Disability Doesn’t Deflate the Joy of a Distance Race

September 29, 2023
Bedford resident James Anderson (in chair) and his cousin Liam Cronin are vying for slot to run the 2024 Boston Marathon. Courtesy Image by The James Gang

James Anderson of Bedford compliments runners about their shoes as they pass him on a marathon course. As spectators offer encouragement, “he takes his arms and lifts them up like he wants you to clap for him,” his mother said. This experience “brings him joy that he would not otherwise have.”

James, 31, is developmentally disabled. He lives with his mother and father, Nancy and Richard Anderson. He has been diagnosed with a disease called NARS1, a genetic mutation with cognitive, physical, and neurological impacts. 

“It’s a very rare condition, afflicting only a handful in the United States,” his mother said. 

He has participated in four marathons, riding in a specially-designed chair. And in a few weeks, he will learn whether he will participate with his cousin, Liam Cronin, in next spring’s Boston Marathon. James and Liam ended up qualifying literally at the 11th hour, registering the day before the Sept. 10  downtown Marathon in Hingham. 

James progressed through the special-needs collaboratives in the Bedford schools, but his intellectual disabilities were undiagnosed until 2009, Nancy said. 

Sports play a huge part in James’s life, said Nancy. For more than a decade, he has been a regular at varsity games in the Bedford High School gymnasium, enjoying the action as he cheers for both teams from a seat in the bleachers with one or both parents. She added that he used to take part in Special Olympics until severe neuropathy made walking impossible.

Nancy described his entry into the marathon world. More than eight years ago, she related, an unknown benefactor asked the family if James could accompany him in a race seated in a Hoyt Chair. The device is named for Dick Hoyt and his son Rick, legendary names in distance running. Dick ran while pushing his son in more than 1,000 distance races, using the specially-designed adaptive wheeled chair.

“They ran the marathon together and James loved it,” Nancy said. She later found out that the entertainer Mark Wahlberg bought the chair.

Nancy, a recently retired Davis School teaching assistant, recalled thinking, “I’ve run all my life. Why can’t I do this?” They teamed up for a marathon in Lowell and “James loved it. I was doing something I loved and he was part of it.” 

Her husband, Richard, later joined with James for a Falmouth Marathon.

Then Liam, 28, got involved, and the two ran a 2021 marathon in Nashville, where James’s sister, Taylor, is a nurse at Vanderbilt Hospital. Liam and his brothers, Stephen and Kevin, grew up in Burlington. “It’s so inspirational to watch James with Liam,” James’s sister, Lauren, said. “James fuels up with cookies while Liam drinks Gatorade.”

Sports have always been an important part of James’ life and he has participated in four marathons already. Courtesy Image by The James Gang

Their mother added, “They just have a great relationship.”

The Hingham course was four miles long and the runners covered it six times, so the team passed the family “pit crew” often. 

“We knew when Liam was coming because of all of the cheers, and James was thrilled,” Lauren reported. Their time was five hours, 39 minutes – not bad for a tandem with no training.

There’s no guarantee the team will race in Boston next April. 

“It’s sort of a lottery,” Nancy said, explaining that there are two slots in the duo division, with four or five qualifiers expected.

Nevertheless, the family, with Liam’s brother, Steven in the lead, has established a certified non-profit organization. The James Gang is “dedicated to pursuing opportunities for inclusion for people living with intellectual disabilities.” It raises funds not only for NARS1 research and the Best Buddies organization but also for sports equipment in adult rehabilitation centers.

The James Gang has been named an official charity of the 2024 Boston Marathon. The website is https://www.teamjamesgang.com, which testifies that “James is known for his contagious enthusiasm and smile.” 

Nancy said, “We are hoping by doing Boston we can help with scholarships for older individuals who live in group homes.”

“My parents were Back Bay residents and we went to the Marathon every year,” Nancy said. “And my parents would cry every time Dick Hoyt went by. I am thrilled that we can raise money this way and help adults like James.”

The James Gang is a nonprofit set up by James’ family “dedicated to pursuing opportunities for inclusion for people living with intellectual disabilities.” Courtesy Image: The James Gang
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