Mad About the Marathon

In the early 20th century, the marathon race was over two thousand years old but it was just starting to catch the attention of athletes and sporting fans all over the world. The event was revived in 1896 as part of the very first modern Olympics and it didn’t take long for the long-distance running event to become incredibly popular. Today, hundreds of thousands of people run marathons and long distances every year, often to get fit and stay healthy.

The 1910 Baltimore Marathon featured more than seventy runners. Photo Credit: The Baltimore Sun

But the new marathon craze did have its detractors, including a Dr. John H. Girdner. According to the good doctor, long distance running was a dangerous killer that wrecked the bodies and minds of young people both in training and competition. “Its victims,” he wrote of the marathon in a 1909 article, “will work irreparable injury to their own health.” Does it seem a little strange that a doctor was so opposed to what is now considered a popular and healthy activity? I think this calls for some historical investigation!

Dr. John Girdner, opponent of the marathon. Photo credit: Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas.

In 1909 Dr. John Harvey Girdner was a well known physician and writer in the United States. He had attended President Garfield after he was shot in 1881 and was friends with Grover Cleveland and William Jennings Bryan. He was also the successful author of “Newyorkitis,” a satirical treatise on life in New York City and the harm that this environment had on its residents. Though Girdner wrote in a tounge-in-cheek style, he still offered serious medical advice and promoted better health through changes in life-style. People stayed healthy because of good diets, hygiene, mental well-being, and other preventative decisions. Even though this son of a Civil War surgeon had spent much of his career treating injuries and performing surgery, Girdner’s experiences led him to focus more on healthy life-style in his writings. “The physician more than any man goes behind the scenes,” he wrote in Newyorkitis, “he frequents humanity’s dressing room. He knows men’s vices, but he also knows their virtues.” After many years of operating on patients, he realized that he choices you made before you got sick or injured were more important than the treatments you received afterwards.

Now, lets take a closer look at the world of distance running in the early 20th century to get an idea of what Dr. Girdner argued “exposes the runners in a Marathon race to collapse, unconsciousness, and sudden death.”

The ancient Greeks never actually had a long-distance race like a marathon in their ancient Olympics; their running competitions were much shorter in length. The event was inspired by the legendary Phillipides, a Greek warrior who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. with the news that the Persians had been defeated in battle. Shortly after the brave runner delivered the good news, he was said to have collapsed and died. About twenty years before the first modern Olympics, poet George Browning helped popularize Phillipides’ epic run, writing:

“He flung down his shield, Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the Fennel-field, And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through, Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine thro’ clay, Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died—the bliss!”

Pierre de Coubertin. Photo Credit:

I imagine that the founder of the 1896 Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin and his friend Michel Breal were inspired by Browning’s words and story of athletic greatness when they decided to hold a marathon race from Marathon to Athens in their games. But Phillipides’ epic run also unknowingly foreshadowed another aspect of the 20th century marathons- bodily harm and the threat of death.

Olympic marathons in these early days were the most grueling and physically difficult events in the games. In the 1896 Olympic marathon the top two runners collapsed from exhaustion during the race allowing Greek runner Spirodon Louis to win the race in the final miles. Several other runners also dropped out or passed out along the way. The marathon of the second Olympic games in 1900 was run at 2:30 in the afternoon on a sweltering July day in Paris. Runners were forced to run in 100+ degree weather and dodge bicycles and other obstacles in the Paris streets, and only seven of the thirteen starters managed to finish the race. Ian Pool, a British athlete who dropped out  later said that the race, “can only be characterized by the one word “Preposterous” with a capital P.” If this  sounds bad wait till you hear about the 1904 St. Louis Olympics!

Most of the St. Louis marathon was run on dusty farm roads like this one. Photo Credit: “The Olympic Games, 1904” by Charles Lucas.

The third Olympic games were held in St. Louis and coincided with the World’s Fair/Louisiana Purchase Exposition that was held in the same city. On August 30th at 3 in the afternoon, 32 men lined up in Francis Field and began their 25ish mile race (varying reports have the race at 24.8, 25, and 26 miles total). Only 14 would manage to finish.  “The course through St. Louis County was the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over,” wrote Charles Lucas (trainer for winner Thomas Hicks) who recalled that the combination of heat, rocky roads, and clouds of dust kicked up by officials’ cars made for near-fatal conditions. “In one case, that of [William] Garcia,” he also wrote, “the dust particles caused an erosion of the membranous wall of the stomach and a serious hemorrhage resulted which almost cost the Californian his life.” Cuban runner Andarin Carbajal ate rotten apples along the way and fell ill with severe stomach cramps. Other competitors, from sheer exhaustion or the fact that there was only one water stop in the whole race passed out or dropped out. One runner from South Africa was even chased a mile off course by dogs! Those who did manage to finish nearly killed themselves doing so.  There’s a good article in Smithsonian Magazine about the race, but (like always), I think its better to go back to the source and read Charles Lucas’ own words.

Trainers like Lucas drove in front of the marathoners, kicking up clouds of dust for them to run through. Photo Credit: “The Olympic Games, 1904” by Charles Lucas.

Simply put, the 1904 Olympic marathon was ridiculous. If I haven’t already convinced you, then maybe this final quote from Thomas Hicks’ trainer will: “The Marathon race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrated that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road…Ten miles from the finish, Hicks began to show positive signs of collapse. When he asked for a drink of water, it was refused him and his mouth was sponged out with distilled water. He managed to keep up well, until seven miles from the Stadium, and then the author was forced to administer one-sixtieth grain of sulphate of strychnine, by the mouth, besides the white of one egg…As Hicks passed the twenty mile post, his color began to become ashen pale, and then another tablet of one-sixtieth grain strychnine was administered him, and two more eggs, besides a sip of brandy. His entire body was bathed in warm water, including his head, the water having been kept warm along the road by being placed on the boiler of a steam automobile. After the bathing with warm water, he appeared to revive and jogged along once more…His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff. The brain was fairly normal, but there was more or less hallucination, the most natural being that the finish was twenty miles from where he was running. His mind continually roved towards something to eat, and in the last mile Hicks continually harped on this subject.” After finishing Hicks had to be taken away immediately and examined by doctors. He lost eight pounds during the race. Now does Dr. Girdner’s criticism starts to make a little more sense?

Thomas Hicks being assisted by trainers during the final stages of the race. Photo Credit: “The Olympic Games, 1904” by Charles Lucas.

John Girdner wrote a column in Munsey’s Magazine, a magazine that described itself as “of the people and for the people, with pictures and art and good cheer and human interest throughout.” Not a column you might expect from an accomplished surgeon and had invented new techniques and machines for the operating room, but Girdner’s articles mixed serious medical advice with what Kate Womersley calls “a jaunty and forthright prose style.” Girdner’s articles were always discussing different ways to help readers understand how their bodies work and what sorts of environments would keep them as healthy as possible. The doctor’s years of experience in surgery had taught him that an ounce of prevention was truly worth a pound of cure. In an 1899 article he wrote that, “of all the blessings that mortal man can receive and enjoy, there is none so great as good health. Riches, honor, fame, and all the other prizes for which men labor, are insignificant when compared to the possession of a sound mind in a sound body.” Marathon glory was not worth its steep mental and physical price.

Much like these athletes, Dr. Girdner preferred athletic activities that had frequent breaks, allowing the pulse to recover before being elevated again. Photo credit:

Girdner wrote on topics as varied as germs, clothing, food, and (of course) running marathons. Each article was written in way that made complicated subjects easy to understand, while still mentioning current medical knowledge and practices. Nothing was dumbed down for the readers. Girdner’s explanation of the marathon’s effects on the human heart were no exception: “every time we get angry, laugh inordinately, take stimulating food or drink, run to catch a car, get deeply in love, and do ever so many other things, it all lands on the poor old heart. That indispensable organ fulfills St. Paul’s definition of charity- it suffers long and is kind; but there is one thing it cannot stand- a Marathon race.” Backing up his prose with facts, Girdner explained some current research on pulse increase during strenuous athletic activity and concluded that keeping it at this rate for several hours during a marathon could easily cause health problems. He concluded that “no human heart can be to a condition that will permit its owner to run twenty six miles at top speed without exposing him to the danger of collapse and sudden death, or without bringing about conditions which favor the development of disease in later life.”

Image credit: Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, Archives Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Although Girdner did not mention any specific Olympic marathons and their hazardous conditions specifically in his article, it seems to have been on his mind as he was lamenting the “marathon mania” that was gripping the United States. “In the name of the nine gods of war and all the great horn spoons,” he cried, “why should we here in the United States convert ourselves into a nation of veritable paranoiacs over this Marathon race?”After Americans dominated the 1904 and 1908 Olympic marathons, the craze continued, much to Girdner’s dismay. “Not only the heart, but every organ in the body is affected by the prolonged strain of a twenty six mile run at top speed,” he warned, and furthermore runners risked burning up their bodies with “smoke, ashes and clinkers, as it were, from this unwonted fire raging within.”

This looks like the kind of man who would bet on marathon races! Image credit: Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, Archives Center, Smithsonian Institution.

If medical advice wouldn’t convince the reader, Dr. Girdner also appealed to his readers sense of morality in order to discourage marathoning. “Call them whatever name you please, long-distance foot races will always be popular with those who are fond of betting, because they offer so many opportunities.” The rise of the marathon was fueled by gamblers and no doubt many other nefarious individuals.  Girdner then took a dark turn to describe the human cost of marathon betting: “you can back three favorites to win in each race- one to win the race, or be the first to touch the ribbon; one to be the first to collapse and to be carried out unconscious; and one to be first to fall dead.” Sounds like a 20th century version of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but the Olympic marathons (especially St. Louis) grounded Girdner’s satire in unfortunate fact.

Despite all of his passionate pleas, Girdner’s advice was never taken by the American public. Especially in the past fifteen years or so, marathoning has become very popular and it seems like you can find a marathon being held somewhere every weekend. But I’m not sure that Dr. Girdner would be totally upset. More recent research has shown that long-distance running can be a good part of a healthy lifestyle- if done properly. Conditions on marathon courses have also dramatically improved so we don’t have to worry about another St. Louis incident happening again. So the next time you go on a long run, be healthy…and be safe!


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