The great superstars of sports history – champions like Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan – have entertained and inspired people all over the world. The image of Ali doing the impossible in a big fight, or Jordan winning another game at the buzzer, represents the ultimate in athletic achievement.
Once upon a time, society looked to professional walkers with the same awe. In 1800s America, when competitive walking was huge, Edward Payson Weston was king of the sports world, and he may have been bigger than Ali and Jordan combined. Though I doubt you’ll consider a walk more thrilling than a slam-dunk or a game-winning goal, we can learn a lot from the great Weston, the man who made walking for health a worldwide craze.
Weston could walk 80 miles non-stop – a heroic feat for any time. At the point of exhaustion, he would take a 20-minute break and start back down the road. He was the most-celebrated athlete on the planet. His extraordinary life story is told in the book A Man In A Hurry by the British trio Paul Marshall (www.KingOfThePeds.com), Helen Harris and Nick Harris. The complete Weston career story is told in Marshall’s thorough book Weston, Weston, Rah-Rah-Rah!
You get the picture. If ESPN existed at the time, pedestrianism (the sport of walking) would be the lead story on SportsCenter.
If you’re wondering how walking could get intense, it broke down like this: Competitors would either face off circling a track, walking until one could not go on, or they’d walk outdoors to a specific destination, often hundreds of miles away. It was routine for crowds of thousands to turn out to watch races in halls, such as Madison Square Gardens, or see outdoor races from start or finish.
The Portsmouth Daily Herald reported on Weston walking from California to New York City in 1909:
“Five hundred thousand people crammed New York’s greatest thoroughfare today to see one white-haired man march through their cheering lines. The man was Edward P. Weston and the ovation which he received was the greatest ever accorded to any man not connected with public life.”
The walk measured 3,100 miles in length, took Weston 77 days (averaging 40.3 miles per day). At the time, Weston was 71 years old (so if anyone ever suggests that you are too old to walk, be sure to tell them about Weston).
Indoor pedestrianism races involved walking hundreds of miles over the course of a few days and outdoor races sometimes covered over 1000 miles.
Weston not only won many of these races, but he had fun doing it. He would sing, clown around, walk backwards and he even competed in track events against teams made up of two walkers who would each take turns walking! Think of the confidence of Michael Jordan in his prime. Would he take on two players in a 2-on-1 match? You bet he would, and Weston was as bold and just as good.
Things started for Weston after he bet that Abraham Lincoln would lose the election of 1860. It was a turning point for the country – the election of one of our best presidents – and it made Weston a household name. Weston lost the bet and as a consequence had said he would walk from Boston to Washington D.C. and attend the inauguration.
The distance was 478 miles and it took Weston 10 days, trudging through snow, mud and ice on unpaved, Civil War-era roads. (You can imagine Marv Albert on the sidelines: “Weston’s doing the impossible!”).
The trek was incredibly grueling, giving him chest pains and foot blisters, and even though he missed the inauguration, he arrived in time for one of the inaugural balls. Lincoln, impressed by Weston’s perseverance, met with him and offered to pay for his train ride back to Boston. Weston thanked Lincoln but insisted on walking home. After all, he’d lost the bet and as a result, felt he should also walk home.
The New York Times wrote about Weston frequently. When he was in pursuit of his goal of 500 miles in 6 days, the paper wrote:
“Whether or not Mr. Weston is able to achieve complete success in the task in which he is engaged … it is certain that he has already shown pluck and endurance for pedestrianism for which hardly a parallel can be found … It cannot be said that this achievement has even been equaled by the best-trained athletes, and taking all the circumstances into consideration, the feat of Weston must be placed among the marvels of physical prowess.”
Weston walked 115 miles that first day, but after that he struggled, hindered by the development of a painful blister. He completed total of 430 miles in the six days, falling short of his goal. Regardless, his 115-mile one-day walk remains unequaled.
Walking for Health
Later in his life, Weston preached the benefits of walking. In 1893, he walked in three days from New York to Albany to show his ability to walk without the need to eat meat.
So amazed were people with Weston’s walking success that doctors studied him and he was reported about in the British Medical Journal.
Dr. Ashburton Thompson, a renowned expert on leprosy and plague, studied Weston during races in London. He wrote:
“It is his powers of rapid recovery which distinguishes Weston’s constitution from that of other athletes … He possess immense powers in the first place, and these may not be unequalled. He might, therefore, meet with a successful competitor at 100 miles or even at 200 miles; but his power of recovery is so extraordinary that it would only be necessary for him to prolong the period of exertion in order to defeat any person not similarly endowed in this respect. Such a one has not been known hitherto.”
Walking as the Fountain of Youth
At the age of 83, Weston knocked off a 30-day walk from Buffalo to New York (a trifling distance of 500 miles). Weston surely would have continued walking, but when he was 88, he was struck by a New York taxicab (alas, some things never change).
Weston was left unable to walk and died 2 years later. Coincidence? Without those pesky New York taxis, it’s unclear how long the Great Weston would have walked. Could he have made it to 100 and beyond? I don’t doubt it. Walking is a bona fide fountain of youth.
What You Can Learn From Weston
Today, long-distance walking and race-walking exist in the background, far from the front page of the sports section. We walk “marathons” to raise money for charity. Weston would hardly call these walks “marathons.”
For him, they’d be a mere warm-up. After that, he’d dash off a few hundred miles – maybe even parts of it backwards – and find out who wanted to take a cross-country tour on foot.
Do Walkers Need a Scorecard?
Race-walking aside, if there is a problem with us walking for health and fitness, it is the lack of a “scorecard.” With golf, weightlifting and other sports, events reveal how good (or bad) we are.
Walking for health often involves competing with ourselves. When it is chilly out or we believe we’ve walked “a lot” that day, we stop short of our potential. I’ve written about how walking in groups is the way to go (http://flowalking.com/2013/02/new-research-walking-in-a-group-is-better-for-you-heres-why/). Competition is another reason why. When you walk with a better, fitter walker, you’ll raise your level of performance.
Weston reminds us about the almost boundless power of the human spirit and the tremendous potential within each of us.
I am not suggesting you walk 115 miles in one day (though if you did, I would write about you). Next time you are walking and think you’ve traveled “a lot,” take a moment and think about Edward P. Weston. Kids on the basketball court still emulate Jordan. Well, “Be Like Ed” — Push yourself to go the extra mile.
In future articles, I will discuss Weston’s walking style, his strategies of walking for health and other useful things those of us who are walking for health can learn from this superstar of walking. For now, if you have an interest in learning about Weston, I strongly encourage you to read A Man in a Hurry and then move on to the encyclopedic look at his life, Weston, Weston, Rah-Rah-Rah!
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