The World’s Greatest Walker You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

A Q-and-A with Helen and Nick Harris, who with Paul Marshall wrote the book “A Man in a Hurry: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Edward Payne Weston, the World’s Greatest Walker”

Nick Harris, Helen Harris and Paul Marshall’s book chronicles the life and feats of the world’s most famous pedestrian of his day.

He was considered one of the greatest athletes of his time, one of the most-revered representatives of a wildly popular and largely forgotten sport – pedestrianism – that rendered him a global celebrity. And until recently, I’d never heard of him. In their 2012 book, three writers revived the legend of a man who was as well-known for eccentric personal life as his stunning athletic endeavors – and whose unlikely path was inspired in part by none other than Abraham Lincoln.

Earlier this month, I emailed with two of the book’s co-authors to get their take on what made Weston tick and to hear what got them turned on to Weston’s story in the first place. Our Q-and-A can be found below:

AMERICA WALKS: You describe Edward Payson Weston as the godfather of the pedestrianism movement. I gather that meant something quite different in his time than it does to the modern-day reader. What defined the pedestrianism movement in Weston’s day? What role did walking play in the public consciousness at the time?

HARRIS AND HARRIS: In Weston’s era pedestrianism was far from a means of getting from A to B. It was a sport, possiblythe most popular spectator sport in the western world. During the late 19th century, when Weston was at the height of his career and his fame, pedestrian races were taking place throughout the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Races could last five or six days, with competitors walking more than 500 miles in that time. Crowds of thousands came to watch the contestants walk round and round a track, and to smoke, drink and gamble.

If anything, pedestrianism was defined by money, celebrity and, sometimes, by notoriety. Walkers stood to win enormous cash prizes, there were accusations of cheating and match-fixing. The sport was popular but the sums of money attracted some rackety characters and, at times, the opprobrium of the press. Some saw it as circus and Weston as a showman; he spent his life trying to prove he was a gentleman athlete.

AMERICA WALKS: Can you talk a little about Weston as a person? Where was he from, what was his background, and how did he get interested in walking as sport? What prompted his interest in such epic feats as walking cross-country?

HARRIS AND HARRIS: Edward Weston was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1839. His mother Maria was a housewife and a writer of poems and novels. His father Silas was a teacher, then a shopkeeper, then a teacher again and when Edward was 10 years old, Silas joined the California gold rush, leaving Maria at home with four children. Silas was gone for three years.

During that time, Edward had has own adventures as he tried to make money, going travelling with a group of wandering musicians. He joined a circus for a little while too, after his father came home with no gold but full of the sights and experiences he had had in California.

So, Ed did not have the most conventional childhood but it did give him a taste for adventure and movement. His epic walks across the US were an equivalent to his Dad’s gold prospecting: an adventure and a chance to see the country and make some money.

What started him off in race walking was a bet with a friend on the result of the 1860 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln versus Stephan A. Douglas. Weston lost the bet, his forfeit was to walk 478 miles from Boston to Capitol Hill to attend Lincoln’s inauguration. It was typical of Weston’s story that that historic event should be his starting point. Weston was always bumping into legends and icons: royalty and presidents as well as infamous crooks and conmen.

AMERICA WALKS: Weston died in 1929, just as the car was taking off among the masses. What was his take on the merits, value and risks of the car? Did he ever ride in one as far as you know? Did he leave any writings or otherwise transmit his thoughts about the rapidly-changing transportation and cultural landscapes brought on by the arrival of the automobile?

HARRIS AND HARRIS: Weston took his first ride in a car in 1907 and he said it was like ‘sailing on the ocean’, but in general he was not a fan of cars. There are a few records of Weston’s thoughts on motoring to be find in newspaper reports. He thought that cars were unreliable, a menace to the walking public and that they were ruining the health of the youth of America. During his epic hike from New York to San Francisco, when he was 70, he joked with motorists who stopped to talk to him that he was much better suited to the terrain than their cars were. He got clipped by cars a couple of times while he was taking part in long distance walking challenges and thought that drivers ought to be made to sound their horn when they were passing walkers. Weston wasn’t given to rumination on social or cultural change, saying to one reporter that he was too busy looking at the path ahead to observe the countryside.

AMERICA WALKS: What were the paths Weston used to navigate his cross-country journeys? What sorts of accommodations were available for people making long trips across the country at the time?

HARRIS AND HARRIS: In 1909, during his first coast-to-coast walk, he followed the railroad route as much as possible because it was shorter than the post road. The roads weren’t much better than they were in his first long hikes in the 1860s, still gravel and dirt, and he often walked along the railroad to avoid the muds on the roads. Obviously, that could lead to hairy moments when crossing bridges!

Weston mostly stayed in hotels in cities and bigger towns. As he got further west, into Kansas and Wyoming, accommodations could be hard to find as the towns and settlements got further apart. Sometimes, all he could find was railway section houses, full of railway workers or, as Weston wrote, ‘filled to capacity with sections hands: nationality Greeks, Italians or Japanese.’

AMERICA WALKS: When did the pedestrianism movement wane and what were the factors at work that contributed to its decline?

HARRIS AND HARRIS: Pedestrianism reached its height of fame and popularity in the 1880s; track races were still taking place in the early 1900s but these events had lost much of their popularity. Weston talked about people being disgusted with the ‘hippodroming’, or race fixing, of these contests. Added to that, organized team sports were coming to the fore, like football in Great Britain andbaseball in the US. In 1903, Weston told the New York Times that ‘pedestrianism is no longer a sport, but a healthful pleasure [and] an important factor in outdoor life’. The first modern Olympics had taken place in 1896, and in the 1908 summer Olympics an American runner Johnny Hayes won the marathon sparking a huge growth of interest in long distance running. In 1910, Weston said, with characteristic lack of moderation, marathon running put ‘killing pressure’ on the ‘human machine’ and ‘the inventor of the marathon should be electrocuted.’

AMERICA WALKS: What do you think Weston would think about today’s pedestrianism movement? Do you think he would be a walking advocate by today’s definition?

HARRIS AND HARRIS: Weston was a great advocate of the health benefits of walking, he thought that a stroll or a hike was a cure for every ill. He would be right behind any campaign that sought to provide better places for people to walk.

AMERICA WALKS: When did you first hear about Weston and what inspired you to write this book?

HARRIS AND HARRIS: Nick is a sports writer and Weston’s story was brought to his attention at some point after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing when he was researching an article about the history of endurance running, and endurance walking. That research became a 2009 feature story about pedestrianism, and Weston, in The Independent newspaper, for whom Nick was then working. Paul Marshall, a historian who had spent years collating Weston’s race record, shared a mountain of his research and then we (Helen and Nick) set about discovering more about the man and his life, including via surviving relatives.

We were inspired to write the book by the extraordinary, colourful life Weston led and the historic times he walked through, from the Gold Rush and the Civil War right up to the Great War and the Jazz Age. He achieved some of the most amazing athletic and endurance feats and had a colourful career and private life to boot, including a cocaine scandal and groupies, a broken marriage and getting shot because of his life live. We’d encourage people to read the book – obviously. And if any of you know a Hollywood movie mogul or creative producer then please pass the story on and help us get the story to the silver screen!

AMERICA WALKS: Weston lived to a ripe old age in part due to a lifetime of healthy walking but his passing ironically involved a motor car. Is that correct?

 HARRIS AND HARRIS: Sort of. A few weeks after his 88th birthday, on his way to church, he stepped out into the road without paying due attention and was knocked down by a cab. He suffered a head wound and was taken to hospital, where he was kept under observation for several weeks. He was largely confined to a wheelchair thereafter, although he could still stand from time to time. He lived until past 90, dying in May 1929.

Nick and Helen Harris at the 2012 launch of their book “A Man in a Hurry: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Edward Payne Weston, the World’s Greatest Walker”

–Emilie Bahr