The Drunken Race

In the stadium 80,000 spectators waited for a marathoner to come through the aperture. It was hot at the London Olympics in 1908, but if the spectators were miserable in the heat, the marathoners were in hell. The track had been newly resurfaced which made it hard and inflexible enough that Russian dignitaries hired its engineers to put in gulag floors. Of the 55 runners who had started the marathon at Windsor Castle, 27 dropped out, most before the mid-point.

So when the little Italian pastry chef in red shorts came stumbling into the stadium, 160,000 eyes goggled and 80,000 mouths encouraged him towards the finish line. Perhaps anticlimactically, Dorando Pietri ran in the wrong direction and collapsed. He collapsed four more times. Medical staff, concerned he would do a recreation of Pheidippides’ 490 BC marathon and literally die, helped him across the finish line. He was holding a hollowed cork wedge.  

Runners carried cork wedges to relieve stress in their hands, but hollowed out they can be used to store energy drinks, which instead of Gatorade, would have been wine or brandy. This revelation would have caused no scandal – of course the runner had been drinking. So would the next three runners to cross the finish line. Pietri had snagged the lead from South African Charles Heffron after he’d collapsed with stomach pains from drinking champagne with two miles left. The favorite, Canadian Tom Longboat, also collapsed after having champagne. Pietri was lucky to make it to the stadium before he collapsed.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, athletes such as runners, cricketeers, and cyclists used alcohol to give them a boost throughout training and competitions. Alcohol was not considered an intoxicant as much as an energy drink that led to bad decisions and booty telegrams. In his 1892 book on training and exercise Principles of Training for Amateur Athletics, H.L. Curtis suggests “moderate consumption of alcohol” but warns against smoking and coffee. Because an athlete should treat his or her body like a temple, but like a temple with a liquor cabinet in the basement. Athletes got on board. Bigtime. And not just runners. In 1900, Margaret Gast cycled 2,600 miles in 13 ½ days supplementing her meals with ale and brandy. René Pottier is famous for downing a full bottle of wine while slaughtering the competition during the 1906 Tour de France. In the Paris games in 1928, the runners’ aid stations were stocked with wine and water. To be training staff meant riding behind runners and cyclists carrying reserves of wine and brandy.

However, runners exploited advantages from other medically-approved substances, such as heroin and cocaine. They masked pain, boosted energy, and probably would have inspired some great concept albums had anyone known what a flugelhorn was. But it wasn’t limited to doctor-prescribed narcotics. Pietri and his fellow runners rejuvenated with brandy, champagne, and an energy booster called strychnine. In a few years strychnine would go on to litter countless American kitchens with rodent corpses, but in lower doses it makes humans alert, as does burying a fork in your genitals or setting your hair on fire, and the long-term effects were just as pleasant. Many runners died from a cocktail of overexertion, alcohol, and strychnine. And it’s strychnine poisoning that may have been the culprit for Dorando Pietri’s aforementioned confused, rickety condition. Or running 26 miles on rocks in extreme heat. We’ll never know.    

The marathon as an Olympic sport was probably partially inspired by the Victorian sport pedestrianism (competitive walking). As a competition, pedestrianism originated when aristocrats started betting each other that they could walk some distance in less time. By “they” of course they meant “my fittest servant.” Soon, it was among the biggest spectator sports in England and the US. Competitions took place in Madison Square Garden and Agricultural Hall in London. Race results were headline news and the focus of an enormous betting culture. Competitive walkers would notch incredible distances, walking up to 600 miles in three days. One pedestrian, Captain Barclay, made £16,000 by taking up a challenge to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. There was no betting because nobody would bet against him. Pedestrians also drank during competition, using cognac, cocaine, and strychnine to propel themselves forth. And this carried over to the next generation of those who thought traveling long distances on foot was a nice way to spend a day. Pietri and his comrades were just following tradition.   

It wasn’t alcohol or strychnine that got Pietri stripped of his gold medal. It was the Americans. (Isn’t it always?). The Americans of the 1908 Olympics were particularly grumpy and were less than thrilled that their man Johnny Hayes had come in second to a guy who’d been carried across the finish line three sheets on strychnine. In the end, the Olympic committee awarded the gold to Hayes. This was only fair; he’d only been drinking brandy.  

So, you want to celebrate like an Olympic marathoner in 1908, but what to drink? Let’s be very clear – not strychnine. We suggest the Champagne Cobbler, whose ingredients include wine, brandy, Curaçao, champagne, and, just to reiterate to avoid a future lawsuit, no strychnine.

The Champagne Cobbler (ingredients)

·         Champagne

·         Brandy

·         Claret (read: anything red. Even if it comes out of a box)

·         Curaçao

·         Chipped ice (any ice will do. You can smash cubes into smaller pieces if it’ll help)

·         A tsp of sugar

·         Half a lemon

·         No strychnine. Please, no strychnine


Putting the strychnine on a high shelf in a different room, take a large soda glass and fill with ice. Add a teaspoon of sugar and squeeze half a lemon into it. Add half a liqueur glassful (a shot and a half / 2 shots if you’ve had a day) of brandy. Then add the same amount of Curaçao. Fill up the rest of the glass with champagne, top it off with a dash of claret (red wine) and lots of fruit, you are drinking like an Olympic athlete after all. A few of these booze-filled concoctions and you are off to the races. Drink until you feel like you can run a marathon, until you can pronounce the word Curaçao on the first try, or until you hear 80,000 fans encourage you towards your bed. Try not to collapse on the way.

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