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History of Long Distance Walking Races

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Olympic sport of race walking can trace its roots back more than 200 years to contests over as much as 1,000 miles. The activity was called pedestrianism and involved large amounts of betting.

Captain Barclay

Robert Barclay Allardice, known to everyone as Captain Barclay, is considered the father of pedestrianism. Vintage News says of him that “He was born in August 1777 at Ury House just outside Stonehaven in Scotland to a family of athletes that in the past were practicing bull wrestling, carried flour sacks in their teeth, and uprooted trees with their bare hands.”

He was educated at Cambridge University and, because there was money to be made, carried on the family tradition of athleticism. In 1800, he placed a wager on himself of 1,000 guineas (a guinea being a unit of currency favoured by the upper classes was equal to one pound and one shilling). The bet was that he could walk 100 miles in 21 hours, although there are various other accounts as to distance and time.

He failed in his first attempt and, like any good hustler, he doubled the wager. Again, he failed, but succeeded when the bet had risen to 5,000 guineas. That would amount to almost £400,000 today. Clearly, there were lots of fools about who were willing to part with their money.

The redoubtable Captain Barclay in later life.

The redoubtable Captain Barclay in later life.

Captain Barclay continued his prodigious walking exploits, drawing large crowds who paid to watch him perambulate around a track in the company of other walkers.

J.K. Gillon recorded one of his exploits by saying, “In 1808, he started at 5 a.m. walked 30 miles grouse shooting, walked 60 miles home in 11 hours, dined and walked 16 miles to a ball, returned to his home by 7 a.m., and spent the next day shooting, having travelled 130 miles and gone without sleep for two nights.”

His epic accomplishment came in 1809 in Newmarket. He walked 1,000 miles at a rate of one mile in 1,000 consecutive hours. Over 42 days and nights he completed the challenge, taking anywhere between 14 and 21 minutes to complete each mile, leaving him about 40 minutes out of each hour to rest, eat, sleep, and take bathroom breaks.

Edward Payson Weston was a famous American pedestrian whose gait was described as “wobbly.”

Edward Payson Weston was a famous American pedestrian whose gait was described as “wobbly.”

The Blackheath Pedestrian

In September 1815, 50-year-old George Wilson embarked on a colossal feat of walking. On a pre-measured track on Blackheath Common, London began a 1,000-mile walk. His prize, should he complete the journey in 20 days, was to be £100; somewhere around £7,000 in today’s money.

Crowds gathered to watch the riveting spectacle of a man walking. Vendors turned up to sell beer and food. Entertainers such as fire eaters and singers worked the throng, so did prostitutes and pickpockets. Bookmakers did a brisk trade taking bets on how far Wilson would walk in a day.

George Wilson entertains an appreciative crowd.

George Wilson entertains an appreciative crowd.

The festival started to get a bit raucous and a lawyer wrote a letter of complaint to the authorities: “At night, the neighbourhood was assailed by the shouts of intoxication, and the families in the vicinity disturbed by every species of riot and confusion.”

The long arm of the law arrived. Wilson was three quarters of the way through his odyssey when he was arrested and charged with “disturbing the peace.” The crowds dispersed and the walker lost his prize by failing to meet the terms of the wager.

When he appeared before magistrates, the charges against him were dismissed.

“I’m a buxom little fellow, now it’s true I do declare,

But still I’m not a dandy with a nobby head of hair;

As I roam along the streets they admire me, oh, fegs,

And the ladies cry when passing, what a stunning pair of legs.”

— First verse of a music hall song celebrating George Wilson

Pedestrianism Becomes Race Walking

The popularity of pedestrianism was less to do with the sport itself than with the opportunity to bet on the outcome. However, during the Victorian era, a body of opinion developed that saw wagering as sullying the purity of the sport. Enter Britain’s Amateur Athletics Association.

The triple-A decided on a set of rules. Nobody was allowed to receive money for taking part in contests and betting was banned. That simply had the effect of driving such activities out of sight, but the fiction of amateurism had been preserved.

By 1904, race walking was deemed clean enough to become an Olympic event as part of the decathlon. Four years later, it became its own event and longer and longer distances have since been added.

And they’re off. Competitors start the 3,500-metre walk at the 1908 Olympic Games.

And they’re off. Competitors start the 3,500-metre walk at the 1908 Olympic Games.

Walkers must have one foot on the ground at all times. Here’s a modern explanation from U.S. Track and Field: “Race walking differs from running in that it requires the competitor to maintain contact with the ground at all times and requires the leading leg to be straightened as the foot makes contact with the ground. It must remain straightened until the leg passes under the body. Judges evaluate the technique of race walkers and report fouls which may lead to disqualification.” In obeying the rules, racers adopt the characteristic wiggle of their hips.

The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence

There’s an endurance race in New York City that puts all the others to shame. Entrants can walk but most choose to jog in order the cover the distance while they are still alive.

The track is a single block along 84th Avenue, Grand Central Parkway, 168th Street, and back down 84th Avenue. This has to be completed 5,649 times for a total distance of 3,100 miles (5,248 km) with a time limit of 52 days. The BBC says “If you ran from the west coast of America to the east, you would still need to do 11 marathons to top up the distance.”

The Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy devised the challenge in 1997 to “overcome the entire world’s pre-conceived notions of possibility.”

But our old friend Captain Barclay got there long before the guru. He would have no trouble completing the race at walking speed as he was accustomed to covering 50 miles and more a day. He would complete this mammoth walk in his customary kit of a woollen suit, cravat, lamb’s wool socks, thick-soled shoes, and wearing a top hat.

Bonus Factoids

  • Obviously, walking is beneficial to our health; but 10,000 steps a day? We are all urged to cover that distance, but there’s no medical evidence to support the number. 10,000 steps was a catchy slogan devised by a Japanese company that was launching its pedometer in 1964 and it stuck.
  • Euphemisms for walking: The Shoe-Leather Express, Taking Shank’s Pony, Taking the Marrowbone Stage, Taking the Adidas Limited, Go by Walker’s Bus.
  • According to the Harvard Medical School, walking “counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes . . . helps tame a sweet tooth . . . reduces the risk of developing breast cancer . . . eases joint pain . . . [and] boosts immune function.”


© 2019 Rupert Taylor