Sunday, December 6, 2015

History of Pedestrian racing

The first Madison Square Gardens, New York
Imagine, it's February 1883 and you are standing shoulder to shoulder in a sold out crowd in the first Madison Square Gardens. The smell of cigarette smoke and whisky loft in the air while upbeat tunes of a brass band play in the musical section. Vendors are busy selling roasted chestnuts and pickled eggs while the celebrities of the day alongside the average folk to watch the spectacle before them. Wagers are made and hundreds of thousands of dollars trade between hands as the spectators urge on there favorite athlete to achieve athletic brilliance. The collective tension builds as the clock ticks; it's now noon on a Saturday and there is only 12 hours remaining.

Edward Payson Weston
Fact is, the race started on a Sunday at midnight and these athletes have been running and walking for the past five and a half days around a 1/8th mile dirt loop emulating essentially a 6 day Nascar race on feet. Races never exceeded 6 days as public amusement was illegal on Victorian Sundays.  The sport was called Pedestrian Racing and in the 1870's and 80's it was a worldwide craze. Some say the mass urbanization following the American Civil War left people with too much spare time while others say the sport had everything a sports lover could ask for. Either way the Western world fell head over heels for Pedestrian Racing.

Pedestrian Racing got the spark it needed from a lost bet. Edward Payson Weston lost a wager in regards to the outcome of the 1861  American presidential election. His penalty was to walk from Boston to Washington D.C. to view the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. The terrible weather and deep snow slowed his pace whilst averaging 51 miles a day over a 453 mile distance just wasn't enough and Weston missed the inauguration. All was not lost as news spread quickly of this impossible task and Weston found himself a major celebrity with the newspapers eager to document his next feat. A $10,000 wager in 1867 catapulted Weston's career to the next level which saw him walk from Portland, Maine to Chicago in 25 days, not walking on Sundays. Along the 1,326 mile stretch fans, marching bands, and local politicians would greet him from town to town showing him hospitality. Across the early 1870's Weston attempted a series of walks against time. Yet the year 1874 brought about the w
Daniel O'Leary
idely regarded, impossible feat of walking 500 miles in 6 days. At this point other pedestrians were attempting this great task but on the 14-19 of December, 1874 Edward Weston finally achieved that distance. The incredible publicity immediately stirred up interest from many new athletes to the sport and not soon after did competition get fierce. One of those new to the sport was Daniel O'Leary, an Irish door to door book salesman. O'Leary very quickly compiled an excellent list of accomplishments. In 1876 Weston and O'Leary travelled to compete in Britain where Weston proved victorious the previous year. In front of 70,000 onlookers O'Leary emerged the winner. The promoter Sir John Astley was so enthusiastic that he chose to promote a whole series of similar races called the Astley Belt and due to the differences in opinion about the fairness of Weston's walking action, the events were labeled 'go-as-you-please' which was open to both runners and walkers. The new labeling of these

George Littlewood with Astley Belt
pedestrian events created a stir in the pedestrian community and allowed the athlete to take it into his own hands on how to travel as far as possible in 6 continuous days. The next years Astley Belt race was won again by O'Leary with his relentless dog-trot setting a new world best of 520.25 miles. O'Leary returned to America and like the champion he was consistently defended his belt against his strong opposition. In 1879, O'Leary defended his title in Britain against a tough British new comer Charles Rowell. O'Leary emerged victorious with 500 miles and pocketed $20,398. Preparing a comeback in 1880 Weston took on a running coach and was training at a feverish pace. Using his wife's inheritance he entered the fourth Astley Belt race to be held at Agricultural Hall in London. After a back and forth battle with the Briton Henry Brown, Weston pushed hard for the final three days and won the race. Weston was not only declared the winner he also completed 550 miles setting a new world's best. Over the next few years Pedestrian races gained a lot of momentum as more and more races popped up all over the English speaking world. Variations of the traditional 6 day race were held across the East coast of the United States and Britain, including the popular 6 x 12 hours and 6 x 10 hour races, designed to optimize the athletes activity while the paying public were awake and able to view.

The Agricultural Hall, London
With now so much talent and a tremendous amount of prize money available the 6 day record kept creeping closer to the once thought impossible 600 mile mark. In 1881 Americans Robert Vint, Patrick Fitzgerald, and John Hughs flirted with the elusive 600 mile. In February 1882 an epic show down happened at Madison Square Gardens in New York when Rowel had an early surge crossing the 100 mile mark in 13:26 and reached the 300 mile mark at just 58:17:06 setting a record that still stands to this day. Unfortunately, during a rest stop Rowen accidentally swallowed some vinegar causing him to drop from the event and eventually lead to his retirement. George Hazael following Rowen's earlier lead ended victoriously and became the first to run 600 miles in 6 days. With the pedestrian era on the decline American Patrick Fitzgerald set a new world's best of 610 miles in 1884. In 1888 a newcomer to the sport James Albert became the first man to crest the 1000 kilometer distance with 621.75 miles and George Littlewood raced brilliantly in New York capturing the world's best title by running 623.75 miles.

Cycling events emerged quickly becoming the craze and the new sought out event to watch, while pedestrian races would still pop up from time to time the continual downward spiral was inevitable and by the early 1900's the sport was essentially buried.

Yiannis Kouros
A revival of the sport took place in 1979 when American Don Choi worked hard to regain the glory of this old sport by creating and promoting the modern multi-day race. The tables were turned in 1984 when George Littlewood's record set in 1888 was shattered when Greek Yiannis Kouros ran a mind numbing 635 miles /1022 km. Instead of this new record drawing attention to the multi-day events, for what ever reason the interest in the sport subsided again.
Jean-Gilles Boussiquet

A second revival took foot again in the late 1980's and early 1990's when Australian Bryan Smith and Iranian James Zarei exceeded 1000 km. A new leader took hold in 1992 at an indoor race in La Rochelle,France by Frenchman Jean-Gilles Boussiquet surpassing Kouros' record with 640 miles/1030 km. For 13 long years Boussiquet's record stood until 2005 Kouros took back what was previously his by running 644 miles/ 1036 km in Colac, Australia and is still to this day the current world record holder for the 6 day. Many runners have emerged since such as German Wolfgang Schwerk, Brit William Sichel, and Americans Joe Fejes and David Johnston. However no one has come remotely close to equalling the Kouros' 2005 record.

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