For runners helping special needs marathoners, it's a labor of love

Chris Brennan ran the Baltimore Marathon in 3:53:52 -- not bad. he was pushing his son the whole way.

They crossed the finish line together, father and son, having completed the marathon Saturday in 3 hours, 53 minutes and 52 seconds. Not a bad time considering Chris Brennan pushed 12-year-old Ryan the whole way in a running stroller.

At the end, as they closed under the banner, Ryan, who's autistic, raised his arms, Rocky-style. His dad just smiled. For 26.2 miles, Brennan had chugged up hills and down, a modern-day Sisyphus performing a labor of love. Ryan weighed 68 pounds; the stroller, 75.

"The first part is exhilarating. You've got fresh legs and motivation," said Brennan, 43, an attorney from Princeton, N.J. "Then come the hills. What drives me on is hearing the crowd cheer Ryan's name (it was attached to the stroller) and seeing him respond. He laughed, let me know when he wanted a cookie and had me tickle him under the chin. That gave me the fuel to finish."

The Brennans were among the first of a handful of special needs entrants to complete the marathon, many of them sponsored by Athletes Serving Athletes, a Cockeysville nonprofit that matches disabled athletes with race-day volunteers, or wingmen. One entrant, James Banks, bubbled over after finishing in 4:15:43.

"I'm doin' great," said Banks, a 16-year-old from Brooklyn Park who has cerebral palsy. That it was his sixth Baltimore Marathon wasn't evident from his antics en route.

"James kept yelling, 'Get out of my way, I'm going to win,' and 'Go faster, go faster!'" said Scott Boylan, part of the team of volunteers from Morgan Stanley that pushed Banks during the race. "But when another [stroller] passed him, James just rooted him on."

Throughout the race, Banks entertained himself by listening to songs by Marvin Gaye and Al Green on a volunteer's iPhone.

"This is something I was born to do," he said of the marathon. Then he grasped a cell phone to chat with his girlfriend.

His wingmen, more than a dozen in all, spelled each other throughout and finished spent but content.

"Pushing James up the hills wasn't easy — it took two of us — but it was the most rewarding thing I've ever done," said Boylan, 60. "His body might not react, but his mind is 100 percent. We'Il bring him to our office in Harbor East next week to celebrate. James wants Chick fil A for lunch, and to see his picture on our wall."

Terrence Ridley, who also has cerebral palsy, wore a Superman suit and a wide grin at race's end. The 15-year-old from Baltimore City couldn't shake hands with his ASA teammates but gave fist bumps all around in thanks. He rolled in at 4:31:10.

Jeremy Haugh and his son Jeremiah, 11, drove from Clarksville, Tenn., to take part in the marathon, having done it once in 2011. His dad said that Jeremiah doesn't talk but, upon approaching the city and seeing the Baltimore skyline, sounded a long "Aaaahhh."

"He knew what was coming," said Haugh, 41, a Brigade Judge Advocate with the U.S. Army. "And when the alarm went off at 4 a.m. this morning, he had no problem getting up. This is his sport."

The Haughs finished in 4:40:48, egged on by the race fans they passed.

"He loves seeing people," Haugh said of Jeremiah, who has global developmental delay, a neurological disorder. "He's got his Lucky Charms, his Sprite and the Gummi Bears they give out during the race. Me? I get to lean on the stroller when I'm tired.

"This is our chance to spend time together; without him, it's not fun to run."

Sara Wolfson, an ASA volunteer, agreed. Pushing her athlete, Maggie Breschi of Timonium, spurred her on. Breschi, 22, who has CP, finished in 4:54:06.

"I would have stopped a long time ago, if not for her," said Wolfson, 34, of Elkridge. "But, you know what? Once you've run so many races, it's time to give back."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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