Strychnine and Soulard: The Go! St. Louis Half Marathon

St. Louis, MO: April, 2018

The Metrolink was as efficient early Sunday morning as it was throughout the weekend.  The last station before crossing the river was steps from the starting line and allowed us to arrive fairly close to the beginning of the race to avoid getting too cold, the temperature below thirty as Connor and I stood near the back of the first corral, a byproduct of arriving late. Lauren and Casey waited, freezing but patiently for the start, which was delayed by several minutes, before heading to get coffee to kill an hour and a half. 

“You’re witnessing history,” said the race’s emcee “this is the first time we are starting the race with an air horn app.”  But is this the first time west of the Mississippi, I thought.  Now that would be historic. The elites, positioned about fifteen feet in front of Connor and I, took their ready.  A soft sound came through the speakers that sounded like air slowly leaving a bike tire.  Nobody moved.  The elites looked around at each other.  More silence.

“Well the app’s not working… so… go!”

I suppose that word was how the Go! Half Marathon should have begun after all.

Connor and I wished each other a good race and I took off toward my desired pacer, who began well ahead of us, another byproduct of showing up when we did.  With his recent knee pain, Connor was just going to try and finish, regardless of time, and I knew we would separate.  The race, much like St. Louis’s post-Columbian history, began at Laclede’s Landing.  It was founded as a trading post on the west bank of the Mississippi by Pierre Laclede after the French had lost all of its possessions on the other side to Britain during the French and Indian War.  Now a U. S. Historic district, the neighborhood’s Federal architecture and cobblestone streets give the area a look of a northern New Orleans, nightlife and all.  The course mercifully skipped running over the cobblestone. 

We almost immediately ascended to cross the Martin Luther King Bridge into Illinois.  At this point I could see my pacer, his swinging sign on a stick, cresting the highest trusses and descending onto the eastern bank.  I couldn’t catch him too fast and burn myself out during the first couple of miles, especially since the bridges and on-ramps made this the hilliest part of the course, so I just gradually reeled him in, ahead of pace by about ten seconds. 

East St. Louis has a downright nasty reputation, rated several times over as the most dangerous city in the nation.  The race’s organizers routed the course through the community in an attempt to bring the two cities together in a large scale event, including an opening address by the mayor of East St. Louis.  The main street was a tad blown out, mostly vacant buildings or lots, but around the final corner we came across the most enthusiastic crowd on the course save for the start and finish lines.  It was a good move by the Go! organizers for sending runners through the city.  On the way out we caught a glimpse of the Gateway Geyser, an enormous fountain that propels water upward to the exact height of the arch, its counterpart across the river.   Unfortunately April is too early in the year to watch it in action.

It was on the Eads Bridge, the first to cross the Mississippi, that I caught up to the pacer and became, as I later found out while perusing the split times, the 77th runner to cross the Mississippi.  Now with a group, I pulled out my phone and took a photo of St. Louis from the Illinois side (I like to run with it during out of town races for this purpose) and a lanky runner in his thirties ran up next to me.

“You must be from out of town. I take it for granted” he said.  

“What, the arch?” I asked, glad to talk to someone after playing catch up for three and a half miles.

“Yeah, I’m just so used to seeing it in the skyline I don’t even think to pay it any attention.”

Looking at the city in panorama from the span of the Eads Bridge, I notice the importance the arch plays.  If it were never realized, St. Louis’s skyline would look like any post-prime (or inter-prime to put an optimistic spin on things) Midwestern city, to say nothing for all of the local banks, law offices, and car dealerships that would need to find a new logo.  It would be an advertising calamity.  We could see the starting line from the Missouri side of the bridge, and could hear the emcee sending out the last couple of corrals – Those poor souls who had to wait an extra twenty minutes before running away the frigid air.  Myself, I had warmed up past the point of comfort and was already shedding gloves.

After passing Busch Stadium and Ballpark Village our group ran towards Anheuser-Busch and the only major hill on the course.  It was a long, gradual little rapscallion, but tolerable compared to those at home.  As we passed by the beer garden I asked if it was something worth going to next time I’m in town.  Not a one had been there. I suppose they’re not into local beer?

The neighborhood atop the hill is Soulard.  Originally a French quarter, the area has Victorian brick townhomes, blues bars, Cajun food, and the nation’s second largest Mardi Gras celebration. “Every college student between Buffalo and Denver ends up in Soulard that weekend” Leo said when I mentioned we ran through the neighborhood.  “At least the ones who can’t afford New Orleans.”  The word soulard even means drunkard in French. It was calmer today despite the runners, with blooming cherry blossoms idly contrasting the attractive maroon monochrome.

After Soulard, the full marathoners took a lonely left.  Many were latching onto our half group because there were no pacers for the full that were running at a Boston qualifying speed.  When we continued straight and the Boston hopefuls veered off I lost all pause I had about signing up for the race that I did.  With no pacer and a modest amount of marathoners, it would be a solitary eighteen miles for anyone aiming to BQ. 

Despite my desire to not be among them, these lone wanderers would doubtless have a better experience than the competitors in the 1904 Olympic Marathon.  America’s first Olympics featured a hilly loop through the dusty plains west of the city. (The course is more or less still navigable, on public roads through what are now the suburbs of St. Louis.)  The day was 90 degrees and humid, and with two water stops, the last of which was a self-serve well around mile 12, runners were dropping quickly.  That year’s Olympic organizer, James Sullivan, was using the lack of fluids to test the popular turn of the century theory of ‘purposeful dehydration’.  It went poorly.  Several runners experienced cramps and vomiting.  Felix Carvajal of Cuba, lacking nutrition, stopped for an apple from a roadside orchard.  When it turned out to be rotten, he became sick and instead took a nap.

Worse than the hills or temperature was the dust, constantly churned up by passing carriages and trolley cars.  Runners complained about not being able to see or breathe, all while being refused fluids.  American William Garcia was hospitalized with hemorrhaging after inhaling so much of the dust that it had coated his esophagus and tore his stomach lining.  There was little need to mention the trains and packs of dogs that antagonized runners.

By mile nine, another American, Fred Lorz essentially said forget it and hopped into an automobile.  The driver took him past other racers, including his countryman Thomas Hicks, who was beginning to have quite the story to tell of his own.  Seven miles from the finish, Hicks was plagued with the problems of all his fellow competitors but instead of water, his trainers fed him a mixture of egg whites and strychnine (also known as rat poison, but at the time used in small doses as a stimulant.) The second dose he chased with brandy since there was no water to be found.  This bizarre concoction is now considered to be the first use of performance enhancing drugs in Olympic history.

Well, Fred Lorz made it to the finish line at the stadium first, obviously, but had ditched his early model car with several miles to spare so that nobody noticed.  Plenty of people did though, since he had ridden by on the course and all, and his gold medal presentation was interrupted by jeers from the audience.  Lorz claimed he only finished as a joke, but who knows.  All eyes then turned toward the entrance of the track where a hallucinating Hicks had gone limp, veins full of rat poison and brandy, and was being carried into the stadium by his two trainers.  With Lorz disqualified, he was declared the winner.  How soon he knew that fact was another matter, as it took a team of doctors an hour to revive him enough to leave the track. 

Even though the event nearly cost the Olympics its marathon, it wasn’t a total loss for the city of St. Louis.  Forest Park, built nearly 30 years prior, now houses a museum to the 1904 games as well as the associated World’s Fair.  It is the largest urban city park in the country, nearly twice the size of Central Park, and features a zoo, science center, theater, and several museums, most of which are completely free to the public.  The full marathoners will spend a hefty portion of the middle miles in Forest Park, a quiet and historic respite from the other twenty miles of city running behind and in front of them.  I would have enjoyed running through the grounds of the 1904 Olympic Village, but I think I may have equally enjoyed continuing straight knowing I had less than four miles to go.

It was on the return trip through downtown around mile ten that the pacer knew we would be well under our goal time.  “Everyone ok with that?” he asked to a dwindling group.  We had been reduced to four, including the pacer, as we had been dropping several seconds per mile since the hill into Soulard.  We were all just fine with that.

“I’ll break the rules, just this once” he said to the three remaining hangers-on, in a tone that implied it was absolutely not just this once and immediately began charging down a hill.

This race had one of the better finishes of any I have run – a downhill followed by a three quarter mile stretch along the Mississippi with a tailwind.  My legs and lungs were as fresh as they had ever been after twelve and a half miles of running – I didn’t even need rat poison.  The starting line came into view and I half expected to see corral ‘J’ getting sent out by the somehow still upbeat emcee but it was empty, so much so that a guy running in front of me began heading for it in a full-on sprint.  I was staring at the back of his head but could imagine the look of disappointment and surprise when he realized that the banner said Start and that he still had a half a mile to go.  I quickened to 5k pace as I passed by Laclede’s Landing, underneath the arch of the Eads Bridge and toward the much larger one.  The crowd thickened and around a slight bend the finish appeared, still distant.  I sprinted for what seemed like forever, passing the guy who misread the starting line, and crossed more than two and a half minutes under my goal pace, five under my previous PR.

In the finishers area I was euphoric, because of the result but also because of the food that was thrust in my direction.  “Take two, three, however many you want!” said one volunteer handing out protein bars.  Fruit on one side, water bottles, chips on the other.  One table handed out locally made iced cream sandwiches.  The dessert was probably the same temperature as the outside air but no matter.  Finally there were St. Louis style fried ravioli, which were, despite the proprietor’s best efforts, also roughly the temperature of the outside air.  But like the ice cream, it hit the spot after the run.

I went back to where Lauren and Casey were watching and we waited for Connor, who ended up only running by about fifteen minutes behind me.  He was happy enough because he finished without significant knee pain, and it wasn’t his slowest half he’s ever run.  He was definitely more spent that I, shivering while putting on his warm clothes.  Lauren and I took a photo with my medal and the arch and then turned around to see a rapidly shivering Connor ripping the paper off his iced cream sandwich. 

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s gonna help” Casey said.  Connor devoured it.

“I have to” he replied.  “It’s local.” 

Speaking of local, finishers were treated to one free beer, brewed right along the course. I can’t quite remember the name of it but I remember trying it once in college.  Nevertheless it was refreshing today. Connor and I clinked cans and enjoyed the flavor of St. Louis underneath the arch.  I didn’t need any brandy to enjoy the aftermath of a successful run, and, despite his knee, Connor was never tempted to hop into a Model T and shave off miles.  Olympians we were not – probably not even by 1904 standards – but we had both accomplished our time goals and were 20 percent of the way through the states.

Leo had made us food to go before the race, but surprised us with a full breakfast of eggs benedict on matzah upon our return.  We were grateful, especially since our checkout time was quickly arriving and Connor and I probably didn’t smell quite as pleasant as the kitchen.  We visibly hurried ourselves, trying to be courteous. 

“It’s no matter,” Leo said “I’m heading to New Orleans for French Quarter Fest so nobody is staying here after you all anyway.”

“Can we at least help you with dishes?” Lauren asked.

Leo smiled. “I’m retired. It’ll give me something to look forward to.”

If you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed the post race food, check out my other St. Louis stories here (Gateway Arch NP and neighborhoods) and here (Beer and City Museum)!

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