By Kenneth J. Souza
WAREHAM, Mass. — In the days leading up to Easter, Bill Sylvia was eagerly looking forward to returning to Masses at his beloved St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham.
“I miss the people; I really, really do,” he told The Anchor. “I pray every night and I can’t wait to get back to church next weekend.”
Sylvia has also been preparing for a long overdue, resurrection-like return to the sport he’s dedicated his life to: marathon running.
“I’m going to start training again in April,” Sylvia said. “I just miss the sport, you know? People tell me all the time that I don’t look 73 years old. I think that’s because I keep running.”
Anyone involved in the countless road races and marathons in the Southeastern Massachusetts area has probably run alongside and competed with the affable Sylvia at one point or another.
For more than 50 years, Sylvia said he’s “run in just about every major race and marathon in the area.”
“I’m well-known among runners in this area,” he added. “A lot of times I show up at races and they joke: ‘Just give Bill the trophy now.’”
But a serious health scare two years ago sidetracked what had been an unbroken series of race wins for the longtime marathoner.
“I was supposed to run in the (Wareham) YMCA Road Race that year and I woke up that Saturday morning and I had a cramp in my stomach,” he said. “I thought I ate something that didn’t agree with me the night before — but I didn’t feel right.”
Sylvia eventually ended up at Tobey Hospital, where he would learn that he had cancer in his bowels, which would require major surgery.
He regrettably had to back out of several subsequent races, including the YMCA event that would have marked his 10th consecutive year in the competition.
“I couldn’t do anything for a whole year,” he said. “If I had won, that would have been my 10th (first-place finish) in a row — I won it nine years straight.”
So, instead of beating the pavement, for the past two years Sylvia has been busy beating the cancer inside him.
Not surprisingly, he once again found himself inside the winner’s circle.
“I’m completely cancer-free now,” Sylvia said. “I have to go for a CAT scan every year, just to make sure. I’m due again in June, but so far — knock on wood — I’ve been feeling good.”
Sylvia is feeling so much better, in fact, that he jumped at the chance to help friend and fellow parishioner Kevin Ward organize a new road race in his hometown.
The first annual Bill Sylvia 5K to Benefit Catholic Media will be held on Saturday morning, May 14, beginning at 10 a.m. from St. Anthony’s Chapel, 35 Gault Road in West Wareham.
The 3.5-mile course will loop around the surrounding area of West Wareham, and return back to St. Anthony’s Chapel.
Knowing his vast experience with road races, Ward initially asked Sylvia for his help in planning the event as a benefit for The Anchor, the official publication of the Fall River Diocese, and Life With Christ Radio, a proposed Catholic radio station on Cape Cod, which Ward has been spearheading.
But when Ward suggested the race be named in Sylvia’s honor, the distance runner was deeply moved.
“When I found out, I was very, very pleased,” Sylvia said. “To be honest, I had a tear in my eye when Kevin told me. I think it’s a great honor.”
It’s appropriate that the longtime town resident has become the namesake ambassador for the newest Wareham race.
Sylvia cut his teeth on two popular Wareham races — the Cranberry Classic and the Decas Road Race — both of which are now defunct.
“Those were my first two road races and they were great races,” he said. “I wish they still had them — they really attracted a lot of people. They haven’t held them for about 20 years now.”
Sylvia’s lifelong obsession with running can be traced back to grammar school, when he remembers spotting an older man who would be out running every morning.
“We used to wait (for the school bus) and this old man used to come running by us and I always wondered who he was,” Sylvia said. “I found out he was (O. Gardner Spooner) whom they had named the Greater New Bedford Track Club’s 10K Spooner Road Race after. So one day I put my lunch box down next to my buddy and I decided to run alongside him for a couple of blocks. After that, I couldn’t keep up with him anymore.”
For the 12-year-old Sylvia, that was enough of a spark to light a fire in him.
“I was just a kid, so to be able to keep up with the guy for a couple of blocks made me feel good and I’ve been running since then,” he said. “The first time I met Mr. Spooner, I knew I wanted to be a marathon runner.”
In high school, Sylvia would soon master track, which led to cross country, which led to road races.
While watching the 1972 Olympics, Sylvia was inspired by marathoner Frank Shorter, whom he called “one of my idols.”
Within a year, he would be running in his first Boston Marathon.
“I ran in the Boston Marathon for 15 years straight,” Sylvia said. “I also ran in the New Bedford Half Marathon — I did that for 15 consecutive years, too. I used to love that course. It’s a great race and the people are really nice. I was pretty much running marathons from 1972 to 1989. That last year was my best time — I finished in 2:45.”
Throughout his stellar running career, Sylvia has racked up more than 30 first-place trophies and more than 50 other ribbons in a variety of divisions and age categories.
“My advice is to go out and run your own pace,” he said. “That’s what you’ve got to do the first time out. Then you come back the following year and set your PR, your personal best time. But you need to get to know the course the first year. After that, you can do better.”
The mistake many inexperienced runners make, Sylvia said, is going full steam ahead the first time out.
“I had a good friend who ran in a race the first time and ended up blowing both of his knees out,” he said. “You need to get to know the course first — know where the hills are, where the turns are, know what you’re doing. If you attempt a race the first time and take off like a rocket, you’re going to burn yourself out. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”
Sylvia said he’s not only looking forward to getting back to training this spring, but also to helping organize his namesake road race on May 14.
“I’ve been to a lot of races and I watch how they organize,” he said. “You have to do it right — you have to have so many water stops, because people dehydrate and you have to keep drinking along the way. You never know what the weather is going to be like — it could be cool, it could be hot — but you still need plenty of water to drink. That’s what I always tell kids who ask me about road racing.”
Despite a recent bout with pneumonia that kept him homebound for several weeks this winter, Sylvia is feeling much better and is more than up to the task.
“I’m very dedicated to the sport and very dedicated to the Church,” Sylvia said. “I’m definitely looking forward to getting back into it. I just pray that God will give me the power and strength to keep doing it.”
The first annual Bill Sylvia 5K to Benefit Catholic Media will be held on May 14 beginning at 10 a.m. from St. Anthony’s Chapel, 35 Gault Road in West Wareham. A lunch and awards ceremony will immediately follow in the hall of St. Patrick’s Parish, 82 High Street in Wareham. Awards will be given to the top runners, male and female, in each age category.
All proceeds from the event will benefit The Anchor and Life With Christ Radio.
Advance registration is just $20 per person and the first 50 registrants will receive a free commemorative T-shirt.
For more information, contact Kevin Ward at 508-291-0949.
To register online, visit www.runreg.com/sylvia5k.