Strychnine, Stray Dogs, and Bad Apples: How NOT to Host a Marathon

On August 30, 1904 the city of St. Louis hosted the third Olympic men’s marathon. A relatively young sporting event, the marathon had been designed in order to pay homage to the Greek legend of Pheidippides (you can learn more about the legend from this previous post: “Why Running is Stupid: Proof that penguins are faster than sock monkeys”) and promoted as the flagship Olympic event in the first successful modern Olympic games of 1896.

Despite its brief history, the sport did attract a number of top athletes, many of whom did not attend the 1904 Olympic games. In all, there were thirty-two athletes who did participate, representing only four nations. Fourteen of the runners actually finished the race.

It certainly does look like a nice place for a run. I mean, if running weren’t stupid.


Of those, the winner used performance enhancing drugs during the race (well, okay, so it was strychnine, but at the time, it was considered performance enhancing). The fourth place finisher ate a couple of bad apples, got sick, and took a nap during the event. And one athlete was chased almost a mile off course by a stray dog.

But at least only one runner was disqualified for completing a large part of the race in a car (the same man went on to win the Boston Marathon the next year. On foot).

Chicago had been the original choice to host, but because the Olympics would compete with the St. Louis World’s Fair (of iced tea and waffle cone fame), the IOC agreed to move the games so the events could be combined. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a great choice.

Really who wouldn't find this more exciting than a marathon?    photo credit: neil conway via photopin cc
Really who wouldn’t find this more exciting than a marathon? photo credit: neil conway via photopin cc

Not only were the games desperately overshadowed by the fair, but the 24.85 mile marathon course (the event wasn’t standardized to 26 miles 385 yards until 1924) was filled with brutal hills, littered with road debris, and covered in so much dust that one runner collapsed from hemorrhaging after dust coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. The event was begun in the late afternoon in the miserably hot and humid weather typical of St. Louis in August and water was made available to the athletes in only two locations along the course. Frankly, it’s a wonder any of them finished and lived to tell the tale.

But I am happy to report that since then St. Louis has gotten quite a bit better at hosting marathons. This past weekend saw the city alive with many running events associated with the St. Louis Go! Marathon.

In its 14th year, the Go! is a weekend of family fitness activities including fun runs for all ages and culminating in a half, full, and relay marathon event. Even better, the website insists that there are a full 17 water and Gatorade stations available along the route so participants can comfortably skip the strychnine. The event attracts over 25,000 participants each year and is, in general, pretty darn cool.

Now if you looked back at my earlier post, then you know that as much as I appreciate physical fitness and enjoy staying in shape, I don’t run. Well, unless I have to, which I rarely do. But I did attend the Saturday of Go! weekend to cheer on my oldest son, who participated this year in the Read, Right, & Run Go! Marathon.

This, to me is probably the best run of the weekend because it is a celebration of six months of hard work for the grade K-5 participants. It’s organized through area elementary schools that work to help students complete 26 acts of service, read 26 books, and run 26 miles in order to qualify for the final celebration run.

A tee shirt AND a medal? Maybe running isn't so stupid after all.
A tee shirt AND a medal? Maybe running isn’t so stupid after all.

Over 6000 students representing 250 schools participated this year, which means that in the St. Louis area, little kids performed more than 156,000 good works, read more than 156,000 books, and ran more than 156,000 miles. And as far as I have been able to find, not a single one of those kids got sick from eating bad apples during the race or got chased off course by wild dogs.

So, go St. Louis! It may have taken a try or two to get it right, but it looks like you’re a marathon city after all.


I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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