How A Marathon Proved The Obvious Importance Of Hydration

The right hydration is absolutely essential to sports performance, as without electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, the body cannot think and move the way it needs to. 


All of this is so obvious that it borders on being a truism; people need water to live and without it, they can get seriously ill seriously quickly. 


However, one of the very first Olympic endurance events was also an experiment that aimed to prove the opposite, nearly killing all of its participants in the process. 


The 1904 Olympic Games took place in St Louis, Missouri, and whilst the entire event is seen as a blemish to sporting history, the marathon that took place on dusty roads was potentially the single worst event in the history of athletics. 


Whilst the stories of Fred Lorz cheating by taking a car most of the journey, Thomas Hicks being the first person to use “performance-enhancing drugs” in the form of the rodent poison strychnine and the Cuban postman who fell asleep after eating rotten apples and still finished fourth are infamous, the reason behind the chaos is unbelievably stupid. 


Its organiser, James Edward Sullivan, had a theory that deliberately limiting fluid intake in a process known as “purposeful dehydration”, could potentially have benefits by avoiding upset stomachs or that people were more capable of functioning with limited amounts of water than expected. 


To try and test this theory, he limited the number of water stations available to runners to just two; there was a water tower six miles into the route and a well at the side of the road at the 12-mile mark. For the final 16 miles, runners were on their own. 


This was clearly and dangerously wrong, as proven by the winning time being the slowest in history for a marathon by some considerable distance and only 14 of the 32 entrants finished the course. 


Whilst Mr Sullivan would be unrepentant and argue as late as 1909 that drinking water during a race was not beneficial, the rest of the scientific world has moved long past such monstrous ideas.