Best way to win the marathon—ride in a car!

Let’s admit right up front that I just don’t get many Olympic sports, mostly in the winter games but more than a few in the summer games, too.

Water polo, for instance. How in the world do they get the horses into the pool?

To me, the Olympics just is track and field.

It’s so basic. Everybody can understand it. Get there first and you win. You don’t need some judge giving you a score or some British dude weeping because some dancer didn’t have enough positive energy when she made a move which would have put my back out for a year.

The ultimate track event is the marathon, a race of 26 miles, 385 yards. A brutal event? First guy who ran it dropped dead.

The first marathon, bringing news of Greece’s victory over Persia at the Battle of Marathon may have been the most famous, but for sheer craziness you can’t beat the one they’re still talking about 108 years later, the one at the St. Louis Olympics in 1904.

For starters, it was held in heat approaching 100 degrees and since the new automobile was all the rage it was decided autos would pace the runners all along the course of mostly dirt roads.

So the 36 runners, all but four of them Americans, ran in a constant cloud of dust, small rocks and noxious auto exhaust—no “green” cars in 1904—made all of them sick and almost killed one. So who won? As befits the Olympics’ craziest event, there were two winners.

Bricklayer Fred Lorz of New York was doing quite well until he began to fatigue at the ninth mile. So Lorz jumped in a convenient car, rode the next 10 miles—he first said he was just going back to the stadium to get his clothes— but felt so much better by mile 19 (well, duh!), he hopped out and finished the race.

He was first across the finish line, was declared the winner, given a medal and had his photo taken, with Alice Roosevelt, the president’s daughter.

But too many people had seen him in the car. Lorz was disqualified, then given a lifetime disqualification by the AAU. That made the new winner Massachuset ts brass worker Thomas Hicks, who had been virtually carried across the finish line by his trainers, Lucas McGrath and Hugh McGrath.

That’s not all the McGraths had done. During the race they injected Hicks with rat poison several times because it contained strychnine, which they believed made him run faster.

Hicks collapsed in the stadium. He was worked on by several doctors who saved his life.

There was more zaniness. Cuban Felix Carbajal, probably the best athlete of the bunch, raised money to come from Havana to St. Louis but lost it in a dice game in New Orleans.

Somehow, he still got on a train, and arrived in St. Louis, in street clothes, literally seconds before the race started. He cut the legs off his pants and the sleeves from his long-sleeved shirt and started off, in street shoes!

Carbajal was doing well until, hungry from his trip, he veered into an orchard, wolfed down some apples, which proved to be rotten, and collapsed on the spot.

After a long nap, and being sick, he got up, continued on his way, and finished fourth!

Len Taunyane, a Tswana tribesman from South Africa, was in St. Louis as part of a Boer War exhibit, not as an athlete, but he entered the marathon, and was one of the fastest in the race until he was chased miles off the course by a pack of vicious dogs.

He still finished ninth.

Hours after the race, a St. Louis couple in their auto, found a man, apparently dead, off the side of the road. It was marathoner Bill Garcia of San Francisco. Car fumes had almost destroyed the lining of his stomach. He wasn’t dead. Doctors saved his life.

And Fred Lorz? His “lifetime” ban was lifted after one year. He won the 1905 Boston Marathon.

At least we think he did.

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2012-08-09 digital edition

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