The Marathon From Hell: The 1904 Olympic Marathon


by Eileen P. Duggan

The 1904 St. Louis Olympics Were Scabbed onto the World’s Fair, a Recipe for Disaster That Only the Hot August Marathon Could Top.

Modern-day marathon runners are fond of recounting their tribulations on Boston’s Heartbreak Hill.

But imagine the hardships endured by the runners in the 1904 Olympic Marathon as they navigated hilly, unpaved roads while choking on dust and exhaust fumes and fighting oppressive heat.

Even those who availed themselves of a little spiritual, medicinal, or physical help from their friends along the way found the course unforgiving.

One hundred years ago, the first modern-era Olympic Games to be held in the Western Hemisphere came to St. Louis, Missouri, a bustling river city that was in the midst of a world’s fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.

The marathon, which kicked off at Washington University in St. Louis, was certainly the most colorful event of the III Olympiad. The Games received mixed reviews and were overshadowed on the world stage by the 1904 World’s Fair.

The Olympics were included under the umbrella of the fair’s Department of Physical Culture.

“At no time during the race was the Greek record for the distance in danger,” understated Charles J. P. Lucas, in his book, The Olympic Games 1904.

No record breaker, the marathon at least deserves points for its grueling conditions, unique cast of characters, and bizarre occurrences.

Related: Why Is A Marathon 26.2 Miles Long? History Of Marathon Distance

The First Challenge

The first hurdle the marathoners and their fellow Olympians faced was getting there.

In 1904, Charles Lindbergh had yet to make his epic transatlantic flight and the Wright brothers were still perfecting their glider, so a visit to St. Louis from Europe, Africa, or Asia meant a long, expensive ocean voyage and a 1,000-mile train trip.

Only 11 other countries sent athletes to the Games, so Americans were in the majority.

Even the International Olympic Committee founder, Pierre de Coubertin, opted to stay home in Paris. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t attend either, although he agreed to be honorary president of the Games in concert with the president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, former Missouri Governor David R. Francis.

Also a former mayor of St. Louis, Francis had wrestled the fair away from first-choice Chicago to tie it into the Louisiana Purchase centennial.

At that time, the Olympics, which had been revived in 1896 in Greece, were not yet considered a competition among countries but of amateur athletes competing against each other.

Many of these athletes were sponsored by athletic clubs or colleges, but often the Olympic hopefuls had to pay their own way to the Games. The complications of arranging and financing such a long trip no doubt kept many good athletes away from the St. Louis Games.

One who didn’t stay away was Cuban runner Felix Carvajal.

Although he was able to skip the long ocean voyage, he lacked the finances to travel inland to St. Louis. The postman from Havana had little experience in track events, but he knew about endurance.

He entered the marathon race to honor his homeland, even though his country had failed to invite him to join the Cuban national team.

Without a sponsor, Carvajal raised travel money by using his greatest assets: his feet and his gregarious personality.

He collected enough cash for a freighter ride to New Orleans by giving running demonstrations around the Havana town square and begging for money from the onlookers.

In New Orleans, a dice game soon separated Carvajal from his remaining money. So he made the rest of the trip by hopping boxcars and hitchhiking.

When he finally arrived exhausted and hungry in St. Louis, he endeared himself to the weight throwers on the American team, who shared their food and lodging with him.

He didn’t pay much attention to their training tips and pacing strategies. Carvajal showed up at the starting line wearing a long-sleeve white shirt; heavy-heeled street shoes; and long, dark pants.

Just before the race, one of the U.S. discus throwers, New York police officer Martin Sheridan, sheared off Carvajal’s pants at the knee.

The Contestants

Approximately 680 athletes, about 525 of them Americans, participated in 94 events, according to figures published by the International Olympic Committee.

Precise figures on participants and events vary among sources because of the loss of some official records in a fire at the office of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, which organized the events.

In addition, the IOC never published its customary official report. Further complicating the record-keeping was the decision by fair officials to label any athletic competitions during the fair as Olympic contests.

The official Games were held August 29 through September 3, 1904, although numerous so-called Olympic events were held from May through November as part of the fair.

The IOC decided only after the fact which events were deemed official, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, whose book The 1904 Olympic Games attempts to reconstruct the results for all competitors in all events.

Dominated by Americans, the marathon entrant roster’s only non-Americans were the Cuban, two Kaffirs from South Africa, and 10 runners representing Greece.

Most of the Greeks, however, had been living in the United States for several years. Only 32 of the 36 entrants – men only, in those days – actually ran the race.

The Course

David Francis also called on his status as a prominent 1870 graduate of Washington University to get the fair and Olympic Games located in Forest Park and on nearby property purchased by his alma mater for a new campus on the outskirts of the city.

The now-historic Francis Field and Gymnasium, as well as a 12,000-seat stadium, were built on the soon-to-be university campus for the Olympic track and field events.

Francis Field served as the start and finish lines of the marathon.

The 24.85-mile marathon was set to begin at 2:30 p.m., August 30, a major scheduling folly considering that in St. Louis summers, heat and humidity go together like a horse and carriage.

The temperature was in the 90s and the humidity was about the same, producing a heat index higher than a record-breaking high jump.

Only 14 of the 32 starters completed the dusty, hilly, and mostly unpaved course, complete with seven steep hills. If the heat didn’t fell the runners, exhaust fumes and dust from the many pacer automobiles did.

Some of the participants were seasoned marathoners who had already won or placed in the Boston Marathon and other major races, but they were no match for the hellish St. Louis course.

“The course through St. Louis County was the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over,” wrote Lucas, who happened to be a trainer of the eventual winner. “The roads . . . were frightful.”

After five laps around Francis Field, the runners exited on Olympian Way, then headed west on Forsyth Boulevard to North and South Road (now Brentwood Boulevard).

At Manchester Road, they veered west to Ballas Road, then north on Ballas to Clayton Road as far as Denny Road (now Lindbergh Boulevard), then turned back eastward along Olive Road.

From Olive, they returned to North and South Road, then east on Forsyth and into the stadium.

A team of horses that preceded the runners to clear the course literally left the marathoners in the dust.

To make it worse, runners had to dodge bicycles and chase cars of handlers, officials, and reporters as they bumped along the roads spewing exhaust fumes and kicking up yet more dust.

The freshly invented automobile was all the rage, but emissions regulations were not yet a twinkle in some bureaucrat’s eye.

Drivers’ training also left a lot to be desired. At one point, two officials swerved their car to avoid a runner and ended up in a ditch with serious bodily injuries.

“Had it not been for the automobiles, the race would have been run under three hours,” Lucas wrote.

Another obstacle on the course was the presence of cracked stone strewn over some of the roadways. “Runners were compelled to pick their way through this wretched footing as best they could,” Lucas wrote.

Only one water stop was available, at a well located about 12 miles from the stadium, although trainers did provide their runners with water and other libations along the way.

The Winners

After the three-hour mark, the crowd in the stadium – some 10,000 people turned out to watch the race – began to weary of waiting for the runners to return.

Finally, three hours and 13 minutes after the start, the apparent winner, Fred Lorz, sponsored by the Mohawk Athletic Club of New York, entered the stadium, barely breaking a sweat.

As he was about to be adorned with a floral wreath by first daughter Alice Roosevelt, Lorz confessed that he had ridden about a third of the way in an automobile.

It seems that Lorz, who was an early leader in the race, was felled by the heat and cramps at about the halfway mark.

He stopped to rest, waving at the other runners as they passed. Realizing he was out of the race, Lorz accepted a ride from one of many cars along the course.

After passing all the competitors, Lorz’s ride broke down about five miles from the stadium.

Feeling refreshed, Lorz got back on his feet and continued on to the finish line, where he was met by cheers. He ran into the stadium only to get his clothes but couldn’t resist the adoring crowd – at least, that was his story, and he was sticking to it.

Naturally, Lorz was disqualified despite his claims that it was all a joke, and the AAU suspended him for life.

The suspension was later rescinded, based on testimony from some of his marathon competitors who had seen him waving jovially from the car and the sidelines. In 1905, Lorz went on to win the Boston Marathon, presumably sans wheels.

Meanwhile, back on the dusty course, New Yorkers Sam Mellor and Arthur Newton, also sponsored by Mohawk, struggled for the lead until Mellor, winner of the 1902 Boston Marathon, succumbed to the heat at around the 16th mile.

With nine miles left, Newton, who had come in fifth in the 1900 Paris Olympic marathon, started walking and lost his lead.

Dragging into the finish line at 3:28:53, supported by his handlers, was English-born Thomas Hicks of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who passed out before he could claim his rightful first-place prize.

By today’s standards, he also would have been disqualified, as his handlers kept him moving along the way by administering a mixture of 1/60-grain strychnine sulfate and raw eggs with a brandy chaser. But it was all perfectly legal then.

“The Marathon race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrated that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road, and that warm sponging is much better than cold sponging for an athlete in action,” Lucas boasted.

“Hicks was far from being the best man physically in the race, for there were three men who should have defeated him . . . but they lacked proper care on the road.”

Hicks had started fading about 10 miles from the finish line. He asked for water but instead had his mouth sponged out with distilled water by handlers Lucas and Hugh C. McGrath. Seven miles from the stadium, they administered the first dose of medicinal help.

With four miles to go, Hicks begged to lie down, but Lucas and McGrath wouldn’t allow it, encouraging him to slow to a walk instead. When his color turned ashen, they gave him another dose of ‘proper care’ as well as a sponging with water from the boiler of a steam automobile.

When he crested one of the last hills two miles from the end and saw the crowds cheering him on, Hicks began trotting again, albeit like a zombie. After yet another boost of eggs and brandy, he plodded down the home stretch, babbling deliriously about food. After crossing the finish line in a daze, he was carried to a dressing room where doctors worked to revive him long enough to collect his Francis Cup and gold medal.

Then, a sleeping Hicks finally rode a streetcar back to his bed at the Missouri Athletic Club.

“I am sorry to say that the road is the hardest over which I ever ran,” said Hicks, as quoted in the St. Louis Republic the next day.

“I have done the distance in little over two hours and a half, but today I did my best. I lost 10 pounds as it was, and you can see that I could not push myself any faster and lose more.” Hicks hung up his running shoes after that marathon.

Frenchman Albert Corey, who had made a poor showing in Paris, managed to take second place, finishing in 3:34:52, six minutes after Hicks’s tortured arrival.

A strikebreaker by trade, Corey had come to Chicago in 1903 to bust a butcher’s strike, then stayed in Chicago to work and train for his comeback, this time representing the USA.

Newton finally caught up and finished third at 3:47:33.

Coming in fourth was none other than Felix Carvajal, who had become something of a folk hero. “He won the sympathy of the crowd in the stadium and raised his hat each time he passed the stand,” the St. Louis Republic reported.

Despite having no handlers, no strategy, and no training program, Carvajal seemed to sail in unfatigued. Legend has it that the lightweight, diminutive Cuban ran a casual race, stopping to practice his English with spectators and even running backward occasionally as he chatted.

He might even have won the race but for a hunger attack. At one point, he detoured from the course into an apple orchard for a snack.

Alas, the green apples – or maybe the peaches he snagged from Hicks’s handler, Lucas – triggered stomach cramps, causing Carvajal to stop and rest. He eventually recovered enough to start running again and finished the race behind Newton.

The Also-Rans

Among those felled by the rough conditions were John C. Lordon of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, and San Franciscan William R. Garcia. Lordon, winner of the 1903 Boston Marathon, had to withdraw after being overcome by vomiting near the 10-mile mark.

Garcia’s departure from the race was more dramatic: he was found lying unconscious on the roadside by a local couple who were following the race in their car. They took Garcia to the fair’s medical headquarters, from which he was rushed to a hospital.

It turned out that the dust clouds he had inhaled had nearly destroyed his stomach lining, but he recovered within a few days.

Michael Spring, of New York, who had won the Boston Marathon earlier in 1904, led the pack as it left the track and kept a steady pace until he collapsed from exhaustion while attempting one of the steep hills.

While the killer course picked off those seasoned marathoners, two men who entered the race on a whim did reach the finish line.

South African Kaffirs Len Taunyane, known as Lentaw, and Jan Mashiani, known as Yamasani, were participants in the fair’s Boer War exhibit. Having some experience as dispatch runners during the war, they decided to enter the race.

Lentaw and Yamasani were the first black Africans to participate in the Olympics. The only other minority in the race was an American Indian, Frank Pierce, sponsored by the Pastime Athletic Club of New York. A victim of exhaustion, Pierce had to be driven back to the stadium.

Although he didn’t enter the marathon, American George C. Poage was the first black runner to win an Olympic medal, taking the bronze in the 200- and 400-meter hurdles.

Yamasani finished 12th, and Lentaw might have done better than his ninth-place finish if he hadn’t been chased a mile off the course by a dog.

Other finishers included fifth-place runner Dimitrios Velouis of Greece and his countrymen Christos Zekhouritis and Andrew Oikonomou and Americans David Kneeland, Henry Brawley, Sidney Hatch, F. P. Devlin, and John Furla.

The Medal Totals

The Americans dominated the first Olympics that awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals, winning 80 gold medals, 86 silver, and 72 bronze.

The closest competitors were Germany and Cuba, which each took five gold medals. Some argued that the Americans had the home-field advantage because so many foreign competitors chose not to make the trip to the middle of North America.

In all, the III Olympiad saw 13 Olympic records and four world records broken.

Although the St. Louis Games were a smashing success for the Americans, IOC officials were not impressed by the international participation.

And they had repeated their error of embedding the 1900 Paris Olympics into a larger event and got the same result – the Games became a sideshow to a world’s fair. They sought to save the Olympics by scheduling off-year contests in Athens every four years.

Following a successful effort in 1906, political unrest in Greece prevented a rerun, and the plan was scrapped.

The Legacy

An ornate iron-and-stone gate dedicated in honor of the 1904 Olympic Games and World’s Fair now marks the entrance to historic Francis Field.

To celebrate the Olympic centennial, the U. S. trials for the women’s 2004 Olympic Marathon kicked off on April 3 from Francis Field, with the women running through the historic gate after running the first mile on the track.

But, lucky for the 2004 women, the new course through the recently revitalized Forest Park was considerably more pleasant, described by second-place finisher Deena Kastor as “spectacular.”

In true St. Louis Marathon form, the top winners pulled off unexpected upsets, though with much less controversy and drama than their 1904 counterparts. Colleen DeReuck won first place and Jen Rhines passed Blake Russell, who had led the race most of the way, for third place. DeReuck, Kastor, and Rhines will represent the United States at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

St. Louis is also celebrating the anniversary as one of only four U.S. cities to host the 2004 Global Olympic Torch Relay this summer. A 30-mile journey through the St. Louis community on June 17 is one of the torch’s stops as it makes its way to Athens. The festivities planned include a spectacular Olympic Centennial Celebration on Art Hill in Forest Park to honor Olympic legends.

The intrepid runners of the 1904 Olympic Marathon should surely be saluted as prime examples of the proud Olympic spirit.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Marathon & Beyond

Photo of author
Marathon and Beyond magazine ran from 1996 to 2015 and brought in-depth long-form articles to distance runners everywhere. Marathon Handbook is now the proud custodian of the Marathon and Beyond archive.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.