Book chronicles Maine runner’s life

Posted March 15, 2009, at 4:34 p.m.

Andrew Sockalexis was one of Maine’s greatest athletes. The chronicle of his all-too-brief running career is Ed Rice’s “Native Trailblazer”. Subtitled “Andrew Sockalexis: Penobscot Indian who followed the Maine path to glory and tragedy,” it is an exultant and heart-wrenching account of a star-crossed Olympian and marathoner. Rice previously authored “Baseball’s First Indian,” the life of Louis Sockalexis, Andrew’s second cousin.

Rice is a veteran of Maine and New England running since its halcyon days of the 1970s. The book gives the reader a rare glimpse into the early struggles of the modern Olympic era, the Boston Marathon and sports journalism.

Andrew Sockalexis, nicknamed Sock, was born Jan. 11, 1892, at Indian Island, next to Old Town on the banks of the Penobscot River. He was a running protege of his father, Francis, who himself was a member of the “Pure Men,” ascetic runners in the tradition of the Tarahumara and Pawnee tribes. Accounts of Andrew’s childhood are contradictory. Was he addicted to tobacco? Or was tuberculosis responsible for his early respiratory difficulties?

Whatever the truth, Sock burst onto the running scene in 1911 with a 17th-place finish at the Boston Marathon, followed by a remarkable race the next year at Boston, losing to veteran victor Mike Ryan by 34 seconds. This stellar finish, just 14 seconds off Clarence DeMar’s course record, qualified Sockalexis for the 1912 Olympic team in Stockholm, where, despite questionable coaching and horrendous heat, he finished fourth in 2 hours, 42 minutes, 7 seconds. Despite competing a couple more years, 1912 was the zenith of Sock’s running career. Tuberculosis claimed his life too soon in 1919, at age 27.

Native American history is largely an oral tradition, yet it is confounding, frustrating even, that there is so little known or spoken about Sock’s life. Nonetheless, Rice, relying on newspaper accounts from the Old Town Enterprise, Bangor Daily News, Bangor Commercial, Boston Post and Boston Globe, has pieced together an intriguing biography of a superstar who came so close to the ultimate fame and fortune of the day in his sport.

Although Andrew Sockalexis, man and marathoner, was undone by fate, tough luck and himself, he was an elite world-class athlete who persevered through injury, illness, predatory promoters and agents, and left a legacy that endures.

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