One Last Race Together: Mass. Man Pushing Wheelchair At Hartford Half-Marathon To Honor Running Partner Who Died

Jackie Gustafson had cerebral palsy and was non-verbal. But BJ Williams could feel the joy she felt, pulsating up through the handles of the wheelchair he pushed, especially when they would hit a pothole or go over a speed bump in the road.

At the Fenway Park Marathon on Sept. 15, Williams pushed Gustafson in her racing wheelchair 116 laps around the baseball park's perimeter.

And over the 26.2 miles, they bumped over the timing mat 116 times.

"Every lap, we'd go over the mats and if we were going fast enough, she would bounce," Williams said. "She loved that. 116 times."

Williams' voice trails off. Fenway was their last race together as a duo for Team Hoyt New England, which pairs able-bodied runners with disabled people in wheelchairs. Gustafson, who was a Team Hoyt member for four years and raced with Williams for two and lived in Feeding Hills, Mass., died suddenly of complications from pneumonia Sept. 30. She was 17 years old.

The two were planning to run the Eversource Hartford Half-Marathon Saturday morning. Now Williams, 33, of Leicester, Mass., will run alone. But he won't really be alone; he'll be pushing Gustafson's chair.

"Jackie won't be there with me in her chair running but she'll be with me in spirit," Williams said. "She absolutely will be. Her family will be there. I don't know emotionally what the race will bring.

"Training has been a little different since Jackie passed. I haven't been able to find my niche or my zen. Some days are good, some days are bad. I'm hoping on race day, everything lines up. It will be a tough time.

"It will be, in my mind, our last race together. I'll be sad, I know, at the finish."

Williams was honored as a member of the Aiello Inspiration Team, sponsored by the marathon. In the last 10 years, he has run in 16 marathons and six Ironman Triathlons and over 100 races.

He was a hockey player first. He learned to play when he was 3, growing up in Longmeadow, Mass., and as a freshman in high school, moved to Lake Placid to attend the National Sports Academy and hone his hockey skills. He played junior hockey for the Bay State Breakers in Boston, in Italy and upstate New York. But on July 20, 2005, that all ended when Williams was involved in a car accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike. He wasn't wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle.

"I woke up a couple days later in the hospital and I thought my biggest setback was that hockey was over," Williams said.

He learned that he had a traumatic brain injury. His balance was off and he had sensory issues. But he was 21 and in prime athletic shape, which helped his recovery.

Six month later, Williams was watching HBO late at night and saw a story about a father who pushed his son in a wheelchair in races. Dick and Rick Hoyt, the genesis of Team Hoyt, have competed in thousands of races all over the world and inspired countless runners and disabled athletes; there is a statue of the pair in Hopkinton, Mass. in honor of their running the Boston Marathon over 30 times.

Williams was inspired to run a marathon. The Hyannis Marathon was in three weeks. He decided to try it.

"I ended up only doing a half marathon that day," he said. "I couldn't walk for about two weeks after. It was a good learning experience to see that the sport is not easy.

"But I was hooked after that, into running, triathlons, races, anything I could do to physically push my body."

In 2014, Williams joined Team Hoyt New England. He met Gustafson and her parents at a fundraiser. She had been a team member for two years but didn't have a running partner at the time.

"Her parents mentioned there weren't many people in Western Mass. for Team Hoyt New England," he said. "I said, 'My parents live in Western Mass. If there's a race, let's do it.' They're like, 'Well, St. Patrick's Day is in two weeks in Holyoke.'"

Williams pushed Gustafson through the hilly 10K. He remembered it was freezing.

"That's kind of when we established the bond," he said. "It was enjoyable. It was fun."

He would see Gustafson maybe once or twice a month for races after that. Over the summer, she came to a triathlon clinic and Williams put on a harness and pulled her in a raft for the swim. She loved it.

At a 5K race in Attleboro, a friend mentioned the Fenway Park Marathon, which was open to a limited number of people. Williams wasn't trained for a marathon but said he would do it if he could run with Gustafson. He could.

He and Gustafson and Rick Hoyt and his running partner Bryan Lyons, who took over for Rick's father Dick after he retired from running marathons, completed the marathon. He and Gustafson finished at 10 p.m.

"She had a blast," he said.

A few weeks later, Gustafson became ill.

"She had been sick for a couple days prior," Williams said. "I saw her two days before in the hospital. There was nothing saying, 'Prepare for the worst.' It was pneumonia. We knew she had another infection but we didn't think it would escalate to that.

"I was at work on Saturday. My wife sent me an email, around 7 o'clock, saying that her mother got in touch with me and said things aren't looking good. I left work, went to the hospital and we were there with her when she passed.

"I was in a toss-up after she passed. Do I even run? Do I not? Then just talking to a couple of people, I thought, I have to. I have to do it for her. I talked to Dick Hoyt at the funeral. He thought it would be a good way to honor her. The race committee gave me the OK to run with the chair."

Now, Williams isn't sure what his future running goals are anymore. He wanted to do a triathlon with Gustafson next year and when she turned 18, he wanted to run the Boston Marathon with her, something he had already done alone.

"When I went to race, it wasn't, 'OK, Jackie hang on, I'm going to race today and I want to come in first,'" he said. "It wasn't showing up for me. It was for her. So she could be included in the community with other athletes, other people her age. Other runners. So she could enjoy it."

Though Gustafson couldn't communicate verbally, she and Williams were always able to communicate during races.

"I apologized to Jackie's parents at the hospital; I taught Jackie a lot of swears at Fenway Park," he said. "We never had that before, but at Fenway when you're running 116 laps in the same direction, same turns, that long … yeah...

"She taught me about not giving in and not wanting to quit. It was back and forth - it was me talking to her, then reading her emotional cues. We had some nice conversations. She was the best listener and always laughed about a lot of things I brought up. It was always fun to run together."

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