Matt Burdette doesn't like talking about that day. On April 15, 2013, Burdette finished the Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 8 minutes and 8 seconds. All morning, friends and family stood along Boylston Street, waiting for him to cross the finish line, until leaving to join Burdette at the runner-reunite area.
An hour later, two bombs were detonated on the sidewalk near the finish line.
Burdette, 34, didn't know whether he'd want to go back. There's guilt in having finished a race so many did not.
Then he met Kevin DiLegge, and the meaning of the marathon changed.
In mid-October, before the start of every Baltimore Marathon, DiLegge and his mother, Mary, would wake up early and turn on the TV. Into their Dundalk home poured scenes from the race: legs pumping, sweat pooling, fans cheering, people moving.
One race day, DiLegge made an announcement. He wanted to complete the marathon. Mary humored him: OK, we'll see what we can do. DiLegge persisted.
A friend suggested she offer an alternative. Why not volunteer at the race next year? He had cerebral palsy, but he could hand out water or fruit or …
"I don't want to give out water," DiLegge told her. "I want to be in the marathon."
The idea does not sound so implausible now, a year and a half after DiLegge completed the Baltimore Marathon and two days before the start of the Boston Marathon, where DiLegge and Burdette expect to cover 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours, 30 minutes with Burdette. All Kevin needed was Matt. And all Matt needed was Kevin.
A few years ago, Burdette remembers seeing racers lying recumbent in jogging strollers, called joggers, at the starting line of a Ravens 5K, a line of "WingMen" behind them. "Man, that looks really cool," he thought. The group, he later learned, was from Athletes Serving Athletes, a nonprofit that matches able-bodied athletes with disabled individuals for mainstream running and triathlon events. Before long, Burdette, who has completed 26 marathons, had volunteered.
Burdette's first race with the group was the Charles Street 12, a 12-miler he ran with two other WingMen in August 2014. His first partner was DiLegge. They got to know each other quickly.
DiLegge, now 27, has had cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects motor muscle control, since he was a baby. Throughout his childhood, he received therapy and speech services through Kennedy Krieger Institute schools. He could not walk or operate a power wheelchair manually, so he learned to drive his chair with his head. (That was his first notion when he considered how he might complete the Baltimore Marathon: Drive his power chair the length of the course. It wouldn't have worked, his mother and father, Larry, knew.)
At the Charles Street 12, Burdette learned something important about DiLegge: He had a need for speed. DiLegge had a habit of calling out shirt colors during races. If Red Shirt Guy was identified, Red Shirt Guy needed to be passed.
This became a problem during their first marathon together. It was hot outside. Burdette wanted to manage DiLegge's expectations. If they set a good pace, near the end of the race, he'd have enough left in the tank to really fly.
Midway through the marathon, after what seemed like every other mile, DiLegge would ask, "Can we start people passing yet?" When they stopped for water, DiLegge would notice things. "He'd say, 'Didn't we already pass that guy?'" Burdette said. So with 2 miles to go, he finally caved.
"All right," he told DiLegge, "tell me who you want to pass."
Map to Boston
In January 2015, at ASA's annual Bull Roast event, Burdette watched a promotional video detailing DiLegge's Baltimore Marathon dreams, and how they had been realized with the organization's help in 2014. Afterward, he got to thinking.
"Kevin's competed in so many of these events, and as a marathon runner, I don't care if you've run your first marathon or you're just training for it, at some point, it crosses your mind that you want to run Boston," Burdette said. He meant the Boston Marathon, the world's oldest annual such race. "You think of that as a goal. And I thought, 'Why should that be any different for Kevin?'"
He approached the DiLegges and mapped out a plan for qualification. In May, they could enter the Potomac River Run Marathon in Carderock in Montgomery County. Burdette learned from the Boston Athletic Association that to qualify as a duo team for a chance at a charity spot, he and Kevin would have to complete the marathon in less than six hours. They finished in 3:44, and the wait began.
Burdette went home happy. His training and competitive schedule had demanded that he run by himself, a gregarious man alone with his thoughts, but when he returned to Churchville in Harford County, he told his wife that of the two dozen marathons he'd completed, this had been the most fun. Better than the Chicago Marathon, better than the New York Marathon. Because of DiLegge.
They had bonded over normal stuff: baseball and football. DiLegge filled the silence of their weekly training sessions with talk of the Orioles and Ravens. He was a reliable conversationalist. Every so often, DiLegge would quiet some and they would stop to rehydrate, but even that was dependable — "Every 25 to 30 minutes, almost on the dot," Burdette said, "he's ready for a drink."
Other times, Burdette's heavy panting cut into the dialogue. Seeing a hill on the horizon, DiLegge would take his cue. "You can do it," he'd say. "You can do it."
On Nov. 25, they found out they had done it. Burdette and DiLegge were in the Boston Marathon, matched with the Martin Richard Foundation. The charity, established in honor of the 8-year-old boy killed during the bombings at the 2013 race, the tragedy's youngest victim, supports the Challenger Sports program for developmentally and physically challenged youths.
It was a poignant pairing. In death, Martin Richard became a symbol of the senseless violence that had turned the marathon into a crime scene. Now his memory is guiding Burdette's first return to the race in three years.
Distraction from memories
Toward the end of last week, in his time away from his corporate real estate job at Under Armour, Burdette reviewed Monday's racing itinerary.
Check-in is at 5:30 a.m. The bus for athletes with disabilities leaves for Hopkinton at 6:15. Burdette will reassemble DiLegge's jogger after they arrive. Duos start at 9:22.
The details are a distraction from what he knows will come rushing back at some point Monday. The second bomb, Burdette said, went off about 20 to 25 feet from where he had seen the group of family and friends rooting him on an hour earlier. Three spectators were killed, including Martin Richard, and more than 260 were injured.
"It was definitely a little eerie to see how close they were," Burdette said.
In 2013, Burdette longed to celebrate his marathon with a Boston 26.2 Brew, a commemorative Sam Adams beer. In recent training sessions, he has focused on DiLegge and what his partner has to look forward to. DiLegge listened, with great interest, as Burdette described Wellesley College's "Scream Tunnel." College girls line the streets. Some request kisses.
"I told him we would definitely stop," Burdette said, laughing.
Larry DiLegge considers himself fortunate to have Burdette "take on this challenge" with his son, to see the two come out of their training as friends and mutual admirers. Burdette is similarly grateful: He "can't wait," he said Thursday, to share the experience with someone so passionate about competing.
DiLegge's thoughts are elsewhere. He has fretted over Heartbreak Hill and gutted it out through 9-degree wind chills, asking for still more training sessions. Asked last month what makes Burdette such a great duo-team partner, DiLegge pointed to what had led them to Boston. It was as if the answer was self-evident.