Henry Sypniewski, in a sense, will be running with hundreds of competitors during today's Syracuse Festival of Races.
The former Cheektowaga resident, who died earlier this year at the age of 93, did some of his best work at this particular race. He set national age-group records in each of the last four years during the 5-kilometer race, which serves as the national masters championship. That's why he'll be saluted in the event with a special mention on each bib number worn by racers today.
Race director Dave Oja's affection for Sypniewski is quite obvious.
"He was a great, great individual. He reminded me of my paternal grandfather," Oja said. "Henry is the greatest of the blue-collar distance runners. What a great story - he did it without a lot of guidance, and he did it without a lot of support. He discovered that he was very good."
Sypniewski's story is rather well-known around these parts. He took up running only after he was done raising a family and working. By the time he was in his 80s, Sypniewski was a threat to break age-group records any time he set foot on a track, no matter what the distance. That story continued right up through his 90s.
Henry's most amazing feat in Syracuse may have come four years ago at the age of 90, but it's difficult to pick out a best effort.
"The first one was the big one, when he ran 5 kilometers in 33:45. That's still the fastest 5k ever run by a 90-year-old," Oja said. "At 91, he surpassed the 5k record for that age with a 38:47. At 92, he broke the existing record by six minutes.
"And at 93, he ran a 47:38, and the old record was an hour and one minute. He broke it by about 13 and one-half minutes."
The Syracuse event has attracted some top-notch runners over the past four years, including ex-Olympians and record holders. Sypniewski was treated like the biggest star in the place. One time, the entire Syracuse University women's softball team was waiting for him at the finish line. When Sypniewski was close enough to the end of the race to see the welcoming committee, his face lit up.
"We've had a nice awards banquet. Everyone would change and they'd sit around the ballroom," Oja said. "We'd have all kinds of people with different running accomplishments. Eventually we'd get to the gold medal for the 90-year-old, and they'd be a spontaneous standing ovation. The John Tuttles of the world were on their feet. They knew better than anyone how long a shot it was that they'd still be running at age 91, 92.
"That was the greatest bit of peer recognition I've ever seen. . Henry got some much deserved assurance that he was really doing something special."
Sypniewski had been battling some health problems when he showed up at the 2011 race in Syracuse. The thought crossed Oja's mind that it might be Sypniewski's last visit.
"I didn't know he had stomach cancer, but I've seen people in decline. I didn't think Henry was going to bounce back from it," he said. "When Edna (Hyer, a local runner and friend of both men) called told me about stomach cancer, I thought I would have liked to have gone to see him. But he died before I had the chance."
Oja wanted to do something to honor Sypniewski, but what? Eventually he decided to put Sypniewski's name and the number "94," which would have been his age, on every single bib number at today's race. It was a way of getting him across the finish line one more time.
"I'd like for people to see it and say, 'What's this? What's the significance of 94?' Oja said. "We'll put out some sheets explaining his story.
"We're not going to let his memory get away from us. We hope the people who didn't see him in the last four years will learn about what a remarkable person he was."
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