The Barely Believable Life of Andarín Carvajal

The Barely Believable Life of Andarín Carvajal

He was Cuba’s first Olympic marathoner, among other things.

The Barely Believable Life of Andarín Carvajal
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 033, April 2021

by Liam Boylan-Pett 

It used to be a lot easier to disappear.

Sometime in early 1907, a steamship carrying the red and yellow flag of Spain sailed into a harbor in Havana, Cuba. A smaller, much less luxurious version of the Titanic, the steamer docked and unfurled walkways to bridge the gap between the boat and the pier. As the crew began cleanup and unloaded freight, passengers marched out and toward the customs house nearby. One man walked up to a customs agent and presented his papers. He had no luggage, and his mustache could have been the inspiration for Mario and Luigi. His name, his papers claimed, was Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto.

There was one catch: Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto was dead.

More commonly known as Félix “Andarín” Carvajal, he was Cuba’s first Olympian, finishing fourth in the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis. He had gained fame in that race after walking from New Orleans to Missouri, and then eating some apples during the race that made him sick. He stuck around in the U.S. for a bit after those Olympics and ran a few races—enough to be profiled in multiple newspapers in the leadup to the 1906 Intercalated Games, a short-lived idea that would have hosted another Olympics every four years in Athens, between the traveling Games to be held every four years. Carvajal was a favorite to win the marathon at those Athens Games. Instead, the race went off without him. 

Carvajal had arrived on a steamer in Italy a few weeks before the Games. He never made it to Athens, though. One rumor was that he went to a bar in Italy, showed off some of his Cuban money, and was then robbed and sent out to swim with the fishes for eternity. Whether it was murder or an accident, Carvajal was presumed dead. His obituary was published in Cuban papers: The fourth-place finisher in the 1904 Olympic marathon was dead. 

Then that Spanish ship sailed into Havana with a man claiming to be Carvajal. He had all the papers he needed. Even if it seemed unbelievable, it turned out Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto was alive and, even if he was a little worse for the wear, well. If the customs agent needed any more proof that it really was Carvajal who had stepped off that boat, it came as soon as the agent let him go: Carvajal did not walk away, he ran, ran all the way to one of his old acquaintance’s home in Havana, where he was given a fresh meal and a place to stay for a few days. 

In March 1907, he raced American professional runner Henry W. Shelton, in a long-distance competition. Shelton quit by the time Carvajal finished 40 miles, unable to keep up and unwilling to see how long Carvajal could go. News of Carvajal’s return made it up to the United States: CUBAN MARATHON RUNNER CARVAJAL COMES TO LIFE.

The stories that followed were sensational, describing the runner who had nearly died eating apples at the 1904 Olympics and who had simply disappeared but come back to life. (No reporter, apparently, ever even asked where Carvajal was for those six or so months.) Those sensational stories have reemerged over the past 115 years, in remembrances of the 1904 Olympics and the weirdest marathon ever. 

In fact, a tweet in April on the Wikipedia page of that marathon went viral, reigniting interest in the race. Look a little closer at Carvajal’s life—which was adapted into a Spanish-language novel and an episode of the 1950s television show, Telephone Time—and his story, while awe-inspiring and at times unbelievable, is not quite as wondrous as his Wikipedia page might suggest. 

Illustration of an apple.

The 1904 Olympic marathon was, by all accounts, as strange and crazy as the viral tweet suggests. It is common for the race to be recounted around the time of the Olympic marathon every four years, and for good measure. 

The marathon, which that year was 24.85 miles, started in the hot afternoon in St. Louis August 30, 1904. Of the 32 runners who toed the start line, only 14 finished. The first man to cross the line was Fred Lorz. Lorz, however, had dropped out of the race 9 miles in and grabbed a ride back to the stadium where the race was supposed to finish—a Rosie Ruiz before her time. He almost immediately admitted his erroneous ways, thus giving apparent second-place finisher Thomas Hicks his deserved limelight. Lorz, would go on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon, without cutting any corners. 

Hicks, meanwhile, had his own set of struggles on his way to a finishing time of 3 hours, 28 minutes, 53 seconds. Per the Wikipedia page of the event, “From [10 miles in] until the end of the race, Hicks received several doses of strychnine (a common rat poison, which stimulates the nervous system in small doses) mixed with brandy. He continued to battle onwards, hallucinating, barely able to walk for most of the course. When he reached the stadium, his support team carried him over the line, holding him in the air while he shuffled his feet as if still running. Hicks had to be carried off the track, and might have died in the stadium had he not been treated by several doctors. He lost eight pounds during the course of the marathon.” Strychnine would be illegal for runners today.

Americans Albert Corey and Arthur Newman won silver and bronze, giving the U.S. a clean sweep of the event. 

Coming in a short while later (no official time was recorded) was a postman from Cuba that went by Andarín Carvajal—Andarín translates to “the walker.” Carvajal, as reports would soon make it known, had hitchhiked from New Orleans to St. Louis for the race, and had not eaten for nearly two days. So, in the midst of the race, peeled off to an apple orchard for a snack. The apples, it turned out, were rotten. So, to subside his stomach cramps, Carvajal took a nap. After the snooze, he got up and ran and walked his way through the course, becoming a fan favorite by chatting with spectators and race officials. 

He was a favorite in the press, too. Carvajal stuck around in St. Louis after the Olympics, even joining the Missouri Athletic Club to run a few marathons stateside. In one profile from The Associated Press that ran in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Carvajal was portrayed as an idiosyncratic runner with witchcraft type secrets. According to the piece, “Of the many odd things Felix does while on the track … Instead of running around the corners, with his weight thrown on his left leg, Carvajal turns his back toward the interior of the circle, and then goes around the corner cross-legged.” Carvajal, according to the article, ran around turns like a figure skater gliding across the ice from side to side. It was just one of the details that had the press chomping at the bit for stories from Carvajal. At 30 years old, he was gaining quite a following. 

He had taken a long journey to get there. 

Illustration of an apple.

Born March 18, 1875, in an old building on the north waterfront in Havana, Carvajal grew up in an impoverished family in San Antonio de los Baños to the southwest of Havana. Running was in his legs early. “I always loved to run,” he told the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1905. As a boy, he would race horses in the country and race his friends up hills. According to old newspaper stories, he seldom tired. When he was 14, he won his first race, beating a Spanish athlete known for distance running in an all-day race around the perimeter of San Antonio de los Baños. After starting at 8 a.m., Carvajal did not stop until 7 p.m., two hours after his last competitor had given up. 

When he was 20, Carvajal joined the Mambí army (the Cuban side) as a courier in the Cuban War of Independence. He reportedly ran over 30 miles per day, going from town to town to deliver messages. At one point, however, Carvajal became known to the Spanish army. He fled to Tampa, Florida, where he had family. 

Once the war ended in 1898, Carvajal returned to Cuba and moved to Havana, where he worked as a postman, errand boy, and doorman at an upscale hotel. He ran, too, and by the time of the 1904 Olympics, was interested in going to St. Louis to race the world’s best. So, in June of that year, Carvajal, who was barely making a living wage even with all the jobs he held, walked into Havana City Hall and asked to chat with the mayor. 

With what would become his signature mustache and ragged clothes, the skinny-armed Carvajal told the cigarette smoking mayor that he wanted to run the Olympic marathon. The mayor laughed him out of the office. 

So, according to lore, Carvajal did the only thing he knew: He began to run. Lap after lap around the Plaza de Armas, the 5-foot-3-inch, 120-pound runner ran circles around City Hall, jogging past the Mayor’s window time after time. He ran the entire day. A crowd began to watch this sweat-soaked runner plod around the park, lap after lap. At the end of the workday, the mayor came out to a throng of people. Once again, Carvajal ran by. The mayor returned to his office and wrote up an order. He returned outside and stopped Carvajal. “Here is an order for your transportation to St. Louis and return,” he said in Spanish. “Now go and do your best.” 

Carvajal would do his best, but there were a few hiccups. First, he had to raise the money to get there. According to reports, he set up what was a 1904 version of a GoFundMe, walking around town raising money for his trip to the Olympics. It worked—before the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, Carvajal was on a steamer to New Orleans. There, however, the money ran dry. 

When it came to Carvajal, things always became interesting once he got a little bit of money and found himself in a port town. Whether in New Orleans or in Italy, the money moved quickly. And when it came to Carvajal, there was often more than one story. 

One newspaper said he got to New Orleans and picked up a job at a jai alai gym, but then the gym shut down so he had no money to get to St. Louis. Another report said he was robbed. Other papers rumored he got into gambling and drinking. 

There was no denying, however, he showed up to the 1904 Olympic marathon dead-tired from his 670-mile hitchhike in a dirt- and sweat-stained white buttoned shirt and trousers and work boots. One writer described him: “Carvajal, the ends of his heavy black mustache sticking out at an aggressive angle, looked both picturesque and pathetic.” Someone helped cut his trousers at the legs so he wouldn’t overheat.

While he did not overheat, he did overeat. Still, Carvajal finished fourth in the race, and many believed he would have won if it were not for the rotten apples that forced him to take a nap. His popularity only grew at the post-race banquet a few evenings, when he made a toast to Cuba in what was described as “flowery Spanish.” Carvajal decided to stick around for a while. Like in Cuba, he worked odd jobs and ran races when he could, joining the Missouri Athletic Club to pay race expenses when needed. 

Then one day he decided he wanted to go back to Cuba, so he did. 

His legend only grew. Before the 1906 “Olympics” he was profiled in The Evening World News, where it was announced that once he returned to Cuba, he ran the length of the country and back twice, like a Forest Gump before his time. They also reported he visited friends in New York and was arrested for racing train cars, sent to Bellevue as an insanity suspect. It was reported that Carvajal did not speak English, French, or even Spanish, but instead spoke a Cuban slang. Once the authorities at Bellevue tracked down his friends, they asked how long Carvajal had been crazy. The friends responded, “He isn’t crazy, he’s a runner.” That was when he returned to Cuba and prepped for the Athens Marathon. 

Once again, he raised money. Only this time, once he landed in Italy, Carvajal lost himself. 

Illustration of an apple.

Carvajal’s return to Cuba in 1907 was uneventful. Sure, there had been an obituary, and sure there was a story or two about him being alive, but there is no record as to what he did in those few months he was missing. He turned professional, which would exclude him from consideration for the 1908 Olympics due to amateurism rules, and raced here and there, making news for winning a 40-mile race against an American professional. 

Then, in 1909, he was signed by an American agent and brought up for long distance races in New York. He was the headliner at the $10,000 International Marathon held at the Polo Grounds in New York, but finished dead last. 

He continued racing around the world. In 1916, he was profiled by El Heraldo de Cuba and noted for his multiple awards and storied career. Carvajal never stopped running. In 1928 at 53 years old, The Associated Press reported that he was planning to run from San Francisco to New York with a hand cart in front of him with his belongings. It did not happen, instead he ran over 4,000 laps around the famed Manzana de Gómez building over a six-day period.

At 73, he was still running. Challenged by a young upstart from Argentina, Carvajal accepted and raced a marathon that ended with a few laps of El Cerro baseball stadium (now Latin American Stadium). He lost but spoke in front of the crowd there to watch the game. 

Two or three days later, January 27, 1949, he was dead. A heart attack ended his life. Living in La Lisa—a rough neighborhood of Havana—he was found by friends in bad shape, before he died in the hospital. 

Once again, there was an obituary for Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto. This one stuck. 

Illustration of an apple.

Today, Félix Carvajal’s name shows up as the fourth-place finisher in what Smithsonian magazine called the strangest marathon ever. Dig a little closer, and you can find tales of him running miles upon miles and race upon race—stories of him tipping his hat and stopping to chat with any and everyone along the 1904 Olympic course or carrying his metal rod he used for protection as a courier in the war in the late 1800s. Félix Carvajal, Corredor de Maratón, published in 1990, was a novelized biography of his life. There was even a 30-minute television special made on his life. 

It was the end, however, that has been forgotten. Living in a shack in a poor neighborhood is not the life expected for an Olympian—a country’s first Olympian. Nothing is said about his family or his personal life. The profiles and newspaper clippings hinted at it, but it seems that Carvajal was never able to escape poverty. He was born with almost nothing, showed up to his races with almost nothing, and died with almost nothing. The few times he had enough money to travel, he took advantage of it and saw the world. And he always did it running.

In 2004, the town of San Antonio de los Baños held a 15-kilometer walk to commemorate the centennial of the 1904 Olympic marathon. Even 55 years after his death, he is still remembered. Same goes for when a tweet about that 1904 marathon goes viral. This story and somber ending is not to dissuade anyone from recalling Carvajal in a positive light or laughing at how ludicrous that run. By all accounts, even when he was down, he ran his ass off.

This story is asking that you remember Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto as a mustachioed runner who had to cut his pants before the Olympics and who, despite early 1900s fame, never had the riches that one might expect to come with it. This story is asking that you take all those wild and almost unfathomable tales about Carvajal and look at them with marvel. It is also asking that you accept that as rosy as we might remember some things from 100 years ago, it might not be quite as wonderful as we thought. That’s the story of Carvajal, a runner who saw the world, but never conquered it. 

It used to be easy to disappear, but nowadays, it is also easy to be found.

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