Winter 2016

A Friend to the Finish

Bryan Lyons, D95, takes his place on Team Hoyt and in Boston Marathon history

By Jacqueline Mitchell

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Rick Hoyt raises a hand in triumph as Bryan Lyons, D95, pushes him across the finish line on Boylston Street. Photo: Victah Sailer

On a bright Sunday last April, Bryan Lyons, D95, took the mound at Fenway Park to toss the ceremonial first pitch—and to mark the evolution of yet another great Boston tradition. Dick Hoyt, who has pushed his son, Rick, in a wheelchair in every Boston Marathon since 1980, brought Rick onto the field. The elder Hoyt handed Lyons the ball.

“It did go over the plate,” Lyons says. “I was nervous because of what [Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady did [when he threw the first pitch]. He hit the dirt.” His voice cracks as he continues. “Then I pushed Rick off the field, sort of like a hand-off.”

The next day, on April 20, the new Team Hoyt, Lyons and Rick, ran the 119th Boston Marathon. It was the first time in more than three decades that Rick, 53, had competed in the storied race without his father.

Pushing Rick “was an amazing experience,” Lyons says. “I wasn’t thinking about getting to the next mile or the next hill or the next water station. I’m certainly not saying it was easy, but it was easier with him.”

Lyons, who was running in his seventh Boston Marathon, says the 26.2 miles melted away because he spent the race making sure Rick was OK, that he was properly hydrated, comfortable and warm during the unusually cold marathon day. “There is no shortage of love and support for Team Hoyt, and that was evident along the entire course,” Lyons says.

The crowd made such a difference that it provided yet another diversion from the lousy weather. “I didn’t even realize how cold, windy and wet it was until after the race,” Lyons says. “I didn’t feel any of those things during the race. The crowd in Boston, they pull you along and they push you along.”

Team Hoyt began in 1977, when 15-year-old Rick, who was paralyzed at birth due to oxygen deprivation, told his dad he wanted to participate in a 5-mile run to benefit a lacrosse player who had been paralyzed.

“The crowd in Boston, they pull you along and they push you along.” —Bryan Lyons

Since then, Dick and Rick completed thousands of marathons and triathlons, including six Ironman competitions—that’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, followed by the 26.2-mile marathon. They do it all for the Hoyt Foundation, the father and son’s charitable foundation that advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all facets of society. Now local legends etched into Boston sports lore as surely as marathoners Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson—if not Celtics great Larry Bird and Brady—Team Hoyt is cheered on by half a million marathon fans every April.

At age 75, Dick Hoyt shows few signs of slowing down, but father and son decided that the 2013 Boston Marathon would be their last long-distance race together. When that race was halted by the bombings at the finish line, they chose to run one more time, in 2014. Together, they completed Boston 32 times.

Comebacks and Teammates

On a snowy day in February 2014, Lyons got a phone call from Dick Hoyt. Rick wanted to do Boston in 2015. Would Lyons, a family friend and runner, be his teammate? Lyons was stunned. “I know world-class athletes have all offered to run with Rick,” he says. “All these people have asked him, and the answer has always been no. So to be asked was incredibly humbling.”

Dick and Rick Hoyt did get plenty of offers, but they couldn’t think of anyone else they wanted to continue the Team Hoyt tradition. Bryan Lyons “was the perfect guy as far as Rick and I are concerned. He loves pushing Rick,” says Dick.

Like many New Englanders, Lyons, a New Hampshire native, knew the Hoyts’ story and the inspiration they provide with every step of every Boston Marathon.

But how did a dentist who ran as a hobby come to be the one to get that call from Dick Hoyt? That story starts in 2001, just after Lyons opened his first dental practice in Billerica, Massachusetts. After staying late one night to do paperwork, Lyons was hit by a drunk driver as he drove home.

At the time, he was spending much of his free time training for and running marathons all over the country with his younger brother and sister-in-law. Though he could knock off 16 to 18 miles pretty easily, he had never thought of himself as a serious runner. “In college I would just go out for a run to try to maintain a semblance of fitness—and sanity,” he says. “Same thing in dental school.”

When he ran Boston with Rick Hoyt last April, Lyons says he definitely wasn’t prepared for the media blitz.

The injuries from the accident were not life-threatening, but it would be months before he could sleep through the night without pain. And it wasn’t until 2006—five years after the accident—that Lyons was able to run 5 miles relatively pain-free. What should have felt like an accomplishment left him discouraged—his pace was nearly 30 minutes slower than it had been before the accident. A childhood friend suggested Lyons set his sights on a triathlon, the race that involves swimming, biking and running. His first tri included a 0.6-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and a 6.5-mile run. The former marathoner took to it like a duck to water.

“I couldn’t tell you my time, but I was hooked,” Lyons says. “I didn’t care how slow I ran because I had nothing to compare it to, and of course the [running] time would be slower because I’d already been swimming and biking.”

He joined a local triathlon club. In 2008, an email went out to the members, recruiting athletes to run the Boston Marathon with Team Hoyt. The challenge came at a crucial point in Lyons’ recovery. “I knew someday I would be able to do another marathon, but at that point, I was still only able to do about a half marathon,” he says. “The Hoyts were the only impetus I needed.”

Over the next five months as he trained with Team Hoyt, Lyons forged a strong friendship with the father-son duo. “I told Dick after that first Boston Marathon that I’d love to come back and run with the team next year,” Lyons says. “He said, ‘Only if you do it every year after, as well.’ ”

Lyons did come back, and not just for Boston. Since his accident, he estimates he’s done nearly 100 triathlons and hundreds of road races and cycling events, many of them pushing other Team Hoyt athletes—Lyons is president of the foundation’s New England chapter.

“I’m very grateful that Tufts provided me with a career that affords me the opportunity to pursue my passions, including running, travel and the foundation work that I do with Team Hoyt,” says Lyons.

When he ran Boston with Rick Hoyt last April, Lyons says he definitely wasn’t prepared for the media blitz. So well-known is the story of Team Hoyt that fans lining the route even knew a dentist had taken over behind the wheel. A few people shouted, “Hey, Doc!” Lyons doesn’t care if anyone recognizes him or knows his name. He runs to support Team Hoyt and his friend Rick.

“The outpouring of love and support for Team Hoyt along that route was incredible,” Lyons says. “It’s not about me. It’s about Dick and Rick. Just to be a part of helping continue that tradition is amazing.” Rick and Bryan are deep into their training for Boston 2016. Team Hoyt will once again toe the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, on April 18.

Contact Jacqueline Mitchell at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.

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