A U.S. Secret Service agent recovering from paralysis is preparing to compete in the “granddaddy of all marathons” — a far-off goal he and his partner set out to accomplish when they joined forces as a road-racing duo.
Garrett Fitzgerald and Donald McGrail met in September of 2015. Fitzgerald was reporting to the Boston Field Office as a special agent for the first time, and McGrail was working as a supervisor. Several months later, Fitzgerald was in New Hampshire on a security detail when he and three colleagues collided on the highway with a wrong-way vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle, who died at the scene, was reportedly under the influence of heroin.
“The force of the impact caused me to injure my spinal cord, paralyzing a good portion of my body,” Fitzgerald recently told Boston.com. “After inpatient hospital stays and inpatient rehab stays, I went home and began doing therapy over Journey Forward.”
“Team Fitz,” as Fitzgerald and McGrail have dubbed themselves, hopes to raise $20,000 running the 2019 Boston Marathon for Journey Forward — a rehab center specializing in paralysis. Through therapy at Journey Forward, Fitzgerald said he’s regained significant motion in one of his arms and sensation throughout his body. Just recently he stood up on his own for the first time, with the assistance of neuromuscular electrical stimulation.
Fitzgerald says he has McGrail to thank for giving him hope after the crash.
McGrail approached Fitzgerald in May of 2017 and suggested that they run as a team during Fitzgerald’s recovery, with McGrail pushing Fitzgerald in a running chair. Having grown up in Massachusetts, McGrail was familiar with the story of Dick and Rick Hoyt — the legendary father-and-son duo who raced together after Rick was paralyzed.
“I knew early on that if he was not able to make a full recovery, if it was appropriate, I would ask him about possibly running together as a team activity,” McGrail said. “I knew we could approach Team Hoyt and ask them for a running chair.”
Fitzgerald was “thrilled” when McGrail approached him with the idea, he said.
“It was not something I had originally thought to do because it’s tough,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask of anyone else as far as running goes.”
When the two began training for road races together, running regularly with friends in the Boston Field Office and across the Greater Boston District, they set the far-off goal of running the Boston Marathon.
Now that dream is about to become reality.
“To actually be at a point now where we’re going to achieve that goal, after almost two years from the time that we came up with that idea and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ Actually achieving that goal, it’s a real sense of accomplishment,” McGrail said.
The Stop Abuse 5K in Holland, Massachusetts, marked Team Fitz’s first race, and they’ve since raced the Boston and Falmouth half marathons, the BAA 5K and 10K, and, most recently, the Martha’s Vineyard Marathon in May of 2018.
“In order to qualify to be considered as an invitation team for the Boston Marathon and to be able to run as a charity team, we needed to run a qualifying marathon,” McGrail said. “We needed to finish within six hours, which we did easily.”
For an ultimate goal, why the Boston Marathon? Having watched from the sidelines in the past, Fitzgerald said he’s felt an energy from racers and spectators unlike anything else.
“It’s one of the most famous, and, as Don likes to say, the ‘granddaddy’ of all marathons. It’s in our backyard,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s shaping up to be pretty awesome, hoping the weather holds out.”
The event is uniquely “New England” in the eyes of the two Massachusetts natives. McGrail said he’s seen the greatest runners come from across the globe to compete, but also “average men and women” like himself and Fitzgerald.
He’s most excited to raise money for Journey Forward.
“To be able to give back to an organization, to help an organization that has done so much for Garrett, for his wife and for his family, it’s really a great opportunity,” McGrail said. “We’re both anxious to get out there and compete. The goal for the race, it’s not about time, it’s about just enjoying the experience.”
During a race, the pair communicates constantly. Fitzgerald carries McGrail through rough patches, sensing when he’s struggling and giving positive feedback.
“We are talking to each other about everything from pace to our surroundings, the next terrain feature, strategy, next water stations,” Fitzgerald said. “We keep each other going just naturally talking about all the different points of the race.”
When the marathon is over, McGrail said he has another goal — continuing to support Fitzgerald as best he can.
“Whether that’s out enjoying a run on a beautiful spring day, or it’s having a meal taken to the house because Garrett and his wife are busy with other things,” he said. “The long term goals of Team Fitz are the support for a friend and a colleague, and his family, and we’ll be here even if we’re not in any races.”
“Team Fitz will endure for a very long time,” McGrail added.