Why is the marathon distance 26 miles, 385 yards?
If you have more than a passing knowledge of the history of long distance running, you know it’s because the start and finish of the 1908 Olympics were in front of the royal nursery at Windsor Castle and the royal box at the Olympic Stadium.
But that’s not really why it’s the odd 26.2 miles, because Olympic marathons were of all different distances both before and after the 1908 Olympics. No, there’s a lot more to it, and it’s because the events surrounding the 1908 Olympic race changed the marathon from an obscure race for mental deficients into a (briefly) wildly popular race…for mental deficients.
This is the tale that David Davis weaves in his new book, Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze. The showdown is between three athletes: Italy’s Dorando Pietri, America’s Johnny Hayes, and Canada’s Tom Longboat, and Shepherd’s Bush was the site of the Olympic Stadium where it culminated. You might know the basics of the story–that on an unusually hot summer afternoon, Pietri suffered from severe heat illness as he stumbled into the stadium, Olympic officials helped him across the finish line, and was then disqualified after an American protest thus elevating Hayes into the gold medal position.
What you probably don’t know is the rest of the story. Davis shows painstaking research in telling us how each of these three athletes became runners, how they trained, and the trials and tribulations of each. All grew up poor; Pietri in small-town Italy, Hayes in a New York slum, and Longboat on a Canadian Indian reservation. We not only know but we feel just how tough their lives were and how tough it made them.
The Olympic marathon itself is really only the midpoint of the tale. After the ruckus that ensued from the disqualification of Pietri, marathoning suddenly became a hot topic in the press. With the end of the race being distributed via the newly widespread media of film, it was probably the most-watched sporting event ever up to that point. Thus a series of highly promoted professional match races were organized first between first Hayes and Pietri, then Pietri and Longboat (who had been the Olympic favorite, and whose sudden collapse could have been due to sabotage), and then whoever the promoters could get.
That I have told you the complete outline of the story is not a spoiler. The quality of the book is in the details and the storytelling, the things that give you a feel for time and place. When you look at the cover art and photo pages, you think of a silent film accompanied by a Scott Joplin rag, but the story is far more real than that.
Bottom line: if you like track history or marathoning, this is very good. I give it 370 meters (out of a possible 400). Available at Amazon.com for $17.15.
Here is a link to a podcast interviewing Davis about his book.