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Marathon mania in American history

February 5, 2015

Odd that Americans, long known for their short-attention spans and — oh, look, a sparkly thing … are at the same time manic for marathonic undertakings.

Running, for example. A century ago, scores of marathoners competed before huge wintertime crowds in the 1909 Brooklyn Marathon. Flash forward and this past November, more than 50,000 participants finished the 2014 New York City Marathon. (Applications for non-guaranteed entry in the 2015 race must be in by February 15.)

Throughout our history, Americans have tried to go the distance — and beyond — in a variety of extra-long endeavors, including dancing, swimming, even pole-sitting.

In fact, folks from the United States hold Guinness World Records in Longest Marathon Playing: Pool, Tenpin Bowling and Cornhole, plus scores of other activities.

But there are other, lesser-known and seldom-mentioned marathon moments from America’s past. Here are a few:

  • Ice Sitting. In early 20th century America, ice-sitting – rather then ice bucket — challenges were all the rage. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, according to the News-Palladium of June 26, 1900, an ice-sitting event was part of the community’s July 4th celebration plans – along with a five-mile bicycle race and a greased-pig chase. Three men sat on a block of ice for 30 minutes each to win a $30 prize at an Ohio community picnic, the Coshocton Tribune reported on Aug. 13, 1926. In bathing suit and snazzy shoes, Leona Proctor of Cleveland cooled her heels in an ice-perching marathon, according to the Journal News of Hamilton Ohio on Dec. 3, 1932. Gus Simmons sat on a block of ice for 26 hours in White City Casino in Chicago on July 31, 1933. He was disqualified because he registered a temperature of 102 degrees, but he was featured on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and on a cigarette card. When someone tried to stage an Ice-a-Thon in Kansas City in the fall of 1933, the Salt Lake Tribune, health officials weren’t so hot on the idea. They warned it could be injurious to the sitters.
  • Chair Rocking. As far back as the 1920s, lazy folks found ways to compete with one another. In late July 1929, after swaying back and forth in a rocking chair in Decatur, Illinois, for 10 days and 9 1/2 hours, Kenneth Sears finally fell asleep and stopped rocking. Consequently, the Decatur Evening Herald reported, Evelyn Burkett was crowned the rocking-chair marathon winner. She won $25 and a shampoo and finger wave from a local beauty parlor. Rockin’ for Alzheimer’s is scheduled later this month in Porterville, Calif.
  • Face Kissing. As intimacy emerged from society’s shadows, kissing contests became a fad. In late August 1933, a young couple continued to kiss for three hours and two minutes at a national marathon kissing contest on Coney Island in New York. The girl told The Associated Press that she was “so inexperienced at this sort of thing that I never thought I’d win.” Appropriately, the couple took home a loving cup. Long Kissing Contests continue to this day.
  • See-Sawing. The Associated Press reported on March 21, 1958, that two University of California undergrads were trying to break the 110-hour sitting-on-a-see-saw record set by College of the Pacific students in 1957. Friends planned to feed the participants and shine floodlights on them throughout the night. “This time we also have a burglar alarm on them, which our engineers say is foolproof” one of the watchers told the reporter. “Because two years ago, somebody tried to kidnap the two teeters.” The Teeter-Totter Marathon tradition has had its ups and downs.

While many kinds of faddish marathons have faded into the past, some go on and on and on. Runners World reports that the number of people running marathons is higher than ever. In 2013, there were some half a million marathon finishers in the United States — more than twice the number of finishers than there were two decades earlier.

“This motivation,” for more people to participate, says Tony Reed of the National Black Marathoners Association, is “fueled, in part, by opportunities and exposure — which didn’t exist in the past.”

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Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

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