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Running for those who can't

Freshman Jeff Masterson and his Mitchell Mustangs are going to the state cross country meet this weekend. But before calling it the biggest race of his life, consider his nightly duels with youngest brother Aaron.

The 4-year-old will usually make the challenge, and the two will find a line in the kitchen floor to make the start. Jeff will start the countdown.

On your mark get set . . .

There is never a need for go because Aaron is long gone, dashing down a hallway and up the stairs, in a dead sprint for the finish line: Mom's bed.

"I always catch him right at the end," Jeff said. "And I'll pick him up and throw him down on the bed."

He has won races, challenged for district and regional titles, led his young team to state for the first time. But it is these races with Aaron that Jeff Masterson cherishes the most. And it is these races that bring him some of his saddest moments.

Aaron is one of three Masterson brothers with muscular dystrophy. Daniel, 20, and David, 11, are already in wheelchairs.

Doctors say Aaron will someday join them.

"He has such a cheerful heart. He's so full of energy," Jeff said. "He doesn't realize what he has yet. He's blind to what's going to happen to him."

His voice trails off, as if those final words drive a dagger through Jeff's heart.

What will happen to Aaron is the same thing that happened to his two older brothers. All have the Duchenne form of muscular dystrophy, which affects only boys. The muscles weaken and deteriorate, as the disease first attacks the pelvis, upper arms and upper legs. Duchenne, one of the most severe forms of the disease, progresses slowly, yet eventually involves all voluntary muscles.

Survival is rare beyond age 30.

Jeff, 15, and Tim, 19, and a former cross country standout at Ridgewood High, do not have the disease. After Daniel, it skipped the next two boys.

The Mastersons did not find out that Daniel was afflicted until Kathy Masterson _ the carrier of the gene, whose uncle had died from it at 18 _ was a few weeks from giving birth to Jeff in Syracuse, N.Y.

"It was terrifying," Kathy said. "The first thing we did was have Jeff tested. It was such a hard time; it was a happy experience (giving birth), but it was sad, too."

Kathy's words describe so much of the inner struggle for Jeff, whose running successes are often tempered by his brothers' condition. It gives his racing a purpose, though, beyond winning medals and ribbons and getting a college scholarship. After winning his first high school race in a school-record time, he was asked what had made him run so fast.

He pointed to Daniel, who had watched from a motorized scooter.

"That's why I run," he said. "He's the reason."

For Jeff, each success presents a tough question, and tests the limits of his faith.

"All the time," he said. "I see Daniel at my meets. I remember one track meet last year and I had just run the mile, and I looked over at him, sitting there in his scooter, and I was running, and I thought: Why me? It's hard sometimes, knowing they can't do the things I can."

There are no answers to so many of the questions Jeff has. As a family, the Mastersons say they are born again, the result of the terrible news about Daniel in 1985. Instead of searching for explanations, they say they have turned the future over to God.

"When we found out about Dan, we just thought, "How could it be? Why is this happening? Why to us? Why us?' " said George, the boys' father. "That was selfish, when in fact millions of kids are going through this. We realized we weren't in control any more and that's when we turned everything over to God. Being born again has given us a lot of peace and taken away some of the pain."

The result has been a more positive outlook despite the fatal implications of the disease.

As David chased Aaron around in his scooter, both brothers smiling the entire time, and the family gathered in the shade at Taylor Park in Largo to peer through the trees hoping to catch a glimpse of Jeff as he ran to a third-place finish at regionals Saturday, there was nothing to distinguish them from any other family.

George strives for normalcy, and he savors moments like these. For that very reason, the boys never were told that in time, their abilities would be stripped away by muscular dystrophy.

"I never really had the heart," he said. "I probably won't tell Aaron either. I let them come to the conclusion. Daniel knows now and David does, too. But we look at Aaron to tell him, "Do that now because you can't do that later?' Why take away the fun and the joy and the hope that he has? Maybe that's wrong, but . . ."

Daniel says not to feel sorry for him. He is taking classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College and has big plans. A car enthusiast who likes to attend auto shows, he hopes to be a computer programmer. Hopefully, he says, he'll make enough money to one day buy a Lexus.

As for not being able to walk, and his future so uncertain, he says he plans on making the most of it. Often that time is spent cheering on Jeff at races.

Daniel knows that Jeff has moments where he feels badly, but he also knows that Jeff runs as much for his family as he does for himself.

"And that makes me feel good," Daniel said. "He's a good brother, conscientious and caring. He counts his blessings."

At Taylor Park, Jeff Masterson is in hot pursuit of the very best runners he has competed against. He can feel the sweat as if it is draining from his bleached blond hair. His legs fire forward, one after the other, steering him past most of the field.

His sights are set on Seminole's Gordon Redshaw, who beat him the week before by running to an early and insurmountable lead.

This time, Masterson wants to prove to himself he has learned his lesson. The night before, he had written Redshaw's name on a piece of paper and taped it to the wall near his bed. Then he watched Without Limits, a movie about cross country legend Steve Prefontaine.

On race day, he runs the perfect race, and catches Redshaw 50 feet from the finish line and advances to this week's state championships.

It is the best, and fastest, race of his life, another in a series of monumental moments for a freshman whose time as a state contender has come sooner than expected.

Soon enough for Daniel and David to appreciate it. Soon enough to provide his family with a moment of joy in a life that holds such devastating limits.

This is Jeff's gift, and he shares it with his family.

"Like Prefontaine said, "To give anything less than your best, you sacrifice your gift' " Jeff said. "How could I do that?"