Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 3 Dec 2001 09:03:18 -0500

Trials of the Century


As I carried the John Furla trophy, I was the one who felt transported. The trophy took me back almost a century.

Who's John Furla? I barely knew the name before visiting St. Louis, where he ran his biggest race. He'd rated only a line in the just-completed Running Encyclopedia.

Furla finished next-to-last in the first U.S. Olympic Games, at St. Louis in 1904. At least he finished, though, on a day when more than half the field didn't.

He was the only Missourian to run in those Games. The Furla family donated one of his awards as a trophy now bearing the names of all Spirit of St. Louis Marathon winners.

John Furla not only is a link to running's past here. He's also a possible bridge to the future.

I carried his trophy away from a meeting called to discuss the St. Louis bid for the 2004 Olympic Trials Marathon -- men's, women's or both. (No site has ever hosted the two races at once.) The city already had planned a centennial celebration for the Games, and now hopes to make the Trials its centerpiece.

St. Louis already is a finalist for the women's race, and USATF will select the men's final three this week. After the selection committee visits these cities, the winner or winners will be named in about a month.

Planners in St. Louis don't care to advertise that the 1904 marathon there was the most chaotic in Olympic history. It featured (if that's the right word) a midafternoon start in midsummer heat. A runner nearly died from dust inhalation.

Only 14 of 32 starters (18 of them Americans) finished, including our Mr. Furla. The "winner," Frederick Lorz of the U.S., was disqualified for hitching a ride.

Another American, true winner Thomas Hicks, was fueled by strychnine (a legal stimulant at the time). He averaged 8:24 miles.

At our recent St. Louis meeting I jokingly suggested a motto for 2004: "We'll get it right this time."

I have no doubt the city will do the race(s) right if given the chance. No bidder can match the historic link, but that alone won't sell the selectors.

These facts might: (1) the needed money is already pledged; (2) the successful St. Louis Sports Commission stands strongly behind the Trials; (3) the two-year-old Spirit of St. Louis Marathon has a fulltime race director, Nancy Lieberman, eager to tackle the Trials; (4) Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray acts as a consultant in this effort.

McGillivray said St. Louis is a better choice for the Trials than one of the country's better-known race sites. He told a St. Louis reporter, "It's not Boston, New York or Chicago, which is so mega-big [with its fast, international field] that it will dwarf the event. There's a benefit to aligning with something like St. Louis."

The city has given USATF many ways to customize the event it wants: one race or two, three choices of date (all in April), and four possible courses.

The former Olympic route, or what can still be run of it, isn't one of the options. It's too hilly to yield the times that the Trials now demand.

The likely choice would be a four-lap course in Forest Park. It would be fast (with no more than 25 feet of elevation change), scenic (as if that matters in the Trials), and spectator- and official-friendly. Plus the park borders on Washington University, home of the old Olympic track at Francis Field.

Organizers in St. Louis also talk of honoring the 1904 Olympic Marathon with a special commemorative run on as much of the original course as possible. One runner would represent each of the Olympians, but would stop short of taking a free ride, or strychnine.

(Shortly after this column was written, St. Louis was awarded the Women's Trials for 2004.)

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