Atlanta, Georgia has the oldest marathon in the southeastern United States. The Atlanta Marathon wasn't run until 1963, though. From this, you'd conclude that marathon running was late in coming to the South.
But the Atlanta Marathon is only the oldest existing marathon in the region. There were other races before Atlanta, they just aren't around any more. One of these was the Sylvester-to-Albany Marathon of 1912, preceding the Atlanta Marathon by more than half a century.
Notices of the Sylvester-to-Albany Marathon first started appearing in area newspapers during the spring of 1912. The Tifton Gazette ran this in their issue dated 14 June 1912:
Members of the Hikers club, of Sylvester, will participate in a twenty mile marathon, from Sylvester to Albany, the latter part of this month. The race starts at the Worth County Local office and ends at the office of the Albany Herald, $100 being offered in prizes.
The Gazette had the date wrong, though; the race was actually scheduled for 4 July 1912. The Thomasville Times-Enterprise took the race somewhat less seriously, running this a few days later.
The Mayor of Sylvester and the Editor of the Worth County Local are both qualified to take part in the big Marathon to Albany on the Fourth of July. The Mayor has already proven that he could run and the editor can tell how it ought to be done whether he gets there or not.
Twenty miles is well short of the 26 miles and 385 yards (or 42,195 meters) that we would call a marathon today. In fact, the course was only 19.7 miles long. But in 1912 it was only a short time since the marathon had been introduced at the 1896 Olympics as a 40-kilometer race. The Boston Marathon had just been run for the sixteenth time, each time at 24-1/2 miles. It would be over a decade before either of these iconic races moved to the 26 miles and 385 yards distance.
The seed of that official distance had been sown, though. The 1908 London Olympic Marathon, for complicated reasons, had been 26 miles and 385 yards. The dramatic collapse of Dorando Pietri, the win by American Johnny Hayes, and a cast of characters that included Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Alexandra of England made for a great story. And because London, as the center of the British Empire, was at that time the media capital of the world, that story had gone around the globe by telegraph. Newspaper editors everywhere picked up the story, and when they had to explain to their readers what a marathon was, they glibly mentioned that "a marathon is 26 miles and 385 yards." Neither the International Olympic Committee nor the International Amateur Athletic Federation would have agreed, but the decision had been taken out of their hands. Those officials might as well have tried to redefine the length of a mile.
The 1908 Olympic Marathon race touched off a marathon craze that inspired many new marathons and a professional marathon circuit. Most of these new races were 26 miles and 385 yards long. Some folks didn't get the memo, though. The IAAF didn't make the new distance official until 1921, and Boston continued at 24-1/2 miles till 1924. Likewise, the Sylvester Hikers staged their 19.7-mile "marathon" in 1912. Maybe they just couldn't be bothered to find a less direct route between the two newspaper offices. Whatever their reasons, about the time the marathon craze was dying down elsewhere in the United States, it was just getting started in south Georgia.
Early on the morning of 4 July 1912, the runners set off from the headquarters of the Worth County Local in Sylvester. Before starting, each athlete had to pass a physician's examination. It was later reported that "one of the contestants of the race did not arrive at the starting point in time to undergo this examination and as the results of heart trouble he fell by the roadside exhausted and in a serious condition before the goal was reached." Sylvester's Joe Garrett had no such problem. Garrett was the first to reach the Albany Herald finish line of the marathon, a little less than 2-1/2 hours after leaving Sylvester. That's not quite as fast as 7:30 per mile, but the roads were not quite paved, either. The U.S. highway system was still years in the future; the Sylvester-to-Albany Marathon may have been more like 19.7 miles of cross country than like a road race.
The marathon was deemed successful enough that the race was repeated on 4 July 1913. There was no mention of the Sylvester Hikers this time; the Albany Herald and the Worth County Local were in charge of the show. Prizes totalling $200 were offered. It's not clear whether this was cash or merchandise; sources differ. Reports stated that "the race will be open to all amateur runners in Worth and Dougherty counties who were bona fide residents of those counties on May 15." Surely, amateur runners wouldn't be competing for cash prizes? The Amateur Athletic Union would have been interested. But the announced $100 for first, $50 for second, $30 for third, and $20 for fourth were handsome stakes for an era when the price of gold was pegged at $20 an ounce. Each athlete was charged an entry fee of $2. Furthermore, they would have to pass a medical examination by Dr. L. E. Welch of Albany the day before the race in order to be allowed to compete.
The 1913 race was run in the opposite direction of the 1912 event; starting in Albany and ending in Sylvester. The competitors were expected to spend the night in Albany before setting out from the Herald offices at 5:00 AM on July 4. The early starting time must have been to avoid killing the runners with summer heat.
So in the dim morning hours of the Fourth of July, ten athletes pawed the street in front of the Albany Herald. Three other entries had failed to show up. At 5:09 AM the race was underway. Defending champion Joe Garrett set the early pace, but another son of Sylvester went with him, Elzie (or Elsie, or L. C.) Hancock. The two soon outdistanced the rest of the field. Hancock proved stronger in the end, reaching the Sylvester offices of the Worth County Local and the finish line first in 2:25:22. Garrett was runner-up in 2:29:41. J. P. Fulgham took third with a 2:54:46, and H. E. Redding was fourth in 3:22:52. The other six runners reportedly dropped out.
"Marathon Day" didn't end with the race. The Woodmen of the World barbecued over 3,000 pounds of meat for a lunchtime feast "at which the contestants in the big race and the officials will be the guests of honor." Later a special excursion train took Worth Countians to Albany for a minor league baseball matchup between Albany and Columbus of the South Atlantic League.
Not everyone in south Georgia had been happy with the 1913 marathon being restricted to athletes from Dougherty and Worth counties. A soda advertisement in the Tifton Gazette even mentioned the issue: "Tift county citizens may not be allowed to enter the Fourth of July Marathon, but everybody can drink our bottling, Red Race Ginger Ale, Coca-Cola, and Bludwine." So for the 1914 edition of the Fourth of July marathon eligibility was expanded to include the athletes of Baker, Colquitt, Dougherty, Lee, Mitchell, and Worth counties. This didn't increase the size of the field, though; there were still only ten competitors. Perhaps the higher entry fee of $3 discouraged participation. As in 1912, the 1914 race was run from Sylvester to Albany.
Also as in 1912, Joe Garrett won the 1914 marathon, this time running 2:44:30. Archie Hancock, brother to 1913 champion Elsie (or Elzie, or L.C.) Hancock, was runner up, followed by two Albany runners, A. R. Langford and J. E. Wallis. Once again, the rest of the runners apparently dropped out. If it looked like you weren't going to score one of the four cash prizes, then why bother to finish?
After 1914 the Herald-Local marathon disappeared. South Georgia’s marathon mania had lasted no longer than that elsewhere in the country. With the World War in Europe raging, no one needed stories about marathon-running south Georgia boys to sell newspapers. Later, some of those boys went away to the Great War. A few years after the armistice the IAAF declared the official marathon distance to be 26 miles and 385 yard, six-and-a-half miles farther than the Herald-Local marathon had been. The country roads between Sylvester and Albany where marathoners once trudged disappeared, replaced first by Georgia Route 50 and then by US 82. A shorter Fourth of July race on Peachtree Street in Atlanta appeared in the 1970s, eventually becoming Georgia's preeminent Independence Day running event. Albany got a new marathon in 2007, this one at the regulation distance. Sylvester became the home of Peter Pan Peanut Butter and settled for hosting a shorter race, the Peanut Festival 5K.
The building in Sylvester where the race started still stands, even though the Worth County Local moved out long ago. You can stand on the street outside and wonder what it must have been like a century ago to stand in that same spot, contemplating a pre-dawn run over red clay roads and across the Flint River to far-off Albany. Garrett, the Hancocks, and those other boys knew, but they've already run their last races.
- Source documents used as references in this article
- The story of another southern race inspired by the marathon craze of 1908, the Charleston Relay
- The 2013 running of Albany's modern marathon
- Enough of past marathons; find a future marathon to run on the Trouble Afoot! race calendar