Myers, Lawrence “Lon” (1858-1899)
Lawrence “Lon” Myers (1858-1899)
Track and Field Champion
The Runner. The rise of track and field in the United States during the late nineteenth century was chiefly due to the accomplishments of Lawrence “Lon” Myers. As an amateur runner specializing in distances from 100 to 880 yards, he captured fifteen American, ten Canadian, and three British championships from 1879 to 1885. Myers also established nine American and eleven world records at distances of 50 yards to the mile. As a professional from 1886 to 1888, his races against Walter George of Great Britain established the United States as an international track and field power.
Early Start. Myers, a sickly child, started running after a physician suggested exercise to improve his health, and by the time he had graduated from high school in Richmond, Virginia, in 1876, he had developed into a good runner. In 1876 Myers began working as a bookkeeper in New York, where his father had become a successful businessman. He continued to run in his spare time and, in 1878, competed for the Knickerbocker Yacht Club in the New York Athletic Club’s Election Day Games, winning the 440-yard dash in 55 seconds. This victory set the stage for Myers’ domination of track over the next decade.
Champion. Representing the Manhattan Athletic Club in 1879, Myers captured the first of three consecutive national titles in the 220-yard dash, the first of six consecutive national titles in the 440-yard dash, and the first of two consecutive national titles in the 880-yard dash. As an amateur he remained undefeated in the quarter mile. In 1879 he became the first runner to cover that distance in less than 50 seconds, clocking 49.2 seconds. Myers also earned four consecutive Canadian titles from 1880 to 1883 and two British titles in 1881 and 1885. In the 1881 British 440 title race, he clocked 48.6 seconds, but the remarkable time was not recognized as an official world record because of the downward-sloping homestretch. That time, had it been accepted, would have earned Myers every U.S. championship through 1929. Upon retiring from amateur competition in 1885, Myers had established world records for 50 yards (5.5 seconds), 100 yards (10 seconds), 220 yards (22.5 seconds), 300 yards (31.6 seconds), 660 yards (1:22), 880 yards (1:55.4), 1,000 yards (2:13), and one mile (4:27.6).
Professional. Myers became a full-fledged professional runner in 1886. His amateur status had been questioned since 1884, when a sportswriter had accused him of accepting payment for various Manhattan Athletic Club services. His professional career was highlighted with several races against Walter George of Great Britain, who held every world record from one to ten miles. As an amateur, Myers had raced George the half-mile, three-quarter-mile, and one-mile distances. Despite winning the half, Myers lost the three-quarter and one-mile runs. In 1886, as professionals, they met for the “Middle Distance Championship of the World” at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Myers defeated George at distances of 1,000 yards, 1,320 yards, and one mile and collected $3,000. They met again in Australia in 1887. After losing two straight races to Myers, George left the country before the end of the competition. Myers retired from competitive running to devote himself to raising horses and bookmaking, then a legal profession, in 1888. When he died in 1899, Myers still held five world records.
D. H. Potts, Lon (Mountain View, Cal: Tafnews Press, 1993);
Roberto Quercetani, A World History of Track and Field Athletics, 1864-1964 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964);
Joe D. Willis and Richard G. Wetton, “L. E. Myers, ‘World’s Greatest Runner,’ “Journal of ‘Sports History, 2 (Fall 1975): 93-111.