Sports·THE BUZZER

Remembering Tom Longboat's legendary Boston Marathon run

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks back on 19-year-old Tom Longboat's career-launching victory at the 1907 Boston Marathon.

Record-breaking 1907 victory paved the way for a unique career

After winning Boston, Tom Longboat went on to compete in the 1908 Olympics and then become a star at Madison Square Garden. (Charles A. Aylett/Library and Archives Canada )

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It's the 115th anniversary of Tom Longboat's legendary Boston Marathon run

Canadian runners delivered some outstanding performances at yesterday's Boston Marathon. Forty-two-year-old marvel Malindi Elmore placed 11th in the women's division with a time of 2:27:58 — the fastest ever by a Canadian woman in Boston. Trevor Hofbauer finished 15th in the men's race to, along with Elmore, meet the qualifying standard for this summer's world championships. And, though they didn't reach the cutoff time for worlds, Natasha Wodak (19th) and Kate Bazeley (24th) turned in strong results on the 50th anniversary of Boston's first official women's race.

Today marks the anniversary of another famous Boston moment — one with a special place in Canadian sports lore: the great Tom Longboat's record-breaking victory on April 19, 1907.

Born in 1887 on the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford, Ont., Longboat was forced to attend the Mohawk Institute — one of the many residential schools where children from First Nation communities were abused. As a teenager, Longboat escaped and went to live with an uncle. "I wouldn't even send my dog to that place," he later said of the school.

By 1903, Longboat's talent for distance running was well-known and he was living and training at Toronto's West End YMCA. His big breakthrough came in 1906, when he won the prestigious Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton, Ont. by three minutes. That set the stage for the race of Longboat's life.

By the time of its 11th running in 1907, the Boston Marathon was already a big deal. And a Canadian had already won it three times — Ronald MacDonald (yes, his actual name) in 1898 and Jack Caffery in 1900 and 1901. Caffery's record, set in '01, still stood when Longboat showed up six years later. According to a Boston Globe story from that day, 102 athletes started the race (compare that to 30,000 yesterday) and only 53 finished — none more brilliantly than the 19-year-old Longboat.

Despite suffering from a cold and dealing with what that newspaper story described as "chilly winter weather," including rain and sleet, Longboat won the 24.5-mile race (that was the original distance) by a minute and a half. He also set a new record of 2:24:24 — shattering Caffery's mark by nearly five full minutes. Longboat impressed the Globe reporter with not just his time, but the grace with which he ran it. After calling Longboat "the most marvelous runner who has ever sped over our roads," he continued: "With a smile for everyone, he raced along and at the finish he looked anything but like a youth who had covered more miles in a couple of hours than the average man walks in a week."

On the heels of that stunning performance, Longboat was among the favourites to win the 1908 Olympic marathon in London, where the now-standard distance of 26.2 miles (42.195 km) was first introduced in order for the race to start at Windsor Castle and end with a lap around the Olympic stadium so the runners would finish in front of the king and queen's royal box. Longboat stayed in the lead pack through 20 miles before collapsing for reasons that remain unclear. Some who dealt in racist stereotypes accused Longboat, throughout his career, of excessive drinking and laziness — the latter because he liked to mix long walks in between his hard runs. That was unorthodox at the time, but slow "recovery" sessions are now considered a vital part of any distance runner's training regimen.

After his Olympic disappointment, Longboat turned pro and was able to cash in on a brief period where an odd, boxing-like version of marathon running became popular with sports fans (and gamblers). In December 1908, some 16,000 fans packed Madison Square Garden to watch Longboat and Italy's Dorando Pietri (a favourite in New York City's Italian-American community) race head-to-head for 262 laps around a cinder track in the deafening, smoke-filled arena. Longboat beat him to become the de facto marathon champion of the world, then successfully defended the "title" by defeating England's Alfie Shrubb. He lost it a couple of months later in a six-man outdoor race at New York's Polo Grounds dubbed the "Great Marathon Derby," won by France's Henri St. Yves.

In 1916, Longboat volunteered for the First World War and served as a message runner in the trenches of Europe. At one point, he was erroneously reported killed in action, causing his wife to remarry. Upon returning to Canada, Longboat worked a few different steady-paying jobs (including as a garbage man in Toronto) and had four kids with his second wife, Martha. The couple moved back to the Six Nations Reserve before he died in 1949.

Since Longboat's victory in 1907, a Canadian has won the Boston Marathon men's race 12 times — but none since Jerome Drayton in 1977. Four wheelchair titles have been won by Canadians — three by André Viger in the 1980s, and by Josh Cassidy in 2012. The only Canadian victory in the women's event came in 1980 by Jacqueline Gareau, who wasn't declared the winner until the following week because of one of the most audacious frauds in sports history.

If you'd like to know more about Tom Longboat, read this story by Roger Robinson for Canadian Running and this story by Malcolm Kelly for CBC Sports. Both pieces helped inform today's newsletter.

Quickly...

John Metchie III was once again named the top Canadian player in NCAA football. For the second straight year, the Alabama wideout was voted the winner of the Jon Cornish Trophy after recording a team-high 96 catches for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Metchie suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Crimson Tide's win over Georgia in the SEC title game, causing him to miss the teams' rematch in the national-championship game, which Georgia won. Despite the injury, Metchie decided to skip his senior season and declare for next week's NFL draft. He's also eligible for the May 3 CFL draft, where he's the top-ranked prospect. Read more about Metchie here.

The Raptors are losing it. Toronto fell behind two games to none in its first-round series vs. Philadelphia with another ugly road loss last night. The short-handed Raptors were without star rookie Scottie Barnes, who suffered a sprained ankle in Game 1, while an ailing Gary Trent Jr., managed only nine minutes. With frustration rising over some calls not going Toronto's way, coach Nick Nurse even got into it with Philly star Joel Embiid, who scored 12 of his 31 points on free throws. The Raptors will try to cool down Embiid and 76ers (and maybe themselves too) when the series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 on Wednesday night. Read more about Game 2 and watch highlights here.

You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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