To modern ears, the events of the 1904 Summer Olympics were anything but Olympian. Originally intended to be in Chicago, the games were moved to St. Louis to coincide with the World’s Fair. And coincide they did — the Olympics officially lasted four and a half months, tracking (somewhat) to the then-larger event. The Olympics featured over 600 athletes from a dozen nations, but because the athletes were expected to pay their own way, only 42 of the 94 official events had competitors from outside the United States. Minorities were segregated into the “Anthropology Games,” a two day series of events including rock throwing, mud wrestling, spear tossing, etc., so that anthropologists could compare “indigenous people” (even if the phrase was used inaccurately at best) to white athletes.
And then there was the marathon, which made the rest of the games seem normal.
The race took place on an incredibly hot day — 90 degrees and humid — and on unpaved dirt pathways which, when cleared by horses and cars leading the way, resulted in dust clouds wafting along the raceway. The unsuitable conditions deterred many runners, including a New York City man named Fredrick Lorz. Nine miles into the race, Lorz called it quits and hitched a ride back to the stadium to retrieve his clothes. But on the way back, with a few miles to go, the car overheated. Lorz got out and jogged the final few miles, unintentionally appearing to still be competing. He ended up returning to the stadium first and was declared the marathon’s winner — only to have the honor stripped of him after the medal ceremony.
The gold, therefore, went to the second person to cross the finish line, the British-born Thomas Hicks (although competing under the mantle of the United States). He — with the help of his trainers (seen above) and after drinking a few cocktails of strychnine sulfate and brandy, was unable to pose for congratulatory photographs. icks’ health was so impaired by the race (and the strychnine) that he required immediate medical attention; most believe that had he chosen to delay care, he would have almost certainly not survived more than a few hours. Even with all of the assistance, synthetic or otherwise, Hicks is still considered the true first place finisher.
The gold medal now finally settled, it was time for things to get truly weird. Enter Cuban marathoner Felix Carvajal.
Carvajal, a postal worker in Havana, wanted to participate in the marathon so badly that he quit his job and turned to panhandling, hoping to raise the necessary money to get to St. Louis and compete. He succeeded — and then, derailed himself. He made it as far as New Orleans. There, he decided to try his hand at craps, and ended up losing all of his money. Still determined to make it to St. Louis, Carvajal turned to hitchhiking — a tall order, given that Henry Ford would not adopt the assembly line for a few years still, so cars were rare. Carvajal somehow succeeded, and arrived just in time to run the race, penniless and in street clothes. Officials delayed the race’s start so that he could cut the sleeves off his shirt and similarly transform his pants into shorts. He ran in street shoes — and was pacing the pack.
Until he got hungry, that is. Somewhere along the route, Carvajal came across an apple orchard and decided to snack on some apples. This proved disastrous as he soon developed a bad case of stomach cramps and had to rest. He ended up taking a nap, a real life hare to everyone else’s tortoise.
Carvajal finished in fourth place.
Bonus fact: In 2002, former soccer goalie Lloyd Scott ran the London Marathon in the extremely slow time of 5 days, 8 hours, 29 minutes, and 46 seconds. What took so long? Scott, a leukemia survivor, ran the race in a deep sea diving suit weighing 110 pounds, as a way to raise money for cancer research. Scott has run similar events in similar fashion as well (including the 2002 New York Marathon in the same suit) and has raised roughly $6.5 million in the process.
Related reading: “A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York” by Liz Robbins. A narrative following the top runners in the 2007 New York City Marathon. Sixteen reviews — 12 five star, 2 four star, 2 of two. Available on Kindle.