Sid Busch will run the Baltimore Marathon with a fallen Marine on his back. It's a weight he is proud to carry.
On Saturday, Busch, 66, will pin a photo of Jimmy Malachowski to his shirt, look skyward and murmur something to the leatherneck from Westminster, who was killed in Afghanistan last year. Then, as he has done 40 times before, Busch will race the 26.2 miles through city streets in memory of a serviceman he never met.
Some six hours later, when he's done, Busch will hand his finishing medal to Malachowski's parents. They, in turn, will take it to Arlington National Cemetery and place it on the grave of their son, a platoon sergeant who was serving his fourth combat tour when killed March 20, 2011, by an improvised explosive device.
"The last thing Jiimmy said to me before he shipped out was, 'Mom, if I don't make it back this time, I don't want people to forget that I ever lived,'" Alison Malachowski said.
That won't happen, said Busch, a retired Navy senior chief from Goose Creek, S.C.
"At 25, you're not supposed to worry about whether people will remember you," he said of Malachowski. "I've got running shoes that are older than these kids who are dying [in the Middle East]. Unfortunately, the longer this thing drags out, the more people accept it as a part of everyday life.
"For many Americans, as long as they can go to the mall, or watch football games, these deaths are just numbers printed in the paper. I want the families of these [servicemen] to know that their loss has not gone unnoticed."
Busch, who has finished 186 marathons, said he began running to honor those killed in action in 2001. Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I'm a slow-enough runner that people can actually see the picture on my back and read the soldier's name." he said. "Fans and even other runners come over and thank me. And they thank him."
Dropping out of the race isn't an option, regardless of pain.
"When I'm hurting, I think about what this kid went through," Busch said. "My problems are minor."
On Saturday, he'll be running for a kindred spirit. Malachowski was a fitness buff who ran lap after lap, often 10 miles a night, inside the stark mud walls of a cramped patrol base in Marjah, Afghanistan.
"Jimmy's commander told his men, 'When you can't sleep, listen for the footsteps and count the laps that your staff sergeant does,'" said Alison Malachowski, who served in the Marines herself. "To Jimmy, running was a good stress release, and he pushed his men to work out. He said, 'Mom, if I do it with them, it's not considered hazing.'
"He even built a 'gym' on the base, with a pulley system made of survey stakes, duct tape and rocks. Combat was intense over there; he and his men had to be airdropped into the village because of the Taliban. Jimmy knew things would get really bad, and he believed 'a physically fit Marine is a mentally fit Marine.'"
Malachowski enlisted upon graduation in 2003 from North Carroll, where he ran track for the Panthers. A crack marksman, he made the Marine Corps rifle team, earned the prestigious Distinguished Shooting Badge and taught recruits at boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
Gradually, running became an integral part of his life, his father said.
"At first, Jimmy ran just to stay in shape. But then he got the bug, real bad," James Malachowski said. "While on leave in 2010, he ran the Army 10-Miler in Washington, and planned to do the Marine Corps Marathon when he came back from deployment."
Malachowski clings to memories of his son's last visit, in June 2010. The family lives in a rural, woodsy area north of town, and each morning the two men would walk together down the path to Geeting Road, a winding country lane inhabited by deer, foxes and other wildlife.
There, they'd part.
"I'd walk several miles and Jimmy would take off running, up to Pennsylvania and back," the father said. "He'd go seven miles, at least, and we'd always get back to the house together. Then, in the afternoon, he'd go to Gold's Gym, in Westminster, to lift weights and run another three or four miles on the treadmill."
His son "would be happy" that Busch is running for him Saturday, he said. "It doesn't matter where he [Busch] finishes. Jimmy wanted to be remembered, and this is another way of doing it. But we'd like to think that he's watching over us, keeping an eye on us."
Busch won't argue that. Last year, he ran the Baltimore Marathon to honor another Marine, Cpl. Kurt Shea, 21, of Frederick, who'd been shot and killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
"I'm not that religious, but at mile 22, I was really hurting," Busch said. "I could almost feel Kurt's presence helping me along. Whatever it was, it helped."
He has but one regret.
"I just wish I could be running with these boys, and not for them."
If you go
The 2012 Baltimore Running Festival runs through much of the morning Saturday. The starting time for the Baltimore Marathon and the Legg Mason Team Relay is 8 a.m. at Russell and Camden streets. The 5K run begins at 8:15 a.m. at Paca and Pratt streets. The kids Fun Run is set for 9:20 a.m. (runners age 7 and under) and 9:30 a.m. (kids 8-12) at the Kids Fun Zone on Lot C at the stadium complex. The half-marathon begins at 9:45 a.m. at Conway and Light streets. Marathon runners should start arriving at the finish line around 10:15 a.m. Information, including a full events listing: thebaltimoremarathon.com.