Tuesday 1 December 2009

That's What I Call a Walk...

The other day I came across a mention of a chap called Foster Powell, who, back in 1773, was now about halfway through 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. 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') 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.


  1. All done in hobnail boots and thorn proof tweed, no satnav or Gortex.
    this is Europe's latest, Bonn to Wiesbaden, 325 kilometers taking in one of the continents most picturesque river valleys, I suspect that I will be volunteered for it next summer.

    Britains best is still the walk from Loch Maree to Dundonell via the Shenevall bothy and An Teallach (the forge) thirty years ago it was truly the last mainland wilderness walk then some bright spark wrote an article, wilderness no more but still a life enhancing experience, easily done in 2 days.

  2. That's walking Malty, that's walking...

  3. Fantastic stuff! I love the chap who wears his opponents down "with a relentless dog-trot".

  4. I have two sons in whom I am well pleased. The elder was a tubby in school, but became a fitness fanatic and triathlon runner in his late teens. Now in his mid-twenties, he actually ran for Canada in Oz earlier this year. The younger, now sixteen, has become a very accomplished and serious (ball) hockey player who has been invited to join adult leagues. As their parents have no athletic background beyond pick-up games, I consider them both to be proofs that neither nature nor nurture tells the whole story.

    I attend the elder's races and coach in the younger's league and I have become facinated by the cultural differences between these grueling solitary pursuits and team sports. The ethos's and spectators couldn't be more different. Running/walking is actually quite a bore and is marked by non-stop hype from fellow runners and fans designed to do nothing more than get them to the end of the hell. When I once asked my son whether he actually enjoyed his running, he looked at me as if I was out of my mind. Enjoyment plays no part in it whatsoever, and one gets the impression occasionally that it simply wouldn't do to be having too much fun. It's all about overcoming pain. Spectators don't form friendships born of post-race beers together. Unsuprisingly, it the sport of choice for neurotics, moralistic prigs and fans who consider a mid-race snack of pita and hummus to be the highlight of the event. It's really not all that surprising that the heyday of its popularity was the Victorian era or that Scandinavia's favourite spectator sport is cross-country skiing.

  5. Marathons Peter, Marathons, or even half marathons, very convivial, clubby, a hoot.
    Try the New York, will have to be next year, it's just happened. Whilst running through the Hispanic areas don't accept water, normally laced with Tequila.

  6. Peter, you do have to be comfortable with your own thoughts to be a runner or walker, which not many people seem to be these days. Do your sons also spend very much time with earbuds in?

    Nige, are you aware of the walking exploits of Will Self?