Marathon to Venice

If you’re an early bird like I am, and like to hit the beach to check out the morning waves, or hopefully spot playful migrating dolphins off shore, or just cruise the vacant boardwalk before its daily inundation of peddlers and tourists, then you’ve probably noticed the increasing Saturday saturation of seemingly thousands of people congregating at Windward Plaza in training for the upcoming 21st Los Angeles marathon.

Tall, small, chubby and slim, these dedicated "athletes" jog together in neo-boot camp groups, following their fearless leaders at predetermined paces, chatting incessantly amongst themselves about their daily mundane goings-on, as they pile on the miles in their ritualistic fervor. All to run those 26.2 miles on March 19th.

Now, you remember from history class how the marathon race got started, don’t you? About how a young soldier named Pheidippides ran the 42.195 kilometers from the battlefield on the Plain of Marathon in September, 490 BC into Athens to announce the victory over the invading Persian king Darius with the words "Rejoice, we conquer!" and then fell dead from exhaustion. So, in memory of this event, the first-of-its-kind Marathon Run was included among the contests in the first contemporary Olympic Games of1896 in Athens, Greece.

Now let’s move up to 1908, to the 4th Modern Olympics, and the next advancement in Olympic marathon history. I’ll bet you didn’t know that this was the Olympics that 1) was originally scheduled to be held in Rome but was cancelled, due to an eruption from Mount Vesuvius, 2) allowed women to compete in modern Olympics for the first time, 3) determined the exact distance of today’s marathon race, and 4) featured the most amazing marathon race finish ever.

And what a year 1908 was! It saw the first time that the glimmering ball in Times Square dropped to announce the new year. On January 11th, the Grand Canyon national monument was created, and on January 24th, the Boy Scouts of America were started by Robert Baden-Powell. Charles Pathé showed the first newsreel film in a Paris theatre that year, and on May 10th, Mother’s Day was first observed in America. Later on, oil was first discovered in Persia at the end of May, and on July 25th, Louis Buériot first crossed the English Channel in a heavier-than-air machine. Ah, those modern times. Why, the next day, in Washington, D.C., the office of the Chief Examiner (later renamed the infamous F.B.I.) was initiated. And also importantly, on September 27th, the first model T rolled off the production line in Detroit.

And officially on July 13, 1908, the fourth summer Olympic Games of the modern era were opened by King Edward VII of England, in the White City stadium at Shepherd's Bush, London. Eleven days later, the Marathon event was run from Windsor to London. During the first several modern Olympics, the marathon was always an approximate distance, usually about 25 miles long. For the 1908 race, that was changed to 26 miles to permit the start to take place at Windsor Castle. Princess Mary then requested the start be moved beneath the windows of the royal nursery on the Castle grounds; the finishing line was not changed - in front of the royal reviewing stand. The resulting distance - 26 miles, 385 yards - has been the standard marathon distance ever since.

With a crowd of 250,000 looking on, Italian Dorando Pietri reached the stadium first, by a wide margin, but in the hot and humid conditions, he had run himself into a stupor. In his daze, he turned the wrong way, then fell three times trying to complete his last lap of the track. Race officials (including Sherlock Holmes author A. Conan Doyle) gallantly, but illegally, rushed to Pietri's aid and helped him finish.

The NY Times of July 25th described Pietri as "Staggering like a drunken man, he slowly tottered down the home stretch. Three times he fell, struggled to his feet, and each time, aided by track officials, he fought his way toward the tape." They also unwittingly got him disqualified when second-place finisher, Johnny Hayes of the U.S., lodged a protest, eventually making Hayes the winner. Hayes’ time for the distance was 2 hours, 55 minutes, 18.4 seconds.

Pietri spent hours near death following the race, but survived the ordeal to become the most famous athlete of the 1908 Olympics. "I am not the marathon winner. Instead, as the English say, I am the one who won and lost victory."

And so Pietri's struggles were eventually rewarded. Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII, felt it appropriate to present him with a special gold cup, he was immortalized in song by Irving Berlin. News of his dramatic feat in the Olympic competition was quick to reach the United States, where Pietri was soon invited to take part in a number of well-paid races against some of the best local athletes and, above all, against John Hayes, who had been awarded the victory.

He got the last laugh, beating Hayes by a healthy 45 seconds in a marathon four months later. In the space of 5 and a half months, from November 25,1908 to May 9,1909, Pietri took part in 22 races over distances between 10 miles and the marathon, winning 17. On three occasions, he handily beat Hayes.

Each race attracted large crowds of people (especially those in which Hayes was also competing) and Pietri earned large sums of money. He returned to Italy loaded with dollars and continued his professional activity by taking part in numerous thrilling competitions.

Throughout the world, the historians of sport continue to call that "non victory" the "most famous episode in the history of the modern games." The end of the marathon was such a colorful circumstance that it is still talked about today by running aficionados. The Pietri saga both boosted the popularity of the marathon and put the Olympics on the map.

Even before the Olympic games closed that year, on October 31st, the craze of the Marathon had spread across the globe, even affecting Los Angeles. Catching the booster spirit, the L.A. Times predicted a vigorous future for Angelenos: "The boys take to outdoor sports in a way that is truly refreshing in this day of dudes and laziness. Los Angeles is bringing up a lot of manly boys who will be an honor to this State. This speaks volumes for Los Angeles and the crack climate of the United States, for it shows that the old theory that the climate tends to make people lazy and worthless is all bosh."

This attitude was taken whole-heartedly by the burgeoning Los Angeles Athletic Club, and they were determined to be a part of this latest athletic inspiration. Having been formed on September 8, 1880, in the old Arcadia building located on North Spring Street by forty prominent Angelenos - sons of pioneers, adventurers and athletes - the L.A.A.C. had become a haven for up and coming members of the Los Angeles community. Health, recreation, grace and vigor became the motto of this distinguished American Style Club.

So therefore, on Wednesday, September 9th, the Los Angeles Athletic Club decided to sponsor the L.A.A.C. "Marathon race to Venice."

Why Venice, you may ask? Why not?, I respond. This ocean-side city was always beckoning for ways to induce people to come to the beach. And we all know that Abbot Kinney was always promoting his canal-lined burg any way possible. I’m sure he had friends that were part of the L.A.A.C., and his influence was probably considerable in helping them determine to end the race here at the shore. And what better place to run to?

Presumably starting at the downtown location of the Club in the Wilson Block at 534 1/2 South Spring Street, eight fearless athletes took off at the crack of the starting gun. Down Spring Street they raced, onto South Main Street until they came to Venice Boulevard. There they turned right and headed for the distant beach town.

Al Treloar, the wrestling instructor at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, acted as referee of the race. Having been hired as the physical director of the Club in 1907, a position he held for the next 42 years, Treloar, a Harvard-educated man, was well versed in athletics and professional strongmanism. He could tear two and three decks of playing cards with his bare hands. In fact, he was the winner of the world's very first international bodybuilding contest held on December 28th, 1903 in New York City. His associates at the L.A.C.C. Charles Eyton, W.F. Henderson and James Morley were the official timers of the race.

Through the city the competitors ran, until the city turned to countryside. Along the tree-lined dirt road of Venice Boulevard, past the seemingly endless barley, wheat, oat and celery fields, numerous tumbleweeds, amid the lima bean farms of Mar Vista, and the undeveloped areas of West L.A., one runner slowly pulled away. Finally, after almost 2 hours of running, the canaled city of Venice came into view. As he approached the finish line at the base of the pier, the crowds shouted with congratulations.

Finishing 2 1/2 miles ahead of his closest competitor, Edward Dietrich smiled victoriously as he crossed the finish line, having won the 14.75 mile Marathon to Venice. Dietrich broke the tape in 2 hours, 1 minute and 30 seconds.

Charles Boscha crossed the finish line five minutes behind Dietrich, with George Retzer third, a minute and a half later. Chester Lawrence took fourth place and Joe Pensa fifth. L.L. Burke was almost exhausted and was so far behind that his time was not taken. Two of the competitors, Jay Welton and Roy Snyder, had both dropped out of the race at the West Adams Street hill.

But perhaps the most remarkable performance in the race is the run made by an unofficial starter, little Harold Bailey, 8 years old, who ran over 8 miles total.

When Harold saw the runners go by his home in downtown L. A. at Main and 15th Streets, he could not resist the temptation to run with the marathon contestants. Hatless, without shoes, he started after them at a pace that astonished the contestants.

Gamely the little fellow stuck to his task. He kept up the pace set by L.L. Burk, not one of the fastest, to be sure, and side by side the athlete and the little boy reached Palms after a fast run of almost 8.7 miles. There the youngster, far from giving out, became anxious about his return trip.

The journey from Venice to Los Angeles did not appeal to him after the foot race and, as he had no money for carfare, he decided to walk back from Palms. So he quit and turned around, reluctantly facing the long walk home.

But before he could carry out his intention, Burk spied the automobile carrying a number of the officials to the finish line. And so, like a true hero, the unofficial entry was placed in the tonneau and taken to Venice.

This is where the story, first reported in the Los Angeles Examiner, ends. We only hope that little Harold somehow got home ok, and went on to become a world class runner. He’d be 106 years old now, and I’m sure he’s still out there somewhere, putting in those miles, as an inspiration to all those that are slogging on to achieve their own goals, almost making it all the way to Venice.