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February 9, 2018

Ten laps to the mile: The story of the first indoor marathon

You are probably familiar with the Armory Indoor Marathon, where in 2016 two world records were set in the 211-lap race around the 200-meter track. And if you’re from the Great Lakes region, you may also be familiar with the smattering of indoor marathons held during the winter season. It would seem that the indoor marathon is on the verge of becoming a “thing.”

Except, indoor marathons aren’t anything new.

The recent surge in popularity is simply the modern resurgence of an event that captured the attention of sports fans across the US and Europe around the turn of the twentieth century. These indoor events, typically mano a mano match races, sold-out stadiums and concert halls while also helping to standardize the marathon distance at 26 miles and 385 yards.

The craze began with an outdoor marathon: the 1908 Olympic race, which was the first to be contested over the full distance–because the British Royal Family wanted the course to start on their front lawn and end under their box in the Olympic stadium.

In one of the most devastating finishes in Olympic history, Italian confectioner Dorando Pietri looked to have victory locked up when he entered the stadium to make one final circuit around the track. But first, he turned the wrong way before correcting himself. Then, he collapsed. He stood up, staggered a few paces and collapsed again. This process repeated itself a few times until race officials intervened. One massaged Pietri’s chest for fear of heart failure, while others practically carried him across the finish – still in first place.

Only, he wasn’t the winner. The American delegation filed a protest and so Dorando was (rightfully) disqualified for receiving medical assistance which meant that Bloomingdales employee and US athlete, Johnny Hayes, was declared the gold medal winner.

But Dorando Pietri’s struggle had captured the hearts of audiences around the world, and it just didn’t seem fair that the first person to cross the finish wasn’t the winner. Naturally, there had to be a rematch.

The problem with road marathons, however, is that race directors can’t make money off of spectators. Roads are open, so spectating is free. The solution? Run the race indoors and sell tickets to attend.

The rematch was held in Madison Square Garden that winter and to be an honest one it had to be contested over the “London distance,” or 26 miles and 385 yards. That meant 262 laps on the tenth-of-a-mile track.

The New York Times noted that the arena was filled to capacity with partisan fans on either side. Dorando was Italian while Hayes was first-generation Irish-American–two massive, if not always friendly, immigrant groups in New York City during that time. In fact, both sides had rival brass bands playing in support of their chosen athlete. It was so raucous that the race almost had to be cancelled in the last mile as a riot broke out on the track — police were able to beat back the mob and create a path for the two runners to continue.

As for the race itself, Dorando led every lap save one, although Hayes stayed close on his heels through most of the distance. It wasn’t until the final mile that Pietri threw in a surge to gap Hayes, which sealed the victory in his favor in a time of 2:44:20. Hayes came through in 2:45:05; both finished over ten minutes faster than the Olympic winning time.

Despite Madison Square Garden reeking of dust and tobacco smoke, the event was a resounding success. One Times writer called it “the most fantastic footrace that New York has ever witnessed.”

From there, marathon mania gripped North America and Europe.

Dorando Pietri was the hero of many matches; under the management of his brother he contested an absurd 22 such races in the six months following his MSG exploit (he won 17 of them).

The most ridiculous affair on his schedule was another indoor marathon, this time in London against hometown hero CW Gardiner. This race wasn’t held in a sports arena; rather, it took place in Royal Albert Hall. Due to the lack of size of the auditorium, the track had to be smaller than MSG. It was 19 laps to the mile, which meant that a full marathon required 524 laps! Just let that sink in for a second.

This time, Dorando was forced to retire at lap 482 due to blisters. Gardiner finished the full distance and was declared the winner.

After a few years, the mania had cooled off and indoor marathons were no longer viable. One journalist remarked that they had become as exciting as watching “two old ladies engaged in a long-distance knitting contest.”

Still, the impact would last. In 1921 the International Olympic Committee recognized the official length of the marathon as 26 miles and 385 yards.

So the next time you see an indoor marathon, recognize that it’s not anything new. They’re just bringing back a century-old tradition that captivated sports fans across the world.

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