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The Strangest Race in Olympic History: The 1904 St. Louis Marathon

Runners on the starting line.

On a sweltering August day in 1904, the city of St. Louis played host to one of the most bizarre and unforgettable events in the history of the Olympic Games – the men's marathon. Amid a whirlwind of chaos, controversy, and sheer determination, this peculiar race left a lasting mark on the annals of sports history.

The stage was set for an unusual race from the beginning, with the marathon course snaking through the dusty roads of St. Louis and the surrounding countryside. The brutal heat, combined with the lack of adequate water stations, made for a grueling test of endurance for the athletes. Little did they know, the challenges presented by the course were just the beginning.

The eventual winner, Thomas Hicks, claimed victory under a cloud of controversy. The American runner was given a concoction of strychnine and brandy during the race to help him combat fatigue. Though Hicks crossed the finish line first, his victory was tainted by the fact that he had relied on a potentially dangerous performance-enhancing substance. Today, such a feat would undoubtedly lead to disqualification, but in the early days of the modern Olympics, the rules were less rigid.

Adding to the surreal nature of the event was the story of Félix Carvajal, a Cuban mail carrier who arrived at the starting line in street clothes, only to have them cut down into makeshift athletic attire. His unconventional approach to the marathon included stopping to chat with spectators, eating fruit from an orchard, and even taking a nap mid-race. Despite these distractions, Carvajal managed to finish in an impressive fourth place.

But perhaps the most notorious tale from the 1904 St. Louis Marathon was that of Frederick Lorz, an American athlete who attempted to deceive his way to victory. Lorz dropped out of the race after nine miles, only to hitch a ride in a car for the next 11 miles. Upon exiting the car, he re-entered the race and crossed the finish line first, initially being hailed as the winner. It wasn't until later that his ruse was discovered and his supposed triumph was invalidated.

The stories of the 1904 St. Louis Marathon serve as a reminder of the unpredictable and sometimes farcical nature of sports. From the sweltering heat and dusty roads to the cheating, napping, and brandy-fueled finishes, this strange race encapsulates a moment in time when the Olympic Games were still finding their footing in the modern world. And, as we look back on this odd chapter of Olympic history, we are reminded that amidst the chaos, the true spirit of competition and perseverance shines through.