The Walking Dead

The rise and fall of the six-day walking match, an exercise in endurance and sleep deprivation.

Pedestrianism Cover
Cover art for Matthew Algeo’s “Pedestrianism.”

Watching men stagger in circles for days on end might seem dull, but for a brief period in the 1870s and early 1880s it was a wildly popular spectator sport, both in America and England. Crowds packed arenas day and night to watch pedestrians compete in six-day races that saw competitors walk hundreds of miles, leaving the winners (those who walked the longest distance) physically shattered but well-compensated, earning the equivalent of tens- or even hundreds-of-thousands in today’s dollars. “It was like NASCAR at four miles per hour,” says Matthew Algeo, author of “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” (Chicago Review Press), noting that “part of the appeal was waiting to see somebody crash into a wall, basically.”

But the public also admired the stars of the sport—men like Edward Weston and Daniel O’Leary—scrutinizing their varying strategies, styles, personalities, and costumes. Some pedestrians limited themselves to walking (“heel and toe”), while others mixed walking, trotting, and running (“go as you please”). Many viewed themselves as entertainers, and pedestrians became the first celebrity athletes, with their own endorsement deals and cigarette trading cards. And the winner of the Astley Belt Race—the Super Bowl of competitive walking—took possession of a bejeweled, silver-and-gold belt, not unlike the major trophies awarded today.

Yet the sport’s heyday was short—in part because of charges of race fixing and controversy over whether pedestrianism was appropriate for a Christian nation—but mostly because another pastime came along, one where competitors went around a track significantly faster. In the following Failure interview, Algeo explains why walking matches were typically six days long, how competitors walked up to 542 miles (that’s more than twenty marathons), and how pedestrianism defined the model for how to monetize and corporatize a sport.
How did pedestrianism get its start?
It began with a wager. Edward Weston, a door-to-door bookseller in Boston, made a bet with a friend, George Eddy, that Abraham Lincoln would lose the 1860 presidential election. Of course, Lincoln won, so Weston lost the bet and had to walk from Boston to Washington [478 miles] in ten days. As Weston made his way south from Boston, his walk began to attract a lot of attention. People turned out by the thousands just to watch him walk through their town.

Weston became famous and after the Civil War he staged walking exhibitions in roller rinks where he would walk a hundred miles in twenty-four hours. These exhibitions became quite lucrative and competitors took notice. Eventually there was a race in Chicago to determine the champion pedestrian [“The Great Walking Match for the Championship of the World,” November 1875].

Why were the races six days long?
You couldn’t compete longer than six days because of laws that banned any sort of public amusement on Sundays. So races started right after midnight on Sunday and they walked until midnight the following Saturday night.

What made a good pedestrian?
Obviously, somebody who had good endurance, but really it was an exercise in sleep deprivation. Organizers would have cots set up inside the arena, but these guys would be in motion on the track twenty-one hours a day. Most of us are monophasic sleepers who sleep all at once. Some people are biphasic; they sleep two times a day. But some are polyphasic sleepers and sleep in fifteen- to thirty-minute increments. The most successful pedestrians were those who were able to sleep in short bursts.

What kind of condition were pedestrians in near the end of these races?
Not very good, but that was part of the attraction. The hottest tickets were for the fifth or sixth day of the race where everybody was exhausted. There was no sports medicine to speak of and the competitors were probably terribly malnourished. They usually ate steak or mutton while they walked. And they believed champagne was a stimulant so they would drink a lot of champagne, which would make them dehydrated. One of the symptoms of sleep deprivation is tunnel vision, so they would draw a chalk line in the middle of the track so racers could focus on that.

What were the tracks made of?
Often they were hard-packed dirt. The better tracks were tanbark, which as far as I can tell was pressed mulch or wood chips. They would lay out a track in a 1/7- or 1/8-mile oval and then press it with huge rollers. Tanbark became the synonym for the sport, like the gridiron is for football.

Tell me about the Astley Belt races.
These were a series of races that were organized and promoted by Sir John Astley, who was a wealthy and famous British sportsman. He saw these races in America and thought the British could do it too. Astley was the individual who introduced running into the six-day races. Until then it had been strictly walking; you had to keep one foot on the ground at all times. The problem was that the British considered themselves better runners, while the Americans considered themselves better walkers. The solution that Astley came up with was that the races would be “go as you please.” You could walk or run. Seemingly, that gave a big advantage to British athletes.

The first Astley Belt race [held in London’s Royal Agricultural Hall, March 1878] saw only one American—Dan O’Leary, who was an Irish immigrant from Chicago—against sixteen British competitors. O’Leary walked, and he won. It took a while for the British to figure out that running was not a very good strategy for a six-day race. The runners would be a hundred miles ahead after three days and then they’d be carried off on a stretcher on the fourth day because they were totally gassed. The best walkers had very good strategies; they would schedule every minute of every day—when they would rest, when they would eat. They were very meticulous.

Were walkers like O’Leary celebrities?
They were the first celebrity athletes in the United States. O’Leary was the spokesman for a brand of salt. Weston had corporate sponsors. And some pedestrians were sponsored by newspapers and would compete with shirts emblazoned with the newspaper’s logo, an early example of advertising on an athletic uniform. They were on trading cards too. And kids would look up to the famous pedestrians and imitate them. There was a lot of talk about how they walked—what their gait was like. Weston was wobbly and slung his hips and O’Leary stood straight up and moved his arms like pistons. You would see kids holding sandlot pedestrian matches and imitating the walks of their favorite pedestrians.

What were some of the other similarities between pedestrianism and modern sports?
For one they had gambling issues. You could wager on who would be the first pedestrian to drop out of a race, for instance. And there were reports of race fixing, which diminished public interest in the sport. They had issues with performance enhancing substances too. Weston was found to be chewing coca leaves during an event, which he thought might give him some advantage, though later on he insisted it was on his doctor’s advice. There were no rules against performance enhancing drugs, but it was considered “ungentlemanly.”

What did pedestrians earn in prize money?
Typically the pedestrians got a percentage of the gate receipts. For a six-day race in New York—Madison Square Garden had a capacity of ten thousand—they would generally sell out every night. And it was continuous—24/7—so during the course of a day there might be thirty or forty thousand in attendance. When Charles Rowell, a famous Englishman, won the fifth Astley Belt race in New York in 1879 he won almost $20,000, which today would be more than $400,000.

I understand women had their own walking matches?
Women’s races were also very popular, but much more controversial. It was one thing to see a bedraggled man, staggering, dehydrated, and probably hallucinating. It was another thing to see a woman in that condition, given the conventions of the times. Also the women had to compete in full-length gowns because, heaven forbid, they exposed their legs. So the women had some serious disadvantages. Nonetheless, women’s races were well attended and quite profitable.

Why did the sport decline?
The most important reason was John Starley’s invention of the “safety bicycle” [1885]. Almost immediately six-day bicycle races replaced six-day walking matches as the most popular sport, because as far as the crowds were concerned, watching cyclists—and bicycle crashes—was much more exciting than watching walkers. So it went from NASCAR at four miles per hour to NASCAR at fifteen miles per hour. In a matter of five years the sport was dead.