Fresno's Jim Wagoner, son Colby off to make difference at Boston Marathon

The Fresno BeeApril 9, 2014 

Jim Wagoner was sitting in his southeast Fresno home a year ago watching the Boston Marathon on TV when bombs exploded near the finish line.

His eyes became glued to the screen as bystanders became emergency responders and attended to the four people who were killed and more than 260 who were maimed by the blasts on April 15.

"It was empathy. It was anger towards the people that were doing this. You feel that you want to do something about it but you can't. You're mad," Wagoner said.

Wagoner phoned friends in Boston, making sure each was OK even as the city became a war zone for the next week as authorities hunted down the suspects.

Now a year later, and with relief efforts sky high for this year's race, Wagoner and son Colby will join the "Boston Strong" movement on April 21. A near-record 36,000 runners are signed up and more than 1 million people are expected to watch along the course, united in an effort "to take back our finish line," according to The Boston Globe.

Just as he has done at the annual Father's Day race in Fresno, Wagoner will push Colby along the course in their own effort to help Boston get a little stronger and help a city on its day of triumph while raising money for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress.

Colby doesn't have Down syndrome, but the Wagoners are running on behalf of the MDSC because of its mission of inclusion and acceptance for all.

Team Wagoner has raised more than $50,000 for the MDSC, but the main reason the father-son duo will run 26.2 miles is to help the people of Boston take back their city.

"I don't think we would've done this if it wasn't for the bombings," Wagoner said. "The military stands up to terrorism all the time, but not the general population. What about us? We can stand up en masse."

Running together

Colby doesn't understand what took place last year or the depth of emotions surrounding this year's race.

That's because he has severe learning disabilities, autism and congenital hypotonia. He cannot talk and doesn't have full control of his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame; he sways back and forth when he walks and stands.

For Colby, he'll be pushed by his dad in a specialized racing wheelchair.

It's a tradition that started when Wagoner became a dad — he would push each of his children in the annual Father's Day Race at Woodward Park until they grew out of the stroller and were able to run with him. He did it with 29-year-old Daniel, 27-year-old Joe and 11-year-old Nicole.

But Colby, now 18, never grew out of the stroller. In fact, the strollers have gotten bigger and sturdier as he's grown.

"It never got to be his turn to run," Wagoner says. "I'm not not going to push him. I just haven't stopped. We all enjoy it. It's something we can all do together."

A few times a week, Wagoner and wife Wendy will secure Colby in his wheelchair and go for runs around their neighborhood. Colby loves those runs and will shower his dad with love the rest of the day — smacking open-mouthed "hippo" kisses all across his head.

"We're not like a normal family," Wagoner said. "We can't take him out to dinner or to the movies. But you can take him running, so that's what we do."

His wife added: "He might limit activities out of the home, but at home he's pretty easy. The times that are great outweigh the tough times 100%."

Those great times certainly include race days. Colby, his dad said, interacts with runners on the course, giving them a shout as they pass. He also will swing his arms and rock back and forth in his wheelchair, almost as though he's helping his dad push him along the route.

"He's got this smile on his face, that he likes it." Wagoner said. "I can't see it because I'm behind him, but he'll holler and I'll tell from that."

So although Colby may not fully grasp what happened a few hundred yards from the finish line at last year's Boston Marathon, he'll be able to share his own day of triumph with a city in healing.

To make the day even sweeter for Colby, relatives and friends will gather at spots on the course and sing his favorite song, "Happy Birthday."

Daniel and Joe will fly to Boston. The rest of the family will leave Saturday in a motor home as Colby doesn't do well on planes.

They'll look to make the 3,100-mile cross-country drive in seven days.

"It's almost unbelievable. This is the biggest stage my brother's been on and it's really special to be a part of it," Daniel said. "We do the Father's Day run every year as a family, but this year, for us it's definitely the big one."

Making their own pace

Wagoner is a 65-year-old lawyer and weighs in at a trim 150 pounds. But come marathon day, he'll be pushing more than double his weight as he sets off to complete his second full marathon. His first was the Two Cities Marathon in November.

That won't be easy on a Boston course that has 34 hills with 783 feet of elevation gain and more than 1,200 feet of downhill. Plus more than 38,000 runners will be scattered throughout.

Wagoner will need to maneuver the wheelchair around the crowds while also keeping a firm grip on the hand brake should they catch too much downhill speed.

Just last month, Wagoner pushed Colby in the California Classic Half Marathon and admitted the one hill on the Stanislaus Avenue bridge was a challenge.

"I'm not looking to finish fast. I'm going to enjoy it. I'm a slow runner for good excuse," he says smiling, looking on at Colby as he watches cartoons while cuddled under his mother's arm on the couch.

"There's a human being in there and I'm his dad. It really is a gift. It takes a while to appreciate that. It's unconditional love. There's nothing I can't get mad at him for and nothing he can get mad at me for.

"It's easy to find flaws in a person, but having Colby has taught me otherwise. He teaches me to look for the good in people."

Overflow of support for Boston

For Boston native Susan Hurley, the overflow of support coming from all parts of the country has been more than overwhelming.

Hurley is the founder of Charity Teams and manages all the charity runners in the marathon, including Team Wagoner.

"The running community is an amazing group of people that just want to help others," Hurley said. "Running is supposed to be fun, but last year was the most horrific thing to ever happen. It took so much away from what is supposed to be a beautiful event."

Donations raised in connection with the Boston Marathon this year are already at $2.3 million — well above last year's $1.6 million — and Hurley is hoping to reach $3 million.

As the marathon nears, emotions are rising in Boston, Hurley said, and trauma counselors have been meeting with runners as they revisit last year's tragedy.

"It's excitement, combined with guilt, anxiety, fear," she said. "It's not revenge. It's stepping up and not being fearful and meeting it head on. We're possessive runners and we want to have our race.

"It's become an event that's not about running the race one time. It's really about wanting to be part of this community that's standing up against violence. This is our race."

CLICK HERE: To donate to Team Wagoner and the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress.

The reporter can be reached at amoreno@fresnobee.com or @anhelllll on Twitter.

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