Weston & Pedestrian Era Walking Contest Rules

Pedestrian Era Walking Contest Rules

A distinction must be made between Pedestrian era of the 1800s and Olympic race walking from 1906 forward. This article covers the Pedestrian era from 1861 to 1889 from the perspective of Edward Payson Weston, not the race walk regulations of today.

The walking rules of the Pedestrian era evolved on an ad-hoc basis, with terms advertised in advance of the event. These events started with modest challenges against time. As the public interest for walking events increased, promoters held sweepstakes for big prize money and eventually permitted running. By the time the mania peaked, the events attracted huge crowds, gambling, and international news coverage.

Humble beginnings of Weston's challenges against time

In 1861 Edward Payson Weston walked to President Lincoln's inauguration on a public dare, traveling more than 50 miles per day, including deviations. He published his itinerary in advance and arranged for a carriage to follow him on wintry roads. Slogging through nearly two feet of snow in a snowstorm, ice frozen in ruts and mud in other places, he completed his task in ten continuous days.

In 1862 Weston published "The Pedestrian," a record of that walk. He also included the itinerary of an intended return trip that he never completed. That itinerary contains an homage to his mother, asking that he not walk on Sundays thereafter. Subsequently, the day totals given for his outdoor walks do not include the "zero days" taken on Sundays.

In 1867 Weston accomplished another cross-country walk, this time to Chicago. The agreement for the prize money had an incentive for walking 100 miles in a day. In some instances, the itinerary understated the real distance traveled, so he may have earned the bonus money without ever collecting it.

Weston's cross-country walks involved self-promotion and advertising in the hope of paying off some bills. In fact, he was detained by creditors during his 1861 walk, and wrote to the local paper before his 1867 walk, citing his desire to provide for his family. At the conclusion of his walk to Chicago, the excitement of crowds lining the streets and in national press reports led to paid appearances.

Weston "turns pro"

Weston gave formal walking exhibitions in public rinks, and began competing against time. The challenges initially involved 24- and 48-hour periods, sometimes including the number of laps to be walked backward. It is possible that on outdoor treks he sometimes relaxed his legs on downhill grades by walking backward, which could explain criticism of his odd behavior in big indoor contests later on.

In 1870 Weston, already being derided in the press, accomplished the feat of walking 100 miles in less than 22 hours at the Empire Skating Rink in New York. In June of the same year he failed to walk 400 miles in five days, accomplishing only 320 miles. Even so, the medical team monitoring Weston's food consumption and health was "utterly confounded" by his energy at the end of the event.

In 1871 Weston the "Walkist" walked 200 miles (two of them backward) in under 41 hours, and a month later 400 miles in five days. Interspersed with these feats were setbacks and dabblings with challengers. Gradually Weston set his sights on accomplishing the near-impossible 500 miles in 6 days.

In 1874 Weston walked 200 miles in Philadelphia, but failed in three attempts to walk 500 miles in six days at different venues. Indeed at the age of 35, Westpm was being derided in the press as the "Great Failer."

In December 1874 Weston finally he accomplished his 500 mile-record at The Rink in Newark, NJ, watched closely by a medical team, the mayor, and gambling interests. On the next-to-last day, Weston turned down a hefty bribe to throw the race. Such was the concern for the pedestrian's safety, that five policemen guarded him on the track for the final hour.


What is walking? Defining legal walking for the purpose of competition can be complicated. Here, "walking" means that one foot lands before the other leaves the ground. "Heel-and-toe" refers to normal forward walking motion. These are simple, non-technical definitions.

Lose contact with the ground? You lose walking.

Six-day matches

In 1875 Daniel O'Leary challenged Weston to a 6-day walking match in Chicago, inducing him with guaranteed money and a split of the gate receipts. They each had a private track. Weston's track had 7 laps to the mile, and O'Leary's on the outside had 6 laps to the mile. O'Leary won the duel with 503 miles, besting Weston's 500-mile barrier with a faster time. Weston settled for 451 miles.

In 1876 Weston, age 37, went to England and gave exhibitions there, attracting big crowds and the attention of Sir John Astley.

In 1877 O'Leary came to England and challenged Weston again. They competed at Agricultural Hall in London. Again they each had their own track. Conflicts (1) over the rules and (2) the judging of the match happened as follows:

(1) The judges all signed off on a document defining walking as a succession of steps "in which it is essential that some part of one foot always touch the ground." Weston insisted that the document explicitly say: the toes of one foot should not leave the ground until the heel of the other was down. So he would not sign the document.

(2) At the 360-mile mark, Weston felt leg weary and resorted to various styles of walking for relief. These antics offended one judge, who protested that Weston should be docked a lap. However, after a little drama, the protest was withdrawn, and Weston persisted throughout the day with "a very peculiar gait."

O'Leary struggled to finish the race on the last day, adding to the drama. By 9 pm on Saturday night he had an insurmountable lead of 519 miles to Weston's 503 miles. So they declared O'Leary the winner and sent the wealthy man home to tend his blisters. Weston entertained the crowd for a couple more hours and finished with a score of 510 miles. The next day, O'Leary was laid up and Weston strolled to church.

Just walking

The 6-day pedestrian contests diverged in two directions. The traditional walking races continued for several years, featuring these notable examples:

In 1881 American Charles Harriman set the 6-day "heel-and-toe" record of 530 miles in the Exposition Building in Chicago, IL, against three competitors in a race promoted by Daniel O'Leary. He set 100-mile and 200-mile records en route. Press accounts of the event were sparse or derisive, and attendance was low.

In 1882 Englishman George Littlewood set the 6-day record of 531 miles against four other contestants in "the great walking sweepstakes" held at the Drill Hall in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. Littlewood tied Harriman's record with two hours to spare, finished another mile in 9 minutes 17 seconds, and left the track. This record still stands.

The other divergence allowed running. The account of pedestrian races with running resumes in 1878, a year after O'Leary's 519-mile "heel-and-toe" win.

Go-as-you please

The Astley Belt 6-day races for "Long Distance Champion of the World" permitted running. Competitors would be able to "walk, trot, run, mix, lift, or introduce a new style of pedestrianism if clever enough." This rule removed protests against Weston's "wobbling gait" and let emerging British runners compete.

In 1878 Daniel O'Leary won the first Astley Belt over a field of 17 up-and-comers with a score of 520 mles in Agricultural Hall, London. O'Leary had one track to himself while the challengers shared another. O'Leary did some running. Weston did not compete.

Later in 1878, William "Corkey" Gentleman, 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 104 pounds, won the "Long Distance Championship of England" at Agricultural Hall with a score of 521 miles. Placing third with 470 miles was Charles Rowell of Cambridge, who later excelled at an efficient "jog-trot." Weston, 11th with 365 miles, must have taken note. O'Leary did not compete.

Six weeks in winter

In January 1879 Weston went off for 6-week winter journey through the shires of England, followed by a carriage, and mobbed by the public in every town. He sustained an injury when crushed by the crowd, and continued with his arm in a sling. Due to snow, rain, and the crowds, Weston completed his 2,000-mile timetable eight hours late.

More world records

In April 1879, Henry "Blower" Brown set a record 542 miles for the 2nd Long Distance Astley Belt at Agricultural Hall. Weston placed last with an indifferent score of 450 miles.

In June 1879 Weston stunned the world at the 4th International Astley Belt, jog-trotting to a 550-mile new world record. Worn out from his 2,000-mile winter tour, performing badly two months earlier, too slow and too old, Weston at the age of 40 was considered washed up. Until he turned the tables on everyone.

The world record would be broken ten more times.

In 1880, Charles Rowell set a score of 566 miles in Agricultural Hall, London, England.

In 1884, Charles Rowell placed second, with 602 miles, to winner Patrick Fitzgerald's 610 miles at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Weston's 5,000 miles

In 1883-1884 Weston walked 5,000 miles in 100 days, 2,000 miles indoors and 3,000 miles on roads, sponsored by the Church of England Temperance society. Not only did he cover 50 miles daily, he gave speeches. Years later, he commented with pride on this accomplishment. This feat inspired George Noremac to accomplish 5,100 miles in 100 days, all indoors in New York from 1884-1885.

The Littlewood era

Note the 72- and 142-hour formats of the 6-day races below.

In 1884, George Littlewood defended the Astley Belt in a 6-day 72-hour go-as-you-please event, that is, with 12 hours off the track each day. He retired the belt with a score of 405 miles.

In 1888 George Littlewood set the Pedestrian era record of 623 miles at Madison Square Garden in New York, demonstrating tolerance for pain and injury beyond comprehension. This was the peak of the 6-day 142-hour contest.

End of the mania

Apparently pedestrianism was eclipsed by more exciting spectator sports, such as bicycle racing. Starting in 1906, race walking appeared as standardized amateur athletics in the Olympics as 1,500m and 3,000m events.

Meanwhile, Weston made some more comebacks with transcontinental walks in his seventies, sometimes beating his youthful records and inspiring the awe of a new generation of physicians. He repeated his Portland to Chicago walk, walked across the country twice, and also walked from New York to Minneapolis.

The rule of walking - durability

This presentation of events has addressed the shifting boundaries for walking contests, boundaries that often applied to more than technique. Style alone did not capture the imagination of the audience. Weston's stunts defied conventional wisdom, or the rule of the day, regarding endurance, age, and health. Ever the showman, he had to be the most durable pedestrian - the exception and the rule.

H.C. Long reported Weston saying, regarding the praise lavished on him, "It's because I'm demonstrating that walking is the most untiring of man's powers. I'm showing what the human being can do. When people praise me they're praising the model in which they, too, are cast."