scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Marathon’s charity campaigns go back a century

The Boston Athletic Association’s Boston Marathon charity program began in 1989. Today, marathon runners raise well over $10 million every year to support the 36 charities in the program. But people have been running for good causes much longer than that, starting more than 100 years ago with a marathon sponsored by the Boston American.

On Dec. 28, 1908, a major earthquake hit Italy, centered on the Sicilian city of Messina. The quake and the subsequent tsunami devastated Sicily and the nearby Italian mainland, spreading destruction across a circle over 300 kilometers in radius and killing more than 100,000 people.

When the news crossed the Atlantic, Americans, many of whom migrated from Italy, mobilized to help. At the time, the United States was in the midst of a “marathon mania’’ inspired by American Johnny Hayes’s victory at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London. Playing off that, on Jan. 1, 1909, the Boston American announced that the newspaper would sponsor a marathon Jan. 9 to support the effort to assist the victims of the quake.

The local office of the Amateur Athletic Union managed the race. Entry was free, but all runners had to be amateurs and registered with the AAU. The course matched the BAA’s annual Patriots Day Boston Marathon route, for the most part. However, the BAA race was 24.5 miles at the time, while the course for the charity race was set at 26 miles and 385 yards to match the distance of the Olympic Marathon in London, making it the first New England marathon to use that now-standard distance. It ended with four laps inside the South End Grounds on Columbus Avenue, home of the Boston Doves, the National League baseball team that a few years later became the Boston Braves.


The Boston American plugged the race heavily in the days leading up to the race. A headline on the Jan. 2 front page boasted “Charity the Biggest Prize of Marathon’’ with an article that said the race “will not only determine athletic supremacy, but will also be the first marathon ever held for charity.’’


Tickets to watch the finish of the race from inside the South End Grounds sold for 25 cents, approximately $6 in today’s money. Local businesses covered the cost of putting on the race, so all the proceeds from ticket sales were dedicated to the Italian earthquake relief fund.

The weather was a concern, as it always is for a marathon.

In January, the biggest worry was the possibility of a winter storm. The paper downplayed the issue. Charles Henry of Lynn, the 14th-place finisher in the 1908 Boston Marathon, was quoted as saying, “I believe the cold weather will prove a great help and I fully expect to see some records broken. The cold crisp air ought to aid the runners. I find it aids me, for after I have run several miles from the cold air, I have better wind and am fresher if anything.’’

The day before the race there was some snow, but a front-page headline guaranteed: “Ideal Weather for Marathon Promised’’. Readers were told to expect temperatures “just right for outdoor running.’’ However, in a small note from the race committee, athletes were advised, “it would be well to wear long drawers, a fairly heavy jersey, and gloves would be a good idea, also. It would also be wise to be equipped with at least one heavy sweater, to wear from the headquarters at the Ashland house to the starting point.’’


The race committee also offered tips for prospective runners:

“It is very important that the contestant should eat simple food, plainly cooked. Food should be eaten slowly and chewed thoroughly, and taken in moderate quantities. Avoid sweets and indigestible foods of all sorts. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Drink water between meals. Alcohol in any form is positively forbidden before, during and immediately after the race. It never does good and usually does harm. Disregard of the foregoing shall be considered sufficient grounds for disqualification by the physicians in charge.’’

Local support

By race day, 108 runners had submitted registration forms. That compared well with the 147 entrants for the BAA Marathon the previous April.

Since 1909 was before air travel or wide-ranging automobile travel, the fact that there were only eight days between the announcement of the race and the start limited entrants to local runners. Some of the athletes skipped a previously scheduled marathon in Madison Square Garden the day before in order to attend.

Italian runner Dorando Pietri was traveling in the United States at the time. Pietri beat Hayes across the line at the famous 1908 London Olympic marathon, but he was disqualified because he had collapsed and race officials had to help him finish.

The marathon committee asked him to be the starter for the race, but Pietri was unable to attend because of a commitment in St. Louis, so he sent a note to the paper to thank them for the invitation and congratulate them, writing, “I rejoice at the splendid initiative you have taken in the Italian relief work.’’


James B. Connolly, 1896 Olympic triple jump champion and a local author, was brought in to replace Pietri as the starter.

The favorites were Robert Fowler and Frederick Lorz. Fowler was coming off a victory eight days earlier in a New Year’s Day marathon in Yonkers, N.Y. He had finished third at Boston in 1905 and 1908, and second in 1907. Fowler had been a favorite to be named to the US Olympic team in 1908, but the AAU suspended him on a charge of professionalism and he wasn’t reinstated until after the Games.

Lorz was another infamous Olympic marathon “winner.’’ The AAU suspended him after he finished first at the 1904 Olympic marathon because he rode 11 miles of the race in his manager’s car. Lorz was reinstated after he claimed he had only crossed the line as a joke.

Lorz was the winner of the Boston Marathon in 1905 and he had finished third behind Fowler in the race on New Year’s Day.

The morning of the race, runners gathered at South Station to catch the 9:20 train to Ashland for the start. The day was dry, but cold. Temperatures were near freezing at noon, when 54 runners lined up and Connolly fired the gun to begin the race.


The first few miles were slow as the athletes ran over deep ruts frozen into the dirt roads. A bicyclist trailed each runner to ensure their safety as they headed to Boston, while volunteer drivers followed behind to pick up any runners who had to drop out.

Despite the forecast, the temperature was cold enough to cause some runners to quit early, and as Connolly noted in his article after the race, “there was more dust than was soothing to a tired runner’s lungs, some of it kicked up by various busy and well-meaning, but somewhat discommoding automobiles.’’

Once the runners reached pavement in Natick, they were able to pick up the pace. Fowler, Lorz, and Albert Ellis of South Easton ran together in the lead pack into Wellesley before Fowler, accompanied on bicycle by his brother, pulled away to a comfortable lead.

Fine finish

Thousands of onlookers cheered the runners as they arrived in Boston. Inside the South End Grounds, Stone’s Military Brass Band entertained the crowd while they waited. An announcer at the ballpark kept the crowd posted on the progress of the athletes as they passed points along the course.

Fowler retained his ample lead as he entered the ballpark and he was almost halfway through the four laps inside the Grounds when Lorz arrived. Fowler held on to win easily in a time of 2 hours 43 minutes 55 seconds. Lorz was second in 2:46:15 and William Wiesmann of South Boston was the only other runner to complete the course in less than three hours. Henri Renard of Nashua, N.H., finished 13th, then went on to win the BAA marathon in April. In all, 24 runners made it to the finish.

The next day, headlines reported “All Who Finished in Fine Condition’’ along with a list of “Pathetic Incidents in the Hard, Long Race,’’ including the story of Michael Marano of Cambridge.

“10 miles from the start he collapsed and fell beside the road, but arose and staggered on when assured that he would freeze if he attempted to rest. He refused all assistance of an auto and said he would finish if he died. Marino did not die, but his hopes finally expired, for with William C. Cayle he lost the road in the Newtons, to be overtaken a mile and a half out of their way upon which both decided to take a lift and give up the race.’’

As the winner, Fowler received a large silver cup, awarded by Mayor George A. Hibbard in his office on the following Thursday.

The next 10 finishers got smaller cups, inscribed with “Boston American Marathon Run January 9, 1909.’’ The remaining finishers received a medal to mark their effort.

Overall, people in the Boston area donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Italian relief effort. Newspaper accounts did not mention how much the race contributed to the cause.

It was a cold winter day and spectators could watch the runners approach the grounds for free, so ticket sales may not have been as brisk as the weather. But 100 years later, that 1909 Boston American Race stands as the earliest example of the generous spirit that runners are known for today, a spirit that in 2010 generated a record $1.65 billion for charity.

Ray Charbonneau is the author of “Chasing the Runner’s High’’ and “R is for Running.’’ He can be reached at