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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies