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Lynn Arave: Salt Lake City’s first-ever ‘marathon’ race in 1913 was only 5 miles and more of an obstacle course

Some 57 years before the first Deseret News Marathon (a 26.2-mile race), there was the first public “marathon” footrace in Salt Lake City.

Sponsored by the Commercial Club of Salt Lake, it was promoted by local newspapers to be a marathon, while race organizers referred to it as a “cross-city run.”

The Salt Lake Herald of Nov. 4, 1913, billed it as the first modified marathon to ever be held in Utah.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune of Dec. 6, 1913, this was a 5-mile race. (Although that’s 21.2 miles short of today’s official marathon distance, the farthest distance University of Utah cross country runners raced that year was 3 miles, according to the Telegram of Oct. 29, 1913.)

Runners compete in the Deseret News Marathon in Emigration Canyon on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Runners compete in the Deseret News marathon in Emigration Canyon on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Williams wins marathon; Race is great success” was the Tribune’s headline after the first “marathon.” Herbert N. Williams of Salt Lake grabbed first place in a time of 29:31.8 (or just under a 6-minute per mile pace).

Williams was in the lead from the start and was never challenged. Forty-five men started the race, yet only 29 finished.

In fact, a Telegram headline on Dec. 4— three days before the race — stated, “Club may abandon proposed run across city,” because of a lack of entrants.

The race was on a Saturday at 4 p.m., and on Dec. 6, it was oddly a wintertime race, though photographs show most runners wearing shorts (and fortunately there was no snow on the ground). Organizers apparently chose that time of year for a race because similar races were regularly held in eastern states in the late fall.

Orin Jackson, a Brigham Young College of Logan runner, fainted at the finish line, but quickly recovered.

Yet, the race was more of an obstacle course than how road races are staged today.

“Every conceivable annoyance was put in the way of the runners,” the Tribune story stated. “Although the Commercial Club field sports committee had done everything within its power to keep the course clear, the road was packed with automobiles and vehicles of all sorts, to say nothing of hundreds and men, boys and dogs. It is a fact that Williams and those who finished immediately after him had to fight their way through a dense crowd before they could touch the finishing line.”

There was also a street paving job underway at 900 South and State Street, that runners had to maneuver through.

Some runners also had to run off-road on weeds and embankments to get past heavy auto traffic.

“A couple of the entrants took advantage of passing autos ‘to get a lift.’ The inspectors of the course, however quickly spotted them. …”

Runners zip past the finish line during the Deseret News Marathon at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Runners zip past the finish line during the Deseret News Marathon at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The race started and ended at the Pioneer Monument at South Temple and Main streets.

There were also other controversies with this historic race. Autos measured the course at 5.2 miles, not an even 5.

Also, the Telegram’s race results story of Dec. 6 stated that Williams won the race by a full city block. However, the newspaper stated on Dec. 8 that the end of the race course was so blocked with automobiles that no other runner could have passed Williams had they possessed the endurance to do so.

Also, “Commercial Club is too generous with its marathon prizes” was a Dec. 4, 1913, headline in the Salt Lake Telegram. That’s because a $200 motorcycle went to the winner (that’s more than $5,000 in 2019 dollar value). The Amateur Athletic Union at the time had a rule that any prizes over $50 made a runner a professional, according to the story.

Some runners, particularly prep and collegiate runners worried winning such a prize would affect their amateur status.

Keen interest in long distance runs” was a Nov. 22, 1913, headline in the Telegram, before the race, illustrating a national and local trend in the rising popularity of footraces. All Utah colleges then, except BYU in Logan, sponsored cross country races and high schools were considering doing the same.

(Previously, bicycles competitions — often by professionals — were the racing rage in Utah for decades.)

• The sequel to that first Salt Lake marathon was a high school only version that next spring. According to the Tribune of March 21, 1914, Munn Cannon of Salt Lake High School (today’s West High) won that 2.25-mile race in 14:17. Medals, not prizes, were awarded to the top finishers.

• Less than a year after the Commercial Club’s inaugural race, the Deseret Gymnasium organized a second “cross-city” race on Oct. 21, 1916. And, the prizes for this race were well-publicized.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune of Oct. 9, 1916, the top two finishers received an expense-paid trip to Denver to compete in a race there. Third place received a gold watch, while fourth place received a sweater coat and fifth place a jewelry box.

• Although not an official competition, another footrace, of sorts, grabbed some newspaper attention in that same era. According to the Salt Lake Tribune of June 2, 1914, two men, W.C. Stark and H.M. Chamberlain were deep in a debate in the railyard at Logan’s Cache Junction, about the moon and its phases, when they missed their train north.

The two men were apparently so keen on getting to Hailey, Idaho, on time that they reportedly raced about 2 miles in just over 10 minutes to catch up to the train at its next stop.