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How Grueling Was the 1904 Olympic Marathon?

The Olympic marathon, the centerpiece of the original games in ancient Greece, was a debacle when it was run for the first time in America. At the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, the marathon was contested over 24.85 miles (40 km) -- less than the now-standardized distance of 26.2 miles (42.2 km). Thirty-two runners from four countries (Greece, South Africa, Cuba, and the U.S.) traversed a grueling, dusty course in 92 °F (33 °C) heat, with humidity over 90%. And it certainly didn't help that the event's organizer, James Sullivan, had only included one water stop -- a roadside well -- on the route, as he was curious to investigate the effects of "purposeful dehydration" on the runners. No one died, but some runners came close. In the end, Thomas Hicks of the United States was declared the winner, despite being practically carried across the finish line. The British-born marathoner received several doses of strychnine (a rat poison that stimulates the nervous system in small doses) and egg whites during the final seven miles (11.3 km). When his legs began to give out, Hicks’ trainers also gave him shots of brandy.

Rough going for the gold:

  • After victoriously stumbling across the finish line, the hallucinating Hicks had to be treated by four doctors for an hour, just to get him stabilized enough to leave the stadium.
  • William Garcia of California nearly died when he collapsed, hemorrhaging. It was later determined that dust along the route had coated Garcia's esophagus and caused his stomach lining to rupture.
  • American runner Fred Lorz was initially proclaimed the winner, but Lorz had actually quit after only nine miles (14.5 km). When the car ferrying him back to the stadium broke down, Lorz got out and jogged the rest of the way.
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