Historicist: A Running Start

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Historicist: A Running Start

Seven years of the Ward Marathon, Toronto's first annual marathon.

Runners leaving the CNE Grandstand. The Globe, October 12, 1908.

The origins of the modern marathon are generally traced to the birth of the modern Olympic games, when organizer Pierre de Coubertin included an unusually long endurance race to act as a grand finale to the games in Athens. The marathon was initially expected to be unique to the 1896 Olympics; Coubertin wanted something which would be appropriate for the host country, and thus chose the name “marathon” to link it with the Greek legend of Pheidippides. It proved a popular event, however, and kicked off a worldwide craze in endurance racing, with the term “marathon” soon applied to nearly any race covering a distance of 15 miles or more. With many cities organizing annual marathons, Toronto got into the action in 1906 with the Ward Marathon, held each October for seven consecutive years.

Marathon racing, still in its infancy at the turn of the 20th century, was often treated as much as a spectacular feat as a sport. There were no accepted training methods in the early years, and the sport had few regulations. While the marathon is standardized today at 26 miles and 385 yards, marathons in the early 1900s varied in length. Courses were often irregular, carrying runners along city streets which were not completely closed off to traffic, as well as across railroad tracks, over hills, or around other obstacles. Modern essentials such as water stations were nonexistent, leading to debacles such as the 1904 Olympic Marathon in St. Louis, when the only available water sources on the route were a water tower at the six-mile mark and a well at the 12-mile mark; only 14 of the 32 competitors managed to finish the race, which was run in 32-degree Celsius heat.

Many athletes were followed on their marathons by their trainers or managers who shouted advice from cars or bicycles. Runners could be disqualified if physically helped along the route, but in the early years there were no rules against drugs or other stimulants. In addition to water, it was common in early years for runners to receive doses of strychnine, which in small doses can produce a stimulating effect. In 1908, the Toronto Star reported that Albert Corey, a janitor who had won that year’s Chicago Marathon, attributed his victory to his friend who had driven behind him, keeping Corey regularly refreshed with champagne.

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In the early years, the exhausting, near-impossible nature of the marathon was seen as part of its appeal. In his 2012 book Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, David Davis writes that early marathon spectators were drawn to the race “because of its perceived peril: a runner might die in front of them. But the marathon came along at a time when mankind was rushing to explore its limits… and, while the marathon was a race against other competitors, it was also a contest against the elements (the weather, the terrain), the clock, and each runner’s physical and emotional capabilities.”

(Right: John J. Ward. The Toronto World, December 16, 1914.)

In southern Ontario, Hamilton soon emerged as the centre of long-distance running. The Around the Bay Road Race actually originated in 1894, two years before the Athens Olympics. Local competitors such as Billy Sherring and Jack Caffery soon rose to prominence and enjoyed success in races on both sides of the border, with Caffery winning the Boston Marathon in consecutive years at the start of the 20th century.

With several other North American cities staging annual marathons, John J. Ward decided it was time for Toronto to see some of the action. In September of 1906, Ward, a professional tailor, former member of city council and current member of the city’s Board of Control, announced plans to hold a marathon along the waterfront the following month, and donated a trophy to be awarded to the victor.

Ward had an extensive career in Toronto politics, dating back to 1888 when he was elected as a city councillor for Parkdale at the age of 21. A 1911 article in the Globe notes his extensive interest in amateur athletics, citing his involvement in lacrosse, baseball, bicycling, and rowing, amongst other sports. As a politician, his interests reportedly centred around supporting labour causes and the development of the city along the lake, as well as a variety of infrastructure projects including several underpasses separating streets from railway tracks.

He and a small organizing committee planned a route, estimated at about 15 miles (or a little more than 24 kilometres), starting at the foot of High Park and going west along Lake Shore Road to the rifle ranges, and then doubling back to the starting point. Ward, along with several officials including Mayor Emerson Coatsworth, inspected the road surface a few days before the race and, according to the Globe, “they found the road none to good for automobiles or vehicles of like gauge, but it will be a good course for foot runners.” The Globe further reported that the race organizers “earnestly request that drivers and others will do everything possible to maintain a clear course and give the runners a fair field.”

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Thus on October 27, Mayor Coatsworth fired his pistol into the air and 62 runners set off in the first Ward Marathon. The weather was apparently dreadful, marked by steady rain which turned the road surface into ankle-deep mud. The Globe wrote that “the condition of the road, which is never a very good one, was as bad as could be imagined, and the runners took the side paths and the trolley tracks at many places.” The two early leaders were a local athlete named William Cumming and Tom Longboat, a 19-year-old Onondaga runner who had entered as one of the favourites following a victory in a Hamilton marathon earlier in the month. Cumming and Longboat ran side by side for the first half of the race, with Cumming just in the lead when they reached the halfway point. At about the 10-mile mark, reportedly near the Mimico Lunatic Asylum, Longboat left Cumming behind and cruised to a fairly easy victory, finishing the 15-mile course nearly three minutes ahead of the runner-up.

(Left: The trophy awarded to the winner of the Ward Marathon. The Toronto Telegram, October 9, 1909.)

After the results were made official—one runner was disqualified for having dropped out along the route to rejoin the race on the return—an official post-marathon ceremony was held at “Mrs. Meyer’s restaurant,” featuring about 200 people, including organizers, officials, and competitors. Following some speeches and a restorative meal of soup and cold cuts, the top 20 finishers received special gold medals for their efforts. The day reportedly concluded with cheers for all the competitors, in particular those who had tried their best but not placed in the top 20.

Despite the poor weather, the marathon was evidently a hit with the public. Crowds lined the entire length of the course, cheering on the competitors. The Telegram notes that “the large and increasing crowd on the railway embankment had an exciting time dodging the trains as they flew by.” Although police were reportedly on hand to restrict vehicles, it appears that local traffic was not fully banned from the route during the race, and the Globe mentions that streetcars continued to operate along Lake Shore during the race.

Tom Longboat, at right, on Bloor Street in 1928. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 13064.

Following the success of 1906, the race was held again the following October, but with several improvements. The 1907 race started and ended at the CNE Grandstand; after two laps around the track, runners proceeded out the Dufferin Gate and up to Dufferin to King, taking King to Lakeshore Road and then proceeding as far as Brown’s Line, where they took a wide loop and soon returned along Lakeshore past Sunnyside, coming back along Queen and down Dufferin to the Grandstand for a final lap. Advertised at the time as 20 miles long, the suspiciously fast finishing times prompted officials to review the course, driving the route a few days later and painstakingly measuring the course with a cyclometer. The course was subsequently found to be 18 miles and 750 yards long; later recalculation and tweaks to the course resulted in the official distance of subsequent Ward Marathons being given as 19 and a quarter miles.

In 1907 the weather was reportedly splendid: dry but not dusty, a good temperature, and very little wind. Spectators at the Grandstand paid 10 cents for admission at John J. Ward’s suggestion, with the proceeds going to fund Canadian athletes who would be competing at the London Olympics the following year. A crowd of about 20,000 turned up at the Grandstand, and although the Globe notes that “there were many points of admittance to the grounds other than by the turnstiles,” about $600 was raised for the 1908 Olympic team.

The Telegram reported that crowds also gathered along both Queen and Dufferin in anticipation of the runners’ return. “Packed close and alert like the bristles on a shoe brush were the spectators, foresting deep the path of the Ward Marathon runners… The runner loped by the cheering thousands and honking autos and was proclaimed the winner of the Ward Marathon.” The winner was, of course, Tom Longboat, now one of the country’s best-known athletes, having won dozens of races of varying lengths since 1906, including the 1907 Boston Marathon.

Route of the Ward Marathon in 1909. The Toronto Telegram, October 8, 1909.

A marathon was part of the 1908 Canadian Olympic trials which Toronto hosted the next spring. Rather than using the route of the Ward Marathon, a longer, 25-mile course was used, apparently because local officials granted the use of Rosedale Park for the purpose, free of charge. By placing the start and end points of the marathon in Rosedale, the resulting course was considerably less flat than the Ward course, taking runners down the Don, east along Danforth and then along Kingston Road, with the runners turning around at Markham Road and retracing their route back to Rosedale Field. This route prompted severe criticism in the local press, with the Star opining, “Of all the hilly, tortuous, miserable courses for the final marathon ever selected, the one to be used tomorrow is the absolute worst. It is almost a crime to ask runners to cover such a course.” Only 14 of 32 starters finished the course, the Star writing that “for two hours after [winner, Harry] Lawson finished, weary, footsore, sick, and injured runners crawled back to Rosedale. That no arrangements were made to pick up those that fell by the way is a disgrace those in charge of arrangements.” Tom Longboat, injured at the time, did not compete, but was included on the Olympic team on the strength of his previous results.

Despite a disappointing result in the 1908 Olympics in which he failed to finish the course, Longboat was again the favourite at the 1908 Ward Marathon in October, and did not disappoint the spectators. With 20,000 onlookers again on hand at the Grandstand, Longboat quickly turned it into a one-man race. According to the Globe, “at O’Brien’s Hotel, Longboat had gained such a lead on [his competitors] that it was apparent he would win easily, barring accidents. The Indian chatted with his attendants and acknowledged the cheers of encouragement with which he was greeted all along the course.” Longboat reportedly finished eight minutes ahead of his nearest challenger, and was rewarded with being allowed to permanently keep the Ward Cup. The Star added that “souvenir hunters stole Tom Longboat’s shirt, collar, ties, and shoes.”

1908 was Longboat’s final appearance in the Ward Marathon, as he turned professional shortly thereafter. While this made him ineligible for most of the major marathons of the day, public interest in marathon racing was so high at this time that Longboat and several other top runners were able to earn income in a series of high-profile races, many of them head-to-head races which were organized and promoted much like modern boxing matches. Top runners like Longboat, Alf Shrubb, Johnny Hayes, and Dorando Pietri travelled to other cities to compete in marathon races which were usually ticketed events staged in stadiums and arenas.

Mayor Joseph Oliver, and John J. Ward, at the 1908 Ward Marathon. The Toronto Star, October 12, 1908.

With Longboat now out of the picture, the 1909 Ward Marathon seemed wide open, and John J. Ward donated a fresh trophy for the event. For the first time, the finish was relatively close, with John Near taking the lead from B.H. Buxton just as they both reached the Grandstand, Near finishing about 50 seconds ahead. By now, the practice of both trainers and officials following the runners in cars and bicycles was well established in Toronto, presenting additional challenges for the runners. According to the Globe, “it was on the Lake Shore Road approaching Sunnyside that Buxton passed Allan, amid a throng of automobiles, carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians, which threatened to block the road completely. For those running behind, the dust that was raised was exceedingly thick and objectionable… At times it was impossible to see twenty yards along the road.”

The 1910 and 1911 marathons were won by Jimmy George and Robert O’Brien, respectively. By this time, the numbers of entrants and spectators were starting to dwindle as the fad of marathon racing was starting to wane; newspaper coverage of the Ward Marathon grew correspondingly sparse. Despite drawing well over 150 entrants at its peak—several local newspapers claimed Toronto boasted the highest number of entrants ever for a single marathon race—the 1912 race featured a mere 35 runners.

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(Right: Jimmy Duffy. The Globe, April 21, 1914.)

This final Ward Marathon was won by Jimmy Duffy, who had finished second the year before because, according to the Star, “he stopped at the Humber to argue with supporters of Bob O’Brien and wasted the wind he needed to catch the leader.” Duffy, a tinsmith by trade, was apparently known for his outspoken personality. He was also an avid cigarette smoker and beer drinker, frequently indulging in both vices after finishing his races. His obituary in the Star noted that, due to these habits, “his trainers were forced to work him double all the time.” Nevertheless, Duffy had several successful racing years and was sometimes hailed in the Toronto press as “another Longboat,” with the peak of his career resulting in a victory in the 1914 Boston Marathon as the heavy favourite. His career came to an end shortly after this triumph when he enlisted at the start of the First World War, and was subsequently killed at the second battle of Ypres.

The fate of the Ward Marathon was likely sealed in the spring of 1913, when James Deavitt Ward, John J. Ward’s son, died of consumption at the age of 25. The younger Ward had taken an active administrative role in the marathon’s organization, and with the older Ward reportedly suffering from “creeping paralysis,” Ward announced that he would no longer take it on. The Toronto Star suggested that one of the amateur athletic bodies should take over the marathon, as “the Ward Marathon has been run so long that it is almost a classic, and long-distance men all over the country look forward to it… If the races are allowed to die out, then Canada will have no Billy Sherrings, Tom Longboats, or Jim Corkerys to win Olympic, Boston, and English marathons, and bring international honour to Canada.”

With the marathon craze dying down and domestic life interrupted the next year by the war, Toronto’s next major marathon wouldn’t be held until 1921, and even then it received very little media attention. By the time a regular Toronto marathon was established again in the 1970s, the Ward Marathon was largely forgotten; numerous books and articles erroneously refer to it as the Ward’s Island Marathon.


Additional material from: David Davis, Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin, 2012: New York); The Globe (April 20, 1900; May 23, September 12, October 13, October 25, October 29, 1906; September 14, September 23, September 25, October 4, October 11, October 14, 1907; June 8, August 15, August 24, October 6, October 9, October 12, October 13, 1908; October 5, October 11, 1909; September 28, October 6, October 10, 1910; August 22, October 2, 1911; October 7, October 12, 1912; April 21, December 16, 1914; May 1, 1915); The Toronto Star (September 12, September 25, October 25, October 26, October 29, 1906; September 6, September 10, September 25, October 10, October 12, October 14, October 17, October 18, 1907; June 3, June 5, June 8, 1908; August 15, September 24, October 3, October 8, October 9, October 12, October 13, 1908; September 25, October 5, October 8, October 11, 1909; September 27, October 6, October 10, 1910; September 27, September 29, October 2, 1911; October 3, October 4, October 5, October 7, November 19, 1912; April 17, September 6, 1913; December 16, 1914; April 30, 1915); The Toronto Telegram (October 29, 1906; October 14, 1907; October 12, 1908; October 8, October 9, October 10, October 11, 1909; December 16, 1914); The Toronto World (October 27, October 29, 1906; October 8, October 11, October 12, October 14, October 18, 1907; October 7, October 12, 1908; October 7, October 11, 1909; October 10, 1910; December 16, 1914).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


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