Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Walk, don’t run, to Wikipedia’s history of competitive walking

Illustration for article titled Walk, don’t run, to Wikipedia’s history of competitive walking
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Pedestrianism

What it’s about: This week’s entry was suggested by our own Marah Eakin (and was conveniently a few links away from last week’s entry). In the late 17th century, Britain’s aristocracy discovered a way to combine two of the country’s great national pastimes—tedious, lengthy sports, and being simply horrid to one’s servants. Footmen were so called because while the master of the house traveled in style and comfort in a carriage, the footman would travel on foot, keeping an eye out for obstacles in the road, but also showing the world that the carriage’s owner was so rich he could pay people to simply follow him around. Eventually, footmen’s employers began wagering on their servants’ walking abilities, and as their speed was determined by the speed of the carriage, the primary concern was distance. Thus the sport of competitive long-distance walking—pedestrianism—was born.


Biggest controversy: As athletic organizations formed in the 19th century, and rules were codified for soccer, cricket, and other sports, pedestrianism began to abide by a strict set of rules. Competitors were expected to walk, not run, and their strides were carefully examined to make sure they didn’t make the sport too exciting by breaking into a trot. The walker’s leg had to extend straight at one point during their stride, and the “fair heel and toe rule,” the cornerstone of pedestrianism, requires that “the toe of one foot could not leave the ground before the heel of the next foot touched down.” However, rules would vary from one race to the next, and walkers were often allowed to run briefly to ward off cramps. According to Wikipedia, “controversy involving rules” helped contribute to the death of the sport, although the site doesn’t provide the specifics. Probably something to do with too many walkers straightening their leg, but not completely straightening their leg—the 19th-century equivalent of corking one’s bat.

Thing we were happiest to learn: While we can’t imagine it became any more exciting for spectators, pedestrianism grew to be a grueling athletic competition. As time went on, the distances involved increased, as did the sport’s popularity, spreading across the English-speaking world. Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, known as “The Celebrated Pedestrian,” famously walked a mile an hour for 1,000 hours, for a prize of 1,000 guineas. In the U.S., one pedestrian won $10,000 ($162,000 in 2014 dollars) for walking the 1,136 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago. For less ambitious pedestrians, walking 100 miles in 24 hours became a popular challenge, with those who succeeded earning the title “Centurion.”

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: As boxing and baseball revealed in later eras, no sport is safe from the taint of corruption. As pedestrianism gained in popularity, so did gambling on the sport, and with gambling comes exploitation and malfeasance. Pedestrianism’s reputation suffered, and negative associations (as well as an effort to stop gambling on walks) led to the decline of the sport. There is, however, a silver lining: As part of an effort to clean up pedestrianism, the U.K. began a six-day Long Distance Championship Of The World in 1878, an amateur event with no prize money or wagering. This general rise of interest in amateur sports led directly to efforts to revive the Olympic Games for the modern era. The first Games included an 800-yard walk event as part of the “all-rounder,” a predecessor to the decathlon. Four years later, racewalking was its own event, and has been a fixture in the Games ever since.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Pedestrianism is not to be confused with New Pedestrianism, an urban-planning movement that seeks to downplay the primacy of the automobile, replacing street lanes with spaces for walking and biking, as well as planting trees and creating other green spaces. The extent of New Pedestrianism can range from cities like New York and Chicago adding bike lanes and a bike share program, to pedestrian villages like Mackinac Island, Michigan, a town that plays host to hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, but no non-emergency motor vehicles.

Further down the wormhole: The Long Distance Championship Of The World, and the accompanying movement to make pedestrianism an amateur-only sport, was spearheaded by Sir John Dugdale Astley, a baron, member of Parliament, and avid pedestrian. His father, Lord Astley, was a Royalist commander in the English Civil War. At one point during that conflict, exiled monarch Charles II escaped Oliver Cromwell’s army by hiding in a tree. The tree became known as the Royal Oak, and is part of Wikipedia’s List Of Famous Trees, whose branches we will peruse next time.