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In this episode of Marathon and Beyond Monday, we have a century-old tale of two running stars who battle in front of thousands in a marathon showdown. To get a free PDF file with pictures of this episode’s story, click here. Or, scroll down for the full text of the story.
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“Shrubb Nearly Pegs Out “in a Great and Terrible Contest”
by Rob Hadgraft
One hundred and one years ago, marathon running reached unprecedented heights of popularity in New York, where the world’s top men raced each other on a tiny indoor track enveloped in choking cigar smoke.
In the wake of the 1908 London Olympics, many top distance runners turned professional and headed for the Big Apple, where shrewd Irish-American promoter Pat Powers was arranging marathon matches in front of huge crowds. There was big money to be made, and the leading amateurs had tired of their world of meager payments in clandestine brown envelopes. Integrity be damned, they wanted a slice of the new action!
In early 1909, Powers signed contracts on a match he had long been trying to arrange—a head-to-head contest between the world’s finest distance runner, Alf Shrubb from England, and the maverick Onondagan tribesman, Tom Longboat from Toronto.
Tickets quickly sold out for their indoor confrontation at Madison Square Garden. An extraordinary level of public interest saw thousands of dollars change hands in prerace betting, and the authorities decided to lay on special trains to ferry people to the event.
Longboat had several fine marathon times under his belt, but for Shrubb this was his first attempt at such a distance. Shrubb was widely seen as unbeatable at anything between four and 15 miles, but the marathon was an intriguing new challenge for this 30-year-old holder of multiple world records. Wisely, he insisted on a clause in his contract stipulating that he would receive a share of the proceeds, win or lose, and that if he lost he would be guaranteed rematches with Longboat over shorter distances. He was guaranteed a payday of several thousand dollars, whatever the outcome.
Deals such as this—added to recent discussions about coaching young athletes at Harvard University—convinced Shrubb that the time was right for his family to immigrate to North America from its rural home in southern England. The prospect of making a good living was much brighter now that the likes of Longboat and Olympians Dorando Pietri and Johnny Hayes had switched to professionalism.
Unique training methods employed
Of immediate concern to Shrubb was the need to increase his training mileage in order to cope with his first marathon. He had only a few weeks to prepare. Plenty of long walks in Central Park in lead-filled walking boots were the order of the day. Plodding along for hours in the cold, wintry weather certainly helped to condition him for the strength-sapping ordeal ahead, even though he knew the big race itself would be played out in a smoky indoor setting.
Running without fresh air was anathema to Shrubb, but he cheered himself with the thought that the financial rewards were far too good to turn down. Further consolation arrived with news that the erratic Longboat’s training was not going well. Shrubb familiarized himself with the small Madison Square Garden track (10 laps to the mile!) by tackling a three-man relay team over 12 miles in front of a crowd of 5,000 in early January 1909. Frank Kanaly and Tom Williams from Massachusetts and Fred Simpson, an Ojibway Indian from the Hiawatha reserve in Ontario, ran four miles each while Shrubb ran solo. Simpson, who had finished sixth in the 1908 Olympic marathon, was a big, powerful man resembling Longboat. The crowd roared him on his way as he surged in Shrubb’s wake, but the Englishman never looked like relinquishing his lead. He won in 65 minutes, 57 seconds, more than five minutes quicker than a recent contest there between Pietri and Hayes.
Promoter Powers was delighted at the hullabaloo that surrounded the forthcoming clash between Shrubb and the 21-year-old Longboat, even though Shrubb reported inflammation around his left big toe that saw the race delayed by a few weeks. Longboat also had problems, but they seemed psychological rather than physical. Powers had recently taken over from Tom Flanagan as Longboat’s manager, a move that was said to have left the enigmatic runner unhappy and depressed. Longboat wrote a letter indicating he was not in good shape for the big race and was thinking of pulling out. This “private” letter was leaked to the Toronto Star, where it prompted banner headlines, adding to the general frenzy.
Three days prior to the new date, Shrubb confirmed his toe was healed by completing a 14-mile training run at an average pace of 5:30 a mile. He set off from his Toronto base for his Broadway hotel in New York in good spirits. The press reported that he seemed slightly nervous but looked in good shape. A reporter visited the Flatiron Building to see Longboat and his veteran trainer Jimmy DeForest and reckoned the Canadian was not in as good condition as Shrubb but was still a better man at 26 miles.
Longboat is ready
The 176-yard track at Madison Square Garden was laid by Sparrow Robertson, regarded as the best man in the world at that sort of work. He used a cinder compound on the wooden floor that was similar to the one favored by Longboat when he had beaten Pietri a few weeks earlier at the same venue. Despite his earlier vacillations, Longboat ventured out for a languid eight-mile training run and the day before completed his buildup with an extended walk. His preparations also included an unscheduled sprint down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, helping a storekeeper pursue a shoplifter.
The early betting saw Shrubb emerge as a slight favorite. But by the day of the race, the punters were starting to pile money on a Longboat victory. Everyone anticipated that Shrubb’s plan would be to go out fast, build a lead, and try to hang on. That was his usual way. The unknown factor would be how he coped with a distance six miles longer than anything he had raced before. Longboat’s tactics and performance were harder to predict. He had won a handful of marathons in fine style but occasionally performed erratically and below his potential.
Longboat was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, in July 1887. His Onondagan tribe was one of six of the Iroquois confederacy. His first important race had taken place in 1906 when, at age 19, he won the Around the Bay race in nearby Hamilton. He topped the world rankings after his 1907 Boston Marathon win but regularly blotted his copybook with an undisciplined attitude to training and his well-documented heavy drinking. He is said to have been a victim of racial discrimination and exploitation, which might partly explain his reputation as a difficult character to manage. Shrubb, modest and canny, who drank little and paid heed to diet and training, could not have presented a more different character.
Around 12,000 squeezed into Madison Square Garden for the big race on Friday evening, both runners attended by a well-dressed group of assistants. Longboat had additional support from Lauretta Maracle, the young woman he had married six weeks earlier. Both runners expected to earn a minimum of $3,000 from the event, considerably more than a year’s salary for most of the audience. The betting saw thousands of dollars change hands in various cities, some bets being as high as $1,400.
Ladies in the audience
In the fraught moments before the start, the atmosphere was electric. Shrubb nervously bounced around the arena on a warm-up lap and, typically, Longboat simply stood around, waiting for the signal to start. Shrubb noticed an unusually high number of women in the audience. He mentioned this to the starter, the British expatriate “Big Tim” Sullivan, who remarked that the whole scene reminded him of a night at the Covent Garden opera in London!
The arena was thick with tobacco smoke, which did not please Shrubb, and the noise was deafening, with both runners enjoying plenty of support. Shrubb wore a dark top bearing a bold Union Jack on the chest, and the British flag was much in evidence among the crowd. Longboat’s fans included excited Indians who kept up a screaming battle cry of “Oyesha, oyesha!”
The gun went off and Shrubb showed his hand, leaping ahead and completing the first lap of 176 yards in 30 seconds, half a mile in 2:25, and a mile in 4:52. It seemed ridiculously fast for a marathon of 262 laps, but Shrubb had his plan and was going to stick to it. In the fourth mile, he developed a problem with a shoe and caused consternation as he stopped to fix it.
Longboat set off more steadily at an unwavering pace and seemed unfazed by the huge lead that Shrubb quickly built. At eight miles, a Longboat helper reported that Shrubb shot him a sarcastic smile, but he felt sure the Englishman would not get the last laugh. Over the first 16 miles, the pattern remained the same: Longboat plodding and Shrubb occasionally surging, finding himself eight laps ahead at one point (1,408 yards). After Shrubb had lapped Longboat yet again, the crowd began to turn on the Canadian and jeered him loudly. Consternation spread among Longboat’s backers, and there was gloom in the telegraph offices back in Toronto, where crowds had gathered outside the newspaper offices for “live” news.
Then, slowly but surely, the tide began to turn. After 18 miles (a mind-numbing 180 laps), Shrubb no longer had an easy stride and seemed to be laboring. He rallied at 19, however, and the lead remained eight clear laps. Although no longer Longboat’s manager, reporter Tom Flanagan had a financial stake in his winning, and he kept urging Longboat’s helpers to stop trying to get their man to speed up. Flanagan could see the way the race was going and was sure that if Longboat maintained his present pace Shrubb would crumble. “I had figured on Shrubb hitting trouble at 20 miles, and I was right,” he wrote later. “At this point he had to change his shoes, having shown lameness for some time. Longboat gained more than a lap during this operation, closing the gap to six-and-a-half laps.”
At 21 miles, Shrubb was clearly limping and showing signs of distress, an almost unprecedented sight in a running career spanning 10 years or so. He was doused on the back of the head with a sponge but continued to wobble. Just before 22 miles, Flanagan could contain himself no longer; he threw off his coat and rushed to trackside. He joined Longboat’s helpers, taking turns to run alongside their man and chivvy him along. Some of their advice must have been lost amid the general cacophony. Shrubb had slowed badly, and the lead was being relentlessly whittled down. Although Longboat looked too heavy legged to raise any sort of surge, he showed no signs of distress. At 22 miles, Shrubb was forced to walk a few yards, a development that raised the decibels still further.
Longboat’s job at this point was to recover a deficit of about 1,100 yards over the remaining four miles. Shrubb again stopped and walked, the lead was cut further, and he almost fell at the 23-mile mark. He was clearly in trouble, and every step now looked like the dying effort of a game man: a noble death dance. With around three miles left, his lead was reduced to five laps. Shrubb bravely tried to hang on as Longboat passed and gained another lap back, and Shrubb stayed with his man for two laps before limping painfully again and walking.
With less than two miles to go, the lead was now down to a single lap. After Longboat appeared well beaten earlier, the race was now there for the taking for Longboat. He drew level and then passed Shrubb, a broken man, at 24 miles and 700 yards. The crowd let rip a mighty roar and hats were thrown into the air, one of which actually hit Longboat. “The scene beggared description,” recalled Flanagan.
Moments later, Flanagan recalled seeing the race judge and the walking Shrubb shake hands and overheard the former say: “You are the greatest 15-mile runner that ever ran a race [but] you’re beat in this marathon. Don’t kill yourself. Give up like a man and the crowd will give you all honor.” Shrubb replied: “I believe you’re right,” and in a rare show of emotion threw his arms around a helper’s neck and choked a sob of bitter disappointment. Longboat finished alone with Madison Square Garden on its feet and in uproar. Flanagan recalled: “Not a man there didn’t praise Shrubb for his game effort. I’d called Shrubb up in the morning and told him Longboat would surely beat him, and this helped a whole lot. There was nothing crooked. It was a true run race. Shrubb was badly advised to set such a clip early.”
While the Longboat camp celebrated loudly at trackside, a distressed Shrubb was carried bodily behind the scenes. His helpers became concerned about his condition and an ambulance was summoned, but physician Dr. Henry Coggeshall appeared in the dressing room and took control from the panic-stricken aides. One pressman who witnessed the scene wrote: “Shrubb was breathing strenuously and it was feared his heart had given way. He was put on a platform of boards and his legs lifted so that blood would be sent to his weakened stomach—at this he uttered a cry of mournful protest. His toes were shriveled like shrimps and he shivered from hips to heels. After midnight he was taken to his hotel wracked of soul and body, beaten in a great and terrible contest, but still in the land of the living.”
Summing up Shrubb’s effort
The drama of Shrubb’s slow and painful collapse, having led by such a huge margin, had made it a thrilling spectacle. Newspapers not just in North America but also around the world gave the race major coverage. The American wrote: “It was the old story of the hare and the tortoise, and the tortoise broke the hare’s heart. Before a whooping, howling crowd of New York Indians, Longboat won a great race from the gamest little man that ever laced a racing shoe. Shrubb had speed, and he had heart but he was playing an Englishman’s game and the end was plain from 22 miles.”
The Times of London reported: “The most stirring and sensational long-distance race in a long time and the [12,000] that filled every seat and all available standing room will look back in years to come at one of the great historic contests.” In the Canadian capital, Ottawa, thousands, including cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament, had followed the progress of the race via bulletin boards, most of them cheering for Longboat. In Toronto, supporters of both men had gathered outside the Telegram’s offices, and at the end crowds streamed along the streets chanting Longboat’s name.
In the wake of the race, Longboat settled down with new wife, Lauretta. He used his new riches to buy a three-story red-brick house on Galley Avenue in West Toronto, and he quit the little cigar shop he had recently managed.
For his part, Shrubb took his defeat with good grace, admitting only that the vast amount of tobacco smoke that had built up in the arena had had a serious effect on him. “The newspapers had asked spectators to refrain from smoking while the race lasted,” he recalled, “but the Americans are the heaviest smokers in the world and they smoke hardest of all at their pleasures, lighting each successive cigar with the burning end of its predecessor. I suppose Longboat and myself were the only two men in the building that didn’t smoke. The Indian confessed to me after the race that tobacco fumes were agreeable to him at any strength. With me it was very different. As the race proceeded I became dazed and half suffocated, and in the end sickness bowled me over completely. I collapsed in the arms of my trainer, done to danger point, more than half dead.”
It was later established that Shrubb had broken all existing records within a marathon, up to 23 miles, but as he had not completed the course these would not be recorded. Shrubb confirmed he took home a check to the value of $3,400, similar to the amount won by Longboat.
“Never in my running career was I so ill as after that race. I lay gasping on my back for four hours with two doctors in constant attendance. They told me afterwards I nearly pegged out. Next day, however, I recovered and was able to write my name in hundreds of autograph books.”
The epic race launched a thousand imitators. Fine runners like Longboat, Hayes, Pietri, and Simpson were now part of a booming running scene. From Europe, top performers like Fred Appleby and Frenchman Henri St. Yves were said to be heading over to join the fun. Business was booming in 1909 for the top long-distance men.