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home > community > viewpoint > the great marathon boom of 100 years ago

The Great Marathon Boom of 100 Years Ago
With just about every major city in the United States hosting a marathon, this era could be classified as the second great marathon boom. Did you know the first one took place 100 years ago?

The Great Marathon Boom of 100 Years Ago

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By Don Allison
Posted Monday, 19 May, 2008

The New York City Marathon, at least in its current incarnation, began in 1970 when 127 runners circled four loops of Central Park, generating little interest among others visiting the park that day. Although many have marked that as the beginning of what is known today as the ING New York Marathon, it was hardly the first 26.2-mile race held in the metropolitan area. In fact, 100 years ago this year the first marathon running “boom” took place, for both participants and spectators, who numbered in the tens of thousands.

Amazingly however, the first New York “marathon” was held not in the 21st, or even the 20th century, but late in the 19th century, even before the first Boston Marathon. After the first modern Olympic Games in Athens Greece in 1896, a group of American travelers, inspired by the 40-kilomoter marathon run that proved to the centerpiece of the Games, held their own “marathon” race back in the U.S. The route took the runners from Stamford, Connecticut to New York City, some 25 miles over muddy dirt roads. John McDermott won the race in 3:25; he would go on to win the inaugural running of another new marathon the next year, held in Boston and sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association.

The early 20th century culture of New York City
A decade would pass before marathon running returned to New York, when the Mercury Athletic Club staged an event in Yonkers, the northernmost of the five boroughs. During that period, the culture of New York City was undergoing a tremendous change. Immigrants were arriving at Ellis Island by the hundreds of thousands, and many of them remained in New York City. Not surprisingly, the majority of the new immigrants lived in abject poverty, enduring misery on a daily basis. At the same time, political corruption was rampant, the city ruled by Tammany Hall.

Still, there was reason for optimism. Bridges were being built to link the island with neighboring boroughs, and impressive new buildings punctuated the Manhattan skyline. A new theater district replaced rundown Longacre Square, and was christened in 1904 as Times Square, after the famed newspaper that built it.

Perhaps the greatest testament to growth however, was a new subway system that was well on its way to being completed. The master plan projected tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, electric tracks, signals and switches, a power plant in Long Island City, sprawling train yards, and the world's largest railroad-arch bridge. The center of it all would be massive Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan, recalling the ornate Roman architecture.

Against this backdrop of cultural change, many New Yorkers sought creative outlets. Along with the new theater district, movie-going grew greatly in popularity. Added together, there were more than 150,000 movie seats in New York City by the end of the decade. Thus, it was not surprising that the marathon captured the imagination of sports enthusiasts, offering yet another setting for drama and passion.

As the Yonkers Marathon was initiated in 1907 however, the challenges would be many in marathon distance races—for the runners, race officials, and even police. The 1907 race was held mostly without incident, aside from the fact that only 19 of 42 starters were able to complete the distance. Still, the finishing rate was improved over the 1896 race from Stamford. The winner was a teenage construction worker named Johnny Hayes, who recorded a time of 2:44:45, nearly 14 minutes clear of the field. The race was a precursor to the marathon in the 1908 Olympic Games in London, which would change the sport forever, and in which Hayes would play a key role.

Hayes and Dorando make history in the 1908 Olympic Marathon
The man with whom Hayes would be paired through history was Italian Dorando Pietri, and the event that would bind them was that 1908 Olympic Marathon in London. The race is remembered both for its dramatic finish and that is was the place where the now standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards was established for the marathon—for no better reason than that happened to be how far the race would have to travel for the Queen to view the start at Windsor Castle (thus the extra mile) and for she and others in the royal spectator's box to witness the finish (thus, the extra 385 yards). Many future “marathons” would fall short of this distance, but over time the odd distance would be recognized and run as the worldwide standard.

The start of the 1908 Olympic Marathon at Windsor Castle
Adding to the drama of the 1908 Olympic marathon was an undercurrent of bad feelings between the U.S.A and the English hosts. The Americans sent a strong track and field team to London, but it was believed by most that while the U.S. would excel in the sprints and field events, the Brits would dominate the long distances, including the marathon. The Americans were not so willing to cede athletic superiority to their rival across the ocean, however.

The U.S. team was primarily comprised of the strong Irish American Track Club, including coach James Sullivan and several athletes. The club immediately fanned the flames of discontent. As recounted on the web site“When the delegations marched past King Edward VII’s box in the parade of nations during the opening ceremonies, the flag bearer (traditionally) dipped their national flag. The flag bearer for the U.S. delegation was Irish-born Martin Sheridan. As he marched past he refused to dip the Stars and Stripes to the King. ‘This flag dips to no earthly king,’ Sheridan said. Sheridan did more than make a statement for that day; he began a tradition that has continued, as the Stars and Stripes has bowed to no member of royalty in any parade since.”

New York newspapers added fuel to the feud in its coverage of the Games, in which the nationality of each of the winners was identified and tallied in a chart of scores, published daily throughout the Games. This controversial record-keeping in Olympic competition continues to this day.

Despite the supposed edge the British runners had in the marathon, it was an Italian shopkeeper named Dorando Pietri who took control of the race, establishing a seemingly insurmountable lead as the finish approached at Great White Stadium. Well back of Dorando, Johnny Hayes appeared to be en route to a second-place finish, ahead of South African Charles Hefferon. But as many have learned about the marathon through painful personal experience, it is those final few miles, and sometimes even the final two-tenths of a mile, that can crush even the strongest-willed runners.

So it was to be for Dorando. As he entered the stadium for the final laps to the finish line, he staggered and turned in the wrong direction. With assistance from two race officials, the diminutive Italian was helped and turned in the proper direction toward the finish. He fell three times and arose each time, but not without help from two officials. Crossing the finish line first in 2:54:46, it had taken Dorando nearly 10 minutes to cover the final quarter-mile. A fresh Johnny Hayes arrived at the finish just 30 seconds later. Olympic officials initially awarded Dorando the gold medal, even raising the Italian flag, before U.S. officials lodged a protest. Hayes was eventually named the victor, but Dorando did not leave London unrewarded: Queen Alexandra awarded him a silver-plated gold cup for his efforts. Surely the disappointing results by the British marathon squad, in which their top finisher placed a distant 12th (behind four Americans) led to the hosts’ heartfelt support for Dorando Pietri.

As if there were not enough drama and passion attached to this historic event, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the world-famous author of Sherlock Holmes fame, had been commissioned by Lord Northcliffe to write a special report of the race. His report in the Daily Mail describes Dorando at the finish: “. . .Then again he collapsed, kind hands saving him from a heavy fall. He was within a few yards of my seat. Amid stooping figures and grasping bands I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the lank black hair streaked across the brow…It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.”

So moved was Doyle by what he had witnessed, he set about a fundraising campaign for the defeated Dorando. He wrote: ”I am sure that no petty personal recompense can in the least console Dorando for the national loss which follows from his disqualification. Yet I am certain that many who saw his splendid effort in the Stadium, an effort which ran him within an inch of his life, would like to feel that be carries away some souvenir from his admirers in England. I should be very glad to contribute five pounds to such a fund if any of the authorities at the Stadium would consent to organise it.” A sum of 300 pounds was raised for the Italian, without regard for his amateur status. Such was the worldwide interest and compassion for Dorando; he would become an international celebrity.

After Dorando’s marathon, the founder of the modern Olympics, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, issued one of the most historic sporting quotes of the 20th century when he said, “Last Sunday during the sermon at St. Paul’s in honour of the athletes, the Bishop of Pennsylvania made the point that ‘the important thing in these Olympics is not so much winning as taking part. The important thing in life is not the victory but the battle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have been a good loser.’ Dorando was nothing if not a good loser—at the very least he was one of the most honored and feted losers in Olympic history.”

Next: Johnny Hayes returns to New York City and incites a marathon running frenzy

This article is an excerpt from Don Allison’s upcoming book, Magic in the Streets: How the 1976 New York Marathon Changed Running. For more information, contact



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