The recently published book by Matthew Algeo describes a brief episode in sports history long forgotten. The full title of the book pulled me in: Pedestrianism, When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.
It started in 1860 when two friends made a wager about the upcoming election of candidate Lincoln. The loser would have to walk 478 miles in the dead of winter from Boston to Washington in ten consecutive days to arrive before the inaugural ceremony. The loser was Edward Payson Weston, and he would go on to become the greatest American competitive walker in history.
The wager had been a joke, but Weston took the challenge seriously. Through snowy roads sometimes a foot deep, harassed by dogs, and sleeping only three hours per night, he persisted. He arrived five hours late, probably because he walked twelve miles down the wrong road before realizing his mistake. He met with Lincoln, who did not mind that Weston had bet he would lose the election. Then Lincoln offered to pay his train fare back home.
The cheering crowds all along the way, and especially at the finish, captivated his attention and he loved it. Now, no longer a book salesman, he was a national celebrity. Next, he placed a $1000 bet he could walk 1200 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago in 30 days, excluding Sundays. After hiring a support wagon, getting several sponsors and publicizing his intentions, he set off on what seemed to be a fool’s errand. More than 50,000 people, a fifth of the city, greeted him as he neared the finish. A marching band led the way as 50 police officers controlled the wild crowd. Papers hailed Weston as the most famous man in America, more famous than General Grant.
Then indoor races started. The tracks were usually 6 or 8 laps to the mile, but some were so tiny it took 50 laps to complete a mile. Arenas were filled to capacity, where betting on outcomes was common and a big draw. Often the race was against the clock. One hundred miles in 24 hours was one of Weston’s favorite event.
Walking fever took over the nation with walking clubs springing up in several cities. Even Mark Twain got infected and set out on a 100-mile hike but gave up after 10 miles. One individual touched by the walking craze was Dan O’Leary, an immigrant from Ireland. O’Leary would go on to become almost as famous as Weston. The two competed against each other for years in the U.S. and England.
Six-day races were now becoming the main event. O’Leary was seven years younger and the faster walker. He was a serious and no-nonsense walker, who usually went out fast and slowed at the end. He often drank champagne, since it was considered a stimulant. He sometimes drank too much. Weston never drank alcohol but was known to pour it into his boots to prevent swelling. He was an entertainer who often sang and played a musical instrument as the patrons watched him circle the track. Finally, O’Leary bested Weston with 503 miles compared to 451 in one of their six-day events. Humiliated by the loss, Weston went to England and continued putting on long races against numerous British walkers. He was almost always the winner.
The walking at the time was just heal to toe. It was not the regulated form used in modern race walking. O’Leary, however, often encouraged competitors to use any form they desired, even running, and he still beat them.
In the U.S., the first female professional walker gained fame. She was Ada Anderson. In 1877 she set out to walk one thousand half miles in one thousand half hours. Two months later she did even better, covering 1,500 miles in one thousand hours. She was so amazing, some suspected her twin sister was switching places with her during breaks. She had no twin.
Eventually, other forms of entertainment became popular. Soccer, baseball, indoor bicycle races and Gilbert and Sullivan musicals were drawing big crowds. In addition, moral activists were decrying long events as inhuman and sinful, especially for women. Some compared it to medieval forms of torture. The backlash against pedestrianism came to a head in 1899, when N.Y.C. passed a law banning 6-day athletic events of any kind. Forty-eight hours was the limit.
Weston continued walking into old age. At 83, his final walk was 495 miles from Buffalo to N.Y.C. in twenty-nine days. At 88 he was hit by a car while crossing the street to go to church in Manhattan. He always hated dogs and cars, when on a road race. Left crippled and in a wheelchair, he died at 90. O’Leary also continued distance walking till his death at 87. He estimated he had walked three hundred thousand miles over his lifetime.
The story of this 40-year period shows the remarkable ability and endurance of these amazing individuals. Weston and O’Leary were on the first sports trading cards and their names were as familiar to Americans as Tiger Woods and Babe Ruth. Today, they have been all but forgotten. Having run 112 miles in 24 hours on an indoor track, I have a deep understanding, respect and appreciation for these outstanding individuals and their place in history.