Here's a Good One
You’ve got to hear about this. Crazy stuff.
It begins in 400 BC, when a guy who probably isn’t real goes for a run that probably doesn’t happen. The guys who write about this kind of thing back then call him Pheidippides, which is at least a real name. Athens is playing Persia on the battlefield when the home team wins and our runner is tasked with delivering the news—a straight shot to Athens to let the head honchos know they’re good to go in the Battle of Marathon. And so we have ourselves a race.
Play the tape forward 2,400 years and a French academic is hanging out with a French academic. One turns to the other and says, “Call it the marathon, and make it a thing.” That’s a paraphrase. Long story short, the French academic with the thicker mustache is the founder of the International Olympic Committee—the IOC for short—and he’s just the guy to make this kind of thing a thing. He’s Pierre de Coubertin.
1896 was the year of the second marathon, then, and in Greece again to boot. Pierre figures it’d be good on the symbolism front if the first modern Olympics go down in Athens too. They throw in a few other events, of course, but the marathon becomes the main show, the crown jewel, whatever you want to call it. So they set up a route from Marathon to Athens. Simple enough—except one little problem. They don’t have a clue how Pheidippides made the trip. We’re talking 1896. Before-Christ territory is long gone. There’s more than one road now. They settle on a course 24.8548 miles long because it feels right.
Anyway, it’s a hit, obviously. The marathon survives. Pierre finds it to represent everything that needs to be represented. You can get from any feeling in the world to anywhere else in 24.8548 miles. Or 26.2, depending. They don’t standardize the distance for another 20 years. It’s hard to find common ground.
Pierre’s no athlete, but he’s an educator, and the way he sees it, sports can bring the world together. So that’s what the Games are about.
Which brings us to my point, which is 1904, when the Olympics are just about dead again. What was dead for thousands of years can die again and so on. Everything’s all good and well in Athens in 1896, but chaos reigns for take two in Paris, 1900. The IOC holds the Games there in conjunction with the World’s Fair—rookie mistake. The Fair easily outdoes Pierre’s gambit of men in short shorts wrestling for world peace. The Games become a footnote of a sideshow. The higher-ups vow to never hold the events together again.
Next time around they hold the events together again. But now it’s St. Louis’ fault. St. Louis, Missouri, America. They get to host the 1904 World’s Fair as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, a good chunk of formerly French territory that probably keeps Pierre up at night. The Olympics are supposed to be held in Chicago, so what does St. Louis do but threaten to hold their own version of the Games so Chicago doesn’t steal their fanfare. Sure enough, Pierre caves in, fearing for the future of the world that St. Louis will overwhelm his Olympics. He straight up cancels Chicago and straight up gives the Games to St. Louis. It’s a mess. When the time comes in the summer of 1904, Pierre doesn’t even bother attending the Games, which is notable only because he’s in charge of the Games. Maybe it’s because he’s French and it’s a Louisiana Purchase festival. Again, maybe not, and no matter. There’s no use trying to get inside a man’s head.
Which brings us to Tuesday, August 30, 1904, 2:30 p.m. Welcome to Francis Field, Washington University, St. Louis, USA. Built for the occasion. Built for the run. The race starts here and ends here, an oval come full circle. It still hasn’t fallen over if you want to go looking for it. It seats 10,000—I looked it up.
The marathon’s always been a summer sport, all the way back to the Battle of Marathon. Might as well declare it’s also always been a battle. But it’s not for afternoons. It gets hot after noon. Simple as that. Heat is no stranger to a St. Louis summer, and this one was skulking into the 90s in both Fahrenheit and humidity. No use keeping count. Hard to say what the organizers thought could go right here.
At last it’s time to give the race a run. 36 sign up, 31 show up. It’s going to be that kind of day. But then—the Cuban. He makes it 32. This guy, Felix Carvajal, is a postman. Pheidippides might have delivered the news, but he didn’t have much to say. “We won!” he said. “Joy!” And then he died. Felix had a few more words in him. This guy could talk. He was known to be a chatterbox at mailboxes across Havana. He could talk as fast as he could run, they probably said, and he could run. That’s how you wind up in a marathon.
Thing was, he’d found himself in the wrong millennium. It was no longer a race to deliver a message. It was just a race. The Cuban delegation had no need for a courier and that was that. Felix was offered no funding.
No problem. Hat in hand, he runs the length of Cuba, sprinting in circles around town squares till crowds form. He declares he’s going to the Olympics to claim glory for his countrymen. He’d read about the Games in a newspaper he delivered. He mentions he needs their spare change. His countrymen fill his hat.
One small bunk on one big steamer later, Felix rolls into New Orleans. Then he rolls onto the New Orleans craps tables, and that’s when he loses all his money. Again, no problem. This is Felix. He hops a freight train, then another when the first starts heading the wrong direction. Throw in a few bouts of hitchhiking and next thing you know he’s here in St. Louis, penniless, starved, and delirious. But here. The way these amateur Games work, if you can reach the race, you can run the race. At 2:30 on the big day, Felix reaches the race. He walks up to the starting line with all of his possessions, which are the clothes on his back.
The clothes on his back include a thick long-sleeved shirt and everyday trousers. Below them are walking shoes, and above them is a beret. Almost proper attire for a well-mannered day. There’d been one of those days a few months ago.
They can’t let him run like that, naturally. Rules are rules, even if they just made them up. They delay the race to find a pair of scissors, which are eventually provided by an American shot-putter who’s charmed by Felix’s broken English. He cuts the trousers. Felix rolls up the shirt and refuses to part with the beret, doing the French academics proud.
At 3:03 p.m. they can finally fire the gun and the dying can begin. The thirty-two runners commence the third Olympic Marathon. Exactly 14 will cross the finish line. I say exactly only because it could have well been 13-and-a-half. Like I said, that kind of day. Not to spoil the story.
So now we’re running. William Garcia takes the early lead. You haven’t heard about him yet and you won’t hear about him for long. His snippet goes like this: he almost dies. Some runners are able to almost die and still finish the race, and we have a few of those here, but William isn’t one of them. William’s problem is the emergence of modernity, which brings him to his hands and knees and rips his stomach lining. This is 1904—Henry Ford’s halfway down the alphabet. What better way to watch a marathon than to ride along with it. Most of the runners can’t even run along. But this is 1904—the roads aren’t ready for the cars. Dirt roads, rocky, uneven, aimless, more dirt. The brave new world of spectators hops into cars and counts down the miles with them. An overzealous pair of race officials drives straight into a ditch and all but kill themselves. And then the railroad trains, and the delivery wagons, and the trolley cars. America stops for nothing.
The wheels kick up dust, the pipes kick up exhaust fumes. The forces combine into a devilish coat of unbreathable suffering that funnels straight down William’s throat. His stomach hemorrhages. He wavers, he wavers, he falls. A couple driving their brand new car find him passed out on the side of the road when they just miss running over his unmoving body. You’re not going to win a marathon by staying in place. He gets carted off to a hospital. A few pleasant days later, he comes back from the dead. And that’s that. He returns to his California home and his day job as a lather. He lathes.
And then there were thirty-one, again. Fred Lorz is the next to go. He’s a tall guy, jovial. Known to tell a good joke. It can be assumed then that he knows as well as anyone you need a good setup for a good punch line. Well, here’s his setup: cramps. Hits him right after mile nine. He slows to a walk, gives in to exhaustion. He’s a New Yorker, a bricklayer by day. He trains at night. Oops—sun isn’t out at night. He waves the white flag and hops into his manager’s car. They head back to Francis Field to collect his belongings.
Even so, USA’s still looking good. Of the starting thirty-two, nineteen are red-white-blue. Of the 651 athletes competing at these Games, 526 are born or bred American. Travel’s a hassle these days. Even the best high jumpers can’t jump the Atlantic. It’s easiest to reach America when you’re already here.
Point being, don’t count Fred out. He winds up winning the race. In the meantime, it’s about to get awkward. Enter Len Taunyane, alias Lentauw, because officials decide that’s less ornery to spell. Spectators can best recognize him as the African savage with no shoes. That’s relative to Jan Mashiani, the African savage who has the shoes. Together they’re the first black African competitors in Olympic history, and Len the first to run the marathon barefoot.
They weren’t supposed to run the thing. They were only here for the World’s Fair, headlining the Boer War Exhibit at the Fair’s Anthropology Days. If you want to know what Anthropology Days are, bad news: It’s a forum to decide once and for all how natives stack up against the white man. Filipinos, Patagonians, Pygmies, Japanese, Native Americans, everyone from everywhere, science for the world. Fair officials give them physical assignments and record their performances. And what do you know, survey shows they’re inferior. No matter that the competitions include gems like greased-pole climbing, and no matter that some are tasked with archery despite having never picked up a bow. No matter that none of them is an athlete.
So now that that’s settled, the only remaining question is how to sell more tickets. The answer, of course, is to have some savages try to run two dozen miles with no training, apparel, or warning. One of those days in one of those centuries.
So that’s how Len and Jan wind up at the starting line next to the last three winners of the Boston Marathon in the third Olympic Games. Despite just about everything, Len manages to keep pace with the early leaders. Then a wild dog chases him off track to the tune of a mile in the wrong direction. Marathons are hard, but marathons that are two miles longer are harder. After a nice reprieve from the monotony of racing, he shakes off man’s best friend and gets back to the torment at hand. Despite everything, he finishes ninth. Jan limps across the finish line twelfth. Media consensus is that they’ve done the savages proud. A few decades later it comes out that they’d been educated men enrolled at South Africa’s Orange Free State University. Among the 32 runners, they wear bibs 35 and 36.
But backtracking to the civilized. Even they are getting tired. And thirsty. Organizers figure this is the perfect opportunity to test out the emerging field of purposeful dehydration. They serve up two spots for runners to get water—a water tower at mile six and a well at mile twelve. Next thing you know everybody’s dying of thirst, but at least it’s on purpose.
Sammy Mellor, winner of the 1902 Boston Marathon, cramps up and quits. John Lordon, winner of the 1903 Boston Marathon, vomits on the mile-ten marker and quits. Mike Spring, winner of the 1904 Boston Marathon, loses the gift of forward motion and quits.
And the fun just keeps on running. Frank Pierce, the first Native American to compete, collapses from exhaustion and hitchhikes back to the stadium. Two Greeks who have never run a marathon before do a bad job of marathon running. Arthur Corey, a Frenchman, manages not tov fall over but brings the wrong legal papers and is forced to register as an American. You can’t win around here. Not even the winners.
Well, of all possible outcomes in an infinite universe, Felix the Cuban finds himself in the lead. Thing is, this is Felix. He hasn’t eaten in two days. He’s hungry. Put yourself in his shoes. They’re heavy walking shoes, never meant to be run in, especially not for 24.8548 miles. And maybe your stomach hasn’t ruptured like some stomachs have, but hunger is hunger, and like a mirage, there before you appears an apple orchard. So what are you going to do but take a breather, have yourself some fruit, take a bite from a rotten orb, endure severe gastric discomfort, and pass the time by practicing your English with spectators on the side of the road. That’s how Felix finishes fourth. He returns to Havana a national hero and resumes his mail route. He never runs a marathon again.
But try as they might to lose, somebody has to win. Arthur Corey, the man without a country, is going to settle for second. Arthur Newton, an American with a history of always finishing but never winning, is going to finish and finish third.
Somebody’s got to be left, and his name is Thomas Hicks. Tom’s from lovely Cambridge, Massachusetts, and all this time he’s been clinging to the leading pack. But everyone in said pack gives up and suddenly Tom’s the leader. Everyone knows something he doesn’t.
Each mile’s getting longer for Tom. His manager rides alongside him, demanding he go faster. Says the guy in the car. Tom’s getting dizzy. It’s getting hard to stand. His manager pulls him over to the side of the road and gives him a dose of strychnine sulphate, which happens to be the first documented use of doping in modern athletic competitions, and also happens to be rat poison. He washes it down with some brandy. He keeps running.
Footsteps come from behind him. Tom looks over his shoulder. It’s Fred. Fred smiles and waves. Fred runs past Tom. Fred disappears into the distance. Poor Tom and his morale.
Fred, of course, has travelled the last eleven miles of the race in a car. But just as Fred broke down at mile nine, the car breaks down at mile nineteen. Fred still needs to get back to Francis Field to pick up his clothes. He is a marathoner, and he has had a breather, so why not run. He jogs the last six miles back to the stadium.
And so we proceed to the finish. Ten thousand fans see Fred enter. Fred sees ten thousand cheering fans. And then the race clock still ticking, and the finish line tape unbroken. Time for that punch line. Instead of picking up his clothes, Fred runs a lap around the track, crosses the finish line, and wins the Olympic Marathon. They stick him on a podium. President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter places a laurel wreath on his head. Someone says, “Wait a minute. That guy drove here,” more or less. They take off the wreath. They ban him from racing for life. He says it was just a joke. He says he thought it’d be fun. They cut the ban to a year.
Back on the course, good old Tom’s just conscious enough to process the news he’s in first again. His manager does the only thing there is to do. He gives Tom another dose of rat poison. One more sixtieth of a gram and it’ll be lethal. One of those days from the good old days.
Well, Tom comes stumbling into Francis Field to no fanfare. The crowd’s already cheered for a winner. He staggers, he sways, he gets dragged across the finish line by his manager. He collapses. He’s placed on a gurney and rushed to a hospital. He’s lost ten pounds. He’s the winner. The next day he’s alive. He announces his retirement.
Three hours, twenty-eight minutes. The slowest-ever winning time for an Olympic Marathon. It’s so late it’s time for dinner.
Long story short, you can’t get to 2014 without living through 1904. Here we come, Sochi. USA! USA!