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The Telegram
  • The Ashland Era nurtured running

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  • Much like the modern Boston Marathon, at its beginnings, the fledgling “American Marathon” was a race for the common man.
    During The Ashland Era, the race’s first 27 years (1897-1923), fields averaged just over 70 starters: plumbers, waiters, blacksmiths, shipping clerks, carpenters, stevedores, farmers, postmen, cops, printers and bricklayers all took a break from their tough everyday grind to gather in Ashland and test their mettle.
    A Who’s Who of early running royalty were among the marathon champs and once and future Olympians who raced from Ashland to Boston’s Back Bay: John McDermott, Sammy Mellor, Tom Longboat, Bill Sherring, Johnny Hayes, patriotic “Bricklayer Bill” Kennedy, Frank Zuna and the immortal Clarence DeMar.
    In this heyday of Ellis Island arrivals, Canadians ran alongside Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Greeks, Irishmen, Scandinavians and Italians, all immigrants, all stewing in the melting pot of The Ashland Era. While an occasional Harvard man or, every so often, a Yalie competed, the Native Americans were a true force. This clash of cultures fueled the ethnic pride prevalent in the clannish enclaves which divided America at the dawn of the 20th century.
    Many traveled to Ashland wearing primitive running gear, often heavy leather boots or shoes and toreador pants, tucked under their street clothes, the uniform of the day. Plenty of runners searched for an edge and equipped themselves with makeshift or experimental footwear, these rigs often proving their downfall.
    In the days prior to the race, a carnival-like atmosphere surrounded the roadhouses near the downtown Ashland train station. Some gambled, many puffed on outsized stogies, others drank and caroused about town but, come Patriots Day, all were determined to pass the marathon test.
    This Wild West-like environment hardly may have been the image the Boston Athletic Association, a club founded by a group of wealthy elite Boston Brahmins, envisioned for its marathon.
    Already a national power in track and field by 1896, BAA club members sailed to Athens to participate in the first modern Olympiad. Once there, BAA members were fascinated by the possibilities of a new event, the 40K marathon, and began plotting out a local event.
    In spring 1987, the BAA arrived at the freshly minted Patriots Day holiday for its date and the road in front of Ashland’s Metcalf’s Mill as its starting point. The site of Marathon Park, which now celebrates The Ashland Era and the town’s iconic perch in running history, the mill stood 25 miles west the finish line, Boston’s Irvington Oval, an indoor track facility with 3,000 seats nearby the BAA’s luxurious new clubhouse.
    Fifteen runners, eight from Boston, seven from New York, toed a starting line scraped by the BAA’s Tom Burke across dusty Pleasant Street on April 19, 1897. At 12:15 p.m., Burke hollered “go” and the clock started ticking on the world’s oldest continuous marathon. The field made its way through the parting crowd as, The Boston Globe reported, “The sleepy old town rang with the cheers of her lusty sons.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Representing New York City’s Pastime Athletic Club, photo engraver McDermott more survived a war of attrition then won this race. Beset by cramps, blisters, thirst and the choking dust rising along the route, McDermott navigated through a funeral possession blocking Massachusetts Avenue at Commonwealth, less than a mile from the finish, to hobble into the oval.
    Struggling through the mob there, McDermott crossed the line in two hours, 55 minutes and 10 seconds, a seven minute-plus margin over fellow New Yorker John Kiernan.
    Jamaica Plain’s E.P. Rhell was third, exactly four minutes later.
    Only 10 of the 15 starters finished and McDermott claimed he had lost nine pounds.
    He vowed never to run the distance again although he did return the next year to finish fourth.
    For more on historic Marathon Park in Ashland, check out www.marathonpark.com.
    (Stephen H. Flynn is the city editor of The Brockton Enterprise and a founding member of the Ashland Sporting Association.)

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