Today In History: The First Boston Marathon Is Held

April 19, 2017 | Matt

Today in 1897 was the first time the Boston Marathon was ever held. John J. McDermott, a resident of New York, took first place with a time of 2:55:10.

An Olympic team manager named John Graham came up with the idea for the Marathon. Graham, a member of the Boston Athletic Association, took a note from the marathon at the first Olympic Games in Athens the year before. He collaborated with a Boston-area business magnate named Herbert H. Holton to decide on a route through the city. The Marathon ran from the Irvington Oval to Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland, for a total distance of 24.5 miles.

The original Marathon only saw fifteen competitors run. Of those fifteen, only ten had enough endurance to finish the race. A far cry from modern times. The last Boston Marathon saw 30,074 total entrants, and 97% of them completed the race.

John J. McDermott led the 1897 pack, stealing the lead from Dick Grant, running for Harvard. McDermott, who represented the Pastime Athletic Club of New York City, took first place with an impressive lead of nearly seven minutes. This included multiple walking stints during the last legs of the race.

McDermott was, at the time, the most decorated marathon runner in the country. Which perhaps sounds more impressive than it really was, considering that the Boston Marathon was only the second marathon ever held in the United States. McDermott also won the preceding marathon, which was held in New York.

1908 saw the Boston Marathon increase its total distance to 26 miles and 385 yards, to conform to Olympic standards.

The Boston Marathon is held on Patriot’s Day, a partially forgotten national holiday that commemorates the opening of the Revolutionary War. Patriot’s Day was moved to the third Monday in April in 1969.

Bobbi Gibb, via ESPN

It wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed to participate in the Marathon. Not officially, at least. In 1966, a woman named Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb submitted to run in the Marathon, but received a rejection letter refusing her entrance on the grounds that women weren’t physically capable of running such a long marathon. She took a bus from San Diego to Massachusetts, and hid in some bushes by the starting line until the race began. She let about half the pack pass her, and then entered the race. When the other runners realized she was a woman, they reacted encouragingly, and she removed the bulky hooded sweatshirt she had been wearing to hide her gender. The crowd cheered uproariously and Gibb finished the race ahead of two thirds of the rest of the pack. She was an instant celebrity and her feat led the race commission to liberalize its position on female racers.

The next year, a woman named Katherine Switzer entered the marathon with a trickily-acquired official race number. The race authorities did not have the same attitude towards her as they did towards Gibb, who continued to race numberless. Officials attempted to physically remove Switzer from the race.

In 1972, Nina Kuscsik became the first sanctioned female racer to win the Marathon, beating out seven other women.

The Boston Marathon was also the first large marathon to include a wheelchair division. Bob Hall won with a time of two hours, 58 minutes in 1975.

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