Reading the NY Times this morning, I was surprised to see a passing reference to a "Brooklyn Marathon" from back in 1908. Huh? Well, some research revealed that it was actually 1909, but yes, it did indeed happen. The 1908 Olympic marathon was mighty exciting and created something of a marathon craze. Brooklyn got well caught up in it, and there were at least three marathons in Brooklyn in 1909. For the most part they were relatively informal affairs – for example, there was an "indoor" marathon in early February 1909 where 54 runners did 293 laps of the "Clermont rink" – a regulation cinder path track. However, one of the bigger marathons in Brooklyn was held February 12, 1909, on Lincoln’s birthday.
(What was the route? What were the finish times? Read on my friends...)
Media accounts estimate that a quarter million people came out to watch the marathon – the out-and-back course went from the Bed-Stuy Armory, down around the east side of Prospect Park and then down Ocean Parkway to Seagate, in Coney Island. The last two miles were run on a track inside the armory. (Too much to get your head around? Course map). In between start and finish, telephone updates from the course route as well as a wireless station at the half-way point in Seagate meant armory spectators had frequent updates on the state of the competition, and they were entertained by other track and field events.
I like imagining the race itself. Media accounts noted that "there was just enough snap to the air to bring out the best in the runners," and that the runners "wore sweaters, but with no extra covering for the legs beyond that afforded by the short running pants." The enthusiastic crowd was estimated at a quarter million, and crowded particularly at the "popular resorts" on Ocean Parkway and in Coney Island, where "[t]he cycle corps and automobiles leading the runners frequently had to run through a narrow alley way of enthusiastic humanity."
The winner of the February 12 Brooklyn-Seagate marathon was James A. Clarke, running for the Xavier Athletic Club. (Anyone know what happened to this club?) His win, in in 2:46:52, was called "an excellent record, although not deemed by the experts especially fast, in view of the admirable condition of the roads." (Would that those road conditions could now be called "admirable"). Check out his Asics Gel Lace Up Boots!! 2:46 on cobblestones in THOSE?
Clark finished a good three minutes ahead of number two, the favorite James Crowley, of Yonkers. Apparantly this was a bit of an upset; the pace-setter had gone out fast (and ended up collapsing at mile 17). Crowley himself faded shortly after mile 14, after which Clarke made his move. He was a member of the "Irish-American Athletic Club." At first, reading it, I thought they were just noting the Irish-Americans among the contenders, but it looks like that was a real club. He looks like his feet hurt.
Although 164 runners started, the race directors ended the race after the 29th runner crossed the finish line (with a time of 3:38:22), and "no [more runners] then being in sight." Apparently it was fairly common for the majority of runners to drop out of these races. At the "Clermont Rink" indoor marathon, 54 started, but only 14 were still on the track (many walking) after the directors called the race following the #2 finisher. The Times even published an editorial expressing concern about the "sudden popularity" of the marathon. "[T]he fact that the restrictions [on participation] are not sufficiently stringent is made obvious by the number of racers who fall out before the distance is covered or who reach the goal in a state of complete physical exhaustion." Huh. Maybe if the race director gave the runners eight hours, like today, that wouldn’t happen?
The race was so popular that a different Brooklyn armory, in Park Slope, staged a reprise a mere ten days later on Washington’s birthday. That marathon followed a similar course up Prospect Park West to Grand Army Plaza then down more or less the same route to Seagate, and again ended with two miles inside the armory. Even more amazing, many of the competitors from the first race made it a Presidential Birthday Double. Feb 12 winner Clarke even led the field through mile 22, and eventually finished third, with a time of 3:01:44 (the winner there was E.H. White, with a time of 2:53:46). That race also noted what might have been an even bigger spectator turnout. "Every avenue and street over which the course led was thronged with people, who stood eight and ten deep, struggling for a glimpse of the athletes." The crowd inside the armory, however, ran onto the floor after the runners entered "and as a result many of the spectators did not know the ranking of the contestants."
- "Al Raines Marathon: Several Runners Collapse in Race at Clermont Rink, Brooklyn," February 9, 1909.
- "Marathon Race De Luxe." The New York Times. February 7, 1909.
- "James Clarke wins Big Marathon Race," The New York Times. February 13, 1909.
- "E.H. White takes Marathon Honors," The New York Times, February 23, 1909.
- Topics of the Times, "Marathon Racing Dangerous," The New York Times, February 24, 1909.