Early Marathons Were Working Man’s Sport

Marathon-running was very popular in the early 20th century. The sport was low cost and offered a new option for blue-collar workers. The industrial age created a little more free time for factory workers and tradesmen. As with any popular sport, prize money and a certain amount of fame attracted more runners.

Crowds were also delighted to follow the sport. No tickets were needed, and people could gather anywhere along the 26-mile route. Ample press coverage gave the crowds the names of the better runners. Reporters were delighted to write about the “harriers,” as the runners were called. The men’s running styles were studied by reporters and the public alike. And of course, wagers were placed on the expected order of finish.

Babe Ruth may have been thrilling them at the ballpark and Jack Dempsey slugging out in the ring, but marathons were free for the public to attend which added to their popularity for crowds.

Early Marathons

Some of the earliest marathons took place at race tracks with the runners circling in what must have felt like an endlessly dizzying path. Race sponsors soon saw that if they could arrange for street routes, it attracted bigger crowds and more visibility for the sponsor. 

The Press wrote about the personalities and running styles of the candidates. Wagers were placed on the expected order of finish in the races the men undertook. Because of the common appeal of the event and the fact that not tickets had to be purchased, large crowds were guaranteed to appear all along the routes as the runners traversed the required distances.

Initially, sponsors and/or coaches followed their men on bicycles. Later they used automobiles.

The Runners Themselves

Almost anyone could attempt to be a marathoner. Those who came to it and succeeded were generally tradesmen. One of the better-known fellows, William J. “Bill” Kennedy, was a New York bricklayer who settled in Chicago for a time. When he first came to prominence placing among the top 15 runners in the Boston Marathon (1915), he was represented the Illinois Bricklayers Athletic Club.

By 1917, Kennedy, a notably “old” age 35, was running for New York’s newly formed Morningside Athletic Club. That year, he won the Boston Marathon with a time of 2 hours 28 minutes, 37 seconds.

World War I

Though working when they had to and running when they could was the chosen life of these homegrown athletes, the war interrupted this pattern.  Many, including Bill Kennedy, joined the Army shortly after the Boston Marathon of 1917. The military recognized their ability and used many of the distance runners as messengers behind the front lines.

When time allowed, the American Expeditionary Forces encouraged athletic events to keep the men occupied their and spirits up. Kennedy was among those on the AEF distance relay team.

When Kennedy returned from the war, he established his bricklaying business in East Port Chester, N.Y., and joined the local Cygnet Athletic Club. Because of Kennedy’s prowess and commitment to the sport as well as his good rapport with the men with whom he ran, Kennedy became a leader among runners. 

New Marathon

In the early 1920s, Kennedy put forward the idea of establishing a new marathon. His suggested plan was to start the run in New York City and end in Port Chester. Port Chester always sponsored a huge Columbus Day celebration, so scheduling the marathon for Columbus Day was perfect. The first run was to be held in 1925.

Kennedy’s influence attracted top runners from all over the United States as well as leading runners from Canada, Finland, and Germany.  

Marathon Sponsor

The Port Chester Chamber of Commerce became the marathon sponsor for the first few years. They saw great potential for giving Port Chester prominence and in stimulating business locally.

Local organizations ranging from the Chamber itself to the Port Chester firemen and the Loyal Order of the Moose all donated trophies for the first ten winners. Medals were to be given to those who placed 11-25 as well as anyone who ran at least ten miles. The prizes were placed on display at A.G. Spaulding at Nassau and Ann Streets in New York City.  (Port Chester Daily Item, 9-17-25)    The press provided glowing reports of the wide array of trophies garnered for the event. 

Decorating Port Chester

Of course, the town needed to be decorated for such a big event. Local business owner Edwin Fehrs was selected to decorate the route. Port Chester was home to the Life Savers factory, so the route wound past that iconic building and down Main Street all the way to Liberty Square.

The reporter for the Port Chester Daily Item noted that Fehrs’s plans to hang flags as banners would provide Port Chester with the “most highly artistic decorations ever seen.”   (Port Chester Daily Item, 9-25-25)

Kennedy’s Protégé

Bill Kennedy was 40 by the time the first marathon was scheduled for Port Chester. This was considered too old to be a true contender. For that reason, Kennedy was grooming a protégé, Whitey Michelson.  Michelson caught Kennedy’s eye after winning a 15-mile race at Yankee Stadium.

As reporters got wind of which runner Kennedy was working with, they made note. Then when Whitey won a race held in September of 1925, they asked Kennedy about the Cygnet Club’s star pupil:  “Well, I’ll tell you, ‘Whitey,’ as we call him at the club, is an all-around man. He can turn his hand at almost anything that spells hard work.  He has been a carpenter, tinsmith, and bricklayer’s helper on different occasions.  Just now he is helping me at the brick laying game.  He carried the hod for me until 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  I told him the exercise would put him in shape for tonight’s race.  I guess it did.”  (Port Chester Daily Item, 9-24-25)

1925 Race

This precedent-setting race sported a field of 92 runners in Columbus Circle. It began with the bang of a starter’s gun “at the tick of noon.” The runners traveled along Central Park West to 110th Street, ran east to Seventh Avenue, up to 152nd Street, and across Macombs Dam Bridge to the Yankee Stadium at 151st Street. From there, the runners continued to the Concourse, Fordham Road to the Boston Post Road, and then up through Pelham, New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Rye.

According to The New York Times (10-13-25), 250,000 people witnessed the race:  “There was cheering for the sturdy athletes all the way, but the greatest cheer of all came when the blond thatch of Michelson hove into sight on the outskirts of Port Chester, where every one in the town, it seemed, had jammed his way onto Main Street, leaving only a narrow lane to the finishing line. A tremendous ovation went up as Port Chester’s native son crossed the line, a winner by a decisive margin…”  

Life Saver Building in Port Chester

With a time of 2 hours 29 minutes and 14-5 seconds, The Daily Item noted that Michelson traveled into town with “auto horns barking an accompaniment.”  (Port Chester Daily Item, 10-12-25).  

Venerable runner Clarence De Mar, who was to win seven Boston Marathons over the course of his lifetime, placed second, and Kennedy himself finished 8th.  Though individual times were the mainstay of each race, all runners were affiliated with a particular sports club Team points were accrued so that a team winner could be designated as well. 

When the local Cygnet Club captured 1st, 8th, and 10th place, they were assured the team trophy.    

Celebration Banquet

A banquet for the runners was held that evening, October 12th. Immediately afterward, Kennedy convened a meeting with twenty-five of the top runners to create an organization to represent American runners to improve the American standing in the Olympics.  Part of Kennedy’s plan was that this newly formed Marathon Runners’ Association (with Kennedy chosen as president) would have some say in the choice of runners, selection of coaches, and training methods used in preparation for the Olympics. 

Marathon Tradition Established

Whitey Michelson

Over the next few years, the Port Chester National Marathon continued to be held in conjunction with the village’s Columbus Day festivities.  Michelson, Clarence De Mar, Charles Mellor, Frank Zuna, and Kennedy, the big runners of the day, continued to participate. The press and the crowds also remained enthusiastic. The 1926 headlines in the New York Times ((10-13-26) read: “Vast Crowd Watches the Race… Hundreds of Thousands Line the Roads and Streets as Men Pass…” 

The tooting of automobile horns was an accepted way to show crowd approval, and the press made note that this occurred all along the route.  (The New York Times, 10-13-26)   De Mar won that year, and Kennedy placed third.

Not All Completed Course

Like marathons of today, not everyone made it successfully to the end. In 1927, the New York Times wrote that a special hospital coach was to follow the harriers, with a doctor, a nurse, and other attendants to take care of runners who dropped out of the race.  (New York Times, 10-7-27)

Tradition Continues

In 1934, Broadway columnist (and Port Chester native) Ed Sullivan started the race. On this occasion the race began at 122nd Street and Morningside Drive.  But by 1936, the marathon organizers were notified by the Manhattan police officials that the route needed to be changed. It was a last-minute decision. The police ruled that the marathon could no longer start in New York City. Someone had stumbled upon a city ordinance that did not allow “parades,” on Sundays unless they were sponsored by a religious, charitable, or military organization.  (Port Chester Daily Item, 10-8-36) 

With only days to go, the race committee of the Port Chester National Marathon Association was forced to make a drastic change in the course. The decision that was made involved shifting it so that the runners started in Port Chester before heading south to New Rochelle. From there, the runner looped back into neighboring Greenwich and then proceeded home. 

New Runner of Note

That year, a 22-year-old “Indian, [per newspapers of the day]” known as Tarzan Brown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, won out over a field of 58. He came in only a minute ahead of the popular favorite, Pat Dengis. Dengis was the winner of the 1934 race and a preeminent runner of the day. 

Press accounts noted that at the start of the race, Brown simply waited:  He “slowly placed his hands behind his head and lolled about as his competitors got set.  When everybody was away, he began to walk after them.”  (Port Chester Daily Item, 10-12-36)   

            The reporting of the race was a far cry from the reporting style of today: “Many of the spectators and officials expressed the opinion that Denghis (sic) lost because he passed Brown before Harrison.  The consensus was that if the Baltimore harrier had held his pace until South Main Street was reached he might have knocked off the redskin in the closing minutes of the grind.” (Port Chester Daily Item, 10-12-36)   Brown’s time that day was 2:36:57. 

Kennedy Continues

Kennedy was still very much a part of the action. The Daily Item reports:  “Old “Bill” Kennedy of East Port Chester, who won’t call his marathoning off until they shove him in a box, had it all over many of the youngsters in yesterday’s grind.

 “Bill, plugging along in the same way that has brought him national fame and glory on the road, bettered his position at every checking station on the pike…

 “When the daddy of them all crossed the finish line eighteenth, he was greeted with an ovation that outranked that given the winner.”  (Port Chester Daily Item, 10-12-36)   

Clarence De Mar, among the famous runners of that day.

Longer Run Times Than Today

The times set by these marathoners averaged about two and a half hours. Today’s marathoners generally finish at a faster clip. But times have changed.

Today most runners limit themselves to two-to-three marathons each year to give their bodies a chance to rebuild.

In earlier days, these working men/harriers ran whenever they could. The better runners had coaches who met them at the end of a race. The runners were then loaded into a car to travel to next race. This might be the next day or the next week.  

Little Time for Rest

A feature column about the ’36 marathon winner, says:  “A simple marathon evidently doesn’t mean much to Brown.  After copping yesterday’s event he is after another one today in New Hampshire.  Mr. Farrington, “Tarzan’s” manager, is certainly working his Indian hard and no mistake.”  (Port Chester Daily Item, 10-12-36) 

Another article about runner, Sidney Hatch, a former Chicago newsboy, noted that Hatch had run 94 miles in one week and on another occasion had run a 100-mile race in 17 hours “defeating his nearest rival by 14 miles.” (Port Chester Daily Item, 9-22-25)  

Today’s marathoners would win out on time, but they would be hard-pressed to match the mileage logged by these early runners. 

World War II Brings Port Chester Tradition to a Close

In 1940, the worry of war was obvious in all the newspaper headlines, but Port Chester held its last marathon that year—its 16th time.  The race was to begin on Pearl Street in front of the YMCA building, circle through northeast Westchester and finish in Summerfield Park.

 Only 38 runners were entered that year, but the field was filled with stellar competitors. Fan favorite Pat Denghis died in a plane accident earlier in the year. Marathon founder Kennedy’s name was also missing from that year’s press accounts. However, there are documented reports of him running as late as 1944. The New York Times of January 9, 1944, reports that Kennedy was working in the shipyards in New Orleans and had placed 15th in the annual Jackson Day race there. 

Kennedy is quoted as saying: “If the Lord had built me with a speedometer, [sic] I’d show about 100,000 miles of marathon-running.”   (Kennedy’s obituary has not yet been located so no final report of his running can be given.) 

            In 1941, the Columbus Day festivities continued, but Americans knew that war with Japan was coming.  Whether it was the dearth of men on the home front or the fact that the community was preoccupied with national defense issues, there was no marathon that year, and the pre-parade news stressed the “cooperation necessary among farm, factory, country, and city in the present crisis.” 

One Final Revival

Then in 1956, the marathon was revived.  The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Port Chester Columbus Day Celebration, and 41 “crack marathon runners from Massachusetts, New York State, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maine” were scheduled to journey through Port Chester, Harrison, Mamaroneck, White Plains, and Rye.  The tradition of the buffet dinner for the runners was also continued, and though there was interest in reviving the marathon again in 1992, the running of the 1956 Port Chester National Marathon marked the end of an era. 

To read about another long-distance race of this era, see Route 66 Opening Celebrated with Mixed-Race Contest.

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