Boston’s First Marathon


from 1996

When Pheidippides ran from the battle of Marathon to bring word of victory to Athens in 490 B.C., completing the world’s first running “marathon,” he had no idea what he was starting.  No wonder, because upon his arrival in Athens, Pheidippides keeled over and died.  It took nearly 2400 years before anyone else decided to try to run a similar distance.  The result of that effort did not end quite so tragically.  It became the Boston Marathon, the world’s premier running event.

On April 15, 1996, hundreds of thousands of spectators and an estimated 38,000 runners will converge on Boston to celebrate the 100th running of the Boston Marathon.  In the century-long history of the race, approximately two hundred thousand men and women have run, jogged, and plodded their way into the city to make the Boston Marathon the most famous run in the athletic world.

But somebody had to be first.  One hundred years ago, on April 19, 1897, Boston staged its very first marathon.  That inaugural race was nearly as memorable as Pheidippides’ initial jaunt.

While the marathon initially was revived for the first modern Olympics held in Athens, Greece in 1896, it wasn’t until the Boston Athletic Association decided to run a similar race to celebrate the local Patriot’s Day holiday that the race captured the imagination of the public.  On that cool April morning, seventeen plucky entrants signed on to make the 25-plus mile journey from Ashland, Massachusetts to Boston.  Each hoped for a better fate than their Athenian predecessor.

After gathering in Boston, the contestants travelled by train to Ashland for the noon race.  Upon their arrival, the B.A.A. held a hearty luncheon for the runners at a local inn, contemporary notions concerning the pre-race diet not yet in evidence.  While most of the competitors chatted amiably with one another, six runners from New York sat together and plotted pre-race strategy.  Three entrants apparently had second thoughts and failed to show up.  A Harvard University student, Dick Grant, weaseled his way in, introduced himself to marathon officials and talked his way into the race as a last minute entrant.

At noon, the fifteen runners strolled to the starting line in front of Metcalf’s Mill.  Only one of the men, 22-year old lithographer John McDermott of New York’s Pastime Athletic Club, had ever run such a distance before.  The previous October, he had won a similar race staged along the New York-Connecticut border.  Several other entrants were experienced cross-country men, but most were running novices.  Reporters commented that some of the men didn’t look like they could run twenty-five feet, much less twenty-five miles.

Several hundred curious spectators gathered in front of the old mill to watch the start.  Race manager John Graham of the B.A.A. pinned a number on the back of each man’s shirt and handed out typewritten directions to Boston.  To prevent anyone from wandering off course, 28 members of the bicycle corps of the Massachusetts Militia were prepared to escort the runners along their way and provide much needed refreshment.

At precisely 12:19 p.m., Olympic 100 and 400 meter champion Thomas Burke marked a line in the dust of the road with his foot and solemnly called out each entrant’s number.  As the runner’s edged close to the starting line and jostled each other for position, Burke shouted for the race to begin.  The first Boston Marathon was underway.

All fifteen runners immediately broke into an ill-advised sprint.  Three men were later reported to be red-faced and wheezing before the pack had travelled one-hundred yards.  But after a few moments the pace slowed.  At the end of the first mile, all 15 runners still ran together in a tight bunch.

As the athletes settled into a more realistic pace, the field began to stretch out.  Along the road to Framingham, about five miles from the start, a pack of four runners broke away.  In first place was Harvard’s Dick Grant, a crimson ribbon stretched across his chest.  On his shoulder, matching him step-by-step was Hamilton Gray of New York.  McDermott and another New Yorker, John Kiernan, followed close behind.

Apart from their own fatigue, the runner’s first obstacle was the dust kicked up by their bicycle escorts.  The lead pack had trouble breathing, a situation similar to one sometimes faced by runners in today’s race, who have complained about the exhaust spewed out by police motorcycle escorts and the contingent of press trucks that now pace the race.  Fortunately for Grant and the others, a stiff wind at their back helped dissipate the dust and push the runners toward Boston.

Thirty-six minutes into the race, the lead pack dashed through the first check-point in Framingham.  Seeing the runners and cyclists zoom past, some holiday spectators decided to celebrate the day by joining the group on the trip to Boston.  Close by the runner’s heels a long line of horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and even the odd, sputtering motorcycle joined in the impromptu parade.  Meanwhile, three entrants decided that running to Framingham was marathon enough, and dropped out.

Battling one another for the lead, Grant and Gray left Framingham and entered the town of Natick.  In the city center crowds pressed so close the men were forced to run in single file.  But outside of town the throng cleared out and once again Gray and Grant ran side-by-side.

Halfway to Boston, they remained tied for the lead as they approached Wellesley, urged on, as today’s runners are, by a retinue of Wellesley College coeds.  But encouragement alone, even from the wildly enthusiastic college women, could not fuel Grant for the entire race.  Due to his spur-of-the-moment entry, he failed to line up a bicycle escort to supply him with refreshment like the other runners.  While the competition sipped water, sucked lemons, and wiped sweat from their faces with wet towels, Grant began to show signs of fatigue.  Still, he managed to stay even with Gray.

As the two men pressed through the Wellesley Hills, Gray took note of Grant’s struggle and magnanimously offered him his own canteen.  Replenished by Gray’s touch of sportsmanship, Grant gamely hung on.

As the two shared provisions, John McDermott, in third place, took advantage of both and surged into the lead.  Disheartened, the virtuous Gray began to fade.

For the next mile Grant fought to stay with McDermott as growing crowds urged the underdog on.  But as the two men charged down a hill just before the village of Newton Lower Falls, Grant’s water deficit caught up with him and he began to stumble.  He weakly raised his hand and waved at a passing water wagon that sprayed town streets to keep down dust.  The carriage stopped, Grant slumped beside it and the driver gave him an unscheduled shower.  He stood up, ran a few steps more, then stopped again.  Dehydration and blisters forced him from the race.

Now McDermott ran alone.  Entering Auburndale he led John Kiernan, in second place, by more than a mile.  Gray faded to third, but was soon passed by an unimposing man named Edward Rhell.  An utter surprise and running neophyte, Rhell calmly plodded on, never rushing, never looking back, apparently impervious to the physical demands of the race.

In complete control of the race, McDermott had only to conquer his growing fatigue to claim victory.  Kiernan slipped even farther back, playing hare to Rhell’s determined tortoise.  For the remainder of the race, Kiernan intermittently stopped running and walked until Rhell came into view, only to start running again and pull away.

McDermott appeared to be in fine shape as he crested what a later observer dubbed “Heartbreak Hill,” but even then the long slope extracted its toll.  As McDermott headed downhill, his calves knotted and cramped.  Finally, he slowed to a walk.  Far behind, Kiernan and Rhell pulled closer.

After walking for several minutes, McDermott resumed running.  But after a few hundred yards the cramps returned and he stopped again.  His cycle escorts rushed to his side and began frantically rubbing his calves.  Again McDermott tried to run, only to stop once more.

This time one of the escorts handed McDermott a flask of brandy.  He tilted his head back and took a healthy belt as the escorts pounded their fists into his cramps.  The cramps disappeared and McDermott raced toward the Chestnut Hill Reservoir refreshed.

Only a few miles from the finish, over two hours since he left Ashland, McDermott turned down Beacon Street and raced through Brookline.  Hundreds cheered him at Coolidge Corner, and for the remainder of the race the sidewalks were filled with crowds urging him onward.

McDermott entered the City of Boston at Kenmore Square.  As he turned down Commonwealth Avenue riding an invigorating wave of emotion, several bike escorts sprinted ahead.  When they reached the finish line at the Irvington Oval athletic track, just outside Copley Square and only a hundred yards or so from where today’s race ends, three thousand anxious spectators roared as they learned of the runner’s impending arrival.

Yet one final obstacle remained in McDermott’s path.  With victory less than a mile away, he raced down Commonwealth Avenue into Boston’s Back Bay.  But at Massachusetts Avenue, in contrast to the festive holiday crowd, a formal funeral procession solemnly crept by, blocking his way.

Undaunted, McDermott hardly broke stride as pushed through the crowd and into the street, ducking and dashing between carriages.  The cortege abruptly came to a halt as he ran past, much to the consternation of two drivers whose brand new electric automobiles stalled and refused to re-start.

McDermott turned right at Exeter Street.  As he approached Huntington Avenue he came within view of the crowd at the Oval.  At the sight of one lone runner surrounded by every manner of wheeled vehicle, they began to roar.

As McDermott raced into the Oval and began the single lap around the track that marked the end of the race, dozens of spectators left their seats and surged around him, slapping his back and offering congratulations.  Now he broke into a sprint, a weary smile on his faced, and circled the track in only forty seconds.

As he crossed the finish line in front of the stands, he fell into the arms of the adoring mob, who lifted him to their shoulders.  It was 3:14 in the afternoon, two hours, 55 minutes and 10 seconds since he took his first step toward Boston from Ashland.  The time bettered the recent Olympic mark by ten seconds and set an unofficial world record.

A few minutes later John Kiernan, then Rhell, and over the next hour, seven other finishers slowly made their way into the Oval.  As each man arrived, more and more members of the crowd slowly dispersed, buzzing over McDermott’s heroic achievement.  For his efforts, he received a B.A.A. shield mounted on oak valued at $35, and his own unique place in marathon history.




APRIL 19, 1897

1.             John J. McDermott                              2:55:10

2.             John J. Kiernan                     3:02:02

3.             Edward Rhell                                         3:06:02

4.             Hamilton Gray                       3:11:37

5.             H.D. Eggleston                     3:17:50

6.             J. Mason                                                3:31:00

7.             W. Ryan                                                3:41:25

8.             Larry Brignolia                      4:06:12

9.             Harry Leonard                                      4:08:00

10.           A.T. Howe                                             4:10:00

Competed, but did not finish:

Dick Grant, W.A. Mitchell, E.F. Peete, H.L. Morrill, J.E. Enright

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