Thinking about Sundays Adirondack Marathon in Schroon Lake, I cant help but glance at our fireplace mantle. There is a gold watch, still in running order, that belonged to a marathoning pioneermy great grandfather George McDonald. Most people know the legend of the origins of the marathon. Supposedly in 490 B.C . a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran either the northern route (21.4 miles) or the flatter southern route (25.4 miles) from the site of the Battle of Marathon to Athens, where he died after announcing the Greek victory over the Persians. The modern marathon--the distance of which was finally fixed at 26.22 miles in 1924-- commemorates this feat, and, appropriately, a Greek, Spiridon Louis, won the first modern Olympic marathon.
But the American marathon has its own roots, which can be traced to Irish immigrants. Following large-scale Irish-Catholic immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century, Americans wondered whether their essentially Anglo-Protestant culture could be retained. There was a great fear of Irish-Catholic immigrants, which led to prejudice and discrimination. As a result, jobs were hard to come by for the Irish in America.
At about the same time gamblers began to organize long-distance runs for sport. These races sometimes lasted as long as five days and were often held in major venues, such as Madison Square Garden, in New York City.
While the races were enjoyable for spectators and gamblers, the runners were treated like animals. There were no modern training techniques, so menmostly young Irish men desperate for moneyran for days without water, food or medical attention. It was winner-take-all, so the competition was fierce; runners actually died trying to win.
Eventually, in the 1880s, such events were banned because of the rising numbers of deaths. But the Irish had found a niche; they were todays Kenyans a century ago without corporate sponsorship.