At the same time, the entire Boston contingent had been enormously impressed by the drama of Louis’s marathon victory. To men like those at the BAA steeped in the classics, the idea of this struggle by one brave, determined runner against the distance had irresistible appeal. They were eager to import the myth to these shores.
Almost a year after Louis ran triumphant into the stadium in Athens, the BAA was ready to hold what local newspapers were already calling “a Marathon.” The prime movers appear to have been John Graham, the BAA coach, and runner Tom Burke, the two-time Olympic medalist. Eventually, they and others measured a course that was the same distance as the Olympic Marathon — 24.5 miles — starting from the little town of Ashland.
The morning trains from Boston were packed with spectators on April 19, 1897, including a contingent of bicyclists who would accompany the runners to carry their clothes and attend to any medical needs. Many in the crowd planned to watch the start, then hop on a train back to the city to view the finish.
At 12:15 p.m., Burke scraped his foot across the narrow street and called the contestants’ numbers. There were 18 of them. At precisely 12:19, he yelled “Go!” and the runners took off as the spectators cheered lustily.
“All the contestants went away quickly,” wrote a reporter for the Globe. “But after going about fifty yards, they seemed to realize that they had just twenty-five miles of hard road ahead of them, and settled into a comfortable jog.”
Dick Grant, a track star at Harvard, was one of the early leaders, along with Hamilton Gray from New York. Benefiting from the cool, dry conditions of the day, they made good time, passing through Natick Center at 1:05 p.m. Running behind them patiently was John McDermott, a 22-year-old lithographer from New York.
As the runners headed into Wellesley, McDermott sensed the leaders faltering and closed in. At around the 12-mile mark, he caught them on a downhill stretch. Gray broke at that point and began walking. Grant tried to stay with the surging McDermott, but he, too, staggered to a stop and quit.
McDermott — described in press accounts as a “little, dark, curly-haired young man” — seemed to get only stronger as he went along. “He was running like clockwork,” wrote one reporter. “His legs seemed to rise and fall like a phantom Greek, and his lithe body was bent just the least bit forward; his arms were at full length at his side, and his face was set with determination.”
However, just as he passed the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, McDermott’s left calf cramped up. Attendants swarmed around him, massaging it. He resumed running, continued a few feet, stopped again in pain. Finally the cramp was worked out, and as McDermott ran across Massachusetts Avenue, he cut through a funeral procession. Led by a vanguard of bicyclists, he continued up Exeter Street past the BAA clubhouse, outside of which hundreds of members had gathered to urge him on.
A crowd of 3,000 cheered as McDermott covered the final lap of the race at a now razed stadium in 40 seconds. “It was a wild scene at the finish,” read one account. “The oval track was swarming with excited fans wishing to take hold of McDermott.”
The plucky runner from New York had won the first BAA Marathon in 2:55:10, a time 10 seconds faster than Louis’s in Athens.
The Boston Marathon was here to stay.
MEET THE AUTHOR
John Hanc discusses the race and signs his new book at these free events:
APRIL 10, 7 P.M. Hopkinton High School, 90 Hayden Rowe Street, Hopkinton; with Marathon legend Bill Rodgers
APRIL 12, 7 P.M. Harvard Coop, 1400 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, thecoop.com
APRIL 13, 1 P.M. John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo, Hynes Convention Center, Room 200, 900 Boylston Street, Boston; with race director Dave McGillivray
John Hanc is the author of 12 books, including The Coolest Race on Earth. He teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology and will run the 2013 Boston Marathon. Send comments to email@example.com.