1904 Olympic Marathon – The strangest marathon in history

Olympic marathon runners at the start line receiving instructions before the race begins. 

Thomas Hicks (20), Fred Longm (31), S. H. Holt (39), Felix Caravajal (3), Christos D. Zehouritis (6), Albert L. Cory (7), Frank Pierce (9), S. A. Mellor (10), Edward P. Car (11) feature in the photo.
1904 Olympic marathon runners at the starting line.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1904, the world came to St. Louis, Missouri, thanks to a merging of the World’s Fair and the Olympics. Twenty million people came to eat exotic foods, see questionable recreations of Indigenous cultures, and witness battles with miniature warships. Along with a lifesize replica of an elephant made of almonds, spectators watched the 1904 Summer Olympics, aka “The Games of the III Olympiad.” In this, the first modern games outside Europe, only 12 countries competed. This unusual confluence of time and place led to the strangest and most controversial marathon (Olympic or otherwise) to ever take place.

The Course

After some strong-arming from President Teddy Roosevelt, these first US Olympics moved from conspicuously cooler Chicago to significantly sunnier St. Louis. Held on an alarmingly hot and steamy 90-degree day in late August, this marathon was shorter than the modern 26.2-mile standard. At just 24.85 miles, this slight 1.35-mile advantage would be the runners’ last.

The race started with five laps around Francis Olympic Field. Then, a squad of horses followed by a fleet of newly invented automobiles led these runners on a dry, dusty dirt road that twisted and rolled up and down seven hills. This unprecedented entourage led to clouds of dust and exhaust to be thrown in runners’ faces. These cars, filled with reporters, doctors, judges, and police, also proved dangerous when one vehicle swerved to avoid a runner, severely injuring the car’s occupants in the crash.

Adding injury to injury, Olympic director James E. Sullivan used this race to test his “purposeful dehydration” theory, resulting in only one water station at mile 12.

The Olympians

Of the 32 competitors, at least 10 had never run a marathon. Three of the most accomplished runners, all Boston Marathon winners, failed to complete this course. In total, 18 suffered from exhaustion and never saw the finish line. William Garcia of California gulped down so much road dust he suffered a stomach hemorrhage and nearly died.

Amongst the “surviving” 14 competitors were a World’s Fair fruit vendor, a “coal hustler,” a New York plumber, and a Boston city surveyor. The most notable runners each followed an absurd path to their victories.

Len Taunyane & Jan Mashiani

1904 Olympic marathon participants Len Taunyane (left) and Jan Mashiani (right)
1904 Olympic marathon participants Len Taunyane (left) and Jan Mashiani (right).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coming in at 9th and 12th place, respectfully, were the first-ever black South African Olympians Mashiani and Taunyane who were members of the Tswana people that came to the St. Louis World’s Fair as part of an exhibition on the Boer War, where they had served. However, that exhibition was dropped, and they were instead displayed as part of an “anthropological” exhibit and directed to wear native costumes while throwing spears. They entered the 1904 Olympic marathon at the last minute and neither had running shoes, so they are reported to have run the entirety of the marathon barefoot. Despite those obstacles, Taunyane held a leading position until a pack of wild dogs chased him a mile off the course.

Félix Carvajal

Cuban runner Félix Carvajal running during the marathon in 1904.
Félix Carvajal running during the 1904 Olympic marathon.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In fourth place was Cuban postman Félix Carvajal who raised funds to compete by running the length of Cuba and begging as he went. Managing to raise just enough, he lost this money upon reaching the States in a game of dice. He walked and hitchhiked from New Orleans to St. Louis.

On race day, he showed up in a beret, street shoes, a white long-sleeved shirt, and long dark pants. One of his competitors decided to help Carvajal out and cut these pants at the knee. He began at a reasonable pace, but hunger got the best of him. So he stopped to pick some random apples that he didn’t realize were rotten. The ensuing stomach cramps forced him to lie down at the side of the road and nap until he was strong enough to finish the race.

Frederick Lorz

Photograph of 1904 Olympic marathon runner Frederick Lorz.
1904 Olympic marathon runner Frederick Lorz.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

1904 was the first time the Olympics offered Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals, and Lorz almost won the gold before being almost immediately disqualified. A bricklayer by trade, he appeared to complete the race in just over three hours. But around mile nine, he, too, started suffering from cramps, so he hitched a ride in one of the automobiles. He waived at spectators and runners for eleven miles, leaving a trail of witnesses. Just as the car broke down, he felt “rejuvenated” and chose to run the remainder of the race.

Entering the stadium, he was greeted by a roaring crowd. He posed for photographs with President Roosevelt’s daughter and was about to be awarded first place when an audience member called him an “imposter.” He claimed it wasn’t deception, that he just broke the finish line tape as a “joke.” He was banned for life from competing in future competitions, a ban lifted just in time for him to win the Boston Marathon the following year.

Thomas Hicks

Thomas Hicks (center) running in the 1904 Olympic marathon with supporters at his side.
Thomas Hicks (center) running in the 1904 Olympic marathon with supporters at his side.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

With the slowest marathon time in Olympic history, 3 hours, 28 minutes, and 53 seconds, Hicks was declared the winner by default. Early in the race, he showed signs of exhaustion, including experiencing hallucinations. He spent the last ten miles in agony, and he wouldn’t have made it if not for a dedicated team who gave him a concoction of egg whites, brandy, and strychnine poison – a 19th-century athletic performance enhancer. It affected him so severely that his coaches carried him over the finish line while his legs moved backward and forward through the air as if he were still running.

When Hicks entered the stadium, the crowd was less than enthusiastic, and shortly after, Olympic Director Sullivan stated the Marathon event probably wouldn’t be back. “I personally am opposed to it,” he said. “It is indefensible on any ground but historic.”

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