Old Time Walk and Run
December 11, 1996
Professor Don Davis
As I sit here at the first annual Bethlehem Six Day Extravaganza, I am amazed at the desire and energy these men and women have after five days of constant running. I would consider myself a good athlete, yet I would never be able to run such a long distance for six days straight. The amount of stamina needed to finish this race, to conquer the temperatures, distance, time, highs, and lows is incredible. These athletes have the support and admiration from so many people here to cheer them through this last day of running. Cheering for every runner that passes on the quarter-mile track, I wonder, how did these races begin?
It was at Washington State Rink in 1874 where Edward Payson Weston attempted to successfully walk five hundred miles in six consecutive days. There were 6,000 spectators in attendance composed of all classes of society including the Mayor and the Chief of Police. It was almost necessary to alert the Newark police force and the militia to guard the soon to be prized and historic pedestrian. This was the third time that year that Weston was attempting such a feat. His first attempt was in 1861 where he tried to walk to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. He started at the State House in Boston on February 22 and finally arrived on March 4. This distance totaled 453 miles in 208 hours, but he sadly missed the inauguration by half a day. His career took off in 1867, and this began his professional career. He started this career by walking from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois (1,326 miles) in twenty-five days. This earned him $10,000 as a reward for all of his hard work. This accomplishment came with recognition from everyone, the newspapers would write about Weston everyday and what he has done for the United States. “This walk made Weston a household name.”
Weston continued to walk on, breaking the world record in New York where he walked 100 miles in 22:19:10. Yet, with all of his successes, he failed numerous times at feats that he worked hard to conquer. Soon to be named “The father of modern pedestrianism,” Weston was able to walk with the mayor during one of his six day walks. When Weston walked, he “dressed in black velvet knee-breeches, with ruffled white shirt and black leather leggings reaching to the knee.”
As the “walking craze” spread, it brought on competition for Edward Weston. The pedestrian that would make the first challenge at Weston’s records was Daniel O’Leary, a farmer from Ireland. He emigrated to the United States, settled into Chicago and trained for a twenty-four hour race. He started his first race on July 14, 1874 at 8:15pm and he would succeed in covering the 100 miles in 23:17:00. A half of century later is when his successful career would finally come to an end. He succeeded in a few more races, and was itching to challenge Weston to take the title of “The Champion Pedestrian of the World.” The bad blood between O’Leary and Weston began when Daniel challenged him to a walk-off. Weston refused to rise to the challenge because he did not believe that O’Leary was qualified enough. He said to the Irishman, “make a good record first and meet me after.” O’Leary rose to the occasion and did exactly what Weston was dreading. Two weeks later, he broke Weston’s record in twenty- four hours, yet this was not good enough for Weston, because O’Leary had not yet proven that he could keep up with the “father of modern pedestrianism” for six days.
O’Leary rested every evening from 11pm to 2am, and he would stop occasionally to have some beef-tea. He completed the 500 miles three hours within the 156 hour limit, and this accomplishment earned him the title of “Champion Pedestrian of the World.” After taking away his honored name, Weston agreed to go to Chicago and walk against his rival and try to win back what he felt that he deserves.
Both runners had five and a half months to prepare for the big race. “Each athlete walked on a separate track; Weston on the inside, one-seventh mile track, and O’Leary on the outside, one-sixth mile track. The race began at 12:05 am November 15, 1875, before a sparse crowd of 300-400.” The race was tense and both men had different strategies. Weston started off at a comfortable pace, not pushing himself yet, and waiting for O’Leary to falter. This type of “waiting game” caused Weston to fall quickly behind by twenty miles. They would break for 15-45 minutes at a time to “eat, change clothes, bathe, and be rubbed down.” Every night they would try to sleep for three or four hours, which usually fell around midnight. As the days went by, the sixth approaching quickly, the crowds became thicker and more lively. At the end of the sixth day, O’Leary walked off of the track completing 503-1/3 miles, and Weston fell below him completing only 451-4/7 miles. With this defeat, O’Leary officially took the crown of “Champion Pedestrian of the World” from Weston. Yet, the rivalry would not stop with this six day race.
After being defeated, Weston left the United States, and O’Leary became overl y successful in the fast growing sport. It was made known that Weston was unhappy with the race in Chicago, and he claimed “foul play” in that the spectators were throwing paper in his face and threatening to shoot him. Yet, when O’Leary challenged him to a rematch to prove that he was worthy of a win, Weston once again refused. Negotiations were made and the rematch agreements were that it would again be a six day race and the walkers would receive 500 pounds a side with the winner also pocketing two-thirds of the gate money and the loser getting the balance. There were two bands that would play from 5 am to 12 am everyday, terminating when the walkers would sleep. The race was scheduled for April 2 through the 7th, 1877. After the first day, Weston was leading by a couple of miles, but after taking twice as long of a break, he gave up that lead and O’Leary never looked back. 70,000 people paid during the week to get a glimpse of the two strong-willed pedestrians battle it out on the track. O’Leary once again defeated Weston over six days. All of this race excitement paved the way for a new series of races to be developed in the United States.
Sir John Dugdale Astley, a member of parliament, and known as the “Sporting Baron,” was so excited by the long-distance walking world that he inaugurated “a series of six-day races for the ‘Long Distance Champion of the World'” Yet, the format would be changed somewhat from just specifically a walking race to a “go-as-you-please” race. The racers would be able to walk or run at any time. This decision was due to the “wobbling gait” of Weston that was objected to not being a fair heel-and-toe walk. The “Astley Belt Races” were born and followed these conditions. “The winner would receive a championship belt valued at 100 pounds and a purse of 500 pounds, second place 100 pounds, third place 50 pounds, and other prizes to those who succeeded in finishing 450 miles.” Also, a percentage of the gate money would be divided among those runners/walkers who finished 450 miles. Astley would decide any legitimate challenger to challenge the holder of the Astley Belt within three months of the race. The winner would not have to compete more than once every six months. Any pedestrian to win the Astley Belt three times in a row would automatically become the permanent holder of the award. The belt was made out of solid silver and gold and read, “Long Distance Champion of the World.” The start of the Astley Belt Races began what would become the “Golden Age” of pedestrianism.
Astley opened all of the races, and sent the men on their way. Daniel O’Lear y added to all of his accomplishments by winning the first two Astley Belt Races. Weston was not part of the first race. According to the requirements, if O’Leary had won the third race, the Belt would have been his forever. Charles Rowell, “the five foot six inch, 137 pound former boatboy”, made a name for himself at the third Astley Belt race. Rowell held the lead from Daniel O’Leary to win the Belt and shatter any hopes of O’Leary permanently owning the belt. For his victory, Charles Rowell collected $18,000. After his defeat, O’Leary was “driven into a premature but short-lived retirement.” The winner of the Astley Belt would never again be strictly a walker, as Charles Rowell was.
Weston was not inactive over the years in which O’Leary and Rowell ruled over the tracks. He was involved in many solo expeditions and attempted and successfully completed many astonishing walks. “Weston was a colossal showman and the people love to watch him.” He now wore a frilled shirt and black leather leggings with a blue sash and a white walking stick which gave a “clerical appearance.” Along with testing his endurance, once a day he would deliver lectures to large audiences. Approaching forty years old he earned nicknames such as “weary wobbler” and “game old ped.” Even Sir John Astley had given up on Weston and his ability to withstand the endurance of a six day race. Weston proved them all wrong in the fourth Astley Belt where he started out in last place after the first day, and surged into the lead to win the Belt six days later. When it was certain that Weston was going to win the Belt, Astley gave him the incentive of $2,500 that he could not make 550 miles. He accomplished the task that he set out to do, Weston finished The Fourth Astley Belt Race with a new world record of 550 miles on July 5, 1879. In 1909, at age seventy, Weston attempted to walk across the country. He could be seen sometimes wandering aimlessly throughout the streets with out a care in the world. In 1929, “the father of modern pedestrianism” died of old age, yet his feet are still walking.
Charles Rowell also endured the six day quest and won The Fifth Astley Belt Race. Rowell won three times in a row and “he became the absolute owner of the Sir John Astley Championship Belt”, the supreme symbol of pedestrian excellence. After seven races the Astley sponsored series was over, marking the close of pedestrianism’s ‘Golden Age’.
Daniel O’Leary wanted to give something back to the sport that he received so much from so he started the O’Leary Belt Races. These would determine the “Championship of America”, he wanted to develop a pedestrian to bring the Astley Belt Races back to the United States. These O’Leary Belt Races have a $100 entry fee and would be held in Madison Square Garden. The first one was held from October 6 to October 11, 1879. Not a lot of spectators came to witness the race and the winner only won $2,000.
Most pedestrians in the 19th century made a career out of walking. The entry fee, depending on the race, was approximately $100. An average man in those days worked an average of 60-70 hours in a week. Far surpassing the amount of hours that someone in the 20th century would work for a yearly salary of only approximately $400-$500. To illustrate how popular the sport of walking/running had become, Charles Rowell earned $50,000 after completing two races in 1879. This is equivalent to one hundred years of salary in only twelve days work. Even with the astonishing salaries of today’s athletes, no athlete makes one hundred years of salary in that many days. Most of the walkers had trainers that would help them get ready for the big races and with strategies. Six day races have changed since the days of Weston, O’Leary, and Rowell; for instance, the tracks were half the size. “The hall is so poorly ventilated as to practically amount to no ventilation at all…One whiff satisfies most people that the sanitary arrangements are not what they should be, for the stench at times is positively sickening.”
Women started to play an important role in the pedestrian sport in 1879. “Th ey would no longer be left beside the track waving handkerchiefs and throwing flowers.” Madame Anderson on January 13, 1879 proceeded to walk 2,500 quarter miles in 2,500 consecutive quarter hours. The first women’s six day race was held on March 26, 1879 and the winner, Bertha Von Berg, received $1,000 with a distance of 372 miles. Only five of the eighteen participants could finish, and the women were described as, “A queer lot, tall and short, heavy and slim, young and middle-aged, some pretty and a few almost ugly.” Many other women were successful in the pedestrian sport of walking.
Fred Hitchborn was one of the people who caught the “pedestrian fever.” He w as a grocery store clerk in Boston for six years before he started walking professionally. It appealed to him because like many other pedestrians, he could make more money winning a walking race than he could his whole life as a grocery store clerk. He was five foot seven and weighed 145 pounds and was born in 1859. His first race was in April, 1879 at the Boston Music Hall. After promising attempts at the sport, he quit his job and hired his trainer Fred Englehardt and his financial banker was Daniel O’Leary. He earned the nickname “Black Dan” because of his African American culture and such a promising future. He also changed his name to Frank Hart. He was the favorite and followed by many at races because of his color, and he walked with some of the most prominent names in the walking world; Charles Rowell, Edward Weston, and George Guyon. Not to mention being coached by none other than Daniel O’Leary. Admirers sent him flowers and his photograph was in high demand.
Things did not always go smoothly for Hitchborn who explained that no one wou ld shake his hand at the starting line, and that he received racial taunts and threats of violence from spectators. After a spectator gave him some soda water he became severely ill and it was determined that he was poisoned. Even being ill-stricken he managed to beat Weston and Guyon. He won the Rose Belt race by completing 540 miles, one mile short of the world record. Hitchborn then cracked the world record at the 1880 O’Leary race by successfully running 565 miles and he earned $17,000. His winnings to 1880 totaled $27,000. Hitchborn’s efforts to shatter the “colored barrier” did not come with the necessary recognition. “The efforts of ‘Black Dan’ and the other African- American walkers would become and insignificant event in the annals of sports history. These walkers do not appear to be mentioned even in African-American sports histories.”
The race proceeds on and I now appreciate the importance of the men, women, a nd other cultures that are participating and are one hour from finishing this six day haul. The hard work of the legends before them pave the way to successful careers of the runners today. Although Weston, O’Leary, Rowell, and Hitchborn are not involved in the races today, their spirit lives on and continues to inspire runners to push themselves to the fullest. Six day races have changed tremendously since the 1800’s, but one thing has not changed, runners should be respected for the hard work and training that is put into every ultra marathon race that they conquer.
- Ultramarathoning: The Next Challenge, by Tom Osler and Ed Dodd
- Ultramarathon World web site