When peds walked the earth

The Victorian 'pedestrian' predecessors of today's ultra-marathoners earned massive sums and had rivalries to match Federer-Nadal

When Edward Payson Weston struck a bet with a friend on the 1860 US presidential election, part of the stake was a jar of peanuts. The outcome of the wager was anything but. Weston unwittingly invented an extreme sport that took the Victorian world by storm and is enjoying a renaissance today.

Back then it was called pedestrianism, and it evolved from "heel and toe" walking into "go as you please" races where jogging became common. Today, what is essentially the same discipline falls under the "ultra-marathon" umbrella.

In losing his bet, Weston, then a 21-year-old bookseller, agreed to a forfeit task, of walking the 478 miles from Boston to Washington, DC, to attend the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. His journey of 10 days and 10 hours drew so much attention that he was later able to make his living by exhibition walking.

At first he walked against the clock, covering huge distances for cash from sponsors who milked the publicity. He was promoted on occasion by the great showman himself, Phineas T Barnum, although Weston was no slouch as a self-publicist. One of his staple feats in the late 1860s was covering 50 miles inside 10 and a half hours in front of a showground audience, with half a mile done backwards.

As "Pedestrian Mania" swept the English-speaking world, hundreds of challengers emerged to race against Weston and each other.

The blue riband discipline of the era was the six-day race, the longest timespan available without encroaching on the sacrosanct Sabbath. Competitors typically raced indoors, on sawdust tracks, from the early hours of a Monday to late Saturday night, doing umpteen thousand laps, stopping only for snatches of sleep in trackside cots or tents. The leading "Peds" attracted tens of thousands of paying fans.

The most successful athletes – and athletes they were, clocking times and distances barely credible now, let alone then – became superstars, earning massive sums. Britain's Charlie Rowell, aka "The Cambridge Wonder", once earned $50,000 by winning two races in New York in 1879. That sum would be equivalent to £750,000 today.

Like much sport of that period, pedestrianism's existence was underpinned by gambling on an enormous scale, although a leading authority on Victorian pedestrianism, Paul Marshall, argues that Weston was driven by an innate competitiveness more than cash.

"Money was an important factor, but it wasn't Weston's prime motivation," says Marshall, whose 750-page book, King of the Peds, details the sport's glory years and big names, race by race.

"Weston was a determined, gutsy individual who wanted to win at all costs," says Marshall. "Failure to him was the worst thing that could happen. To make a comparison with contemporary sport, I'd say he had a Tony McCoy type of mentality."

Weston relished challenges. In 1867 he walked 1,200 miles from Portland to Chicago in 26 days, and in 1869 he walked 1,058 miles across New England in 30 days, through snow.

In 1870, to combat claims he was a fraud, or "a humbug", he submitted himself to test conditions, walking 100 miles around the Empire Skating Rink in New York under the scrutiny of seven judges. He completed the task in 21hr 38min in front of a crowd of 5,000 people, making nine rest stops, each of less than 10 minutes. The New York Herald reported: "Mr Weston did not seem in the least fatigued, stepping off as briskly on the last mile as on the first."

The first major rivalry in Weston's career and the greatest "Ped" rivalry ever involved Weston (also known as "Wily Wobbler") and an Irish-American, Dan O'Leary (the "Plucky Pedestrian" from Chicago). Think Ali-Foreman, Pele-Moore or Federer-Nadal, with knobs on.

Weston became the first man to walk 500 miles inside six days, in a closely monitored walk in December 1874 in New Jersey. It took him 143hr 34min, or 26 minutes shy of six days.

O'Leary responded by walking 500 miles at a Chicago rink in 1875, but took closer to seven days. O'Leary then tried 150 miles in 32 hours but quit at 131 miles after serial setbacks. These included "injudiciously drinking some sour ale and egg and sherry during the night" and "dreadful chafing". The Chicago Tribune reported that "blood oozed from several large raw places that had thus been caused, and the pain at every step was acute".

Undeterred, O'Leary went head-to-head with Weston in a six-day race in Chicago in November 1875, and won, walking 500 miles in 143hr 13min, and breaking Weston's six-day record by walking 503 miles in the full time. The Tribune reported the crowd of 8,000 was "motley, but largely respectable; it represented wealth, standing, and brains, and thieves, gamblers and roughs."

Weston and O'Leary met in another famous race at the Agricultural Hall in Islington, London, in April 1877. O'Leary won again, breaking his own six-day record by walking 519 miles. The London Standard reported that there were 35,000 fans present at the end. The protagonists split the gate money and O'Leary later said: "For the week's work I received a check on the Bank of England for $14,000. It was a good week's work." In today's money, that week's work would be worth more than £200,000.

In 1878, O'Leary recorded 520 miles, but Weston reclaimed the record in 1879, walking 550 miles. And so it went on, with the big names of the day trading records through the 1880s, by which time a British MP, Sir John Astley, was a major patron and promoter.

British world record holders included Cambridge's Rowell in 1880 (566 miles) and a Londoner, George Hazael, the first man to clock 600 miles, in New York in 1882. The last great feat of the Victorian Ped era was the 623 miles in six days walked by George Littlewood, of Sheffield, in a New York race in 1888.

Littlewood was author Paul Marshall's great-great uncle, hence Marshall's original interest in pedestrianism. Littlewood's record stood for 96 years, until it was broken in 1984 by Greece's Yiannis Kouros in New York. Kouros covered 635 miles and 1,023 yards, with two hours to spare, and in 1991 improved his record to 664 miles, the current mark. Kouros still holds virtually every ultra-marathon world record above marathon distance, dozens of them, on road and track.

Competitive international pedestrianism in Victorian times declined rapidly after 1888. The press had grown sceptical of "inhumane" races. Coverage and crowds fell. Promoters struggled to make money.

Yet modern ultra-marathon running is in rude health, with a Briton, William Sichel, 55, ranked No 2 in the world in the six-day event.

On the subject of rude health, Edward Payson Weston lived to be 90, at a time when life expectancy for his peers was mid-40s. Aged 70, in 1909, he walked almost 4,000 miles from New York to San Francisco in 105 days, and at 71 he walked from Los Angeles to New York in 77 days.

He urged people to walk to keep fit, and warned that cars would make people lazy. In a cruelly ironic twist, he was knocked down by a taxi at the age of 88, and never walked again.

www.kingofthepeds.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker