Thirty-one men crowded the starting line, the late-August sun beating their backs, sweat pouring down their faces. Some wore track shoes with no socks, some were in everyday dress shoes, and others were completely barefoot. Stretched out before them was one of the most daunting athletic challenges of the era: the 1904 Olympic Marathon. A 24.85-mile dirt road featuring Sisyphean hills, suffocating dust, sweltering heat, and even wild dogs.
The 1904 Olympic Games were an overall disorganized affair. The first Olympics hosted by the U.S. (and the first in the western hemisphere), the 1904 Games were originally slated to take place in Chicago. Fearing that no one would trek to Chicago while the 1904 World’s Fair was being held concurrently in St. Louis, officials abruptly changed the location to the Missouri city. The result was a haphazard program of events. Often, spectators weren’t sure which events were part of the Fair and which were part of the Olympics.
The apotheosis of this confusion was the marathon, which was held 110 years ago on August 30. The marathon had deadly conditions. Temperatures climbed into the 90s, and the air was sticky with humidity. Despite the dangerous heat, there was only one water station, located about a quarter of the way through the race at mile six. “It wasn’t that they were lazy,” says Sharon Smith, curator of civic and personal identity at the Missouri History Museum. Rather, the absence of water was an experiment of how the body would react to dehydration.
At 3 p.m.—during the peak heat of the day—an official in a straw hat fired the starting gun. A puff of smoke sailed over the runners’ heads and into the stands. The runners headed out onto the course, which began with three laps around the Olympic stadium and then veered onto the dirt roads of St. Louis. Track vehicles, which drove ahead of the participants to clear the course, spit a cloud of exhaust fumes and dust that choked the runners and exacerbated the lack of water. The dust was so bad in some parts of the course that one runner had to be rushed to the hospital for esophageal hemorrhaging.
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The participants were a mixed bag: Some were professional athletes; others had never run a marathon in their lives, like Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, two South African tribesmen who were in St. Louis to be a part of the World’s Fair Boer War sideshow exhibit. They ran the marathon despite their lack of experience—and shoes. Taunyane finished in ninth place, and Mashiani finished twelfth. According to newspapers, Taunyane lost time because a wild dog chased him almost a mile off the racetrack.
There was also Felix Carvajal, a former postman from Cuba. Carvajal raised money to get to St. Louis by running around his town for donations. He finally raised enough to travel from Cuba to New Orleans, but he lost all his money in a dice game in the Big Easy, so he was forced to hitchhike and walk the rest of the way to St. Louis. On race day, Carvajal showed up at the starting line in street clothes: an oversized white button down, full pants, and dress shoes. Another participant helped him cut his pants into makeshift shorts. Folklore says Carvajal stopped in an orchard mid-race to eat fruit and rest—and he still managed to finish in fourth place.
Finishing in first place was Fred Lorz—or, that’s what he made the crowd believe. Lorz, who was a top contender for first place, collapsed about a third of the way through the race. He hitched a ride on a track vehicle through the majority of the course. Then, a few miles from the finish line, he felt revived, ran out of the truck, and trotted into the stadium to cross the finish line. The crowd went crazy, and Lorz almost received the gold medal before an official disqualified him.
Meanwhile, runner Thomas Hicks, the true winner of the race, was chugging along through the grueling conditions. “Hicks was battling by sheer force of will,” Smith says. Dehydrated and not allowed water, Hicks’ lips were dampened with a sponge. To stave off exhaustion and keep him moving through the stifling heat, Hicks’ trainer gave him egg whites mixed with strychnine. “Who would drink that?” Smith asks. “How does that not kill you?”
Due to extreme fatigue, race officials had to assist Hicks across the finish line, where he collapsed. He was too weak to even accept his first-place award and was rushed to a medical examiner. Hicks finished in 3 hours and 29 minutes—the worst marathon time in Olympic history. Of the 31 participants, only 14 crossed the finish line. After being intentionally dehydrated and poisoned, Hicks lost eight pounds during the marathon. He never raced again.