ran the fifth-fastest time ever on the course
opened the race to outsiders
named Heartbreak Hill
and sealed his revenge after being ripped off the Olympic team at the last minute
Just before leaving for Boston, I stopped by the Crystal Lake Cemetery in North Minneapolis. I had prepared for my first Boston Marathon in every way possible. I prepared physically, churning through the miles with my teammates. I had prepared mentally, visualizing the Newton hills each time I ran up and down 50th Street over I-35W.
I felt … almost ready. I had come to the cemetery as my last training activity for which I didn’t need running shoes or fancy gels.
I wheeled my five-month-old in a stroller down the quiet blacktop road through the cemetery as a few crows called overhead. We came to pay respects to another soul who had run Boston after training through the deep winter. One hundred and ten years ago, he returned from the race as the only Minnesotan to become the Boston Marathon Champion.
My baby hummed as I rolled the stroller by the spruce trees near the Spanish-American War Memorial. I was following a hand-written note from the cemetery staff member, veering us over to an area of brown grass. I thought maybe there would be a tall grave with a trophy on it, or a small etching of a runner. But there were only ground-level headstones in the clearing. After a few minutes of meandering, I found the grave, half-covered in dirt and weeds. It marks the final resting place of Ebba Carlson and her husband, the Mill City marathoner, Fritz Gustave Carlson.
As I brushed away the winter debris and pushed dirt from the etched names, I questioned aloud to my infant how such a huge athletic achievement could have been so forgotten in Minnesotan sports chronicles. Fritz Carlson’s name seems to have vanished from the record books after winning the great race.
He’s not in the Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame. His name is absent from the Minnesota Sports Almanacs. He doesn’t make the cut in Sid Hartman’s Great Minnesota Sports Moments. You won’t find him in the genesis stories of Minnesota road races (which often start with Ron Daws’ River Roads Marathon in 1963).
His name isn’t even in Minnesota’s USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.
I feel a little hokey writing this down, but the moment near his grave provided a bit of reflection. I’m not an elite (or sub-elite) runner. I spent so much time training for a race, pushing my body to the limit, just to meet an arbitrary goal. And for what? I was sure to finish in some-thousandth place and an hour or so behind the winner.
Here was the resting place of an athlete who trained on the same Minneapolis streets for months. He succeeded in beating the best in the nation. And he was still relegated to the dustbin of North Star State factoids.
A crow cawed from his perch on a dead ash tree behind us. I began talking to my baby, saying that I thought my toils were connected to Carlson’s in a strain of common humanity separated only by time. We were runners seeking a goal: to run the best race we could at Boston.
A Boston winner doesn’t just appear—even in the first marathon boom of the early 1900s. In those early years, the only way to finish a marathon was to run with others who had knowledge. Competitors didn’t just train for a 2 and 1/2 hour race—they had to learn how to train.
The mistakes and successes were passed on from one runner to another. And Fritz Carlson had two key people whose instruction gave him the physical and mental prep he needed.
The first key person was Louis “Doc” Cooke, an academic who studied health and promoted athletic competition, including running. He moved to Minnesota and started a gym with his brother, E.R. Cooke, in the Kasota Building on 4th and Hennepin.
The gym became a favorite for athletes in the city. Boxers set up sparring matches and fights, gymnasts prepared for the circus events, and business managers did pushups after hard days of typing. Runners met there too, as they set off for “road work.”
Doc Cooke, meanwhile, got a position at the University of Minnesota as the first athletic director. Together with his brother, Doc promoted the sport of running through Cooke’s Gym. And it was at an early footrace that the third-place finisher, Fritz, caught his attention.
Carlson had come to Minnesota from Sweden. Like many immigrants from Scandinavia, he spoke little English and came with little coin. The Swede-heavy population in Minneapolis encouraged him, though, and he was connected to a job at the Backus-Brooks sawmill near the river on the North side.
For long hours through the winter and summer, Carlson stacked the fresh pine boards that came off the sawmill. Perhaps motivated by stories of the 1908 Olympic Marathon, he began running.
Carlson ran the “Minneapolis Daily News 10-Mile” race May 14, 1910. Though he was beaten by two young local fleetfoots, Doc Cooke saw promise in his strong finish. So did a man who would become the second key influence in his life: local running coach Thomas John Hicks.
Hicks knew distance running better than anyone else in the city.
He had raced three Boston Marathons before moving to Minneapolis at the behest of his employer, Northwest Telephone Exchange Co. Once settled on Penn Avenue, he helped start the distance-running craze in Minneapolis and St. Paul by leading YMCA group runs. He moved for a short time back to his old home near Cambridge, Massachusetts, to train for the 1904 Boston Marathon, where he finished second and was invited to run at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.
In a grueling, cruel, unregulated and poorly managed Olympic race on a humid 90-degree day, Hicks stayed upright. His “helpers” kicked up dust from their automobile as they rode alongside him shouting unsolicited and ridiculous advice. They refused to give him the liquids or food he prepared and forced him to drink brandy, raw eggs and then strychnine (a key ingredient in rat poison). He very nearly died, but finished before the other athletes, some of whom had been chased by dogs or had fallen on the side of the road, bleeding internally.
With hollow eyes, Hicks accepted a large trophy and the title of Olympic Marathon Champion.
They would be disappointed.
Carlson wasn’t even on the track with the competitors at the start of the race. He had to watch from the grandstands.
Just before the race in Stockholm (in a foreshadow of all the Minnesota sports upsets to come in the future) the president of the AAU told Carlson he wouldn’t run due to a registration error. Despite his months of preparation, despite his unmatched knowledge of the course in his hometown, despite the local crowds that were anticipating his scorching pace, despite his rejection of the Swedish team and his decision to carry the colors of the Red White and Blue, and despite pleas from the U.S. coach, Carlson was cut from the team.
That team took off into the blazing sun and oppressive heat of July 14 afternoon and most withered over the full 26.2-mile distance. British-born South African Ken McArthur, perhaps acclimated to the heat, won in an Olympic-record time of 2:36:55.
Later, Carlson laced his shoes, donned his singlet, and to the confused looks of people traveling the road, he ran the course as fast as he could. He finished the distance without the cheers from boisterous crowds and clicked his stopwatch as he crossed the 26.2-mile mark. After gulping water and clearing the sweat from his brow, he checked the time.
He had run the course faster than McArthur.
Alone and dejected, Carlson vowed to show the world what he already knew: He could be a champion.
The 1913 Boston Marathon had 84 runners registered, many of them the elite of the day. The press named several favorites: William H. Allan, who set a 19-mile record; Edward Fabre, who had trained all winter in snowshoes; and Andrew Sockalexis, an indigenous runner who was 2nd in 1912 and 4th at the Olympics.
Twenty-nine-year-old Carlson from far-off Minneapolis wasn’t figured to be a major contender for three main reasons.
First, the 16 editions of the race up to 1913 had winners that hailed from either New York, Eastern Canada, or the Boston area. Everyone knew the fastest runners at Boston only came from those three meccas of footracing.
Second, the average age of the winner was 22. A runner nearing 30 couldn’t possibly compete.
Third, Carlson had been rejected from the U.S. Olympic team just 10 months earlier. The East Coast journalists didn’t know why he wasn’t a part of the team at Stockholm, but it suggested the Swede either wasn’t American enough, or he just couldn’t race with the best.
The true story of Carlson’s dashed Olympic dreams remained obscured to the press. And it fueled him to surprise the other runners on April 19.
At the start line in Ashland, the runners had advanced from their hotels after being approved to run by the volunteer doctors. Many felt marathoning was still a dangerous undertaking, and the death of a Portuguese runner at the Stockholm Olympic Marathon furthered the concern.
B.A.A. official George Brown fired a pistol, and the racers moved out of Ashland on the dirt road. Some began to dart forward in a full sprint. After a short time, Harry Smith, a 10-mile champion who was known to jet forward in races, stretched out the pack.
Carlson eased his way into the race, and likely went unnoticed by the press car. He wore his Cooke’s Gym singlet, designed with a slash from his right shoulder to his left hip. His knee-high white shorts flicked back and forth. His white rolled-up socks picked up flecks of mud, and small black shoes (with a slight heel) slapped repeatedly on the road.
He ran with his training partner and friend, John Karlsen. The press often mixed them up, though Karlsen was older, taller, and bulkier. Karlsen also spoke clear English, and occasionally translated for Carlson. The two of them kept with a large pack of runners through the first two miles. Smith kept pushing the pace, hoping the break the course record, as Mike Ryan did the previous year.
By South Framingham, the pack strung out along the road and the two runners from Cooke’s Gym had lost sight of the front group. They didn’t panic, but kept a consistent pace, holding back while reminding each other of the hills that started after mile 16.
Nearing Wellesley, they could hear screaming in the distance, coming from up the road through the surrounding pine forest. As they got closer, they could see the source of the cacophony: Wellesley College co-eds were all on the side of the road, waving and yelling “Keep trotting, boys!” and “That footwork is looking swift, you zephyrs!”
John Karlsen could no longer keep pace and urged Fritz Carlson to keep on plodding. He did, and at mile 15, near Hotel Auburndale in Woodland Park, saw a familiar face. Thomas John Hicks, his coach, pulled up on a bicycle and gave him water. He urged Carlson to keep steady and ease down the next hill. The first of the four Newton hills would be next, and both Carlson and Hicks knew there was no way Smith could maintain his pace on the uphill trudge.
Carlson had been moving up in the pack ever since the halfway mark. From 11th place, he had picked off runners, occasionally turning to stare at them before bursting past. Through the hills, he captured two more. He was in second after cresting a hill that he described later (in a story by a local paper) as “heartbreaking” for the competition.
It was the first mention of a “heartbreak” hill.
On the course, with plenty of energy in reserve, Carlson felt elated to have worked his way to second place through the hills. He careened down the slope toward the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Carlson had noticed Smith running on the grass to ease the pain in his feet. He could sense that Smith wouldn’t fight, so he sped up. The two ran side by side for just a short time, the Carlson went on ahead.
By Coolridge Corner, Carlson was on a course-record pace. But the sun had come out, and the heat and humidity were intensifying. He and Hicks had a short back and forth. Should Carlson go for the course record? Did he have a shot?
Perhaps Hicks was influenced by his horrifying St. Louis race nine years prior. Perhaps he thought the record was out of reach. He warned Carlson against pushing too hard. He had the win in his grasp—he just had to hang on so another runner didn’t pick him off as well.
And another runner was gunning for him: Alex Sockalexis too had been patient. While the other runners were dropping out or slowing down, he was speeding up. And he had passed Smith already. He tried pushing harder to catch up, but Carlson had made the gap too large.
Fritz caught the sight of the finish line as he could see the B.A.A. clubhouse building. The press cars and the bikes were forced off the road so the hundreds of people on the street could see Carlson sprint past. They let out a deafening roar. Carlson sprinted in what was the longest 400-meter stretch of his life, he would later say.
He broke the tape and felt as though he would crumple to the sidewalk as the officials and press cheered around him.
After visiting Fritz Carlson’s grave, I took my newborn with me to the American Swedish Institute, where one of us napped and the other ate a gjetost smörgåsar on Danish rye at the museum’s cafe.
Later, we rolled through the rooms in the historic mansion to see one of Carlson’s trophies: a silver punchbowl in Art Nouveau style with an engraving that reads “17th Annual American Marathon Run—First Prize.”
The visit to the museum and the cemetery provided that last dose of motivation for my race. A week later, as I advanced to the start line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkington, Massachusetts, every part of me was ready to run.
On that day, I took Carlson’s example to heart, keeping my miles cool on the downhill start. I kept energy in reserve, and after moving strong up Heartbreak, I came to the place Carlson took the lead. I kicked into a different gear and embraced the crowds on Commonwealth Avenue. I saw my family just before the last big turn and finished with my hands raised.
“Carlson has done as much as any athlete Minneapolis ever had to give Minneaplis a place of more or less prominence on the athletic map of the United States and richly deserves some worthy recognition.”
—George Rhame of the Minneapolis Tribune, April 1913
The actual race only took three hours of my day, but I’ll remember it for the rest of my life, as will many who have run it. And I felt proud, not just to finish, but to be part of a long line of people who had come from the Land of Lakes to the East Coast, looking to better themselves on a historic marathon course.
And now, when I’m running tempo miles along the shores of Bde Maka Ska or near the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis, I often think about that century-old history our city has with distance running. I find comfort in knowing Carlson plodded through his workouts in the same locations, his primitive flat shoes falling quiet on the gravel paths.
And when I’m crabby about running in the early morning on dark, cold, rainy “spring” mornings, I glean a smidgen of motivation imagining coach Tom Hicks biking beside a crew of runners wearing “Cooke’s Gym” singlets.
I picture them coming toward me, moving with a quick gait, Carlson looking up from the group with a dart of the eyes, a smile, and a soft “Hallå” before disappearing in the mist.
Special Thanks To
The American Swedish Institute, which provided some of the pictures for this article, and the Boston Marathon Museum, for their kind responses.