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

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

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

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