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Baltimore Running Festival is 15, but city's first 'marathon' was 105 years ago

Called a marathon, the first such race in Baltimore was actually 20 miles, not the standard 26.2.
Called a marathon, the first such race in Baltimore was actually 20 miles, not the standard 26.2. (Baltimore Sun file photo)

Fifteen years ago, the Baltimore Running Festival staged its first marathon. But the roots of long distance running here hark back to the early 1900s — a time when men raced down cobbled streets and dirt roads, dodging trolleys and tin lizzies, determined to star in a sport then seeking its niche.

That won't be the look at the start of the running festival Saturday, but it was the scene when locals Henry Elphinstone and Daniel Miller strode to the starting line on May 7, 1910 for a 20-miler between more than 70 runners from Baltimore and Washington. The race, dubbed a "marathon" — the official distance of 26.2 miles wasn't set until 1921 — was to start in Laurel, at the town's hotel, and end at the courthouse in Baltimore.

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Athletes such as Elphinstone and Miller carried this city's hopes. At 25, Elphinstone was president of the Baltimore Cross Country Club and "a crack runner," according to The Sun. In 1909, he'd finished second in the first inter-city marathon that began in Laurel and ended in Washington.

A clerk for the B&O Railroad, Elphinstone was, by all accounts, a tough competitor. Once, during a 10-mile race in ankle-deep mud in January, he discarded his shoes and won barefoot.

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Though lesser known, Miller had his own following and bore the colors of the Baltimore YMCA.

Despite a sloppy send-off — at least two false starts — the pack of runners soon spread out over one-quarter of a mile. After five miles, the field thinned and by the time they reached the Patapsco Hunt Club, near Elkridge, a Washington runner, J.G. Stecker, held the lead. But Elphinstone then surged ahead and held a big lead upon entering Baltimore.

There, with well-wishers lining the streets, doffing their hats and egging him on, Elphinstone abruptly wobbled and collapsed. The crowd gasped. Bystanders lifted an exhausted Elphinstone into an automobile and hurried him to a nearby Turkish bath, the post-race recovery room for the runners.

The city's hopes now lay with Miller who, for several miles, had been plugging along, awaiting his chance. At Baltimore and Poppleton streets, The Sun reported, Miller burst ahead of a Washington runner, James D. Mahoney, "and came in through cheering throngs of spectators, well to the fore …"

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Again, misfortune struck. At Charles and Lexington streets, inexplicably, Miller made a wrong turn and raced perhaps half a block along Charles before realizing his mistake. It cost him, and the city, the race.

"Mahoney dashed ahead at full speed when he saw his opponent's disadvantage and occupied a position fully 30 yards in front of Miller as St. Paul street was passed," The Sun reported. "There was a tumultuous reception awaiting the fleeting runners at the bottom of the hill, and the cheering was perhaps more for the Baltimore boy, but fate predicted that the race should go otherwise."

Mahoney finished in 2:11:11, six seconds ahead of Miller. The victor received a gold medal set with a diamond and etched with a classic drawing of a marathon runner of yore. Sixty-five entrants finished, and those from Washington strutted home winners of the race for the second straight year.

Their success was shortlived. Embarrassed by his performance, a determined Elphinstone roared back in 1911 to win the third inter-city marathon (Laurel-to-Washington again) by two minutes.

"Farmers stopped work to watch the boys go past, and the clerks in town sneaked out for a chance (to watch)," The Sun reported. What they saw was Elphinstone "plowing through the novices like a liner through a school of porpoises."

In hindsight, Elphinstone got in just under the wire. The marathon was discontinued in 1914.

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15th Baltimore Running Festival

When: On Saturday, the marathon and team relay begins at 8 a.m., the 5K begins at 8:20 a.m., the kids fun run begins at 9:20 a.m. for children 7 and under and at 9:30 a.m. for children 8 to 12 and the half-marathon begins at 9:45 a.m.

TV: WBAL will televise the running festival from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m.

Weather: Mostly sunny, with a high of 59 degrees and a low of 36.

Parking and traffic: Parking is available for participants near M&T Bank Stadium in lots A, C, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, O, MM and NN. Many city streets will close to accommodate runners; visit thebaltimoremarathon.com for details.

Security: Organizers ask that all bags are kept away from the race entry areas. Bags brought into those areas could be searched. Dogs, bicycles, roller blades, in-line skates and all vehicles are prohibited on the course.

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