Racing into the record books
When he began the Boston Marathon in 1926, Johnny Miles was an unknown 19-year-old in 98¢ sneakers ... by the end of the day, he was a record breaker en route to international fame
By PAT MacADAM -- Ottawa Sun The 105th running of the Boston Marathon, the world's oldest annual marathon, was April 16 -- Patriot's Day in Massachusetts -- and Boston remembered two Hamilton greats, the late Jack Caffrey, and Johnny Miles, 95, Canada's oldest living Olympian and Boston Marathon winner. Both athletes were two-time winners.
Some historians believe the marathon is named after the 490 B.C. Battle of Marathon when Pheidippides ran 150 miles to Sparta in two days to bring news of a Greek victory over the Persians. He reported:
"Rejoice, we are victorious" and fell dead.
The modern race distance was determined in the 1908 London Olympiad. The distance from the starting line at Windsor Castle, where King Edward V11 saw the runners off, to the finish line in London was 26 miles, 385 yards.
The field size at the Boston Marathon was limited to 15,000 runners. Last year 17,813 participated. A record number -- 38,708 -- took part in the 100th running in 1996.
April 16 was the 100th anniversary of Jack Caffrey's second record-breaking win (2:29:23) in 1901 and the 75th anniversary of Johnny Miles' first record-setting victory in 1926 (2:25:40).
Jack Caffery died in Hamilton in February, 1919, from complications after falling ill with Spanish flu.
Johnny Miles is in frail health and moved into Central Park Lodge nursing home in Hamilton after his wife, Bess, passed away in 1997.
Jack Caffrey won back-to-back Boston Marathon victories in 1900 and 1901 running for St. Patrick's Athletic Club. His record time stood for almost 20 years until eventual seven-time Marathon winner Clarence DeMar broke it.
In Hamilton, Jack Caffrey shared centre stage with another running legend, Billy Sherring. Both won Hamilton's Around the Bay race twice but Sherring finished second to Caffrey in the 1900 Boston run.
Johnny Miles wasn't in Boston for this year's nmarathon, but his Nova Scotia friends are ensuring his legend lives on, in the shape of a small delegation from New Glasgow where, for the past 25 years, the Johnny Miles Memorial Marathon has been run.
Dr. John Miles Williston, the founder of the annual Nova Scotia classic, and New Glasgow Coun. George Manos, Johnny Miles Memorial race co-ordinator and director, also travelled to Boston to mount a Miles' exhibit. The centrepiece was the 98¢ pair of sneakers he wore in 1926.
Dr. Williston and his brother Floyd, of Winnipeg, the author of Miles' biography: Johnny Miles, Nova Scotia's Marathon King, are in telephone contact with Johnny Miles every second week.
Floyd Williston advises that Johnny's present plans are to be in Nova Scotia this summer in July for the Parrsboro opening of a play based on his biography and perhaps for the Memorial race in August -- perhaps both events.
"If he makes it to his 100th birthday, the Boston Marathon organization intends to put on a big party and will not skimp on costs to get him there."
Nineteen-year-old Johnny Miles shocked the sporting world in 1926 when he won the very first competitive marathon he ever ran. He ran against the world's best and won -- demolishing world and Boston record marks.
He was in the shower when Olympic and world champion Albin Stenroos of Finland finished second -- four minutes behind him. American runner, Clarence DeMar, Olympic bronze-medal winner, finished a distant third.
The unknown grocery delivery boy, down from his horse-drawn wagon, destroyed Stenroos' 1924 Olympic and world record of 2:41:22 by almost 16 minutes.
A Boston newspaper headline of April 20, 1926, bannered:
UNKNOWN KID SMASHES RECORD IN GREATEST OF ALL MARATHONS
His record stood until 1948 when it was broken by a Korean runner.
The "unknown kid" ran his first ever marathon wearing the cheap canvas sneakers purchased from the local co-op store in Florence, Cape Breton, where the Miles' family settled when they emigrated from Britain. His home-sewn jersey featured a red Maple Leaf with "N.S." superimposed in white.
Boston opened its large heart to Johnny and his father and mother. They had intended to take a train home the day after the race but ended up staying for a week of red carpets, police motorcycle escorts, receptions and media attention. The mayor gave him the key to the city.
Before leaving Cape Breton for Boston, he took a train 27 miles out of town and ran back along the tracks in freezing weather and slippery snow and slush. Two hours and 40 minutes later he was home. He was ready.
The townspeople of Florence passed the hat and collected $300 -- the equivalent of three months pay -- to send the Miles' family to Boston. When they arrived in Boston, Johnny and his father walked the entire length of the course so that he might familiarize himself with the landmarks, twists and turns and ups and downs of the route.
He defended his title in 1927 but was forced to drop out after six miles. His feet were bleeding badly. Tar softened by temperature in the 80s was oozing into his flimsy sneakers. He went back in 1929, won again, and set another world and Boston record.
He went back to Boston one more time in 1931 and finished a disappointing 10th -- 18 minutes behind the winner.
He ran for Canada in the 1928 Amsterdam and 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and, even though he posted respectable times, he finished 16th and 14th. The Last Hurrah for Johnny Miles was near.
In 1930 he was a bronze medallist in the first ever British Empire Games which were held in Hamilton.
Marathoner Ken Doucette, who recently moved from Ottawa to Halifax, is another player in the small freemasonry of marathon runners who keep in touch with Miles. Doucette had mixed emotions when he broke his hero's 54-year-old Nova Scotia marathon record in a New Orleans Mardi Gras race.
"When I broke his record in 1980, Johnny Miles was the first person to call me and congratulate me.
"Johnny Miles was a natural athlete who never had access to elite coaching or training and who didn't even own a proper pair of running shoes. Who knows? I think if he had a good coach and trainer and proper footwear he might have been capable of turning in a 2:10 marathon back in the 20s."
Johnny Miles' family had a hardscrabble life in a Cape Breton coal mining town. When his father went off to war, 11-year-old Johnny became the bread winner. He cleaned miners' lamps for 35¢ a day until he landed a better job which paid him $15 a week. Every Friday he gave his unopened pay envelope to his mother and she gave him a 25¢ allowance. Some weeks she was forced to ask for the 25¢ back to buy groceries.
When World War II broke out he was too old to enlist and spent the war building Bren Gun carriers in International Harvester's Hamilton plant.
For the next 25 years he worked for International Harvester in increasingly responsible executive positions in Hamilton, Europe and the United States. While in Chicago, 50-year-old Johnny earned a master's degree in business administration.
Throughout his running career he was a true amateur. His feats over 15 years did not net him a single penny -- victor's spoils or appearance money. His only payday was when he was 17 and entered a local three-mile race. One prize was a 98-lb. bag of flour donated by a town grocer. The first runner past the grocer's store at the midpoint of the race would win it. His mother needed flour so he made sure he was first by the store. He finished the race in third place.
The 25th annual Johnny Miles Memorial Marathon was run in New Glasgow, N.S., last June.
The winning time was eight minutes slower than Johnny Miles' 1926 record.