Runners at the start line during the Great Marathon Derby
To accommodate even bigger crowds, the Great Marathon Derby of April 3, 1909, was staged at New York’s famous baseball venue, the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. (Photo: Archivio GBB/Alamy)

The Story of the First World Marathon Championship

In this excerpt from his new book ‘Running Throughout Time: the Greatest Running Stories Ever Told,’ Roger Robinson surfaces an incredible bit of sports history: the Great Marathon Derby of 1909.

Runners at the start line during the Great Marathon Derby

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The first marathon to get the world’s attention was the 1908 Olympic race in London. Dorando Pietri, a resilient little Italian cake maker in a white shirt, baggy red shorts, and a knotted handkerchief on his head entered the stadium with a big lead. But the day was hot and Pietri had reached the edge of exhaustion. Staggering confusedly, he collapsed on the track. Helped to his feet, dazed and wobbling, he collapsed again, and again, six times in all, until the vast crowd thought he was going to die. Steered and supported by officials, Pietri reached the tape, but inevitably he was disqualified for “assistance,” and the Olympic title went to the coolheaded New Yorker Johnny Hayes. The elemental human conflict between Pietri’s physical weakness and his indomitable willpower caught the world’s imagination.

Pietri’s story is well-known. But the world has forgotten the era that his courage inspired. Suddenly, the marathon became big business and a worldwide craze. Highlighting this “marathon mania” was a series of spectacularly successful professional marathon matches. Held mostly in New York City, they attracted huge crowds and media interest and created a multinational generation of elite runners. Because they ran for prize money, with betting permitted, they are largely omitted from history books, which, dominated as they are by the Olympics, deal exclusively with the amateur sport. Thus their fascinating story exists only in brief newspaper references and family archives that have been unnoticed for generations, and has never been fully told.

For six months in late 1908 and early 1909, promoters put on “match races,” man against man, like a boxing championship, around and around tiny smoke-filled indoor tracks for strictly 26 miles 385 yards (the “London distance”), with huge crowds bringing their betting money, their cigars, and their noisy partisan patriotism. The Italian Pietri against Irish American Hayes, Pietri against Native Canadian Tom Longboat, Longboat against Brit Alf Shrubb, with bands playing and national flags flying.

Then promoter Pat Powers had another new idea: a “marathon derby,” the six best runners all together in one race. He put up the biggest prize money ever known. The bookmakers had a bonanza. To accommodate even bigger crowds, the Great Marathon Derby of April 3, 1909, was staged at New York’s famous baseball venue, the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, which squeezed in 25,000, with more overflowing to every vantage point. They were clinging in their hundreds to Coogan’s Bluff and perched six deep along the Speedway and the heights above it, hanging on every ledge and branch and chimney that offered a glimpse of the track. Boys beyond number, nearly all Johnny Hayes devotees, prowled the adjoining Manhattan Field searching for illicit ways in.

Longboat, the Onondaga First Nations Canadian, started favorite in the betting, at six-to-five. He was a Boston Marathon champion at age 19 and had won both his prize-money marathons in New York at a seemingly easy lope, looking well in charge as he beat Pietri and then Shrubb. Pietri was at eleven-to-five. Boston put its money on Shrubb, at eight-to-five. A multiple amateur-world-record holder on the track and famed as a fearless front-runner, Shrubb had moved to America after being debarred for accepting expense money and was now coaching cross-country and track at Harvard.

The Irish money was on Hayes or Matthew Maloney, who turned professional after winning a muddy amateur marathon from Rye to Manhattan. They were outsiders, but stronger in the betting than the unfancied sixth runner, Henri St. Yves. The unknown Frenchman, a waiter and chauffeur who had earned his place by winning a marathon in Scotland, had trained for three weeks at Princeton with the student cross-country team, who ran with him in relays. Loyally, they backed him at very long odds.

The setting for this battle of six heroes was an outdoor grass track, five laps to the mile. Viola’s Italian Band and Bayne’s 69th Regiment Band were hired to “alternate in a concert,” which continued throughout the race. Money flew to the bookmakers. Everything was set for one of the most spectacular sporting entertainments since the Coliseum in Rome was closed.

And then it rained.

The baseball field was so soggy that the size of the track was reduced to improve the footing, making it six laps to a mile, marked with little Stars and Stripes flags. The crowd sat intrepidly on open banking, getting soaked, and “cheered madly” as the competitors one by one made theatrical entrances, all wearing dressing gowns like boxers. Pietri trotted over to the Italian block and bowed operatically, Longboat beamed a big amiable grin, his gown open to show the Canadian maple leaf on his chest. Shrubb was stiff with English restraint. St. Yves, short and unnoticed, astutely eyed the bigger stars. Hayes entered last, after Maloney, and got the loudest and most Irish applause as he posed for the photographers.

A prerace photo suggests it was misty drizzle rather than heavy rain. The runners wore short sleeves, so it was cool and damp, not serious New York winter cold. The crowd expected two hours of tactical caution, with the familiar stars in control. They were wrong.

Runners during the Great Marathon Derby
(Photo: Archivio GBB/Alamy)

After Pietri and then Shrubb had led briefly, the foolish little St. Yves surprisingly took over on the fifth lap. The crowd “laughed in derision as the French runner took up the lead … setting a heart-breaking pace,” reported The New York Times. A mere beginner among celebrities, almost wholly unsupported in the betting, and running with a pattering stride and low knee lift, St. Yves made it look like a French farce. He set off at 5:14 for the first mile and well under six minutes per mile from then on.

The crowd knew he would kill himself at that ridiculous pace on sodden grass. Shrubb thought the same, running cautiously for once, keeping company with Pietri. Farther back came Hayes, again using the negative-split tactics that won him the 1908 Olympics, and Longboat, whose patience had paid off in his duels against Pietri and Shrubb. Maloney also watched and waited.

To everyone’s surprise, and reluctant admiration, tiny St. Yves stayed in front, lap after pattering lap. His action, said the Times, “seemed to glide rather than run over the grass track.” Still, they had seen Pietri and then Shrubb run in front like this for 20 miles and end on the doctor’s table, while Longboat plodded home the winner. The boys in the crowd still whooped for Hayes, who smilingly refused to be more assertive, even when the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” to stir him.

In the tenth mile, Shrubb, who had never been behind in a race for so long in his life, grew impatient, reeled St. Yves in, and took over the lead. The crowd cheered. They wanted action, aggression, tactical change. St. Yves, unperturbed, tucked in behind Shrubb. Longboat stayed cautiously 50 yards back, with Pietri another 50 behind him and Hayes and Maloney trailing, all awaiting their moment. Ten miles is still early in a marathon. The overeager ones would burn out. That was how it was supposed to go.

But it didn’t. Shrubb led, as he usually did, but this time St. Yves stayed right there, sitting for eight miles. Everyone in the ground expected both to fade, especially the impudent little outsider. But at 18 miles, the unthinkable happened. St. Yves slipped past Shrubb and was in the lead again. The reporters tried to do justice to what they were seeing. “His feet scarcely left the earth, and he ran with less apparent effort than any man seen here before,” said the Times report. Even the increasing sloppy mud didn’t seem to trouble him. The rain had stopped, but the track was getting churned.

It became more incredible. St. Yves moved away from Shrubb, still setting world marks for every intermediate distance. Pietri and Hayes looked more focused now but never came close. Longboat was in trouble at 18 miles. He stopped to change his shoes (which were like light boots, ankle-high), but he was done and walked off the track before 20 miles. The other excitement came at about the same moment, when St. Yves lapped Shrubb. Now he was at least a lap clear of the entire field, and he looked a lot better than those who should have been threatening him.

Shrubb was drifting. By 22 miles, he was paying for that reckless midrace surge, when his patience had cracked. He slowed to a walk, staggered, then quit. The irrepressible St. Yves scampered on. A pistol shot announced the last mile, and the little Frenchman responded by picking up the pace. He lapped several of his famous rivals yet again, charged briskly around his last lap, and finished with a splendid flourish of a sprint, pure French panache. The crowd wildly acclaimed St. Yves, even though he had cost most of them a lot of money. Both bands, after some hasty research, broke into the “Marseillaise.” St. Yves had run 2:40:50.6, the fastest at that date for these multi-lap marathons.

While there has to be doubt about the exact accuracy of a track that was reconfigured in the rain just before the race, there’s not a shadow of doubt about the brilliance of the victory. St. Yves had surely run the greatest marathon ever. In the equivalent to a modern world championship, with the best in the world all there and highly motivated, with big money at stake, he had thrashed them. He controlled the whole race in a way we associate with Paula Radcliffe or Eliud Kipchoge. Pietri was nearly five minutes back (2:45:37), Hayes and Maloney another five, and Longboat and Shrubb were in the dressing room of despair.

In Times Square, a huge crowd gathered around the Times bulletin board, the biggest ever assembled there for any event except a national election. Race progress was shouted by those closest to the notice boards, who had claimed their spots hours beforehand, and was passed back through the massed crowd that filled Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Even the streetcars and taxis slowed down to hear progress reports. Half-heard news was garbled, rumors flew and grew. They expected to hear about Pietri, Longboat, Hayes, or Shrubb, the celebrity names. The unexpected race leader was shouted out as being Spanish, Mexican, Hungarian, before being finally identified as French.

No one had heard of Henri St. Yves. No one, that is, except the Princeton University cross-country team, who had run with him, and won a great deal of money on him. They were reported to be “jubilant.”

Excerpted and adapted with permission from Roger Robinson’s Running Throughout Time: the Greatest Running Stories Ever Told (Meyer and Meyer, 2022)

Lead Photo: Archivio GBB/Alamy

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