The Little Marathon That Could

The Little Marathon That Could

The Olympics. We all know them. These posh games started all the way back in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece. Since then, the contest has been full of astounding athletes and remarkable moments. However, none more remarkable than the 1904 St. Louis marathon. 

This specific Olympic games was already set to be one for the history books, being the first Olympics held in the United States and also being tied to that year’s World Fair in honor of the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. There were all of your regular sports of course: sprinting, wrestling, mud-slinging, and greased-pole climbing. However, it was the marathon that was the center of scandal and discussion for months following.

From the start, the event already differed greatly from the prestigious, cultured race we know today. While some of the runners were honored in some way, most had little or no experience at all. Among these amateurs was a Cuban native named Felix Carbajal who raised money for travel fees by running the entire length of Cuba. Unfortunately, that’s where his good fortunes ended. Shortly after arriving in the States, he gambled away all of his money in a dice game and had to find his way to St. Louis on foot. Due to his scarce funds, he was left to run the entire length of the marathon in a button down shirt, dress pants, a beret, and a pair of street shoes.

Unfortunately for all the runners, including Carbajal, the race did not go up from there, metaphorically at least, physically it went up quite a bit. 

On August 30th, at 3:03 pm, the starting gun was fired and the race officially began. The weather instantly soaring into the 90s with a 24.85 mile course to match. The track was buried in inches of dust with seven hills reaching up to 300 feet tall. The course was made even harder by the traffic and pedestrians that kicked up dust and threatened to hit runners since Olympic officials did not block off the streets. 

Since the trials and heat apparently didn’t make things hard enough, chief organizer, James Sullivan, decided that the Olympics was a great place to run an experiment and limited the racers to only two drinks of water over the entire marathon to test the effects of “purposeful dehydration.” 

All these factors culminated in a disastrous first American Olympics as runners started dropping like flies. William Garcia became the first casualty of a modern Olympic marathon when he collapsed on the course due to hemorrhaging from the dust that had coated his esophagus and ripped the lining of his stomach. John Lordon started experiencing severe vomiting and quit the race before succumbing to the dehydration that would have inevitably followed. And Len Tau was chased for a mile by wild dogs. Because what’s a marathon without some drama?

As for our forgetful friend Felix Carvajal, he having quite the successful race, despite the beret and wild dogs. At one point, he even stopped to ask the occupants of a passing car for one of the peaches they were eating. However, being denied, Carvajal opted to instead steal two and eat them as he ran. A bit down the road, he stopped at an apple orchard and decided to snack of a couple of those. Of course, they turned out to be rotten, giving the well-fed Cuban stomach cramps and causing him to sleep them off on the side of the road. 



Someone who was doing even better than Carvajal was Fred Lorz. After also experiencing stomach cramps, Lorz decided to take a different, and more creative approach, choosing to hitch a ride from one of the passing cars. After eleven miles of hard work in his 20th century Uber, Lorz “recovered from his stomach cramps” and finished the course in just under three hours. However, the drama doesn’t stop there because, just as Alice Roosevelt was about to place the gold metal over his head, he was outed by on onlooker who saw him stepping out of the vehicle. Claiming it all to be nothing more than a practical joke, Lorz was denied the metal to a chorus of boos. 

Further from the finish line, things weren’t going so swimmingly for American Thomas Hicks. After, beginning the race with a strong pace, he soon succumbed to dehydration and had to be assisted by two men who sponged out his mouth with warm water to avoid giving him a proper drink in accordance with the ongoing experiment. A few miles later, Hicks collapsed again, this time getting fed a combination of strychnine and egg whites, a concoction that was supposed to provide energy. Being the first recorded use of performance enhancing drugs in the Olympic games, it didn’t go well and the mixture ended up giving Hicks horrible side effects and was later used as rat poison.

Since giving rat poison to a person running a marathon isn’t exactly recommended, Hicks could barely move the next couple miles. However, that’s nothing another dose of rat poison can’t cure and he was injected with the concoction again, this time with some brandy to help digest it all. After this snack made for champions, Hicks picked up the pace and spent the last few miles hallucinating, begging for something to eat, and choking down two more egg whites. However, it all paid off when he was carried over the finish line by his trainers and declared the winner. 

Throughout the course of the race, Hicks would lose eight pounds declaring that the hills “simply tear a man to pieces.” 

Overall, the 1904 St. Louis marathon was one to be remembered. Not just because of Felix Carvajal’s unfortunate gambling habits, or because of the regrettable numbers of wild dogs, or the first winner taking a bus to the finish line and the second winner taking rat poison to the finish line, but because of the tremendous heart and strength it took to complete this long and arduous race. But I guess also a little bit because of the rat poison.