Did you know that pedestrianism (aka long-distance racewalking) was an incredibly popular
spectator sport during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? And just like horse racing, competitive walking was “funded” by wagering! In other words, epic walking was a betting sport.
Many believe this pastime began when English aristocrats started pitting their carriage footmen against one another in impromptu walking races during the 1700s. Because these footmen were required to keep with their masters’ carriages, they were both hardy and fast.
Soon, competitive long-distance walking became one of the first sports with athletes who achieved celebrity status and big-time endorsements!
The first big name in long-distance racewalking was Foster Powell (illustrated at left), who lived from 1734 – 1793 — quite a healthy lifespan for that era. In 1773, at 39 years old, he walked 400 miles, from London to York and back. Fifteen years later, when in his mid-fifties, he set a record for the fastest 100-mile walk in 21 hours and 35 minutes.
By the end of the 1700s, epic walkers began garnering more and more attention in the popular press as they vied with one another in long-distance events. The sport was soon dubbed pedestrianism.
Among the most famous pedestrians of his day was Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, or “The Celebrated Pedestrian”. Between June 1 and July 12, 1809, Allardice walked one mile every hour for 1,000 hours! As word spread of this incredible feat, thousands came to watch each day.
Soon others began attempting similar feats. Most were unsuccessful, including one poor gentleman who made it three-fourths of the distance, before being arrested for disturbing the peace.
.The sport was embraced by women as well as men. Emma Stone managed 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours in 1864. But it was Ada Anderson who became known as the “Champion Lady Walker of the World” after walking 1,500 miles in 1,000 hours.
New challenges emerged, including completing one hundred miles in less than twenty-four hours. These epic walkers were nicknamed centurions. All of these events began to garner huge cash prizes and immense crowds of working-class spectators and wagerers through the 1880s.
Eventually, the sport spread to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Pedestrianism became increasingly popular in the United States following the Civil War. There were African-American walking matches as well as women’s competitions staged on special indoor tracks. Elsa von Blumen famously walked one hundred mile. Towns even competed against one another. But gambling and prize money remained the big draw. Edward Payson Weston, a reporter for the New York Herald, won $10,000 for walking 1,136 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in thirty days. Talk about epic!
Back in the UK, a member of Parliament named Sir John Astley created the Long Distance Championship of the World in 1878 — a walking race staged over the course of six days. This was the apex of the pedestrianism craze — born of the desire to begin to clean up the sport. Even so, there was a great deal of laxity in the rules as walkers found excuses to trot, jog and even run.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, pedestrianism began to change, morphing into our modern spectator sports with rules created by associations and various governing bodies. Soon all bets were off, as amateur status became requisite moving into the twentieth century and pedestrianism became modern racewalking.
During this transition period, rules about what made walking different from running or hiking or cross country racing began to be written. The most famous was the “fair heel-to-toe” rule. Competitors were required to extend their legs straight at least once during their stride and the toe of one foot had to remain on the ground until the heel of the next foot hit the dirt. That said, there was a lot of cheating in the form of trotting and even breaking into the occasional run.
With new rules and regulation, the fervor among the working classes began to die down. Racewalking was first included in the 1904 Olympics as part of the “all-rounder”, a precursor to the modern decathlon, which included an 800-meter walk. Four years later, racewalking became an official Olympic sport.
Gone may be the days when pedestrians were huge celebrities, earning lucrative endorsement deals, their images featured on trading cards. So it is hard to imagine just how crazy the public was for walking.
Historian Matthew Algeo finds an apt comparison for the popularity of pedestrianism in NASCAR races — except over the course of six days: “These guys were . . . on the track almost continuously. They’d have little cots set up inside the track where they would nap a total of maybe three hours a day. But generally, for 21 hours a day, they were in motion walking around the track.” For the watchers, the events were festive — with bands playing music, food vendors selling snacks and celebrity fans attending the rains. Even President Chester Arthur was a fan — as was Tom Thumb. Just like the NBA, fans came to see the celebrity athletes as well as the celebrities watching those celebrity athletes.
Gone may be the days of the pedestrian spectacle — but at least here in EverWalk Nation, epic walking remains alive and well. Well we all know that being a pedestrian is never merely pedestrian. Indeed to EverWalk is, and always will be, epic!