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October 4, 2012

Book traces marathon's history


---- — There was a time when running a marathon was considered a feat beyond most people’s imaginations. Today, running the 26.2 miles is considered so routine that one man actually runs a marathon every day just for kicks. Other than suffering from “Get a Life” syndrome, the guy represents a definitive change in an event that was once equated with climbing Mt. Everest.

Most people probably don’t know the origins of the marathon. Those aware of Greek history have heard the story of Pheidippides (or a fellow courier) who supposedly ran the 24 miles from Marathon to Athens to let the denizens know that the Greeks had conquered the Persians. The legend goes that the courier shouted “Rejoice, we conquer!” and dropped dead.

Jump ahead about 2,000 years and we have a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, coming up with the idea of the modern Olympics to be based on the ancient Games held every four years in Greece. Someone came up with the bright idea of having a long-distance race re-creating the courier’s run from Marathon to Athens. Appropriately, a Greek won the first marathon.

The invention of the marathon ignited an international interest in long distance running although the 24+ mile distance was still mainly seen at the Olympics and the Boston Marathon, which started in 1897.

There were a handful of individuals that began to make names for themselves as “world class” distance runners.

One issue that would be comical today was the practice long-distance runners used for improving stamina. Not drinking water, wearing warm clothing on hot days, and getting a “pick-me-up” from whiskey or brandy were all in vogue at the turn of the 20th century. The only thing that paralleled what goes on today was the use of performance enhancing drugs.

The place where the marathon really came of age and gained immortality was at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, England. Several factors joined together to cause this sensation including the competition between several renowned competitors and a controversial finish. The 1908 Olympic race was also where the marathon standardized its distance at 26 miles, 385 yards.

Tension was high at the 1908 Games because the Americans and British were feuding. In simple terms they hated each other’s guts. The British still had their empire and looked down upon their “colonial descendants” across the ocean. The Americans thought the Brits were snobs that needed to be put in their place. They bickered over everything.

There were three marathoners of note participating in the London Olympics. Tom Longboat, a Native American from Canada, was considered the favorite and recognized as the best long-distance runner in the world. The USA’s Johnny Hayes and Italy’s Dorando Pietri were the other two that would play prominent roles in the race.

Longboat ended up dropping out after 20 miles but Hayes and Pietri had enough energy to reach the stadium for the final lap.

Pietri entered first and was only 385 yards from the finish line. But he was clearly finished. He stumbled and collapsed, suffering from total exhaustion. He ended up being aided by British officials and practically carried across the finish line. Hayes finished a short time later under his own power.

Despite the fact that what the British did was clearly illegal they still awarded the gold medal to Pietri and raised the Italian flag at the awards ceremony. They probably thought it was a bonus to “stick it” to the Americans. However, a protest by the U.S. to the Olympic authorities was successful and Hayes was proclaimed the winner. Pietri had the consolation of receiving a special gold cup for his courage by the Queen of England.

The hype and controversy of the 1908 Olympic marathon buoyed interest in the sport. It created a market for marathon match races between the three antagonists and other long-distance runners as well. All three runners turned pro and profited well from the controversy.

The history and popularity of the marathon and the 1908 Olympic Games is wonderfully told in a new book by David Davis, “Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze.” It gives us a thorough understanding of not only the background of the three runners and their long-distance running exploits, but a look at how the modern Olympics evolved.

Davis deserves credit for examining a popular subject that really has flown below the radar. The marathon has become a cultural phenomenon and it’s fascinating to discover how it became a part of our nation’s fabric.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown.  He can be reached at