The Incredible Shrinking Marathoner

Doug Sylvester prepares to run his second Boston Marathon 300 lbs lighter than he once was.

Written By: Mario Fraioli

Like many Boston Marathoners, Doug Sylvester admits that he has something of an addictive personality.

The 40-year-old lifelong resident of Marlboro, Massachusetts, who will be running his second Boston Marathon on Monday, first laced up a pair of running shoes just five years ago. Since then he has fully embraced a runner’s lifestyle: squeezing in runs at lunchtime, filling his closet at home with enough running shoes and apparel to outfit a small army and planning his weekends – ahem, all of his weekends – around road races.

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Sylvester has lost three hundred pounds on his way to his second Boston Marathon.

“Last year I ran 104 races,” Sylvester admits with a chuckle. “I haven’t not gone to a race I’ve signed up for ahead of time.”

Yes, one hundred and four races, or an average of two races a weekend, every weekend, for an entire year. To some, running so many races may seem like an unhealthy obsession of sorts; for Sylvester, who weighed in at 496 pounds before he took up running five years ago, signing up for all of those races has been nothing short of a life saver.

“It’s the nature of my addictive personality,” Sylvester admits. “I used to have food, but I’ve replaced it with a healthier alternative, which is running races. The reason I run so many is to get my ass off the couch. It’s become part of my lifestyle.”

Sylvester, who for the second year in a row secured an invitational entry into the race through his running club, the Tri-Valley FrontRunners, started walking in early 2004 with the goal of completing the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer later that year in support of a friend who was battling the disease. Eight miles into the walk, however, Sylvester was forced to call it quits.

“It kicked my ass,” Sylvester said of the Avon Walk. “I thought I was having a heart attack. It was that day that I realized just how out of shape I really was. Looking back, it was pretty pathetic.”

Five years ago Sylvester weighed close to 500 pounds.

Determined to lose the weight and gain back some semblance of fitness, Sylvester had gastric bypass surgery performed in February of 2006. After the surgery, Sylvester started walking more regularly, and his weight dropped to under 300 pounds. His lunch-time walk at work turned into jogging, and eventually, running. Once he got down to 225 pounds, Sylvester signed up for his first race in February of 2007.

“I started putting races on the calendar to give myself goals to work toward,” Sylvester explains. “The races are like scheduled workouts for me. If they are on the schedule, I have to do them. And if I’m going to do them, I have to train for them.”

The Boston Marathon has been on Sylvester’s schedule for the past two years now. It’s the one race he approaches with an unrivaled reverence, and that respect is evident when he recalls his first experience running from Hopkinton to Boston last April.

“Never in a million years did I ever think I’d run the Boston Marathon,” Sylvester said. “Last year was like a dream come true. I was ecstatic. It was like suiting up for the Super Bowl. I got to run in the footsteps of guys like Bill Rodgers and Rick and Dick Hoyt. Crossing the finish line was a very emotional moment for me. I cried. It’s one of the few times in my life everything came out of me. I don’t usually show much emotion, but I was just so ecstatic that I put up an official time. It was a phenomenal feeling.”

This year, however, Sylvester isn’t just happy to participate. He’s determined to improve upon last year’s placing and take a huge chunk of time off the finish line clock. Logging between 35 and 50 miles per week in preparation for this year’s race, Sylvester is aiming to better the 5:42:19 personal-best performance he posted at last year’s race. So far in 2010, he’s logged PR’s for 15K, 10 miles, half marathon and 30K, and is hoping to add the marathon to that list on Monday with a sub-5 hour effort.

“I set goals that aren’t unrealistic, but they aren’t easily attainable either,” says Sylvester, who now weighs in at 195 pounds. “I just go after it with everything I’ve got. I guess you could say I’m driven.”

Or stubborn, according to his wife, Mel, who serves as Sylvester’s number one fan and best friend, accompanying him to all his races. The couple will run the BAA 5K together the day before Boston, and share in the excitement of crossing the finish line of the world’s most famous marathon, an experience Sylvester never would have imagined possible just five years ago.

“I never thought I’d get this far,” Sylvester said. “When I go to the weight loss support group meetings my mentor calls me the Marathon Man. I never set out to run marathons – it just kind of happened. I love the challenge of competing against myself. I’m always trying to beat the ghosts of my past.”

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