There’s a new book about a discussion-driving topic in sport: doping. “Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports,” by Mark Johnson, was just released by VeloPress and explores the history and current day controversies of performance-enhancing drugs. The book doesn’t exclusively explore the sport of running (how could it, really), but running has had more than its fair share of … situations. Not all of them were down-low, hide-it-from-WADA scandals we’re used to today, though.
Take for example the marathon run at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. (Men’s, of course … ) Interestingly enough, I just read about this story in a well-written and informative kid’s picture book I got from the library for my daughter, “The Wildest Race Ever.” Of course, now I need to read the grown-up version of this story; and lucky for me, it’s covered in “Spitting in the Soup.” Pick up your copy from Velopress for $24.95 on their website here.
Here’s an excerpt, posted with permission:
The morning of August 30, 1904, dawned hot and humid in St. Louis, Missouri.The United States was hosting its first Olympic Games, and it was as if an oppressive blanket had been lowered over the Mississippi River town for a signature event, the marathon. Fourteen miles into the 24.85-mile run (the 26.2-mile standard was not established until 1908),1 runner Charles Hicks—British-born but representing the United States—doubled over on the side of a road in what a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter called “sweltering heat and clouds of dust.”2 Along with the swampy conditions, Hicks and 31 other runners dodged a torture trail of unpaved roads and ankle-twisting rocks. Dust accumulated in powdery pools so deep it swallowed the runners’ shoes. There was one water stop—a well 12 miles into the course. Farm dogs added misery. A pack of snarling canines chased a black South African competitor off course. Meanwhile, running in cutoff trousers and street shoes, the race’s sole Cuban, a mail carrier named Félix Carvajal, scrounged fruit from an orchard along the way. The Cuban promptly puked up a gut full of pulp. In these conditions, turning to modern medicine was logical; refusing to offer it would have been ethically shocking.
A physician and Olympic chronicler named Charles Lucas trailed the 5-foot 6-inch, 133-pound Hicks in one of 20 race follow cars. While two of these support vehicles ended up flipped over in roadside ditches, the remaining parade kicked up so much dirt that runners had to periodically stop to hack their lungs free of crud. Press reports describe a California competitor named William Garcia found “lying unconscious by the roadside several miles from the stadium.” Garcia collapsed from a dust-induced stomach hemorrhage. As for Hicks, Lucas felt his charge was not the favorite. “There were three other men in the race who were better runners than Hicks, and who should have defeated him,” the doctor noted. “But they lacked proper care on the road.”3
“Proper care” meant drugs. When Hicks hit the wall 10 miles from the finish, he begged for water. Hicks’s Boston-based trainer, a football coach named Hugh C. McGrath, was in the car with Lucas. Hewing to cutting-edge fitness doctrines of the day, McGrath and Lucas denied the dehydrated Hicks’s pleas for water. Instead, they furthered his torture by sponging his mouth with distilled water. Three miles farther along, with other runners dropping out with cramps and heat exhaustion, Lucas had to turn to more sophisticated medicines. With Hicks’s pace reduced to a crawl, Lucas recalled that he “was forced to administer one-sixtieth grain of sulphate of strychnine, by the mouth, besides the white of one egg.”
Though we know it as a rat killer, strychnine was a common endurance sports drug at the turn of the 20th century. “Strychnine is a grand tonic,” novelist H. G. Wells exulted in his 1897 book The Invisible Man. In Wells’s opinion, the drug was a performance-enhancing wonder that took “flabbiness out of a man.” Strychnine affects the central nervous system, and when taken in small doses, it allows neurons to fire even when neurotransmitter levels are low due to fatigue. The result is a feeling of agitated energy. Indeed, swallow 100 milligrams of strychnine and your muscles will begin twitching uncontrollably. You will shiver with restless unease before respiratory arrest sets in. Although Lucas had another common chemical performance enhancer, brandy, in the car with him, he kept Hicks on the strychnine with 10 miles to go, thinking it best if Hicks abstained from other stimulants as “long as possible.”
At the 20-mile mark, Hicks began to turn gray. Shock and heat exhaustion were shutting down his system. With his progress reduced to a walk-march on climbs, Lucas administered Hicks another “one-sixtieth grain strychnine,” two more eggs, and a mouthful of brandy. Stopping to warm a pan of water on the car radiator, Lucas and McGrath gave Hicks a sponge bath. The roadside cleanse, raw eggs, strychnine, and brandy had their effect. “He appeared to revive and jogged along once more,” Lucas reported.
In first place with 2 miles to go, Hicks began to hallucinate. He insisted the finish line was 20 miles away and begged for something to eat. After refilling their exhausted liquor canteen with booze from another support car, McGrath and Lucas gave their delirious runner brandy but no food. Two hills loomed between Hicks and Olympic glory. Reinforced with more brandy on top of the strychnine already coursing through his system, Hicks rallied, fought his way over the two summits, and took marathon gold.
At the finish, however, another athlete temporarily stole Hicks’s glory. Fred Lorz of New York City had arrived first, entering the stadium to thunderous applause, and had apparently taken the win. When it was later revealed that Lorz had hitched a car ride to the finish, Lucas excoriated the disqualified New Yorker, writing that he had nearly robbed Hicks, a newly crowned hero who was only “kept in mechanical action by the use of drugs, that he might bring to America the Marathon honors, which American athletes had failed to win both at Athens and at Paris.”
Used with permission of VeloPress from Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports by Mark Johnson. Learn more at www.spittinginthesoup.com.
Sportswriter and sports photographer Mark Johnson’s work has appeared in cycling publications in the U.S., France, and Australia; as well as general publications including the Wall Street Journal.
Spitting in the Soup is his 2nd book; the first was Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life, which is also available from VeloPress.
He lives with his family in California, where he enjoys surfing. He has also been on the other side of the race number as an Ironman and a category II road cyclist.