The award is to be given each year to the runner who covers a minimum of 100 miles and achieves the most even splits for their first and second 50 miles. The inaugural winner was Charles Upshall of Schomberg, Ontario, whose two splits were 16:00 apart. Sherry McLean of Don Mills, Ont., who ran negative splits with a gap of 27:07, was the runner-up. The second runner-up was Fred Davis of Ohio. The trophy is shaped to resemble an hour-glass, symbolic of even timing.
Esmond Mah, who made the presentations, said Sy loved travelling to Ottawa each year for the race and was an unfailing advocate of even-pacing for runners of all ages and abilities. He was also a pioneering megarunner, one of the first to prove that athletes can run marathons enjoyably and often if they pace themselves sensibly and do it for enjoyment. The following tribute is republished from the February/March 1989 issue of Athletics Magazine, published in Toronto.
By David Blaikie
"To spend your life seeking the truth for the sake of knowing is the noblest
aim that you could live for... You must learn to think with your own heart and
honest effort." Sy Mah
Deciding what might be said about Sy Mah, now that he is gone, is as difficult as choosing the most memorable of his 524 marathons. It is not easy to understand the meaning of such human effort and devotion to discipline. A single marathon is a significant accomplishment in a sedentary world. What Sy achieved adds up to a marathon every weekend for an entire decade, the most ever run by an individual athlete.
Facts of such overwhelming scope are difficult to comprehend, except in the dry way they are often packaged by sports writers, numbers piled on numbers, adjectives on adjectives, until they suggest a superman. Sy was not a superman in the sense that he was bigger, stronger or faster than other human beings. Most people he knew were bigger, stronger or faster than he was. If the label applied at all it was to his insistence on living life intensely. Sy took to heart the command of the ancient Greeks: Know Thyself. He explored his limits strenuously and with joy in his soul. All else came second, or not at all. "Material things meant nothing to him," said Everett (Willy) Williamson, a lab instructor and close friend at the University of Toledo, Ohio, where Sy established and taught exercise and cardiac rehabilitation classes for most of the last two decades of his life. "He never owned a TV set," Williamson said.
Despite the many marathons he ran, Sy was basically an ordinary runner of ordinary speed who never took for granted - no matter how many times he did it - that come Sunday he could run another 26 miles, 385 yards. The one certainty was that he would be out there on the starting line, in another crowd, in another town, waiting for the boom of the gun.
Sy never wearied of the race. To him each marathon was new, whether it was his first, run in 1967 with an elfin girl named Maureen Wilton (whom he coached to a world record) or his 198th in 1981, when he broke the previous "record" held by the Ted Corbitt of New York, or his 300th at Detroit in 1983, or his 400th at Virginia Beach in 1986, or his 500th at Boston in 1988. It was the same with ultramarathons, races that stretched beyond the standard marathon. Sy ran ultras regularly: 50Ks, 50-milers, 100Ks, 24-hour races and more. But no matter how long the race, none was entered in his log books as more than a single marathon, not even a six-day race in which he ran 307 miles in New Jersey - the equivalent of nearly twelve marathons.
When asked to single out his favorite marathon, Sy was reluctant. "The last one I ran was my favorite," he would say with a wise crinkled grin. If pressed, a hint of favoritism could creep in when he talked of Boston. But only a hint. Sy ran the Boston Marathon twenty times (nearly every year after becoming a runner in his late thirties.)
It was not a coincidence that Sy chose Boston for his 500th marathon, and probably not that he ran his best time there. Sy loved Boston and Boston loved Sy. He knew every inch of roadway from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. And the crowds and runners knew him. Though he stood just 5-foot-7 and weighed a mere 116 pounds, Sy was a towering figure at Boston each April. As the years passed, and his marathon tally expanded in what seemed like geometric progression, it became the same many places he went. Tom Falvey, who travelled with him to several races, observed firsthand the response Sy could evoke. "At Los Angeles two years ago, about fifty people asked if I knew Sy when they heard I was from Toledo," Flavey recalled.
Race directors often issued Sy bib numbers matching his marathon total, if they knew what it was. The figure changed so often that no one but Sy could be sure. Each weekend, for much of the year, the total would jump by one or two marathons, even on occasion by three. Sy thought nothing of running marathons back to back The day he finished his six-day race in New Jersey he drove until two in the morning, crawled out with four hours sleep and ran another marathon. On weekends when he attempted "triples" the problem was not the ability of his body to withstand the rigors but the long hours of driving required to reach his far-flung races.
Born August 2, 1926, at Bashaw, Alberta, to parents of Chinese ancestry, Sy died November 7, 1988 at the St. Vincent Medical Centre in Toledo. He was 62. The cause of death was lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that afflicted him following a lingering bout with hepatitis, picked up during a visit to Mexico. The connection between the two illnesses, if any, was not clear. There was no indication running was a factor.
A teacher all his life, Sy graduated with an arts degree from the University of Alberta in 1952. He earned a physical education degree at McMaster University in Hamilton in 1960 and a bachelor of education at the University of Toronto in 1962. Eight years later, again at U of T, he received a masters degree in education.
From 1955 until 1970, when he moved to Toledo, Sy taught in Ontario, mostly in Toronto. He formed the Metro Toronto Fitness Club in 1964 and later the North York Track Club, where Maureen Wilton and a daughter, Yvonne (one of four children), were among his star athletes. His nephew, Esmond Mah, lives in Toronto and is also an accomplished runner, holder of the Canadian 24-hour record - 136 miles, 1299 yards (since surpassed).
To most people the news of Sy's death came as a shock. Outwardly, he was the picture of health, often remarking to friends that the marathon had grown easier with the years. And he was not exaggerating; his schedule confirmed it. Sy ran 46 marathons in 1987, his last full year of running - a lifetime high. He also found time for skiing, canoeing and biathlons.
In Ottawa, a city he visited most years, Sy would finish the Sri Chinmoy 24-Hour Race at eight o'clock in the morning and head immediately for the Rideau Canoe Club to enter a canoe-bike-run triathlon that started two hours later. Afterward, he would climb into his van and drive all the way back to Toledo for a full week on campus.
Despite the impression of robust health, however, worrisome signs appeared in Sy's final months. He complained of difficulty shaking off the effects of hepatitis and - something that had happened only twice before - he was unable to finish several marathons. The last one he did complete was a 50K race at St. Jacob's, Ontario, on Labour Day weekend. The last one he tried was the Toronto Marathon three weeks later. He had to quit at thirteen miles. The fact that they were Canadian races was fitting. Though a longtime U.S. resident, and assumed by many to be an American, Sy remained a Canadian and valued his roots, returning to Canada again and again to run races and visit old friends.
His actual name was Thian K. Mah but everyone called him Sy. "Hi, my name's Sy, ' said the inscription on the back of the T-shirt he often wore. "Say hi as you go by, and don't die." The T-shirt was corny but it worked, prompting thousands who might otherwise have been too shy to pause and introduce themselves.
Sy liked all runners, counting among his friends many who were fleet of foot enough to be classed as elite. Yet it was the nameless legions who filled out the pack that he most identified with, runners who would never see their names in headlines or win a local race. It was these people, many of whom he had helped personally, that gave him hope. "My classes are a great source of satisfaction," he wrote several months before his death. "They come to me almost rebelling at the idea that I am going to make them run. But at the end of the course most are pleased with their improved physical health and are sad to see the course end."
Sy's fastest marathon was a 3:13 but he usually ran at a more leisurely pace, often in the 3:40s or slower. He felt he could improve his best time if he put his mind to it. But he was rarely tempted to try. Rather than hard marathons separated by long periods of training and recovery, Sy preferred to be out there every weekend, in marathons as grand as New York City or as small as a club run in a Toledo park.
It wasn't that he undervalued excellence. Besides Wilton, he coached Lorna Richey Michael and Mary Hanudel, two world-class American ultramarathoners, and took as much pride in their achievements as they did themselves. But for him running was more a state of being than a series of planned athletic peaks. The experience did not stop at the finish line but flowed onward into the next week, the next season, the next year. There was no finish line until last November.
In 1985 the organizers of a local race in Toledo renamed their event the Sy Mah Marathon. Runners came from hundreds of miles away to brush shoulders with him, and Sy felt honored. He participated, of course. And his pleasure in running the race was rooted as much in the fact that he did not have to drive out of town to enter as it was in the attention heaped upon him.
Early in 1988, after a lapse of several years, Sy mailed a group letter to friends and acquaintances, apologizing for allowing his running to soak up so much time that it kept him from writing more often. It was a poignant message, one containing in retrospect vague hints that he may have sensed his time was nearing an end.
"To the faithful who have kept in touch each Xmas without a whisper from me, my sincere thanks " he wrote. "I read your cards and to each one of you I said to myself, 'How thoughtful of you to remember me.' I truly wanted to respond to you immediately. Unfortunately my continuous weekly travels through the years have expanded so much my list of wonderful friends that an Xmas message is now a major undertaking. Hopefully, the remaining years of my life win allow me more free time to stay in touch with those dear to me ...
"Last fall I notified all my relatives and friends out West that I would not take my annual winter vacation in Alberta, Canada, at Xmas time -- to save money. But after reconsidering I asked myself, 'At age 61 how many more years do I have left to do the things that I enjoy?" So I had another wonderful vacation of skiing in the Canadian Rockies and visiting relatives and friends ...
"For the year ending 1987 I ran more and better than ever in my life. I am injury free; I feel great; I look forward to each marathon with eager excitement."
To his closest running friends, people like Wayne Richards of Windsor, Norm Patenaude of Massey and Wally Herman of Ottawa, Sy's death has been a wrenching experience. Wally, from whom I learned the news, could scarcely speak the words into the phone. Norm, who directs the Voyageur Marathon, writes, "He must have helped thousands of people through marathons.... It was a real pleasure to have Sy and Vicky stay with us."
I did not know Sy well. But I did know him. And I thank my lucky stars for that. I met him, the way most runners did, at races. My own most vivid memory of Sy is the sight of him circling the track at the Sri Chinmoy 24-hour race in Ottawa. I once counted laps for him. And he gave me encouragement and some good advice in any own first ultras.
He was a fascinating man to observe, charismatic in a quiet way, never jarring his surroundings, and graceful to the point that he embodied the phrase, "to run and not grow weary." In the years that he did not come to Ottawa it seemed a part of the race was missing. Sy radiated poise and good cheer. It was pleasing to be in his presence. And he always dressed impeccably. Sy in running shorts and singlet looked better than most people do in a tuxedo.
I will miss this soft spoken and plain spoken man whom I found so unfailingly warm and courteous. He was a man of greatness in his own modest way, a teacher who taught in the manner that great teachers always teach -- by example. Sy told the world each weekend with his feathery feet that life was a matter of self-discovery, that truth resides in 'one's own heart and honest effort.' No one could write an obituary that would do Sy Mah justice. Fortunately, he wrote his own -- with millions of footprints in so many marathons that it seems he is running yet.
(Ultramarathon World: http://www.ultramarathonworld.clom)
(Copyright: David Blaikie) (14se98)
(Originally published in Athletics Magazine, February/March 1989) * * *