The Pedestrianists

Nige looks at the historical but by no means dead sport of ‘pedestrianism’…

Back in 1773, at about this time of year, one Foster Powell (below) had just completed an epic walk, from London to York and back (396 miles) in less than six days, that won him a hefty bet and made him a celebrity. I’ve long been vaguely fascinated by these feats of ‘pedestrianism’, but hadn’t realised quite how extreme they were – or, still more surprisingly, that they are still being surpassed in the 21st century.

Foster Powell’s great walk was soon bettered, and, in the 19th century, the six-day walk became a fiercely competitive, big money, big crowd (a staggering 70,000 for one event!) indoor sport, largely because of the prodigious feats (500 miles in 6 days? No problem) of an American pedestrian called Edward Payson Weston. By the time the 500-mile mark was reached, the six-day walk was open to all comers – runners or walkers. The distances covered in six days became ever more mind-boggling, Weston reaching 550 miles and the Englishman Charles Rowell managing 530. [In the picture at the top of this post, Weston is on the far left, with a riding, or perhaps walking crop; and Rowell is on the far right – Ed]

Then in 1882 another Englishman, George Hazel, hit the altogether unbelievable 600-mile mark – but even that record didn’t stand long, with yet another Englishman, competing in America, clocking up 623 miles in 1888 – by which time interest in the six-day event was waning.

So that was that? No, far from it – there was a revival of interest in this form of ‘ultrarunning’ in the 1980s, and new six-day records were set in 1984 – 635 miles – and, finally and surely unbeatably, 644 miles, run indoors by a Greek runner, Yiannis Kouros (nicknamed ‘Pheidippides’ successor’ – below) as recently as 2005.

Why do we never hear of these astonishing feats – equivalent to running four consecutive marathons a day for six consecutive days? Oh of course – there’s no money in it, and it’s too boring to attract spectators or TV cameras. This makes these lonely endeavours at the extremes of human endurance all the more noble – or mad, or both… There’s a potted history of the six-day race here. Read and boggle.

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

8 thoughts on “The Pedestrianists

    January 9, 2012 at 12:15

    Walking and running are two very different things, Nige… Jimmy Saville was big on charity walks – I’m not sure about Lands End to John O Groats, but I’ve often thought it would be rather nice to walk the whole of the Cornish Coastal path. At one point I was insanely thinking of trying the Marathon des Sables (6 days – actually 7, with one day of rest… in the Sahara desert). Suppose it’s never too late?

    January 9, 2012 at 12:24

    Sheesh – stick to the coastal path Susan! That wld be a great walk…

    January 9, 2012 at 13:04

    I’ve walked a good chunk of the Cornish coastal path and I can tell you it’s absolutely knackering. A coastal path mile is worth at least six road ones.

    Lovely views of course.

      January 9, 2012 at 13:40

      lots of short-haired german lady couples in khaki walking shorts too for some reason

        January 9, 2012 at 13:47

        Spotting wild flowers, worm – and rare butterflies (Nige)

    January 9, 2012 at 15:23

    Considering the fact that we humans havs been at it since our Rift Valley days the efficacious pastime of shanks pony has fallen somewhat into disrepair and has morphed into three forms.
    1/ with dog and surgical gloves (picking up dog turds, for the use of)

    2/ as a means of extricating oneself from awkward situations, viz..a possible punch up in the pub, a looming collar feeling by store detective (if our name happened to be Anthony Worrall Thompson), or when there is an urgent need for bandages (if, like yours truly one finds oneself at the bottom of a crevasse 11 kilometers from source of said medical stuff, at midnight and it’s snowing and one’s knee is sore)

    3/ here we enter the world of that great tribe of unwashed pretentiousness, the Gucci power walker, most frequently spotted in Wiesbaden’s English park negotiating the 4 kilometer PW dripping in Gucci and diamonds, without a single beat of sweat, sorry, perspiration, on the immaculately manicured brow
    the finishing line is the Kurhaus garden restaurant all seats reserved, for Gucci dripping PW’s, latte, schnapps and a pretzel, job done.

      January 9, 2012 at 16:14

      ..and dont forget the german power walkers with the nordic walking poles

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