Marathon Men

The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016. 9781481406390.

I know some people don’t like the big round eyes and simple faces on McCarthy’s painted character illustrations, but I love them: they make historical figures cute and charming. In her book on the first Olympic Marathon in the US, I found out there’s something even more adorable: the bushy mustache on Cuban runner Felix Carvajal, who showed up to the race in his street clothes and made stops along the route to practice English with bystanders. He. Is. So. Cute. Someone please start making Hello Kitty-like merchandise about historical figures. I want a Felix Carvajal pencil case.

A historic marathon might seem like a stretch for an exciting picture book, but the race was nuts. The route had to be totally redone a few days before it started, after rain washed out some roads. Huge clouds of dust kicked up by cars and bicycles choked the runners. There were only two water stops, and the water made competitors sick. A runner was chased off course by a dog. A car carrying a doctor for the runners plunged down a 30 foot embankment. Add to that the then-current practice of downing strychnine mixed with egg white instead of drinking water  (check out this Sawbones episode for more on this crazy but true performance enhancer) and you have some drama. The additional information at the end is great — it’s clear McCarthy did some amazing primary-source research.

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