It's amazing how often Buffalo pops up in books, particularly when the subject is historical in nature.
Such is the case in a new volume called "Showdown at Shepherd's Bush." David Davis reviews the story surrounding the marathon at the 1908 Olympics in London, and sure enough, Buffalo is mentioned before and after the famous race. Davis therefore illuminated part of Buffalo's running history and sparked some research into the subject.
The idea of runs of more than 20 miles more or less started at the 1896 Olympics in Athens, when a signature event was needed for publicity purposes. Officials tied the idea to a probably mythical 25-mile run from Marathon to Athens by a soldier who supposedly announced the result of a great battle and then died. Spiridon Louis of Greece won that 1896 race.
The idea of a long, long race (the second-shortest running event at the Olympics was 1,500 meters) caught on. Marathons were held throughout Europe in the next few years. Davis writes that New York hosted a 25-miler in 1896. A race of a similar distance was held in Boston that same year; it continues today as the Boston Marathon.
James E. Sullivan, the head of the nation's Amateur Athletic Union, decided to put on something of a national championship in the marathon in 1901. What better place could there be than Buffalo? After all, it was hosting the Pan-American Exhibition in that year, thus drawing large crowds to the area.
The 25-mile race was set for July 4. Amazingly warm temperatures greeted the field for this race. One estimate put the heat on the roads of the course at 104 degrees. It's easy to guess that water stations weren't part of the race back then, and spectators probably didn't bring hoses to spray the competitors as they went by. Sullivan is quoted in the book as saying the day was "totally unfit for such a long race."
Even so, Samuel Mellor of Yonkers came through with a victory in 3 hours, 16 minutes and 39.4 seconds. And it wasn't close — he was 1 1/2 miles ahead of the nearest competitor despite losing a reported 11 1/2 pounds along the way.
Davis' book centers on three competitors in the 1908 Olympic marathon, partly remembered today as the event that set the distance for the race at 26 miles, 385 yards. Tom Longboat of Canada, Dorando Pietri of Italy and Johnny Hayes of the United States received most of the attention in the race. Pietri had a good-sized lead as he entered the stadium for one last lap but completely ran out of gas and was helped across the finish line by spectators and officials. The Italian was later disqualified, giving Hayes the victory. Longboat, the prerace favorite, dropped out at the 20th mile.
Pietri lost the race but became a worldwide sensation for his effort. Public interest in the marathoners grew to the point where match races, held inside where spectators could sit and watch (and thus admission could be charged), were an obvious next step. Pietri won the first such race over Hayes on Nov. 25, 1908, in New York. Longboat then defeated Pietri on Dec. 15 in Madison Square Garden at the same 25-mile distance.
From there, it was on to Buffalo. Longboat and Pietri ran another match race on Jan. 2, 1909. It was held before 10,000 spectators in the 74th Regiment Armory, which is now known as the Connecticut Street Armory. Pietri withdrew after 19 miles — not surprising since it was his third such race in a little more than a month — and Longboat jogged home a winner. The future Buffalo resident (steelworker) earned $3,750.
Davis credits that 1908 marathon with reigniting interest in the entire Olympic movement, perhaps saving it in a crucial moment in its history. The full story, told in the book, is easy to read, interesting throughout, and worth your time.
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