Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tom Longboat - The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone

The 112th running of the Boston Marathon goes off tomorrow (April 21) so it seems like an opportune time to think back to the 1907 marathon which was won by a Six Nations's Tom Longboat.

In winning Longboat destroyed the course record by nearly 5 minutes.

Longboat’s career is documented in Jack Batten’s The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone (Tundra Books, 2002)

Some time ago I reviewed that book. Here is what I said.

Tired of 21st century professional athletes? These unfortunates can’ t make enough money, won’t run out groundballs, and are as likely to spend Saturday night in conflict with the constabulary as interacting with loved ones. Or so it seems.

If you share my cynical view you’ll enjoy Jack Batten’s look at a real athlete from the first decade of the last century.

The Man Who Ran Faster than Everyone looks at the life and times of distance runner Tom Longboat.

No doubt today’s running boom would have puzzled Longboat, who grew up at Six Nations, south east of Brantford.

In his first significant victory at the 1906 Around the Bay Race in Hamilton he bested a small field of only 25 competitors. Longboat’s performance, however, would have brought him home in the top ten in this year’s event - a remarkable result when viewed from the perspective of the overall improvement in athletic performances and equipment in the last decades. Spectators watching 2937 finishers chugging to the finish down York Boulevard at this year’s version of the Bay Race most certainly would be surprised to learn that one busy, but unlucky, bookmaker dropped a whopping $4,000 on the 1906 event where Longboat went off as a long shot.

Batten’s sympathetic tale documents this race and Longboat’s 1907 Boston Marathon victory, many more wins, some loses, and much controversy in an amateur and professional career spanning the years 1905 through 1912. In the early twentieth century running, and particularly two competitor challenges, was as certain to capture public attention as the Leafs annual futile spring run for the Stanley Cup does today.

Try if you can to imagine indoor marathon events in Buffalo and at New York’s Madison Square Garden, screaming crowds exceeding 10,000 people. Or 40,000 fans at New York’s Polo Grounds, once home to the baseball Giants, witnessing a 26-mile event. Or closer to home, Hanlan's Point Stadium, site of today’s Toronto’ s Island Airport, where Longboat often raced against other top performers of the day thrilling crowds of between 9,000 - 10,000.

As idolized then as Gretzky is today Longboat suffered a serious, but temporary setback, when forced to drop out of the 1908 Olympic Marathon. Questionable circumstances possibly involving doping are explored by Batten. Soon after the runner turned pro winning a $500 diamond medal in his first outing, getting awarded (but never receiving) $500 from the City of Toronto and pocketing an extraordinary $3,750 for victory in a two man event in December 1908.

More Than Sports

But Batten’ s book is bigger than sports. It reveals the racism that permeated early 20th century society; details unscrupulous promoters working angles to make a buck and illustrates the appalling poverty endured by aboriginal communities. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Early supporters and advisors to Longboat such as Toronto Star reporter Lou Marsh are exposed as bigots and hypocrites.

On first getting to know Longboat the writer challenged those who thought that the runner “(was) not keen of wit.” “His head is full of ideas and he is one of the great kidders who ever came down the line to fame.”

Later Marsh would flip flop offering harsh criticism of the runner’ s approach to training, opining that he “did not have a white man’s business brain.”

In fact, Batten makes the case that Longboat’s training was advanced for his time as he lifted weights, played other sports (called cross training now) and utilized today a well accepted approach of mixing hard and easy workouts and varying speeds and distances of runs.

With running being overtaken in popularity by team sports Longboat’s life changed. World War One found him in Europe as an "army runner" often taking on dangerous assignments behind enemy lines. A post-war attempt at farming out west didn't succeed. Returning east he worked in steel mills and then spent 17 years with the City of Toronto in the Street Cleaning Department. Life after athletics, while not lucrative, appears to have been a relatively happy one for Tom.

Some quibbles: The author seems confused about the date of Longboat’s death (1948 or 1949) and sends his subject racing through the Royal Botanical Gardens decades before Thomas McQuesten established it.

The publisher has aimed this book at younger readers but anyone who wants a break from pro athletes and their agents, debates over steroid use, or really doesn't care about Ted Williams' remains will enjoy this book

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