Only in the Boston Marathon
In the early days of the Boston Marathon, some runners were accompanied by cyclists who provided water -- or something stronger -- to keep them energized.
"They did crazy things like put ammonia and water on a sponge, almost like smelling salts, to get a runner to perk up," says Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum in Boston. Other runners got whiskey or even strychnine, says Tom Derderian, a runner and marathon historian who has written two books about the race.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," says Derderian. "They were trying to do whatever they could to enhance performance."
In 1901, in fact, a scandal was born when one top runner collapsed because either a) he was given a sponge soaked with chloroform by a rival, or b) had been given the wrong pills by his doctor.
Today, the idea of performance-enhancing cyclists in a marathon seems odd, but so do many other aspects of the race, including the fact it once was a 25-mile course (not 26.2), was a bastion for organized betting and that cars were allowed on the route in the early part of the 20th century so fans could follow the runners.
"These guys had a lot of trouble getting through the dust, and breathing," says Derderian. "I mean, imagine a whole line of cars following the marathon, full of people who would bet serious amounts of money on the race."
In 116 years, the race has had plenty of crazy or odd occurrences. With the 117th race approaching on Monday, April 15, we offer 10 of the most memorable.
1980: Rosie Ruiz
1918: Military relay
With Americans fighting in Europe during World War I, the regular race was canceled and replaced by a relay race of 14 10-man teams from Boston-area military bases (each runner going 2.5 miles). "There was sentiment on the part of the public that it wasn't appropriate to hold an event where fit Americans of military age would be running a marathon instead of serving their country," says Johnson. Runners, in their uniforms, passed batons that carried this message to encourage people to buy war bonds: "We fight to the limit, we expect you to buy to the limit." Camp Devens' Divisional Team M won with a time of 2:24:53, ahead of the 302nd Infantry, also of Camp Devens, and a team from the Boston Navy Yard. "They were the only team that actually had some real runners on it," says Derderian. Though it was a relay, the winning time was slower than seven of the eight previous years.
1907: The train
After the lead group of seven (also reported as six, 10 or 12) crossed the train tracks in South Framingham, a long train came through to cut off the rest of the 124-man field, including American Tom Hicks, who had won the Olympic marathon in St. Louis in 1904. "So imagine being that eighth runner chasing the pack, ostensibly with a chance to still win the race," says Johnson, "and you're waiting for a freight train to just sort of inch along where there's no other place to cross." A Boston Globe story the next day said runners ran in circles for more than a minute while waiting for the train to go by. Thomas Longboat, a Canadian and member of the Onondaga nation -- among the runners who crossed the tracks ahead of the train -- won in a record time of 2:24:24.
[+] EnlargeCourtesy of The Sports MuseumEllison "Tarzan" Brown didn't yield to Johnny A. Kelley on what would become known as Heartbreak Hill.1936: Hello, Heartbreak
Johnny A. Kelley, who had won the 1935 race, appeared on his way to winning again as he caught and passed leader Ellison "Tarzan" Brown on the last of the Newton Hills, about 20 miles into the course. Upon passing Brown, Kelley gave him a pat -- some say it was on his shoulder, others on his back or backside. Kelley said later the pat was to acknowledge Brown's fine effort. "It is merely road racing courtesy," he said to the Boston Post. However, the sportsmanlike gesture had the opposite effect, spurring Brown to retake the lead and the race. "When Kelley finally caught me near the end of the hills he patted my back as he started to go by," Brown told the Globe's Jerry Nason. "Maybe he thought he was going to go by, but I didn't." As Nason wrote, the loss broke Kelley's heart, and the hill became known as Heartbreak Hill.
1961: Tripped by a dog
Johnny J. Kelley (winner of the 1957 race), Britain's Fred Norris and Eino Oksanen of Finland were grouped at the head of the pack in Newton when a black dog that had been running with the trio for quite a distance tripped Kelley, who fell to his knees. Oksanen didn't break stride, but Norris -- "to his everlasting credit," says Johnson -- stopped to help Kelley and make certain he was OK. Oksanen went on to win the race, with Kelley finishing second and Norris third. A story in Sports Illustrated seven years later reported that race official Jock Semple, enraged at what the dog had done, ran out on the course and tried to kick it, but missed. "He just basically got in the way," Johnson says of the wayward pooch. "Certainly the dog didn't know it was doing any harm."
1976: 'The Run for the Hoses'
The Boston Globe reported the temperature as 100 degrees before the start of the race in Hopkinton, and the heat took its toll in what the paper called "a race of attrition." More than 40 percent of the nearly 1,900 starters did not finish the race and many who were scheduled to run didn't even try. "Jack Fultz ran through a rainbow of garden hoses and wall-to-wall people clad in Bermuda shorts and bikinis in record heat to win," wrote the Globe's Nason. Fultz won with the slowest time in eight years, and runners from front to back owed their finish to homeowners along the route who soaked them. "The lead bus, the one with the journalists in it, had a big sign in the front: 'Hose the runners,'" says Derderian.
[+] EnlargeAP PhotoKathrine Switzer got a block from her boyfriend after race official Jock Semple tried to take her bib.1967: Stop that woman
Women weren't allowed to run the race when Kathrine Switzer, 19 -- who had registered as "K.V. Switzer" -- pinned No. 261 to her gray sweatshirt and took off running with the rest of the entrants. About 2 miles in, however, race official Jock Semple saw her from the media bus and charged out to try to rip her number off. "Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race!" Switzer recalls him yelling. But a body block from Switzer's 235-pound boyfriend knocked Semple to the side of the road. The whole sequence was caught on film, and the photos went national, shining a spotlight on the race's policy of not allowing female runners. Switzer went on to become the first registered woman to run and finish the race (in 4:20). Years later, she and Semple became friends.
1966: The pioneer
A year before Switzer, Roberta "Bobbi" Gibb -- a much better runner -- became the first woman to run the race. She finished in 3:21:40, which would have placed her 126th overall. In February she had tried to register but had been told by a race official that women were not "physiologically capable" of running a marathon. Gibb -- who had just completed a cross-country bus trip to get to Boston -- hid in the bushes before the race, then jumped into the pack about 200 yards beyond the start line. She went on to run as a bandit again in 1967 and '68. To historians such as Johnson and Derderian, Gibb is the true female pioneer. "She's a very soft-spoken person," says Johnson. "She was just there to run the race, she wasn't really there to make a statement, although she did because it was front-page news." Women finally were allowed to enter in 1972. When Joan Benoit Samuelson in 1984 won the first U.S. Olympic Trial at Boston, she and the second- and third-place women were presented with a sculpture of a running girl with a ponytail -- made by Gibb.
1947: All the way from Korea
A dog, an untied shoelace and a lack of money didn't stand in the way of Suh Yun-bok (also occasionally listed as Yun Bok Suh) from not only winning the race but setting a world record and becoming the first Asian champion. Just like Johnny J. Kelley 14 years later, Suh was tripped by a dog (this time a fox terrier), fell and hurt his knee. Unlike Kelley, Suh was able to quickly regain the lead, passing Mikko Hietanen of Finland on Heartbreak Hill. "He beat it down to about the size and shape of a custard pie," wrote the Globe's Nason. And, Suh accomplished his record time of 2:25:39 while running the final 12 miles with an untied shoelace. According to the book "26 Miles to Boston: The Boston Marathon Experience": "Suh was bloodied by the fall but seemed to get an adrenaline rush from the incident. He got to his feet, took off and won the race." Suh's trip to Boston was financed by donations from U.S. servicemen in South Korea.