James Anderson (right) and his cousin Rusty Wilkins compete in the 2019 TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race in Cape Elizabeth. Jason Eggleston photo

BRUNSWICK — They couldn’t join thousands of other athletes at the start line for the 124th Boston Marathon this year, but that doesn’t mean cousins Rusty Wilkins of Topsham and James Anderson of Massachusetts aren’t going to hit the ground running, and rolling, anyway.

Wilkins, 23, of Topsham has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Anderson, 27, a longtime runner, pushes Wilkins in a specially-made chair in five to 10 races and marathons each year. The two started the annual Rusty Rolls 5K in Topsham in 2017 when Wilkins was a senior at Mt. Ararat High School. The race benefits the American Cancer Society.

The two ran their first race in 2014 and have been trying to earn a spot in the Boston Marathon ever since. This year, they were accepted as a charity team, raising $8,000 for Team Hoyt, an organization focused on helping people with disabilities participate in more activities. That’s thanks to friends, family and strangers willing to donate, Anderson said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 26.2-mile marathon was moved from April to September before being canceled. Instead, participants are running a virtual marathon. Wilkins and Anderson are among some of the entrants filmed training in a commercial for Samuel Adams, a beer company and major sponsor of the Boston Marathon.

Anderson, who lives in Melrose, Massachusetts, opted to join Wilkins in Maine for their virtual marathon.

On Saturday morning, the pair will run a 4-mile loop in Brunswick. The route is a flat area from Middle Bay Road to Pennelville Way, to Pennel Way, to Simpson’s Point, to Mere Point Road and back to Middle Bay Road. Since the duo hasn’t been able to run any races this summer, Anderson hopes to finish within 3 1/2 hours.

It’s hard to say definitively what spurred Anderson and Wilkins to run together four years ago, but Anderson remembers he was inspired by father-and-son duo Dick and Rick Hoyt. Born in 1962, Rick Hoyt was diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. Since 1997, the Hoyts have competed in more than 1,000 races, including marathons, duathlons and triathlons.

Anderson reached out to Team Hoyt and asked to borrow a racing chair for the first 5K with Wilkins in 2014.

“Anything you can do if you have a friend or child or anyone you know who is mobility-impaired, you can reach out to them and borrow a chair for a race,” Anderson said of Team Hoyt.

After he and Wilkins completed that first race, “we really fell in love and Rusty’s reaction just blew my mind,” Anderson said.

When Wilkins is in the chair and they move toward the start line and there’s a buzz in the crowd, “his legs and body are shaking in anticipation,” Anderson said. “As much as Rusty is non-verbal, he’s really expressive and communicative.”

Anderson said Wilkins understands the pace they’re running at and knows the goals they have for one another.

“Sometimes we’re passing someone and they’ll be like, ‘Oh come on, some guy pushing someone in a wheelchair just passed us,'” Anderson said. “Rusty laughs his head off.”

As of Thursday, more than 4,000 runners had completed the virtual race since Sept. 5, according to the Boston Marathon website.

“Despite everything that’s happened, and I think everyone has had so many let-downs over the course of the pandemic, the fact that we can still get together and run this marathon,” Anderson said, “even though it’s not what we expected, the fact that we can still get together and just do it, I think is the most important thing.”

 


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