It was a poignant sight on a day filled with fireworks, fun and a celebration of American resilience.
To those who knew the situation, it was a sight some thought they might never see again.
In this year’s “4 on the 4th” Road Race in Keene, amongst the hundreds of runners and walkers making the trek 2 miles out and back to Railroad Square, one man was traveling the course a different way.
That was John Lucey, a well-known member of the Keene running community who hadn’t been seen in a race in nearly three years. Sitting in a wheelchair, Lucey was pushed across the course by his friends Bill James and Brad Smedley, with many in the crowd happy to see his return.
Lucey, 64, couldn’t run the race himself — having lost nearly all use of his legs after a blood clot in his leg traveled up to his heart, causing it to stop — but he was still fully engrossed in the unified spirit of the event, clapping for his fellow runners and cheering them on as they passed.
“It wasn’t like I was running, but it was as close as I could get to it,” Lucey said. “To get out there and to be part of it and to feel the feelings that you get when you’re out running again was really good.”
A Holyoke, Mass., native, Lucey began running competitively at Holyoke High School when he was 14, and he proved to have a knack for it. He won a Western Massachusetts title in the mile in track and field his senior year, and after moving to Keene around 1980, quickly became one of the mainstays of the running community, taking part in many local races and even some big-name marathons, like Boston.
He was one of the original members of the Scores Running Club, which Smedley co-founded in 2015, and he even became the club treasurer.
But everything changed on July 12, 2016.
“Complete and total surprise, because he went from an elite runner to we didn’t know if he was gonna even make it,” said Lucey’s wife, Audrey, of the blood clot. “They flew him to Dartmouth [Hitchcock] in the helicopter, they put him in a coma; we didn’t know what was gonna happen, and when he came out of it we didn’t know if he was ever going to be able to walk.”
John survived, but some of the nerves in his legs died due to lack of circulation and he has since used a wheelchair. He’s recovered to the point where he can take a few steps without the chair, but he and Audrey have also worked hard to adjust their day-to-day lives to deal with this new reality.
“It was really devastating,” John said. “[Running] was such a major part of my life.”
This is where James stepped in.
James — who became friends with John just after he lost use of his legs, after his wife, Sally, befriended Audrey — had heard about a friend of his from the Philadelphia area, Jim Price, pushing his daughter, Megan, in a wheelchair in road races.
“As time went on and we were having conversations about running, John would engage in those conversations,” James said. “It was just one of those things — the timing was such of talking with Audrey and saying, ‘Would he be willing to allow me to push him in the race?’ ”
John was hesitant at first, but two weeks before the race he decided to give it a try.
So, almost three years to the day his world fell apart, John returned to the racing world he once thought he had to leave behind.
He sat in a special type of running chair made specifically for people like John by Team Hoyt, which the Luceys rented from Northeast Passage at the University of N.H. Team Hoyt originated as a father-son duo from Holland, Mass., with the father, Dick Hoyt, competing in races with his son, Rick, who has cerebral palsy.
“I saw the Hoyts at my first half-marathon, the Quechee Gorge Half-Marathon in Quechee, Vt.,” Smedley said. “It runs around a common, so kind of an out-and-back loop piece, and I saw them coming towards me and I thought, ‘Whatever pain I’m feeling, it ain’t the same.’ ”
As James pushed John down the street, while also trading off with Smedley from time to time, John got to see that he had been missing more than just the physical act of racing. He wasn’t able to run anymore, but he could still chat with old friends, cheer on his fellow runners and take in the atmosphere.
The return meant a little something different to everyone involved.
To Smedley, who had known John for a long time, seeing him back on the track again — running or not — was like a breath of fresh air.
“I felt it in my chest for sure. A lot of people did,” Smedley said. “Everybody knows John in the running community here, so I think a lot of people were just excited to see him out there.”
To Audrey, it was a bittersweet moment, a culmination of all the struggles they had gone through together over the past three years.
“We were all really emotional, just because we were so happy that he finally said, ‘Yeah, I want to go out again and do something,’ ” Audrey said. “For the last three years, he’s just been saying no. He’s been kind of depressed, so it just kind of is a sign to me that he’s coming to terms with things and we’re both kind of accepting, ‘this is our lifestyle, so now what can we do?’ ”
And for James, pushing John felt like one of the most meaningful things he had ever done.
He said: “Just incredibly rewarding to know that this was hopefully a step, and I think it is, a step in the direction of John re-engaging with something that he loved so much, even though it’s obviously on a different plane than it used to be.”
Now encouraged by his first return race, John joined his friends at the Scores Running Club Tuesday for the group’s weekly run around the city. Once again, Smedley said, people were happy to see John back, with locals smiling and waving from their cars as they passed.
This time around, it was Smedley who pushed John, and he said he and James are far from John’s only options for assistance.
“They’ll line up to push him,” Smedley said. “If someone else wants to push him, if I’m not here some nights, someone will push him for sure.”
John said he plans to participate in other races in the future, noting that he’ll pick a reasonable distance for the person volunteering to push him.
James said he hopes other handicapped people find inspiration in John’s story and get on the track.
“I think the answer is yes, it would,” James said. “Maybe the possibility exists that there would be a division in races for this sort of thing. There is a division [in the Boston Marathon] for a limited number of people pushing other people in racing chairs. There’s nothing to say we can’t do that around here.”
John added: “Take advantage of any opportunities you have to get physical. That’s what I would say. Every time you don’t do anything that day, you lose it, so it’s great to get out there and do anything physical and regain some of the joy that you get from physical exercise.”