Association of International Marathons and Distance Races

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Running into history

12 December 2022, 2pm

Second known surviving sign secured

Distance marker from the original 42195m presented to Marathoneum Berlin


Before the winners came through the finish line at the Berlin Marathon on 25 September last year a small but historically significant ceremony was staged there.

Paco Borao, President of the Association of Marathons and Distance Races, handed over a mile marker from the 1908 London Olympic Marathon to the Mayor of Berlin, Franziska Giffey, who in turn entrusted it to the curator of the Marathoneum Berlin, Gerd Steins.

It is a rare physical relic of the race that defined the Marathon distance as 26 miles 385 yards (42195m). The 18-mile marker, a cast-iron fingerpost sign, surfaced from obscurity at a car boot sale in the north of England two years ago. The buyer, Graham Webster, knew what he had acquired and took it for valuation on the BBC programme ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ but on the programme he expressed the feeling that the sign really belonged in a museum.

On behalf of AIMS Frank Baillie, the publisher of Distance Running magazine, approached Webster who agreed to sell the sign. This was at a time when the covid pandemic made travel problematic. Even in 2022, with restrictions lifted, the sign needed especially careful fully-couriered transportation due to the brittleness of the cast iron. Frank Baillie drove halfway across Europe to ensure safe delivery of the sign to former Berlin Marathon race director Horst Milde.

Since 1994 Milde has been instrumental in the establishment and upkeep of the AIMS Marathon Museum of Running, later renamed the ‘Marathoneum’. The sign was now in place several weeks before the Marathon with a view to making the presentation at the race.

The marker was in fact placed 8.2 miles into the course, at 18 miles to go, and bears the ‘5-diamond’ emblem of Polytechnic Harriers, the club given the task of organising the race. Such signs were used for the entire length of the course but the only one previously known still to be in existence was the “25 miles” [to go] sign at Eton.

What makes the length of this particular race, signposted in both miles and ‘kilos’, so important was that it eventually became fixed as the Marathon standard of 26 miles 385 yards or 42.195 kilometres. Since the invention of the event for the first edition of the Modern Olympic Games in 1896 marathons had usually been approximately 25 miles (40km) but could vary considerably in length. Why this race became so significant was due to the dramatic finale which played out on the track inside the White City stadium in West London.

The Italian Dorando Pietri, who had led the race from 24 miles, collapsed repeatedly and was ‘assisted’ to his feet by race referee Jack Andrew before a last dash to the finish line. He got there 32 seconds before the American, Johnny Hayes, but the Americans protested and Hayes was awarded the victory. Public sympathy was with Pietri and Queen Alexandra, who had witnessed his desperate last-lap struggle, awarded him a special commemorative cup.

The race stoked a marathon frenzy and ‘re-runs’ attracted huge betting interest. Pietri, Hayes and various other contenders met up in many different locations in the following years, both indoors and outside, where the only constant was the distance they had to run. This was around the same time that the world governing body of the sport, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF, now World Athletics) was formed in 1912. IAAF only got around to formalising the Marathon distance in 1924 but when they did they determined that it should be the same as that run from Windsor to White City in the 1908 Olympic Marathon.

The names of the main protagonists in the 1908 London Olympic Marathon: Dorando Pietri (gallant loser), Johnny Hayes (winner) and Tom Longboat (favoured as a possible winner before the race but who dropped out) have lived on in Marathon history – but who can name the other medal winners who finished behind Hayes?

The silver medallist was Charles Hefferon of South Africa who Pietri had overtaken at 24 miles and who had played a prominent part in the later stages of the race. The bronze medallist was Hayes’ team mate Joseph Forshaw. Forshaw started the race at a much steadier pace than most of the other 55 starters – of whom only 27 finished – and slowly worked his way through the field to place third. His grand-daughter Christine O’Shaughnessy remembers:

“Joe Forshaw, my grandfather, was immensely proud to win the bronze medal in the 1908 Olympic Marathon. When talking to me he spoke with great affection about the race, that first marathon run over the now standard 26 miles 385 yards distance. Joe would have been delighted by the re-discovery of the 18 mile marker. Championing sport for all throughout his long life Joe would have been mightily pleased that the future public display of the 18 mile marker will celebrate marathon running and help to inspire others.”

A photo that was taken in St Johns Rd, Uxbridge Moor, shows the leading runners about two hundred yards further on from where the 18 mile marker stood. Charles Hefferon (SA now RSA), Dorando Pietri (ITA), Fred Lord (UK) and Jack Price (UK) were together at this point. Price was one of several English runners who set a very fast early pace. Price was still leading when he dropped out at 14 miles.

Joe Neanor, who has studied the route of the 1908 Olympic Marathon in some detail, comments “Today the scene is little changed, all the houses are still there, the front garden walls giving way to hard standings for car parking.

“When I got to the bridge, very pleasingly the original railings to which the 18 mile marker was fixed appear to still be there. If you wanted you could put the 18 mile marker up again in the same position as it was in a photograph that appeared in the Illustrated London News. The 1908 ILN photo shows it was fixed to the third upright from the end… That part of the bridge could fairly be described as the renovated original as all 13 uprights (elegant originals and later functional replacements) appear to be fixed in the same positions as in 1908. The ivy covered upright third from the end, a replacement it turns out, is where the 18 mile marker post stood.”

In the 1908 official report the distance from the start to the Stadium is given as 26 miles (with 385 yards as the distance within the stadium) and the eight mile point is given as “Long Bridge, Uxbridge Moor”. The distance from the start to the bridge, which Neanor measured using online tools, was 7.94 miles.


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