When Walking Was a Big-Money Sport

When Walking Was a Big-Money Sport
SourceGetty

Why you should care

Because “walk until you drop” is surprisingly good advice.

It was an age of wonder, from sleek automobiles to newly invented airplanes. The turn of the 20th century had been kind, and the future seemed bright (the clouds of war had not yet settled over Europe). Yet as history’s machines roared, whizzed and churned, a 70-year-old man set out on a journey to wrest back some vestige of the past.

On March 15, 1909, Edward Payson Weston walked out of a post office on a chilly Manhattan afternoon. His destination? San Francisco.

I would have made this walk on scheduled time … but for the fact that I had to go through the state of Wyoming.

Edward Payson Weston

A 10,000-strong crowd turned out to cheer Weston as he set off to walk 4,000 miles in 100 days. “For a moment, it seemed that the police guard would be swept away,” The New York Times reported. The hubbub, according to journalist Wayne Curtis in his book The Last Great Walk, was over the athletic wanderings of a 5-foot-8, 125-pound hobbit of a man with a handlebar mustache, blue frock coat and white sombrero. Weston’s trek would cap an era of sport walking with a record-breaking distance, but philosophers and the public had already started to declare a new king: speed.

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Edward Payson Weston

Source Public Domain

Like many things American, the athletic endeavor of putting one foot in front of the other began as an English pastime. In the 16th century, wealthy aristocracy would place wagers on their footmen. Before baseball or boxing, it was competitive footraces that sparked the imagination. At sold-out arenas, dirt tracks and skating rinks, competitors would walk for six days straight (napping three hours a day) while onlookers bet the farm and paid to watch. At its height, the sport attracted the who’s who of the 1870s and ’80s, including future president Chester Arthur and General Tom Thumb, as Matthew Algeo, author of Pedestrianism, told NPR in 2014. “Walking and horse racing were on par, for a short time period,” says Dave McGovern, who has written extensively on the sport and remains the only eight-time Olympic Trials finalist in racewalking in U.S. history.

But by the time Weston aimed West, the future was already looking less pedestrian. A year earlier, racewalking had made its Summer Olympics debut with a men’s 10-mile event, but three weeks before Weston’s departure, a front-page essay appeared in French newspaper Le Figaro with the headline “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” In it, the author saw “in speed not just dispatch and expediency and inevitability but also an aesthetic and moral good,” Curtis notes. To hold on to the past, in other words, was not simply harmless nostalgia, but a road bump to progress. The day Weston set off, a pedestrian in downtown Chicago was run over not once, not twice, but three times, miraculously escaping serious injury.

But Weston didn’t see walking as a dusty relic, so much as a life-changing balm. As a child, he was considered to be in poor health; when he was a teenager, his mother recruited a friend to help. The coach banned coffee and insisted that Weston bulk up on milk and vegetables and walk every day. Later, Weston tried his hand at writing, but like his walking, his stories were hard to follow. Stints as a circus worker, book salesman and merchant’s clerk also fell by the wayside. Around the time of the Civil War, his exploits as a walker took root, and he became known as “the father of the long walk,” “the Walking Man” and “the Wily Wobbler,” for his peculiar gait. In 1868, Weston became the first American to walk 100 miles in less than 24 hours; in 1875, he set a 550-mile record in six days.

Weston’s 1909 journey, though, would prove his most difficult. To reach his goal, he would have to walk more than 80,000 steps a day — a distance that would make your Fitbit cry today. The roads were poor, the conditions harsh. While the Times proclaimed it to be “the first bona fide walk across the country,” Weston was less sure, qualifying it as the first “under surveillance” walk, and indeed, his valet followed, bringing eggs, tea, ginger ale and clothes — all packed, ironically, in a car.

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Ecuador’s Jefferson Pérez competes in the men’s 20km racewalk at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.

Source Jewel Samad / Getty

On July 9, 100 days (minus Sundays) after departing, Weston found himself in California, but 170 miles short of the City by the Bay. He called it “a wretched failure” and threw some serious shade toward one state in particular. “I would have made this walk on scheduled time,” he said, “but for the fact that I had to go through the state of Wyoming,” where water and milk were scarce. When he did arrive in San Francisco, it was to adoring crowds, only this time he had no police escort and had to bat his fans away by “swinging about him vigorously with his stick,” according to Curtis.

While pedestrianism has faded in popularity in the United States, rambling and walking sports remain popular around the globe. Ecuador has a statue and sports complex honoring its famed racewalker Jefferson Pérez, who won the only two Olympic medals in the country’s history. Weston’s art, then, persists for some, even if he himself lost the ability to enjoy it late in life — in 1927, the 88-year-old strider was struck down by a taxicab, never to walk again. Two years later, he passed away in his sleep.

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