The Wondrous World Of Great Wagers And Very Long Walks
Ultras are not new. Athletes have been slugging it out over extreme distances for centuries. RW charts the rise of the bizarre craze known as pedestrianism
The fantastic, eccentric and bizarre era of pedestrianism. Step right up!
ALONG TIME BEFORE THE LIKES OF Jornet, Jurek and Karnazes began blazing their trails, extreme athletes were covering extreme distances in the name of pedestrianism. Beginning in earnest in the late 18th century, the activity covered long-distance running and walking contests, and it was a madcap sport of endurance challenges, often for huge wagers.
In the UK and US, professional ‘peds’ would run, walk or use a combination of the two to attempt absurd feats such as travelling 1,000 miles on foot or simply seeing what distance could be clocked up in six days of continuous time on a track.
In the late 17th and 18th centuries, pedestrianism evolved from a rich culture of foot races at fairs, festivals and wakes, and ‘freak races’ for wagers, where runners were either genuinely disabled in some way or had ridiculous handicaps imposed on them, such as running on stilts or with a 25kg fish on their head. From here, ambitious ideas – and public interest in them – grew.
As the arrival of the industrial revolution increased leisure time and disposable income (for some), huge crowds gathered to watch these acts of slightly unhinged heroism, placed huge bets and turned these gloriously stubborn and often magnificently eccentric athletes into celebrities. Events could be front-page news and pedestrianism brought us both the first celebrity athletes and the birth of international spectator sport.
‘ Both ultramarathoning and modern racewalking are descended from pedestrianism,’ says Matthew Algeo, author of Pedestrianism: When watching people walk was America’ s favorite spectator sport.
‘The heel-and-toe method embodied in modern racewalking is a descendent of the original pedestrians, such as Edward Payson Weston and Dan O’leary, who walked. Ultramarathons are descended from the next generation of pedestrians, such as Charles Rowell [more on all of them shortly], who were less concerned about form, more so endurance, just pushing themselves as far and as hard as they could.’
Peds covered extraordinary distances over astonishing timescales, though often it was the tactics, subplots, subterfuge and eccentricity that made their stories so compelling.
Englishman Foster Powell, also known as The Astonishing Pedestrian, was the grandfather of the pedestrian movement. Born in 1734, the law clerk discovered an aptitude for covering long distances as he made his law-paper deliveries.
Aged 30, Powell ran 50 miles on the Bath road in seven hours, covering the first 10 inside an hour. He progressed to 112 miles in 24 hours, in 1784, but he made his career on several self-powered 396-mile return trips from London to York. An early PB was five days, 19 hours and 15 minutes. He would later knock four hours off that, and straight afterwards he wagered he could walk another mile, then run another, within a total limit of 15 minutes. He walked a mile in 9:20 and ran the second in an astonishing 5:23, to win the bet by 17 seconds. Oh, and he was aged 57.
Captain Robert Barclay Allardyce, from Scotland, went further. The ‘Celebrated Pedestrian’, part of the family who would found a banking empire, was another early ped. In the summer of 1809, around 10,000 spectators gathered at a half-mile course on Newmarket Heath in Suffolk because Barclay had wagered a staggering 16,000 guineas that
he could walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. Covering the equivalent of 24 miles per day sounds doable, perhaps, but as an additional condition Barclay, then aged 29, pledged to tick off at least a mile every single hour – for 42 days. Total betting reached £40m in today’s money, including a wager by the Prince of Wales.
Barclay’s strategy was to walk a mile at the end of each hour, then another immediately after that, at the start of the next, allowing himself maximum rest before his next stroll. Predictably, his pace decreased from just under 15-minute miles at the start to around 21-minute miles, while his weight dropped from 13st 4lb (84.5kg) to 11st (70kg). As the days passed and the crowds grew, Barclay became so lethargic that helpers stuck needles in him to try to keep him alert. When that lost effectiveness, they repeatedly fired pistols close to his ears. ‘ His legs swelled prodigiously,’ noted a spectator.
But, remarkably, Barclay won his bet and after collecting his winnings, took a warm bath and went for a nap, with strict instructions to be awoken after eight hours. He was concerned that his deep fatigue might cause him never to wake again. Barclay was awoken the next day, ‘without pain and in perfect health’, reports Edward S Sears in Runningthrough theages. And this was decades before the invention of the recovery shake. Barclay’s achievement spawned a competitive-walking craze in Britain, that would later spread to the US.
In the autumn of 1860, a US presidential election was imminent. Friends Edward Payson Weston and George Eddy debated the outcome over dinner: Eddy predicted Abraham Lincoln would win; Weston thought otherwise. Their wager? The loser would have to walk 478 miles from Boston to Washington, in time for the next president’s inauguration.
‘ I do not suppose that either of us at the time had the remotest idea of ever attempting such a task,’ said Weston. But when Lincoln won, 21-year-old Weston, a man ‘unencumbered with self-doubt’ according to Algeo, was curious about whether their absurd wager, which required covering almost 50 miles per day over 10 days, might actually be possible.
After two 36-mile test walks on consecutive days, drumming up sponsors and posting copies of his itinerary to newspapers on his route, the travelling salesman set off.
He was soon hauled over by the police, who wanted to discuss some debts he owed. But he sweettalked his way out of a cell and as he progressed, crowds gathered, so unruly in Newark, New Jersey, that the police were called to maintain order. Women gave him kisses to pass on to Lincoln. It was all going well, until a wrong turn or two near Philadelphia took him 12 miles in the wrong direction. He arrived in Washington four hours late for the inauguration.
However, Weston did get to meet the new president, who was tickled by his tale and offered to pay his return train fare. Weston, with an eye on a career change and with debts to pay off, insisted he would walk back (only for the Civil War to intervene). The Wily Wobbler, as he would later be nicknamed, owing to his wobbly gait, realised walking for wagers could be a full-time living, and he did just that for the next 25 years.
One of Weston’s signature feats was covering 50 miles inside 10.5 hours, in front of showground crowds, with the last half mile done backwards. In 1871, he walked 200 miles around St Louis, Missouri, in 41 hours. All backwards.
Self-powered locomotion took him from Los Angeles to New York, some 3,100 miles (5,000km) in 77 days. He also spent eight years touring Europe, where he attempted to walk 2,000 miles around the shires of England
Weston would ‘jiggle, limp, hop, trot and dance’
within 1,000 hours – missing out by just a few miles.
Weston was a showman, but he was also serious about pedestrianism, lecturing audiences on the health benefits of exercise and warning that new-fangled automobiles were making people lazy. With a cruel twist of irony, he was injured by a New York City taxicab in 1927 and never walked again. He died two years later, aged 90.
Between 1878 and 1889 the public in the US and Britain became captivated by sixday races – which occasionally still take place today in Europe and the US. Due to the opposition to sport on Sundays, for religious reasons, ‘ wobbles’ (as they were known, because of the physical state to which they reduced most participants) would start at midnight on Sunday and go through to midnight the following Saturday.
The events took place in arenas such as New York’s Madison Square Garden or Islington’s Agricultural Hall, London, and contestants simply had six days to tick off as many miles as possible on a circular track, ‘heel and toe’ being the initial rule, which later became ‘go as you please’ (ie you could run). Sleep or rest breaks were allowed in tents.
‘The matches were in big arenas, easy to get to and cheap,’ says Algeo. ‘They ran continuously, so a worker on any shift could stop by and watch a great walking match. And, even though watching people walk for hours sounds boring – they were fun! There were marching bands, and vendors, and gambling, lots of gambling. They were actually pretty raucous events.’
Weston and Irish-american Dan O’leary, aka The Plucky Pedestrian, were the Coe and Ovett of the late 1800s. Weston, the most famous ped at the time, was also the first man to cover 500 miles inside six days, doing so in 1874, in New Jersey, after three failed attempts. O’leary, meanwhile, had discovered his ability to cope with long distances while selling bibles in Chicago. An early attempt at covering 150 miles in 32 hours hadn’t gone well. He’d quit at 131 miles after a series of setbacks, including ‘injudiciously drinking some sour ale, egg and sherry during the night’.
Undeterred, O’leary challenged Weston to a two-man six-day race, a de facto World Championship, in Chicago in 1875. Weston, the star of the scene, was known for his showboating. He would ‘jiggle, limp, hop, trot and dance’ during a race
to entertain the crowd, according to
Runningthroughtheages. Contrary to expectations, O’leary won, walking 501 miles in 143 hours and 13 minutes (to Weston’s 450 miles) and breaking his rival’s six-day record in the process.
Weston and O’leary met again, at the Agricultural Hall, London, in 1877, in front of 35,000 fans. O’leary won again, covering 519 miles to Weston’s 510. The protagonists split the gate, which totalled £200,000 each in today’s money.
Although he’d lost £20,000 backing Weston, wealthy Conservative MP Sir John Astley was so taken with the event that he arranged the Astley Belt Series of six-day races. So far, the events had been walker-only, but now running was allowed, which increased popularity.
‘The fact people would pay money to watch men (and, later, women) stagger around a sawdust track for days on end may seem bizarre,’ says Algeo. ‘ Yet at the same time, what these men and women were doing – running and walking 500, even 600 miles, in six days, in deplorable conditions, without the benefit of modern medicine or technology or even decent shoes – is extraordinary. These were the greatest athletes of their era. They helped usher in the era of professional sports. In a way, pedestrianism perfectly encapsulates the Gilded Age: heroic and nonsensical.’
O’leary won the first Astley Belt, beating 17 Englishmen and clocking 520 miles. He won the second, too (with Weston absent). At the third, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, in March 1879, where crowds were so big several thousand were refused admission, O’leary was finally defeated by Charles Rowell, aka The Cambridge Wonder. Rowell was known for his efficient ‘dogtrot’ technique ( best described as running slowly). Weston wanted back in and he challenged Rowell. The fourth Astley Belt was held in London in June 1879, but Rowell was a no-show after an accident involving a nail and his foot. O’leary was in temporary retirement and the 40-year-old Weston, who had been working hard on his technique, racked up a record 550 miles alternating between running and walking.
Public interest in the fifth and final Astley Belt was huge. In September 1879, at Madison Square Garden, an all-star line-up of pedestrianism legends toed the start line, including Weston, O’leary’s African-american protégé Frank Hart, and Britons Rowell and George Hazael.
On the penultimate day it looked to be going Rowell’s way. He had clocked 419 miles to second-placed Hazael’s 385, with American Sam Merritt in third. But after a latemorning rest stop, Rowell failed to emerge from his tent for six hours. When he did, he looked awful. Clearly unwell, he shuffled on. But Merritt was catching him. Word spread and crowds grew to watch Rowell struggle to cling to his dwindling lead. Merritt was only 8.5 miles behind Rowell and he broke into a run. Somehow Rowell followed suit.
In a dramatic finish, to which The Newyorktimes devoted its entire front page the next morning, Rowell rallied, beating Merritt by 15 miles, with a total of 530. An explanation for Rowell’s distress later emerged: he had ‘had some poisonous stuff put in his food’, according to Astley, most likely by someone whose wager was beginning to look misplaced. But he had the last laugh, winning the equivalent of around £518,000 in today’s money.
George Littlewood, aka The Sheffield Flyer, set the last of the 19th century’s six-day world records, with 623¾ miles covered in 144 hours, in 1888 at Madison Square Garden. It remained a world record for 96 years and is still the British record, but it almost didn’t happen, because of a saboteur.
Taking a break at the end of the fifth day, Littlewood soothed his aching feet in an alcohol bath at the side of the track. But a match was deliberately dropped into the tub – the ensuing blaze badly burned Littlewood’s feet and legs. The culprit, presumed to be a disgruntled backer of one of Littlewood’s rivals, was never caught. But Littlewood hobbled on to complete 85 miles on the last day and secure the record.
In 1966, physiologist BB Lloyd described Littlewood’s achievement as ‘probably about the maximum sustained output of which the human frame is capable’. Next time a small blister or a spot of thigh chafe sends you spiralling into self-pity during a race, just think, ‘ What would George Littlewood have done?’
You could also spare a thought for the ultra athletes of old next time you wince at the taste of your energy gel. Popular methods of putting a spring back in exhausted pedestrians’ steps included plunging one’s head into a bucket of ice water, loud music, brandy, champagne and electric shocks. And at a six-day race in New York in 1884, in front of 12,000 spectators, race leader Patrick Fitzgerald took things a stage further. His efforts to get past Charles Rowell had taken a toll. His lead of 20 miles slipped to 10 on the final day. A doctor was called for and a Dr Naylor arrived with a ‘sacrificator’, described in Running throughtheages as a ‘rectangular bronze instrument with 16 retractable razor-sharp blades. It was placed on Fitzgerald’s thighs and a trigger pulled, slashing the pedestrian 16 times on each quad. With the pressure from his swollen thighs seemingly eased, Fitzgerald went on to set a world record of 610 miles. The sacrificator never really caught on.
The pedestrian movement wasn’t just for men, but it was hardly progressive. The first major women’s six-day race was held in March 1879 at Madison Square Garden. Only five of the 18 participants would finish, and the women were described in the Nationalpolice Gazette as ‘a queer lot, tall and short, heavy and slim, young and middle-aged, some pretty and a few almost ugly’. The misogyny didn’t stop there, with Thenew Yorktimes calling the event ‘cruel’ and the women ‘unfortunate’, plus the mostly male crowd heckling unkindly at times. Some female peds were ill-prepared, racing in dancing slippers. They were also required to wear heavy velvet dresses to the knee, which hindered them.
The second six-day race for women, The Grand Ladies’ International Tournament, took place in the same year at the same venue. Among the 25 women vying for the comparatively measly $1,000 prize were Madame Sarah Tobias from Brooklyn and grey-haired May Marshall, aka The Mother of Female Long-distance Pedestrianism. However, it was the unknown 17-year-old American Amy Howard who took an early lead, though Madame Tobias took over on day two. Howard’s trick when flagging was to pop into her tent for a change of dress and hair makeover, which seemed to rejuvenate her. On day three she retook the lead and 5,000 spectators packed the venue out for the finale. Howard won with a world record 393 miles.
Tobias instantly challenged Howard to a rematch. But as New York hurriedly passed a resolution banning women’s six-day racing – it was seen as too barbaric – they all headed for San Francisco. The third race in the series was the most dramatic. Amy Howard led the 20-woman field from the off with her trademark part-run, partwalk technique – ‘I can cover seven miles an hour without distressing myself,’ she said.
By the end of the first day, Howard had recorded 95 miles, with secondplaced Madame Tobias on 92 miles. Tobias’s tactic was to rest less and she overtook Howard on day two, surging seven miles ahead. By the end of the third day, Howard was back in front, by just four miles. The contest remained tight; there were usually only four miles in it. Every time Tobias caught Howard, the younger runner would surge ahead. As the crowds grew, tempers frayed. The two almost came to blows and, at one point, had to be separated by officials.
On the final day, Howard had built a lead of seven miles and she left the track with an hour remaining, knowing a new record of 409 miles would be enough to win – it was a record that lasted 102 years.
‘These were the greatest athletes of their era’
Howard would win every women’s six-day race she entered, but changing tastes were already signalling the end of the pedestrianism era: the rise of baseball in the US and football in the UK; the legalisation of boxing; and, above all, the evolution of the bicycle from the penny farthing. ‘Six-day bicycle races replaced six-day pedestrian matches as a favoured spectator sport by the end of the 19th century’ says Algeo. ‘The races went from three or four miles an hour, to 10 or 15. And the crashes were much more spectacular. Historically, pedestrianism can be said to mark the transition from our rural agrarian beginnings to our fast-paced modern world. But it was also an era that was a wonderful combination of the absurd and the extraordinary.’
The remarkable Edward Payson Weston; and a poster advertising his 1877 race against The Plucky Pedestrian, Daniel O’leary
Top to bottom: Charles Rowell, The Cambridge Wonder; and a biography of Daniel O’leary, with a ‘ full account of his great walks in the past’
The cover of Harper’sWeekly depicts Charles Rowell’s victory in the fifth Astley Belt in September, 1879