To us, today, the race seems peculiar. It consisted of two fit young men running around the small track at Madison Square Garden in New York City 262 times. This event took place on the night of December 15, 1908, and it involved the two competitors circling the track time after time to cover the marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (42.2 kilometers). With about four laps to go, one of the two – Dorando Pietri of Italy – pitched forward on his face, barely conscious and unable to muster one more step. The other runner, close to exhaustion, struggled on alone over the rest of the distance. When he crossed the finish line, he had been running for 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 5.2 seconds, and he won a prize of $3,750. The victorious runner was Tom Longboat of Canada.
For sports fans of the present, accustomed to quick, busy, high-energy action, more attuned to team games than individual contests, the race at the Garden comes across as the athletic equivalent of watching paint dry. But in the early years of the 20th century, such events as the Tom Longboat-Dorando Pietri race were all the rage. Fourteen thousand roaring spectators packed the Garden to cheer the runners that night, and hundreds more– unable to buy a ticket for the sold-out event – milled in the streets outside, impatient to learn the race’s outcome.
These fans, unlike today’s, preferred man-on-man rivalries to team sports, and they applauded endurance over style. They flocked to thirty-round boxing matches, two-mile single-scull rowing events, and, above all, to long-distance running races. There was a craze in North America for distance running in the years before World War I, and two-man races, like the one on the night of December 15, 1908, were the centerpieces of the sport’s enormous popularity. In the winters, these races were held in indoor arenas and in military armories. In the summers, they switched to large open-air stadiums, two-man competitions at such venues as the Polo Grounds in New York and the Hanlan’s Point Stadium on the Toronto Islands. More conventional distance events figured into the racing mix too; these were usually marathons featuring fields of many competitors running over roads on the outskirts of a city and into the downtown core. Spectators lined the streets and cheered themselves hoarse for the runners, especially for Tom Longboat.
In the age of the long-distance runner, Longboat was the greatest of them all. He won more races than any of his contemporaries, and he triumphed at every distance from three miles to the marathon. He seemed almost superhumanly tireless, ready to run any race at any time. In the six weeks after his 1908 victory over Dorando Pietri, he ran two more indoor marathons – one in Buffalo, the other back in Madison Square Garden. Longboat won both, and as if to show how secure he felt about winning, he took a few days off between races to get married and take part in a wedding reception for hundreds of guests at Toronto’s Massey Hall.
Longboat’s running feats made him by far the best-known Canadian abroad during the first two decades of the 20th century and the most popular Canadian at home. His fellow citizens couldn’t get enough of Tom Longboat. On an autumn Saturday in the first year of his growing celebrity, 1907, he set off on an exhibition solo run – who could imagine such a thing today? – that covered 35 miles from the city of Hamilton, east along Lakeshore Road, to the center of Toronto. Nearing the Humber River three-quarters of the way through the run, Longboat developed severe foot blisters and limped into an accompanying automobile. The police were horrified by Longboat’s withdrawal from the run. One hundred thousand of his fans had gathered along the route at the Toronto end, anxious for a glimpse of their hero. The police feared a riot if all that rewarded the people’s wait was a shadowy Longboat in the rear of a Model T. They pleaded with him to return to his run, just for the last mile. Longboat obliged.
It’s difficult to measure such an entity as public adulation, but Longboat was probably as idolized in his time as Wayne Gretzky was in his. Glory and grace touched both men in their different athletic performances, and fans responded to each with equal degrees of helpless admiration. Both men seemed accessible and friendly; nothing stuck-up about Tom or Wayne. And, in a satisfying coincidence, both came from the same part of the world – Gretzky from the town of Brantford in Southern Ontario, and Longboat from the gently rolling countryside immediately to the town’s southeast.
But it isn’t helpful to pursue the Longboat-Gretzky comparison to its limits because one unbridgeable divide separates the two men: Gretzky is white while Longboat was Native. The gently rolling land where Longboat grew up was an Indian reserve, the Six Nations. It was a place where many people lived in drafty shacks, rarely earned a white man’s wage, had bad teeth, and died young. Natives made up Canada’s underclass, Longboat included, and no matter how much adoration the public heaped on him as an athlete, Longboat was never allowed to forget what he was and where he came from.
All he had to do, if he needed reminding, was look in the daily newspapers. Sportswriters routinely identified him by such insulting terms as “the Redskin,” “Heap Big Chief,” and “the Injun.” The Globe once pointed out, with apparently no conscious racial sneer intended, that Longboat possessed only “the light veneer of the white man’s ways.”
Longboat was a Native, and it cost him. After his death in 1948, he was quoted by one of his sons as having advised years earlier: “Don’t go into running. There’s no money in it.” Longboat was wrong; there was very good money in running, just not for him. The white men who managed Longboat’s career and promoted his races were mostly well-to-do businessmen before their associations with Longboat, and they were measurably more well-to-do after the associations ended. But the money Longboat earned with his magnificent running never seemed to stick to his own fingers. And after his retirement from racing, the best job he ever found was with Toronto’s City Street Cleaning Department. From 1927 to 1944, Longboat picked up garbage from the streets where his fellow citizens had once cheered him to the skies.
Longboat was never known to express bitterness or regret over his fate, at least not when a reporter with a pencil was around to record his reflections. Longboat left the impression, which was surely true in large part, that the running itself brought him pride and satisfaction. He found joy in running. He loved to run as a boy, and when he became an elderly man, he loved equally to set off on long walking rambles. In his final three years, ill with diabetes and living once more on the Six Nations reserve, he used to hike from his home to the town of Hagersville several times a week, each walk adding up to a round trip of 20 happy miles.
Running was what defined Longboat to himself. He was a good husband and father, a diligent worker, an amiable and gentle man, but most of all, he was a runner. He rejoiced in running, and for a long and significant period when distance running was the king of sports, Tom Longboat was the best runner in the world.
Many years after the fact, Longboat put his finger on the humble event that got his life launched on its course to unexpected fame. This event, Longboat recollected, took place at the beginning of the lacrosse season when he was 17, which would put it in the early spring of 1905. Young Tom, a member of the Onondaga nation, played for the Onondaga team in a Six Nations league. North American Natives had invented the sport of lacrosse centuries before white people arrived.
In the sport’s earliest times, teams made up of dozens – even hundreds – of players competed against one another in games that lasted for days on fields that were six times the size of a modern football field. These games were seen by the North American Natives to have spiritual elements, and were often played as a curing ritual for sick or injured people. White settlers took up their own version of lacrosse, which was streamlined with far fewer players and a much smaller playing area in accordance with rules developed in 1867 by a Montreal dentist named William George Beers. The game became Canada’s most popular team sport, until hockey displaced it, and it was this modern version of lacrosse that was eventually adopted by the Natives in the late 19th century.