The Knowledge

Top 7 Weirdest Moments in Running

Over the years, some bizarre stuff has happened in running. From the comedy of errors that was the 1904 St Louis Olympic Marathon, to the alleged alien abduction of the Isle of Wight Marathon in 1957, weird happenings and bizarre goings-on are as much a part of our sport as vibrating remote-controlled sex toys are to professional chess. Poisonings, UFOs, ghosts, and cheating—lots of cheating—have for decades colored the culture of running with a queer and unforgettable brush (yes, I just wrote that). Join me now as we take a look at those times when shit got pretty weird in the world of running.

The 1904 St Louis Olympic Marathon 

Let’s get this started with what must be the biggest cluster-fuck in foot racing: The 1904 St Louis Olympic Marathon. Where to begin with this one... There were 34 entrants and only 14 finished, and the one and only ‘aid station’ on the course was an actual well. One athlete stopped at an orchard and poisoned himself with rotten apples, while another guy collapsed and nearly died from all the dust and fumes created by motorists following the race. A third athlete was chased off the course by a pack of wild dogs (not a joke), and the guy who initially won was busted for cheating (it turned out he’d hitchhiked for 17 kilometers). The real winner, USA’s Thomas Hicks (above), nearly died of dehydration and strychnine poisoning (his trainers were denying him water on the course and were feeding him a combination of egg whites, brandy, and strychnine sulfate). Hicks stumbled blindly across the finish line at 3 hours, 28 minutes—the slowest marathon time in Olympic history.

The Ghost of The Stawell Gift

The Stawell Gift is Australia’s oldest running carnival and is held every Easter weekend in the sleepy town of Stawell in Western Victoria (pop. 6,222). The first meet was organized in 1878, and the first winner of the now legendary final race, the 120-meter sprint, was short-distance champion Bill Millard. While Millard was fast, he might have come second had the athlete leading the race from the outset, Colin Dixon, not had a fatal heart attack before reaching the finish line.

Fast forward 100 years, and volunteers Janette Williams and Gordon Steiner are finalizing the course the night before race day when they suddenly hear someone running toward them in the distance. According to Williams, the sound of the footsteps ‘became louder and louder, but nobody was there. We actually started moving backward to avoid a collision with whatever it was—and that’s when we saw the ribbon break.’ The finishing ribbon at the Stawell Gift had been damaged in previous years, but organizers assumed it was the work of night-time vandals. Turns out it was the ghost of Colin Dixon striving to win the race he never got to finish...

Rosie Ruiz

The Rosie Ruiz story is well-known but worth recounting here because, let’s face it, it doesn’t get much weirder than this. In 1980, Ruiz entered and won the Boston Marathon at 2:31:56, making her the fastest female in Boston Marathon history and the third fastest woman in any marathon ever. When she crossed the finish line, spectators and race officials became suspicious when they noted she hadn’t broken a sweat. Even more suspicious was the fact that none of the other competitors could recall seeing her on the course. Also, Ruiz had completed the New York City marathon six months earlier with a time of 2:56:29—more than 25 minutes slower than her Boston time. SUSPICIOUS! An investigation was opened, and Ruiz was disqualified under a mountain of evidence that she was up to mischief. It was also discovered she’d taken the subway for most of the New York Marathon. Rosie Ruiz died in 2019, having never admitted to cheating. People are weird.

The Chinese Cigarette Marathon Guy

In 2022, a 50-year-old madman known as ‘Uncle Chen’ completed the Xinjiang Marathon in Jiande, China, in three hours and 28 minutes. Impressive! Even more impressive, dude chain-smoked the whole damn way. Apparently, he’d been running marathons with a carton of cigarettes under his arm for quite a while (he was seen punching darts at the 2018 Guangzhou Marathon and the 2019 Xiamen Marathon), and he’s even rumored to have completed one or two ultramarathons while sucking on a coffin nail. Sadly, in 2023, the Chinese Athletics Association added a new and unprecedented ‘No Smoking’ rule, so now Uncle Chen can’t smoke cigarette after cigarette while running as fast as he can for 42.195 kilometers. It’s a cruel and unfair world.

Kathrine Switzer Being Attacked at the 1967 Boston Marathon

This is another well-known moment in running history, but we need to revisit it here because, come on, how fucking weird is it? There was once a time when women were not permitted to enter AAU (Amateur Athletic Union)-sanctioned races. Everyone thought this was dumb, especially Kathrine Switzer, who decided to flout the silly rules and bravely enter the 1967 Boston Marathon as genderless ‘K.V. Switzer.’ 

Race day rolled around, and she arrived at the starting line wearing a hoodie and accompanied by her coach and her boyfriend for support—which she didn’t need, as the other competitors were hyped to see a woman in the line-up. There was, however, one guy who was not hyped: race director Jock Semple, who attempted to violently remove Switzer from the race when he clocked her around the three-mile mark. Fortunately, Switzer’s boyfriend body-checked Semple and left his dumb ass on the ground. Switzer finished the marathon (approx. 4 hours 20 mins), the scuffle made international headlines, and the AAU had to rethink their ridiculous position on women in sports (although it took a few years).

11,000 Cheat in the Mexico City Marathon

Sadly, cheating is not uncommon in running races. For every major marathon, there’s usually a handful of weirdos who decide to cut the course or swap bibs in order to finish or get a better time. But in September 2023, a staggering 11,000 of the 30,000 participants in the Mexico City Marathon were disqualified for cheating. After complaints were made to organizers, an investigation revealed that cars, bikes, and public transport had been used by, again, ELEVEN THOUSAND athletes to reach the finish line faster. It’s weird to think anyone would enter a marathon and deliberately cheat, but when enough people to fill the seats at a Jonas Brothers concert cheat... I mean, Jesus.

Incident at The Isle of Wight Marathon 1957

Like Vanessa Williams, we went and saved the best for last. On May 25th, 1957, 49 runners lined up in the coastal town of Ryde for the inaugural Isle of Wight Marathon. Forty would finish, six would not finish, and three would swear they were taken aboard a UFO. Athletes Thomas Stewart, Ross Barclay, and Graham Buchanan disappeared from the race at around the 10-mile mark and didn’t reappear until three days later when they staggered into a pub in the village of Shanklin. 

The three swore they’d been abducted by aliens, although they couldn’t remember details beyond seeing flashing lights in the sky. Irate police (they’d carried out an extensive search party) assumed the men had decided to get drunk rather than finish the race, and so contacted every hotel between Ryde and Shanklin, but no one could recall seeing them. The case was dropped. Ten years later, all three went missing again and were discovered unconscious in the field in Yaverland with burn marks on their hands... do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do...