First 10-Mile Road Race in Newfoundland
Thursday, September 17, 1908
With up to 3000 runners and walkers expected to participate in this Sunday’s
84th running of the historic Tely 10 Road Race from the Octagon Pond in
the Town of Paradise to Bannerman Park in St. John’s, let us go back almost
one hundred years in time to that very first “marathon” running race ever
held in Newfoundland.
This 10-mile foot-race, undoubtedly a precursor to the Tely 10 by some
fourteen years, was scheduled for a Thursday evening, September 17, back
in 1908. The race would start ten miles out in the country at the Octagon
Pond and would follow the Topsail Road east to finish at the main gate of
Government House, located at the end of Military Road near Cavendish
However, when the course was carefully measured in the days leading up to
the big event, the distance was found to be precisely nine miles, 1,560 yards.
This meant that an extra two hundred yards had to be added to make up an
exact ten-mile course.
As Sunday’s Tely 10 participants run their race they will follow basically
this same route with only the start and finish areas being adjusted to
accommodate the large numbers now taking part in this historic foot-race.
The 1908 “marathon” race, as it was known, was being held to decide the
first winner of the Marathon Silver Cup, a splendid trophy which had been
donated specifically for this race. The victor would also be deemed to be the
road race champion of Newfoundland. A “handsome gold medal” would be
the reward for the second place finisher, emblematic of his racing prowess.
In order to enter this race some “rules” had to be followed. Each participant
had to register at the St. Andrews Club Rooms on either Monday evening,
September 14, or Tuesday evening, September 15, from 7:30 to 9 pm. No
one would be admitted to the race after these dates.
Each participant also had to produce a doctor’s certificate certifying his
fitness for this kind of racing, which demanded “such a toll on one’s
Friends and backers of the competitors were earnestly requested not in any
way to act as pacers, to keep “the track” clear and “to give all a fair share”,
especially along Harvey and Military Roads. Motorcars, “cabs” and bicycles
were also requested to stay clear of the racers. The hope of all was “to see a
finish worthy of our sport”, and a record time for a race of 10 miles.
The race was scheduled for 5:15 sharp on a Thursday evening, so that those
employed in offices and shops in the city would be able to see the finish
of the race when the winner arrived at the “winning post” some time after
6 o’clock. Some discussion ensued as to whether the race should start 15
minutes earlier at 5 pm, as mid-September evenings tended to get dark about
half past six. However, the organizing committee decided to stick with the
announced time of 5:15 pm.
On race day, a special train was arranged for 4 pm to take the competitors,
their friends and a large number of interested citizens out to the start at the
Octagon. Hundreds of others would drive out in carriages, on bicycles and in
Lady MacGregor and Miss MacGregor, the wife and daughter of His
Excellency, Governor William MacGregor, patrons of the race, would be
driven out to the Octagon by “motor” in the afternoon. They would be
accompanied by Mrs. Reid, wife of W. D. Reid, Esquire, a friend of the
Governor and an important railway executive involved at the time with his
father in the construction of the Newfoundland Railway.
It was also possible that His Excellency the Governor and Mr. Reid might be
present to see the start of the race.
Once the twenty-nine contestants had arrived at the starting area, they were
placed in charge of a Mr. Ellis. Because of the narrowness of the road, the
competitors were to line up in rows, their starting positions being decided by
ballot. All were to be in their positions by 5:10 pm.
After some welcoming remarks had been addressed to the participants and
spectators, the starting gun was fired at 5:15 pm sharp by Miss MacGregor
and the first ever 10-mile road race in Newfoundland was officially
For the first half-mile or so, as expected, all twenty-nine contestants were
practically together, running at a “lively clip”. Soon the first “loosening up”
came as the competitors spread out, and the favorites Jim Janes, Walter Vail,
John Kavanagh and William Cullen took over the front positions.
At Donovan’s, a little over two miles into the race, the runners had separated
considerably, with Janes leading by just a few strides in front of Vail.
Kavanagh, in third place, was 75 yards behind, with Cullen, still further
back. These were proving themselves to be the top runners in the province at
All four continued to run together until mile six near the present day Shrine
Club on Topsail Road was reached. Here, it was Vail who decided to
accelerate his pace and take over the lead, leaving his other three opponents
to follow. Vail would maintain this lead right to the finish.
The last mile of the race was a tremendously exciting one as Vail was
challenged time and again by both Janes and Kavanagh as well as by
William Pynn, who had come on strong in the second half of the race.
Thousands of spectators were out to witness this race and cheer on the
racers. Indeed, from Cornwall Avenue to Cavendish Square at the end of
Military Road, the roads were lined with throngs of cheering and applauding
On Military Road, the crowds were so dense that the road actually became
blocked with spectators after Vail, the first place runner, raced past. This
made it very difficult for second place Janes and third place Kavanagh to get
through. Kavanagh, in fact, was almost knocked out of the race at this point
when he was pushed up against a carriage as he neared the finish line.
After reaching “the winning post”, Walter Vail was boisterously cheered by
his friends and spectators. His winning time was a good one – 59:45. Jim
Janes was the second runner to finish as he reached the post just five seconds
later in 59:50. Kavanagh followed in third with a time of 59:512/5, with
William Pynn taking fourth place in 59:552/5. A close finish indeed as all
four runners reached the winning post within a dozen seconds of each other.
Almost immediately following his impressive victory, Vail was “wrapped
in a rug” by his friends and driven off the course. He and Janes, the second
place finisher, were invited into Government House where Lady MacGregor
awarded the prizes and congratulated the winners. His Excellency the
Governor was also present to offer his congratulations.
The event was deemed a highly successful one and all the contestants
were commended for their splendid work. The “marathon” compared very
favourably with other English and American “marathons” at the time, in
that four competitors had run the course under 60 minutes. This was better
than most citizens expected, although many had hoped it would be done “as
quick as the North Sydney Marathon”. The winning time for that race was
The best amateur time on record for a ten-mile run at this time belonged to
Alfie Shrubb, an Englishman who raced the distance in 50:403/5 in Glasgow,
Scotland, in 1904.
In keeping with medical concerns over running those “long” distances
back then, it may be noted that a Dr. Mitchell started with the runners,
presumably in a motorcar, to be of assistance if needed, and a Dr. Keegan
was on hand at the finish area.
If on Sunday morning, you are one of those 3000 participants running the
Tely 10 from the Octagon Pond to Bannerman Park, remember that ninety-
three years ago, this was the very course used for that first “marathon” run in
Newfoundland. Let us hope that your jaunt won’t take too much of a toll on
Former Tely 10 winner who this year (2011) will run his 39th Tely 10.