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Geelong’s First Marathon Man

 This article is a reprise of a story that the author, Harry Roberts, wrote and had published in 1976. It introduces the story of Mack Connor that unfolds in four short videos.

Jaded and weary Geelong’s first marathon runner Adrian Ambrose Connor stood accepting the applause of the 1000 strong crowd. He just completed the final Sprint for 2nd place against G Bamford of NSW. The event was the first Marathon Race conducted in Victoria, run between the Frankston Reserve and Wesley College in Melbourne on October the 9th 1909.

Connor and Bamford somehow managed to draw on hidden physical resources to contest the last 100 metres. The two men, evenly matched, were locked stride for stride after a torturous 26 miles and 385 yards. Inches separated them. Connor was narrowly beaten, but their times were identical at three hours 5 minutes and four seconds. Adrian Ambrose Connor, better known to the Geelong community as Mack Connor, had just competed in the first Victorian marathon race. Mack was the first Victorian athlete to cross the line.

Victoria’s first marathon was a spectacular event with thousands of people viewing the event along the route and also at the finish line. In 1909, many would remember the 1908 Olympic marathon in London when there was a controversial end. See https://youtu.be/r6xU6DiRKCg.

That incident established the marathon as an event that displayed endurance, courage, strength and manliness.

The modern marathon had its inspiration from antiquity. In 490 BC the Greeks were fighting a battle against the Persian at a place called Marathon, on the coast to the northeast of Athens. When a Greek victory seemed assured, a Greek Messenger, Pheidippides, was dispatched to Athens to inform the Citizens’ Assembly. Shedding his armour and clothes along the route, Pheidippides ran the whole distance. On arrival he proclaimed: “We have won!”. The effort was too much for the young man who then collapsed and died.

Mack Connor’s 3rd place was the best position and time obtained by any Victorian. Sirst place was taken by Andy Syme, from Sydney, in a time of 3 hours, 4 minutes and 25 seconds.

By comparison, in the 1908 Olympic Marathon, American, John Hayes set the World Record at 2 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds. By the time Mack ran his marathon in October, the World Record had plummeted to 2 hours, 40 minutes and 34 seconds, held by Thure Johansson of Stockholm, Sweden.

Modern diet and training techniques have seen the times for the marathon fall dramatically, since Mack’s 1909 performance. The current World Record today is held by the Kenyan runner Kelvin Kiptum who set the World record at 2 hours, 0 minutes and 35 seconds. That run was in the 2023 Chicago Marathon. The current World record by women is 2 hours, 16 minutes and 16 seconds created recently by Kenyan runner, Peres Jepchirchir on April 21st 2024.

As a competitor for the newly formed Geelong Presbyterian Guild Harriers (GPGH) Mack competed in many events and performed extremely well, although the marathon running proved to be his forte. Mack was an original member, when the Harriers were founded in on July 13th, 1908 and he competed in the famous Geelong to Melbourne relay later that year.

Born in 1888, Mack was 20 when he started running for the GPGH. Mack’s youth and enthusiasm carried him through many hard training months. Seven to 10 weeks was his ideal training period before a major event. Training consisted mainly of road work commencing with eight miles and gradually working up to the full distance an integral part of his training was a good diet and regular sleep. That was after a day’s labouring as a timber sorter.

After his epic marathon run in 1909 Mack was the natural choice to represent Victoria in the NSW marathon on the 6th of June 1910. The marathon was organised by Sydney’s Newtown Harriers Club. Financial stringency made it hard for Mack to travel to Sydney to compete, so the president of GPGH, Mr. D.F. Griffiths, made a plea to Geelong businesses by means of the Geelong Advertiser, on May 25th 1910.

“Mr. A Connor will represent the amateur runners of the Geelong district on June 6 at the marathon race organised by the crack club of NSW, the Newtown Harriers Club. Mr. Connor is a young working man and the cost of the Sydney trip is a strain on his scanty resources. Mr. Connor estimates his expenses at about £10. In view of Mr. Connor’s past achievements, I feel sure that Geelong businessmen, and especially all those interested in good clean sport, would like to give a shilling towards paying Mr. Connor’s expenses.”

Before his departure to Sydney, Mack received a purse of sovereigns from the GPGH to offset the cost of the trip. Although a runner of great ability, Mack did not run with an orthodox style, Sydney’s sporting paper, Referee, wrote of Mack Connor on May 25th 1910 page 9:

”In all probability Sydneysiders will receive a great surprise when they see the ‘human kangaroo’ bounding along, for although a good runner, he has no style whatever, in fact he is the most awkward runner imaginable.”

Secretary of the GPGH, Mr. Bervan Purnell wrote about one particular training run.

“Although known to the general public he accomplished on last Saturday week, May 14, a nonstop 27 1/2 mile run to the Rothwell cemetery at Little River on the main Melbourne Road. and back in a few minutes over three hours, refusing to partake in any refreshment whatsoever on route. For the past month he has done many other smart times over various distances”. Geelong Advertiser May 20th, 1910

The Sydney marathon was run in only fair conditions. The course was rough, a Creek had to be crossed, roads were pitted with potholes and aggravating, callous wind blew strongly. Despite the unfavourable conditions, Mack gained a credible creditable second place, again behind Andy Syme of South Sydney. Mack’s performance bettered the Australian record for the distance with a time of two hours and 59 minutes 0 seconds.

Andy Syme’s winning run created a record of two hours 54 minutes and 30 seconds smashing the previous record of two hours 59 minutes and two fifth seconds. Symes later said, “It was the hardest marathon course I have yet negotiated”. The run was even more creditable considering the winner of the Olympic Marathon in 1908, John Hayes, was timed at 2 hours 54 minutes and 18 seconds.

Mack’s third marathon was the Victorian Marathon on October the 8th ,1910. The race was conducted over the same course as the previous year. Connor’s tactics were the same: stay in the first four or five and step up the pace over the last three to four miles. His tactics did not work well this time, because the leader Mr. W Murray of Melbourne had too much lead and he was not tiring. However, Mack ran hard and fast to gain second place from Mr. C Naylor of Essendon. Eight thousand people saw the runners slog through the last three laps of the run. Mack’s time was a consistent 3 hours one minute and 50 seconds.

Coronation Day in June 1911 was the occasion of New South Wales’ third marathon. On this occasion he was fourth. In glorious weather in October, 1911, Mack ran his last marathon. It commenced from the Carlton Oval at 1:40 PM. With much thought and care the course had been prepared, even to the extent that the roads had been watered. The field of 40 competitors wore the usual apparel of light washing hats and canvas boots. 4000 sheep, that strayed aimlessly across the course near Broadmeadows, were there to view the race too, however, competitors managed to weave their way through the flock with little difficulty. During the final stages of the race, Mack dropped behind and eventually finished fifth ,with the time of three hours 21 minutes and 10 seconds. It was a performance well below his usual standard.

Popularity was fading for the marathon. On November 14th 1911, Alcock’s Sporting Review commented:

“The general apathy that has been displayed over recent marathon races that have been held in Australia is a great indication that runners and public alike are anxious to give the twenty- sixer a well earned rest. The charm of the word ‘marathon’ has apparently vanished and I’m inclined to think that it will be some years before the long distance race will be held again.“

Mack continued running for the GPGH, with varied success, until late 1912. Due to an illness in the Connor family, he left Geelong for a short time to live in Queensland. Mack’s departure coincided with the downfall of the Geelong Presbyterian Guild Harriers The club disbanded ‘sine die’ soon afterwards. It did return as athletic force once more after the war as the Geelong Guild Harriers.

Mack was a modest man and seldom spoke in public, but he did give advice to runners of the period. “Fixity of purpose is a great thing in a race, for I believe the mind plays a great part. Above all, the actual experience of a race is the hard practical teacher, which many of the uninitiated will find to their cost.”

Many complements were written for Mack, but perhaps the best was from GPGH Secretary, Mr. Bervan Purnell.

”Knowing Mr. Connor perhaps more familiarly than anyone connected with amateur athletics, I can unhesitatingly assure the general public that he is what is known as a true sport, and a citizen of whom any city or town might be might well be proud.”

Like many young men in 1915, Mack went to fight for his country. Today, the marathon is still a challenge, but thousands of ordinary citizens compete, mainly to test their own endurance instead of beating the clock. Only those who cover the 26 miles and 385 yards can know what a true champion Mack Connor was.

What happened to Mack Connor? Watch Well Run Mack, in our four part video. (coming soon)


1 https://youtu.be/r6xU6DiRKCg
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathon_world_record_progression
3 Marathon – Wikipedia
4 Photos from Geelong Presbyterian Guild Archive.

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