Boston bound

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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Over the 10 years that John Grant and Keith Butler worked together at CIBC Wood Gundy, the two became close friends.

Even after Keith moved to a job at ScotiaMcLeod and John left work due to the progression of his multiple sclerosis, the two friends kept in contact.

“We’d get together about once a week,” says Keith, sitting at John’s kitchen table earlier this month. “John would always ask about what I was up to, (running-wise). One day I asked him if he’d like to do a race. He said yes.”

That was 2009. The rest is history.

“(Running) is what I would love to do more than anything,” says John, who has been in a wheelchair for 14 years.

Not ones to aim low, the duo chose a half marathon in Ottawa as their first race. But first they had to get a suitable racing chair. You can’t expect to run 21 kilometres pushing a heavy power chair or a regular push chair.

They contacted Team Hoyt, an American father and son duo. Dick Hoyt pushes his son, Rick, in a specialized racing chair. They’ve competed in more than 1,000 races, including 70 marathons and six Ironman competitions. For an Ironman, Dick Hoyt swims 3.86 km towing his son on a raft. He then bikes 180.25 km with his son in a special basket frame on the front. Finally he runs 42.2 km pushing Rick in a custom racing wheelchair.

The Hoyts recommended that John and Keith approach Eagle Racing Chairs in Georgia, which they did and found that Eagle Racing could indeed outfit John with a chair. But it would cost $2,500.

That’s where John’s and Keith’s old colleagues at CIBC Wood Gundy stepped up, donating the funds for the custom carbon fibre racing chair.

“Those people are fantastic, incredibly tolerant, supportive and understanding,” says John. “They’re like family.”

“They are amazing colleagues and friends,” adds Keith.

Once a chair had been procured, the logistics didn’t end there. Just getting John to the start line in a race is quite challenging. He credits his wife of 25 years, Susan, with handling details like making accessible hotel bookings and ensuring the unique physical challenges that are a daily reality of MS are met throughout the marathon travel schedule. It’s a monumental undertaking, and John is forever grateful she’s up to the task.

“The slightest change in my routine makes my life even more challenging,” says John.

“Travel is very debilitating and Susan calms me and makes everything right. That support allows me to do challenging things. I am wildly lucky. I won the lotto with Susan, really.”

For Keith, pushing his 180-pound friend in a 28-pound chair is no walk in the park either. Running and pushing is more demanding than running on your own. First of all, you have to carry tools in case something goes wrong with the chair. You’d think nothing would go wrong, but the duo has experienced interesting problems firsthand.

During last year’s Tely 10, for example, the bars that Keith holds onto on the back of John’s chair broke and hit the unsuspecting John hard.

“I thought he was smacking me in the head. It hurt. I said, ‘Cut it out!’” says John.

But Keith hadn’t hit John on purpose. He was probably even more surprised than John. Then, for the second half of the race, Keith had to deal with navigating an unwieldy chair.

“The hardest part was getting up (past) Road De Luxe,” he explains, adding the last turn on to Bannerman Road before the finish line proved a little challenging as well.

“We almost didn’t make (the turn),” says Keith, explaining how they started veering into the crowd.

Despite the difficulty Keith had steering the chair, however, the team finished in 77 minutes, 16 seconds. Not too shabby at all for people who look like they’re having a ball.

“We enjoy ourselves on the course,” says John, adding they are usually laughing the whole way. “We laughed so hard in Ottawa last year; I thought they were going to throw us off the course.”

And despite Keith’s fast times, he never worries about running below a certain time in races he runs with John. That does not mean John

doesn’t think about it, though.

“We were Nos. 710 and 711 (over the finish line) in Ottawa last year out of about 3,000 runners,” says John, explaining how, because he’s ahead in the chair, he always crosses the line a split second before his friend.

Listening to Keith, I get the impression he knew John had his sights set pretty high.

“When we were doing that first (full) marathon in Ottawa three years ago, John asked, ‘What’s with the hats?’” says Keith.

John was referring to the bunny ears that pace bunnies wear so fellow runners can stick with them and finish under a certain time.

“Stick with them and you’ll get the time (written on the ears),” Keith answered.

“What’s that group up there?” John asked, pointing to a group up ahead.

“That’s Boston,” Keith answered.

It is difficult to qualify for Boston. The qualifying rules don’t cut any slack to a runner pushing a friend in a racing chair. To qualify, Keith has to run the same time as if he were running on his own, which for a male runner between the ages of 45 and 49, is under 3:25.

“I never in a million years thought we’d ever do Boston,” says Keith.

So last year when Keith and John finished the Ottawa Marathon in a time of 3:23, and later found out they had qualified for Boston, they were ecstatic.

Still, a marathon is a marathon whatever way you look at it. It’s not something you just wake up one morning and do. Lots of preparation is involved.

For Keith that means hundreds of hours on a treadmill during the dark days of Newfoundland winter.

“I usually run in the mornings after I drop the kids off at the pool… Right now my weekly mileage is about 50-60 kms and I have never run a marathon on my own.”

That is, with the exception of the marathon he did during an Ironman in 2002. Together, though, Keith and John have done the Ottawa Marathon twice, the Ottawa half marathon once and the Tely twice. Boston will be their last event.

This week, in the days leading up to Sunday’s April 21 race, while Keith is eating carbs and protein and hydrating, hydrating, hydrating, John will be busy resting and mentally preparing to be completely out of his routine and ready to sit in the race chair for up to five hours before and after the actual marathon. The fact John has MS makes things a little trickier on race day, too.

“He has to get up early, eat modestly, get ready to be transferred into the race chair and mentally prepare to give up all control and be pushed through the race course,” says Keith.  

They will bring the race chair provided by CIBC Wood Gundy to Boston, which has since been welded back to race-worthy condition by Ron Coady of Coady’s Metal Works. In fact, getting John into his chair and outside to run is so tricky that the pair rarely ever trains.

“Because of logistics — road conditions, traffic and getting John in/out of the chair,” says Keith. “We rarely train before an event, unless of course we are able to do the Downtown 10K or another closed-course race. As John often says, the event is our training.”

“In Boston, they have someone in charge of wheelchair athletes,” explains Keith, explaining organizers will have a bus to pick up the teams or duos (that’s the category they’ll race in), bring them to the start line where their racing chairs will be waiting and then people are on site to transfer John to his chair so Keith doesn’t have to risk pulling out his back or worse, dropping John.

The most exciting aspect of running Boston is they will be racing alongside Team Hoyt, the father and son they originally approached for advice on the CIBC Wood Gundy chair.

“We’ll have half an hour with Rick and Dick before the race starts,” says Keith, admiration evident in his voice. “We’re going to wear (Team Hoyt) Yes You Can T-shirts.”

To get a better understanding of what an honour it is to run alongside the Hoyts, let me tell you a little bit about them.

Rick Hoyt was born in Massachusetts in 1962. During his birth he suffered from a lack of oxygen and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors recommended that Rick’s parents, Dick and Judy, put their son in an institution.

Rick’s parents did not take this advice. From the beginning the Hoyts knew their son could understand what they were saying. Rick’s eyes told them. Judy taught Rick the alphabet, and years later, with the advancement of computer technology, Rick was able to communicate with written words.

He typed his first message to his parents at the age of 11. As they waited with bated breath for Rick to type, “I love you, Mom” or “Thanks, Dad,” they laughed when their son’s first printed words appeared on the screen. “Go Bruins,” Rick wrote. Rick later graduated from Boston University.

But that doesn’t explain how the father and son got into racing.

When Rick was 15, he asked his father to push him in his wheelchair in a 5 km race to support a fellow student and lacrosse player who had been paralysed.

When, at the end of the run, Rick announced that when they were racing he didn’t feel disabled, Team Hoyt was formed.

Since that race, the Hoyts have completed the Boston marathon 30 times. Like John and Keith, no exceptions are made for qualifying times. This year, Dick turns 74 and on April 21 he will run his 31st Boston Marathon pushing his son. Although the Hoyts intended last year’s Boston Marathon to be their last, they were about a mile from the finish line when the bombs exploded and thus didn’t get to finish the run.

John and Keith don’t seem too worried about a repeat of last year’s events.

“I think they’ll have a few police around,” says John, who unlike Keith, has visited Beantown before.

Trying to get the pair to talk about what they hope to do after they finish the Boston Marathon is more difficult.

“John will go to sleep and I’ll go get a Guinness somewhere,” says

Keith. “A million things have to happen to get me to that finish line,” John says, adding that, like the Hoyts, this will be their last marathon.

“MS is a progressive illness. I’m not getting any better,” John says matter of factly. “This is my Everest.”

Susan Flanagan is a slow runner who is in awe of both teams. She can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

Organizations: Ironman, CIBC Wood Gundy, Ottawa Marathon Boston Marathon Boston University.But Guinness

Geographic location: Boston, Ottawa, Georgia Bannerman Road Newfoundland Massachusetts Beantown

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Recent comments

  • Lynda Younghusband
    April 17, 2014 - 10:38

    What a great story Susan. So inspiring. I'm reading it in Sicily and I won't complain about having to run on cobblestone streets again after reading this. Thanks.

  • Gabrielle Scott
    April 15, 2014 - 20:43

    Good Luck Keith and John!!

  • Jim Mercer
    April 15, 2014 - 10:03

    John and Susan - You're amazing. All the best to you both - Jim

  • Scott Fitzgerald
    April 15, 2014 - 09:28

    Incredibly inspiring. Congrats Keith and John and best of luck in Boston.