Not so fast, Boston. The first American marathon started at CT

Beantown likes to boast of being America’s oldest annual marathon. He can chew Connecticut dust.

Edit “annual,” and Connecticut and New York lead the pack.

John J. McDermott won the first Boston Marathon on April 19, 1897. Seven months earlier, however, McDermott won a gold medal in America’s first marathon – which started in Stamford and ended in the Bronx , NY

It was the result of Olympic fever (which was considerably more fiery than this winter’s edition). Members of regional running clubs attended the first modern Games in Greece this spring (not this summer) and decided to bring a marathon to the United States. The finish line would be at the Columbia Oval in Williamsbridge (near Gun Hill Road).

Stamford was chosen for the start line for two good reasons:

1) It was about 25 miles.

2) The course to the oval had hills as did the route from Marathon to Athens.

Most of the 26 riders were from Patrician clubs. McDermott, notably, was a lithographer whose Pastime Athletic Club lacked social class mandates. Others hailed from Manhattan, New Jersey, Harlem, and more, along with some local favorites from Stamford.

With no real pattern to follow, the start time was set at “as close to noon as possible” on Saturday, September 19, 1896. Riders were asked to arrive in “ordinary clothes” before changing into racing gear in the Stamford Armory. Everyone was told to bring a friend so they didn’t have to run around with their clothes on.

To ensure the safety of the athletes, doctors were present along the route and members of the Harlem Cycling Club were assigned to monitor them.

Crowds on Main Street cheered as the runners arrived at 12:20 p.m. Six minutes later they were off, “starting off in an easy run, passing between the rows of carriages like a pack of just unleashed dogs”, reported the Stamford Advocate. .

They disappeared from the reporter’s sight near Richmond Hill Avenue. Landlords along the route offered refreshments as they weaved through Greenwich, up the daunting Put’s Hill and across the border from New York to Port Chester.

They followed cards bearing images of cherry diamonds and hands pointing in the right direction (lest they drift to Boston).

What could go wrong?

Well, that was in 1896. Did I forget to mention that the rain turned the dirt roads to mud?

The signs weren’t neon either. And not enough Harlem Wheelmen came. Those who did provided the occasional leg rub or a sip of tea. But the man paired with Michael Regan, who was an early leader, missed a sign and drove 10 miles in the wrong direction. Regan gave up.

The pre-race favorite was Boston’s DC Hall, who continued to sprint through Rye, Mamaroneck and Larchmont while others took breaks to walk (and, you know, sip tea).

Then Hall fell in the mud in New Rochelle.

“He breathed hard for a minute, then, struggling to get up, walked a slow, torturous mile,” The New York Times reported. “He fell back, but his heart was good, and after a few sips of water, he was up and gone…”

But not quite, high and far, à la Superman. Hall was out for good in another half mile.

McDermott also surrendered to conditions at times, slowing to a walk, but took the lead at New Rochelle. Mount Vernon offered something even less inviting than mud for a runner: a high hill of cobblestones. These guys weren’t exactly wearing shoes with words like “Vaporfly” or “Fuelcell Rebel” in their names.

The 18 runners who completed the course ran a few quarter-mile laps around the Columbia Oval before crossing the finish line. McDermott won with a time of 3:25.55. He was followed more than 21/2 minutes later by Hamilton Gray of the St. George Athletic Club (3:28.27).

In Boston seven months later, McDermott topped the 24-rider field. Mud was no obstacle that day, although he ran into a funeral procession on Massachusetts Avenue.

Sometimes the most interesting story of a marathon is not about the winner. I was intrigued by the theme of the lawyer’s follow-up on fifth-place Stamford runner EH Baynes. The article praised Baynes for doing better than expected. Apparently his best hope was to finish, which he did in 3:55.

“To copy an old saw, ‘Brag is a good dog, but Holdfast is better,'” the article notes as a compliment to Baynes’ modesty.

You don’t see enough “Henry V” and Charles Dickens captions in the newspaper anymore.

I suspected Baynes received extra attention because he was a former “camp correspondent” for the newspaper. But the signature “EH Baynes” seemed to mask his supporting role in America’s first marathon when he later rose to fame using his full name.

Ernest Harold Baynes is described by the New England Historical Society as “the closest thing New England, and the world for that matter, will ever come to a Dr. Doolittle in real life…”

The nature column to which the attorney vaguely referred was unionized. He recovered from typhoid fever in Stamford Hospital in 1898 and continued to devote his life to celebrating and preserving animals.

Baynes was the founder of the American Bison Society, which had an honorary president named President Theodore Roosevelt, and led the successful movement to revive the bison population. He wrote books about bears, crows, foxes, birds and Eskimo dogs, filling his property with animals. He rode a cart pulled by bison and founded a bird society.

It took Stamford 90 years to host another marathon (in 1986). This event turned into a half-marathon before being abandoned after the 1993 edition.

The Boston Marathon, meanwhile, can celebrate its Patriots Day comeback this year for the first time since 2019.

It’s reassuring to see the Boston Marathon sprint into the future. But he can never recover from the past. As any runner knows, there is only one first. And the first marathon footprint on American soil will always be in Connecticut.

John Breunig is editorial page editor for the Stamford Advocate and the Greenwich Time. [email protected];

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