanese."

The Hoyts also are featured in two DVDs, including one called "Team Hoyt Ironman" with "My Redeemer Lives" as background music that Hoyt said is "very powerful."

Their impact is evident when they walk down the street here and are constantly stopped by fans who wish them well, thank them for their inspiration and ask to pose for pictures.