Weird History: Worst Race Ever

Avatar of Eli Leichter Wilson
Sports Column

Our next bizarre story from history takes us to a Tuesday, on Aug. 30, 1904, where 32 runners were about to depart from a dusty road in St. Louis, Missouri, where  the Summer Olympics of that year were being held. They were about to run 24.8 miles — the marathon distance had not yet been standardized — on a day where the temperatures soared well into the 90 degree range. Among those at the start were Len Tauyane and Jan Mashiani, the first black Africans to compete in the modern Olympics. They were joined by Félix Carvajal, a Cuban mailman who showed up at the start line wearing a beret, dress pants, and a long sleeve shirt. A fellow runner helped Carvajal cut off his pants at the knee and minutes later, the race began. 

The race itself took place almost entirely on and next to extremely dusty roads, the issue being exacerbated by cars traveling alongside the runners. In fact, so much dust and debris was kicked up into the air that around 19 miles into the race, a runner named William Garcia collapsed on the side of the road, suffering from a ruptured stomach lining due to the amount of dust he’d inhaled.

The problems were made even worse by the lack of water: Along the entire 24-mile long course, there was only one functioning water station. While at first sight this might be mistaken for a massive error, it was completely purposeful. The organizer of the race, James Sullivan, was interested in the benefits and effects of “purposeful dehydration”, and from that, decided that the Olympics were a good time to test his theories. 

Meanwhile, the two African runners,  Tauyane and Mashiani, fared no better,  although they were the most experienced runners out of the group. At around mile nine, Tauyane was chased off the path by a pack of escaped hunting dogs. He would end up finishing ninth. Also around mile nine, an American by the name of Fred Lorz was suffering from stomach cramps and hitched a ride from a passing automobile to the finish line. At the finish line, he was about to accept the gold medal when his deception was discovered and he was banned from competing for a year. 

The actual winner was a man named Thomas Hicks. At mile 12, Hicks started begging his trainers for water. In response, they fed him a mixture of egg whites, brandy, and strychnine, a strong chemical used in rat poison. Right before the finish line, Hicks began hallucinating that he still had 20 miles left to run. He was physically carried the last few yards and across the finish line by his trainers, and was declared the winner before collapsing to the ground. Over the duration of the race, Hicks lost eight pounds. Next time you have to run a mile, be grateful that your journey doesn’t go how it did for these contestants. Out of the 32 original racers, only 14 of those runners finished. Oh, and Carvajal? He ate apples from an orchard, fell asleep at the side of the road, and still placed fourth.