Johnny Miles was out to make a point in the 1929 Boston Marathon.
In 1926, the 20-year-old grocery deliveryman from Nova Scotia had come out of obscurity to win a stunning upset victory in the race. “Unknown Kid Wins The Greatest Of All Marathons,” the Boston Post headline read the next day.
But the young sensation dropped out early from the 1927 Marathon and did not compete in the 1928 race.
In 1929, he showed up to prove he wasn’t a fluke, and he did just that, winning Boston again, cruising over the finish line in a record for that time of 2 hours 33 minutes and 8 seconds before being swarmed by fedora-clad reporters and photographers.
Newsreel outtakes stored in a university archive captured that moment, as well as other scenes from the Marathon course that day, offering a rare, 5-minute window into what the race looked like 92 years ago.
The footage comes from the Moving Image Research Collections of the University of South Carolina. The MIRC is the repository of the Fox Movietone News Collection, which was donated to the university in 1980 by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation.
Benjamin Singleton, licensing coordinator for the MIRC, said the collection has no record that the 1929 Marathon footage was ever used in a newsreel, the short films presenting the news that were played in movie theaters. Even if it was, he said, only a snippet was likely used — and the newsreel itself might no longer exist.
The university says on its website that the Fox Movietone News Collection is “arguably the single most complete moving-image record of American culture in the 1920s extant anywhere in the world” and while many important film clips are well known, “still other jewels await discovery.”
Johnny Miles had first captured people’s imaginations in the 1926 race. He had grown up in the town of Sydney Mines on Cape Breton Island. At the age of 11, he worked in coal mines to help support his family while his father served in World War I.
After his father returned from the war, Miles was able to leave his job in the mines. He became interested in running.
Once he secured a job delivering groceries for a co-op store, his training accelerated. He devised a set of lengthy reins and would run behind the horse-drawn wagon, directing the horse as he ran. He and his horse became a curious sight along the hills and valleys of Nova Scotia, he later acknowledged: a riderless wagon followed by a runner in work clothes and heavy boots.
And, with a pair of 98-cent sneakers, a homemade jersey emblazoned with a red maple leaf, and a crumpled photo of his idol, Finnish racer Albin Stenroos — whom he he passed on Heartbreak Hill — Miles emerged triumphant and was celebrated around Boston.
“Swift Pony Paced Jackie Miles, Boy Marathon Champion in Training Runs,” said a Boston Daily Globe headline. The subheadline said, “Young Driver of Delivery Wagon Often Runs Beside Horse to Encourage Animal in Stormy Weather — Winner Teaches Sunday Bible class, Walks 10 miles to See His Girl, and Thinks Nothing of Jogging an Hour After Day’s Work.”
Fast forward to 1929.
The Globe reported that the runners — the Boston Athletic Association says there were 215 entrants that year — were amused by the newsreel cameras that were recording their run. “The runners found great delight in following the movie-tone picture cars, and they yelled at various times, Miles saying, ‘How is everything in Nova Scotia,’ apparently thinking he was talking into the radio,” the Globe’s John J. Hallahan reported.
At Wellesley, Hallahan reported, the “Wellesley College girls ... gave Jackie Miles a good reception, at which he smiled.”
Miles and another runner, Albert “Whitey” Michelsen, began a “heartbreaking duel” in Newton that lasted into Boston, the Globe reported.
“Miles had saved himself well and swinging onto Chestnut Hill Ave. ... he was at his best. He, however, could not shake off Michelsen. The latter held on like a vise. He was out to battle the Canadian. ‘Whitey’ was not going to die without an effort. But he did fade, quickly at that, and Miles raced onto a winning margin, which he held to the finish,” Hallahan wrote.
By the finish line, Michelsen had receded to fourth and Miles was all alone. The newsreel footage shows him arriving with a smile.
“Startling and sensational as was his 1926 achievement, he eclipsed the performance,” Hallahan wrote. “It probably was the most amazing display of speed that has ever been shown for such a distance, and another fine contribution to the sensational events the B.A.A. has promoted on Patriots’ Day.”
In a first-person account in the Globe, Miles said, “I returned to Boston this year for the sole purpose of showing the world that it was no mistake that I won in 1926. ...It was a great race to win, greater than that of 1926. It gave me a world of pleasure to overcome such a field of remarkable runners, and to make a new world’s record.”
“What a battle it was though! Not only a battle against that great runner Whitey Michelsen and against your local boy, Jack Lamb, but a battle against the fumes of gasoline, against automobiles and motorcycles which were often too close for comfort, and even against a dog,” Miles wrote.
“I find it pleasant to compete in Marathon races. I like it, and hope to continue running for a good many years to come,” he wrote. “And I like to run the Boston race. The people are so nice to me. They buoy up one with their cheers and it evidently does not matter where one comes from as long as he lives right and is a good sportsman. I find the people as good to me as at home,” he said.
Miles also competed in, but did not win a medal in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. In 1983, he received the Order of Canada, its highest civilian award. After leaving competitive running, Miles became an executive at International Harvester while making his home in Hamilton, Ontario. He died in 2003 at the age of 97.
Michael J. Bailey of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.