by Bruce Cherney
A crowd gathered around Neepawa telegraph operator Paterson as he read the messages arriving minute-by-minute from Winnipeg. Finally, the expectant people were rewarded with good news from Paterson and then spilled out onto the street, shouting that local runner, Harold Parsons, the son of a farm family living two miles south of town, had won the Morning Telegram’s annual 20-mile road race.
“In a few minutes the news was all down the street and all of the people were discussing and congratulating and pressing for details,” reported the Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram on July 1, 1907.
The Dominion Day (now Canada Day) long weekend had got off to an auspicious start for the people of Neepawa and their hometown hero.
Thousands had witnessed 19-year-old Parsons’ June 29 victory, though few had ever heard of the man who entered the race with fewer still expecting him to win. Parsons was considered a dark horse among the more experienced long-distance runners.
“The performance of this youth, who came in from Neepawa to enter the contest without any special training for the very trying ordeal, was little less than phenomenal and such as to mark him as one of the most promising runners Canada has produced,” claimed the Morning Telegram.
But the people of Neepawa knew of his prowess and that he was from a family of runners. Winter or summer Parsons ran to and from his job at the Union Bank where he worked as a clerk. Prior to his employment at the bank, he would ran to school in the morning and back home in the evening.
While he had limited experience in athletics having only won a few short distance races, townsfolk were confident the diminutive Parsons — just 5-foot-7 and a scant 134 pounds soaking wet — had the right stuff to take on the best Manitoba runners in Winnipeg. A year earlier they had urged Parsons to enter the Winnipeg race, but his parents felt he was too young. A year later, they relented and their son didn’t disappoint his supporters.
“When I came to Winnipeg I had no idea of how I would run,” Parsons told the newspaper. “I had no definite plan of action.”
In fact, after starter M.E. Nichols fired his pistol at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to start the race, Parsons hung back, content to let the favourites take the lead.
In the very first Morning Telegram road race a year earlier, John Marsh of St. Norbert had been the victor, followed by A. F. Little of the Winnipeg YMCA Athletic Club. While Marsh was not running in 1907, Little returned as was Phil Walker of 150 Alfred Ave. and they were considered the pre-race favourites. In total, there were eight racers lined up at the start with one racer having dropped out prior to the race.
The Greek runner Speros Golemis apparently had promised anyone who would listen that he would be victorious, but later disappointed his well-wishers by failing to complete the course.
The Winnipeg event was occurring at a time when road racing was at its height in popularity and Canada happened to have several of the best runners in the sporting world. For example, Canadians Billy Sherring won the 1906 Olympic Games marathon in Athens and Tom Longboat took the Boston marathon in 1907.
Running was considered a “manly” pursuit because of its requirement for skill and endurance — “altogether the atmosphere of the occasion appeals very strongly to the imagination of the lover of legitimate sports. Road racing develops the limb and the eye, and makes for a clear head and good lungs.”
While the Morning Telegram writer praised the sport, road racing also had somewhat of an unsavory reputation; gambling was common and many racers became professionals to take advantage of the prize money and the extra money that could be won from betting.
Still, the massive popularity of road racing was demonstrated time and time again by strong attendance figures — the second annual race in Winnipeg was no exception.
At the starting line in front of the Morning Telegram office on the corner of Albert Street and McDermot Avenue, hundreds prepared to cheer on the racers. Boys clung to telegraph poles to catch a glimpse of the runners, others perched on ledges of nearby buildings and still more people peaked out of office building windows along the first leg of the race.
Dozens of automobiles, hundreds on bicycles and people in carriages and on horseback followed the runners around the course, the route of which was south on Albert to Notre Dame, east on Notre Dame to Portage Avenue, west on Portage to the turning point near Sturgeon Creek on Portage and east on Portage to Sherbrook, north along Sherbrook to Nena (a portion of Sherbrook today) to reach McDermot and then the finish line at Albert and McDermot.
Parsons said he was the last to get onto Portage, but as he approached the corner of Donald Street he moved into fourth place with Walker and Little leading.
“We ran in that order until near Sturgeon Creek when Walker and I drew away from Little,” added Parsons.
From that point on Little was not a factor in the race. During the return leg, Parsons and Walker were running even when Parsons suddenly developed a “slight pain in his side” and was forced to pull up until he was able to recover. In the meantime, Walker was 75 yards in front of Parsons.
“The pain left me and again I stepped out after Walker,” said Parsons.
“Coming abreast of Walker (it had only taken Parsons a quarter mile to make up the distance) he again increased his speed and it was apparent to those observors that it was there that the race was being won,” reported the Morning Telegram. “Walker could not meet the spurt that the great increased speed of his close antagonist demanded if he was to stay in the race, and signs of distress could be seen on his face. On the other hand, Parsons appeared strong and fresh and was running at an even stride.”
Both Parsons and Walker were well ahead of the field, though Walker soon saw that he would never catch the Neepawa runner and eventually would drop out of the race from exhaustion. It was claimed the “pace was too fast and the course so punishing” that the field was quickly whittled down to just three racers out of eight starters.
“A large crowd awaited the runners at Deer Lodge and when Parsons went past in the lead was given several rounds of applause.”
At the corner of Sherbrook and Portage, the crowd was so dense that Parsons had trouble getting past them.
Parsons believed himself to be so far ahead of the other runners that he started to walk down Sherbrook. “It was here that his attendant, Alexander Matheson, was the most vigilant to assure himself that no one of the other runners had come up behind unnoticed. Parsons expressed his ability to go faster if necessary, but was unwilling to take chances after having the race won and alternated at walking and jogging until McDermot Avenue.”
As Parsons proceeded down McDermot, he was greeted by enthusiastic cheers and hand clapping.
After receiving a piece of orange, he leisurely ate it as he walked along the grass boulevard.
“As soon as he had finished eating and with the finish line in sight the runner again stepped out and with his fore-arms well raised and his head high he ran through an avenue of people who had gathered in thousands along the course.”
The Morning Telegram reported that the scene at the finish line “beggars description” with every vantage point taken including the roof of the Telegram building as well as others crowded on top of the Marriagi Hotel across the street and the Sylvester-Willson building on the remaining corner at McDermot and Albert.
“Even the telegraph and electric light poles along the finish of the route and those that commanded a view of the tape, bore their human freight and all the perchers were not boys.”
It was said that the crowd of people lining the finish area was so thick that it took a strong force of burly policemen to clear a path for the lead runner. The spectators cheered wildly as Parsons crossed the finish line. He had won the first long-distance race he had ever entered.
Parsons was praised for having run a masterful race and for easily disposing of his opponents along the course.
Parsons later said he felt he had won the event just seven miles into the race when he looked at the other runners and saw signs of fatigue on their faces and was sure of his victory when he passed Walker. His final time was 2 hours, 18 minutes and seven seconds, well ahead of the second and third place finishers despite Parsons having walked most of the last three miles of the race.
While Walker failed to finish the race, Little ended up second in a time of two hours, 25 minutes and 13 seconds, and the only other man to finish, J.C. Hack of Norwood, finished third in a time of two hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds.
“The interest displayed in the second annual road race of the Telegram illustrates the love of the west for those contests which require skill and endurance,” said the newspaper’s editorial writer. “The cheering thousands along McDermot Avenue who greeted the winner as he concluded his 20-mile run indicates the approval of a very considerable portion of Winnipeg’s population, not to mention a large number from smaller towns whose champions participated in the event.”
Once the race was over, Parsons walked back in the company of his friends to the Clarendon Hotel where he was staying and treated himself to a sponge bath and massage. That evening Parsons was said to have ate a “hearty supper” and was no worse for wear.
Parsons’ win in 1907 was not a fluke as the Neepawa man would win the Morning Telegram race in 1908 and 1909. He also won the Manitoba 10-mile race in 1908 and 1909 and Parsons was the Canadian five-mile champion in 1909.