When watching people walk was America's favorite spectator sport
by Matthew Algeo
3 stars - nothing new under the sun
ALR Blue - not about animals in any way
It was like watching a NASCAR race in super-slow motion: hypnotic, mesmerizing, with the promise of imminent catastrophe.
Hardly a ringing endorsement, yet, for a few decades in the late nineteenth century, this describes the great spectator sport in America (with some spillover to England).
It all began in 1861, when Edward Payson Weston, having lost a bet on the outcome of the presidential election, was compelled to walk the 478 miles from Boston to Washington DC. He accomplished his mission in 10 days, 4 hours, and 12 minutes.
Both showman and athlete, Weston walked in the clothes of a dandy and carried a switch which he applied to his own limbs now and then. Along the way, he handed out fliers (for which he had been paid), occasionally played the coronet, and broke into song, all for the entertainment of the crowds that gathered along the route to watch him walk.
Thus began the craze for pedestrianism which was comprised of different sorts of "walk until you drop" challenges. In addition to races for distance over the course of several days, there were competitions such as walking a mile an hour for 1000 hours (um, hello, that's 41 days) and a quarter mile every fifteen minutes for equally incomprehensible periods of time.
In order to capitalize on the enthusiasm for walking that the population demonstrated, great events were staged in venues such as London's Agricultural Hall and New York City's Gilmore Garden (later to become Madison Square Garden).
It's an odd little clip of sports history which goes a long way to demonstrating the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun. So, along with the races themselves, we also see tailgating parties, ticket scalping, riots, doping scandals, allegations of foul play, gambling, and athletes as rock stars. Indeed, the athletes did enjoy monetary riches commiserate with sports figures of modern times. Purses for competitors, even those who lost, were in the equivalent of 2015 six figure sums and the grand prizes could total over $200,000 in current US dollars. Not bad for five or six days of walking in circles.
Sadly, women were excluded from the fun. Ada Anderson attempted to enter in by walking 2700 quarter miles in 2700 quarter hours. She enjoyed brief fame on the walking circuit, but it quickly became apparent that spectators had no taste for seeing woman staggering about in distress as the inevitable toll of sleep deprivation and exertion became visible.
It's an interesting read with a lesson. That being to keep moving (and walking is easy and available to all). While the great pedestrians ultimately were forced into retirement, many of them lived to phenomenal ages for the time and continued to perambulate about up until their deaths. Sadly, the father of pedistriansim, Edward Weston, was crippled after being hit by a car at the age of 88 and died two years later after being bitterly deprived of his number one joy in life.
On a personal note, oh how I miss my modest, yet refreshing, walks with my faithful dog, Dexter. The winter weather has limited us to one walk a day (at most) as my encroaching cataracts and increasing fear of falling has shut down after dark walks when there is snow or ice. Even our morning walks have taken a beating. Often we face surfaces too rough for more than a mile or so. But spring will come, eventually, and I will once again be covering acceptable distances, although certainly nothing approaching true pedestrianism.