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April 13, 2017

The silly story of the first ever Boston Marathon, as told by the journalists who watched it

Just 120 years ago 15 small, likely under-nourished men congregated in the Massachusetts town of Ashland for the first running of the Boston Marathon. It was 24.5 miles long and in many other ways, it was a very different—and much sillier—event than the heralded footrace the city of Boston will essentially shut down for on Monday.

The Boston Globe’s April 20th (nice), 1897 issue features an extensive race recap. And boy, it’s really something. There is plenty to be baffled by in this article. But let’s start with the accompanying illustrations, before I provide key excerpts and commentary on the piece itself.

The Visuals

Image courtesy of

The eyes naturally rove over the images’ upper sections, depicting the race start. Sure, some sketched-out goons are in three-point stances at a marathon starting line, but for the most part, it checks out. Nothing too wild, and the quality is consistently solid. From there one’s vision drifts down to the circled section depicting “A SPURT,” which though a hilarious word, seems like a reasonable image to help showcase the action. Next we see the “AMBULANCE CORPS” and eventual champion John McDermott’s grimace, both of which are pretty normal things, drawn very well by our seemingly talented sketch artist.

Then we reach the point where said artist gives up. “A STRAGLER.” It’s spelled wrong and the stragler looks like some sort of comic depiction of a dying athlete or maybe how a political cartoonist would offer commentary on a mummy running for local office.

Intro/Getting to Ashland

There is a lot in the article explaining what a marathon is, and how people arrived at the start. (You know what a marathon is…and they took trains.) Beyond that, note that a lot of Boston youths riding bicycles (I’m assuming penny farthings) rode alongside the runners. And each athlete “was attended by a militiaman and several of the ambulance corps.” Ya know, in case they died or became gravely ill, because nobody trained for anything back then.

The Start

The race’s hilarious start is described as follows:

“At 12:15, Tom Burke scraped his foot across the narrow street in front of Metcalf’s mill and called the contestants’ number. Fifteen men answered… At 19 minutes past noon starter Tom Burke gave the word “Go!” All the contestants went away quickly, but after going about 50 yards they seemed to realize that they had just 25 miles of hard road before them and settled down to a comfortable jog.”

It’s inevitable when reading about old sporting events that modern readers will think: “Well shit, those old-fashioned dumbasses really didn’t know what they were doing!” This is a healthy reaction and the correct thought to have. But I just want to say that future audiences, when learning of our dumb sports moments, will probably think the same thing.

There’s not much of a blow-by-blow account of the early stages of the race itself. We just know that “the sleepy old town [of Ashland] rang with the cheers of her lusty sons,” – a description I find humorous.

The action heats up

Without explanation for how he does it, we rejoin McDermott nearing mile 20, now with “a lead of nearly a mile over the field, which was strung out in single file, the last man being about five miles in the rear.”

We then learn that runners in the first Boston Marathon treated their personal attendants like caddies, only caddies that advised runners on when to walk, who also provided public sports rubbings.

“As [McDermott] turned into the boulevard, he asked his attendant, Corp. Eddie Heinlein, to tell him when he had gone 20 miles… He never lessened his pace until he reached the Evergreen cemetery… Here he stopped running for the first time since he started just 20 miles back.

After walking about one-eighth of a mile he again sprinted for about 200 yards, when he was seized with a cramp in his left leg. He received a vigorous rubbing amid the plaudits of the people who had gathered to see the man go by. He started again.

[McDermott] ran a few steps and was obliged to stop again. Many thought that he was gone, but he held the leg stiff and said “Rub!” That leg was rubbed!”

Good and rubbed, he didn’t’ stop again until the finish and in the process “breaking a funeral procession and stalling two electric cars.”


McDermott hung on for the win, despite purportedly suffering from tuberculosis (it’s speculated that the either Irish- or Canadian-born tiny man worked in Manhattan as a lithographer, which surely isn’t the best profession for one prone to lung disease). And he won it with a flourish, which at first delighted, then confused his well-wishers:

“…the little champion of champions landed on the track with a bound, turned to the left and moved his lithe, well-shaped limbs like a piston rod around the track. He ran the lap [of indeterminate distance] in exactly 40 seconds. When he finished he was perfectly strong, but he was lifted to the shoulders of the crowd, and it was by the hardest kind of reasoning that he escaped and ran to the BAA Clubhouse.”

McDermott’s time (2:55:10 for 24.5 miles; ~7:08 pace) established a new world record for the ostensibly made up event. And the crowd loved it.

McDermott speaks

The winner proved to be quite the media darling, offering the following quotes:

“My toes are blistered and the skin has peeled off the bottom of my feet.”

(As is generally the case when one runs 24.5 miles in like, formaldehyde-soaked horse-leather slippers.)

“I weighed just 123-1/2 pounds when I started in the race. I lost just nine pounds by the run.”

(Nothin’ wrong with weighing 114 pounds as a full grown man!)

“The man Grant is the hardest man I ever beat. He held me for a mile, although he was all pumped out. If he had trained for the race he would have given me a hard race.”

(We will never again see a top finisher in a major marathon who didn’t train and that’s truly fucking sad. Sports might have simply been better when people didn’t train to be good at them and merely performing a task was enough to make entertainment-starved people lose their minds with stimulation.)

“This will probably will be my last long race. I hate to quit now, because I will be called a quitter and a coward, but look at my feet. Do you blame me for wanting to stop it?”

(This blogger does not blame ANYONE for never running another marathon after completing their first, regardless of degree of foot destruction.)

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