The 1904 Olympic Marathon - Unforeseen Mayhem
1904 Olympics: Runners lined up at start of Marathon Race, receiving instructions immediately prior to start – Nathan Lazarnick, New York, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 1904 Olympic Marathon in St. Louis stands as one of the most bizarre and unprecedented events in the history of sports. Occurring during the third modern Olympic Games, this marathon transformed into a tale of chaos, extreme conditions, and a series of strange occurrences that turned it into more of a test of survival than an athletic competition. The race not only tested the limits of the runners but also exposed the shortcomings in the organization and understanding of endurance sports at the time.

On a scorching day in August, with temperatures soaring above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity enveloping the air, 32 runners set out on a dusty, unpaved course that led through the hills and suburbs of St. Louis. The conditions were brutal, with clouds of dust kicked up by accompanying vehicles, and the route lacked adequate water stations, a critical oversight given the heat. These factors alone were enough to make this marathon an extraordinary challenge, but as the race unfolded, a series of bizarre events turned it into an ordeal of epic proportions.

Fred Lorz, one of the participants, made headlines for all the wrong reasons. After about nine miles, suffering from cramps and exhaustion, Lorz hitched a ride in a car for the next 11 miles. Upon the car breaking down, he re-entered the race and jogged into the stadium, crossing the finish line first. Spectators and officials initially hailed him as the winner, but when his ruse was revealed, his temporary victory was rescinded, and he was banned for life, although this was later lifted.

The true winner, Thomas Hicks, had a harrowing experience of his own. Struggling with the heat and exhaustion, his trainers provided him with a mixture of strychnine (a common rat poison used in small doses as a stimulant) and brandy to keep him going. This dangerous concoction, along with repeated doses of egg whites and warm water, pushed Hicks to the brink of collapse. He was virtually carried over the finish line by his trainers, a hollow victory that highlighted the lack of understanding regarding the dangers of such substances and the extreme conditions athletes were exposed to.

But the mayhem didn’t end there. Another runner, Cuban postman Andarín Carvajal, joined the race at the last minute, running in street clothes that he cut around the legs to create makeshift running shorts. Starting well, he paused mid-race to snack on rotten apples, which led to stomach cramps. Despite this, he finished fourth, an impressive feat under the circumstances.

Perhaps the most dramatic story was that of William García, who was found lying on the road with severe internal injuries caused by the dust he had inhaled, nearly costing him his life. These tales, among others, paint a picture of a marathon that was less about athletic prowess and more about sheer endurance and survival.

The 1904 Olympic Marathon became a cautionary tale about the perils of poor organization and inadequate understanding of athletes’ needs. It highlighted the necessity of proper hydration, nutrition, and medical oversight in endurance sports. The bizarre nature of the event captured the public’s imagination but also prompted important changes in how marathons and other endurance events were managed and executed.

In the years that followed, the Olympic Marathon would evolve into a more regulated and safe event, with better routes, proper hydration stations, and medical support. The 1904 marathon remains a symbol of the early, unregulated days of endurance running, a stark reminder of the dangers athletes faced and the lessons learned from an event that was more survivalist ordeal than sporting competition.

Today, the marathon is a celebrated event that embodies the spirit of the Olympics, attracting the world’s best runners and showcasing incredible feats of endurance and will. But the 1904 Olympic Marathon will forever stand as a testament to the early days of the sport, a chaotic, dangerous, and utterly unforgettable race that taught us valuable lessons about the care and respect these incredible athletes deserve.

Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!