In the long run – Alison Healy on the bizarre Olympic marathon of 1904

There was a Mayo man in the mix because, after all, what story would be complete without one?

Wicklow athlete Fionnuala McCormack won’t know what lies ahead when she runs the marathon for Ireland in this summer’s Olympics, but it’s safe to say it won’t involve strychnine or feral dogs.

They were just two of the bizarre features of the Olympic marathon held in St Louis, Missouri, 120 years ago. That race also included a contestant who hitchhiked almost 700 miles to get to the start line, and a winner who didn’t run the race.

And of course there was a Mayo man in the mix because, after all, what story would be complete without one? The Mayo man was Martin Sheridan, Bohola’s finest, and the greatest Olympian to come out of Ireland. It was 1904 and he was in St Louis to represent the US in the discus competition when he played a minor role in the major debacle.

Somewhere along the way the Irishman encountered Félix Carbajal, a Cuban postman who arrived on foot to compete in the marathon. After taking a steamship to New Orleans, some reports said the Cuban lost his meagre funds in a cards or dice game. Undeterred, he hitchhiked and walked the 670 miles to Missouri and reportedly had not eaten in two days when he arrived.

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He appeared at the starting line in long trousers, with long stockings underneath, a white, long-sleeved shirt, a beret and a pair of well-worn boots. And all in the baking heat of 30 degrees Celsius. Martin Sheridan came to his aid and cut his trousers at the knee to lighten his load.

The affable Félix wowed everyone he met, stopping to tip his beret to spectators and chat to them along the way. According to some accounts he also stopped to pluck some apples in an orchard, but they upset his stomach and he had to have a lie-down under a tree before he continued on his way. He still managed to come fourth, despite his many diversions, making you wonder what he could have achieved had he focused on merely running.

Up ahead of him was Fred Lorz who got cramps and gave up nine miles into the race. He hopped into a stadium car, but in keeping with the chaotic nature of the race, the car broke down. While he was waiting for it to be repaired, he decided to resume his run. When the spectators at the finish line saw him powering into the stadium they whooped and hollered, not knowing that he had relied on four wheels for 11 miles of the journey. He didn’t disabuse them of the notion and was about to receive the gold medal when someone cried foul.

The man who eventually received the gold medal was Thomas Hicks whose two-man support crew had the most unorthodox coaching plan ever seen. Hugh McGrath and Charles Lucas refused to let him drink water and instead they sponged out his mouth with warm water. They fed him small doses of strychnine and egg whites and as the end approached, they topped it up with French brandy. When the brandy ran out, they got more from a spectator, refusing the offer of beef tea in case it upset his stomach.

Despite their best efforts, he still managed to win the race but had to be carried over the line by the handlers.

Further back in the field were two South Africans, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani who had taken part on a whim because they happened to be in St Louis at the World Fair. They ran in their bare feet across the often-hazardous route. At one point Len Taunyane was chased a mile off course by a pack of wild dogs. He still managed to come ninth, while Jan Mashiani came eleventh.

As for the man from Bohola, the St Louis Olympics made his name. The NYPD officer won gold in the discus and would eventually have nine Olympic medals to his name, including five gold.

The New York Times described him as “one of the greatest athletes this country has ever known . . . as well as being one of the most popular”, after he died.

His new friend Félix Carbajal went one better and died twice, according to the newspapers.

Following his unexpected success in St Louis, the Cuban was due to run the marathon in Athens in 1906. However, after arriving at an Italian port, he disappeared. Eventually he was presumed dead and newspapers ran obituaries mourning the passing of Cuba’s first Olympian. But to everyone’s surprise, he sailed back into Havana’s port the following year, none the worse for his adventures. Naturally, he ran home from the port. And he kept running until he died, aged 73.