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Monday, April 18, 2022

April 18, 2022: Boston Marathon Studying: The First Marathon

[On April 19th, 1897, the first Boston Marathon was run. So for the 125th anniversary of this iconic road race, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Marathon histories and contexts, leading up to a special Guest Post from my favorite RunningStudier!]

On three layers to the histories of that first 1897 Boston Marathon.

1)      The B.A.A.: The Marathon was far from the starting point for organized athletics in the city. Ten years earlier, in 1887, the Boston Athletic Association had been founded, reflecting the rising national interest in both amateur and professional sports in the late 19th century. The BAA built an impressive clubhouse in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood, with facilities for numerous sports including boxing, tennis, and water polo; and it began hosting track and field competitions and other athletic events, including an annual Spring competition known as the BAA Games. In 1897, perhaps in part to commemorate the BAA’s 10th anniversary and inspired by the marathon at the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, the Association’s leadership decided to conclude those Spring games with a marathon of their own. BAA member and Olympic Team Manager John Graham worked with local businessman Herbert Holton to choose and design the 24.5-mile course.  

2)      Patriots’ Day: That overall Spring timing was to coincide with the end of the BAA Games, but the specific timing of April 19th was due to another factor: the newly-created holiday of Patriots’ Day. The then-Massachusetts-specific holiday was just three years old at the time, having been first celebrated in 1894 after the Lexington Historical Society petitioned the MA Legislature to create a holiday honoring the 1775 Revolutionary War Battles of Lexington and Concord. And running the Marathon on that date was even more specific than that, as the BAA sought to link the American Revolutionary effort and spirit to that displayed by the Athenian soldiers at the 490 BC Battle of Marathon for which the race had been initially named. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but the Boston Marathon has never been anything less than grandiose!

3)      JJ “Little Mac” McDermott: The winner of that first Boston Marathon (known then as the B.A.A. Road Race) was quite a grandiose figure himself. Not in size, as the Irish American lithographer and amateur runner John J. “J.J.” or “Little Mac” McDermott was just 5’6” and 124 pounds when measured before the race. But as that hyperlinked article puts it, this was America’s first great marathoner, and I would argue one of the 19th century’s greatest American athletes: he won the first marathon run in the U.S., in New York in September 1896; and won the first Boston Marathon just seven months later, quite possibly while running with the tuberculosis that would kill him less than a decade later. It’s not clear whether McDermott definitely had TB when he won in Boston, but when it comes to the first iteration of such a legendary race, I’m going to print the legend.

Next Marathon split tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Boston Marathon histories or stories you’d highlight?

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