1904 Olympic Marathon

History Uncovered Episode 77:
The 1904 St. Louis Marathon, The Wildest Event In Olympic History

Published September 29, 2023

From rat poison to wild dogs to purposeful dehydration, there's never been a race quite like the 1904 St. Louis Marathon.

Marathons today follow a simple formula. There’s a starting line and a finish line, a crowd of excited and apprehensive racers, and a clear course to follow. But the 1904 Olympic Marathon took some unexpected turns — in more ways than one.

The race, just the third in modern Olympic history, was part of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair — also called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition — and was populated by an unusual cast of runners. Though some had run marathons before, others were relative novices. Some showed up barefoot. One showed up in long pants. And all of them were expected to participate in the organizer’s “test” which sought to explore “purposeful dehydration.”

From the moment the starting gun went off a few minutes after 3 p.m. on August 30, the race got even wilder.

Preceded by horses meant to clear the road, and followed by cars to monitor the race, the runners were instantly choked by swirling, dry dust. This, the heat of the Missouri day, and the lack of water stations along the route made the run a hellish challenge for the 32 runners, just 14 of whom would end up finishing the race.

Indeed, the spectacle quickly became a comedy of errors. One runner was chased off the route by wild dogs, while another decided to snack on apples he found along the route, only to develop crippling stomach cramps. (Though he took a nap along the side of the road to ease the pain, he ended up finishing fourth).

St. Louis Marathon Starting Line

Wikimedia CommonsThe runners took off at 3:03 p.m. on a sweltering summer afternoon.

Meanwhile, one of the runners, exhausted by the heat and dust, decided to jump in his trainer’s car, zip along the course, and run the last mile. He was quickly exposed as a cheater, although the ultimate winner would only make it across the finish line with the help of brandy, eggs, small doses of rat poison used as a stimulant, and two of his trainers, who practically dragged him across the last stretch.

In the end, the course of the 1904 Olympic Marathon would be dubbed, by an observer: “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over.” In the days that followed, there was even some serious talk of striking the marathon from the Olympic games for good, as it was referred to as a “man-killing” event.

This is the story of perhaps the strangest sporting event in modern history.

Go inside the bizarre tale of the 1904 Olympic marathon.

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