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The World's Richest 19th Century Sport

Pedestrianism was a sport of epic rivalries, eyewatering salaries, feverish nationalism, eccentric personalities and six-day, 450-mile walks.

The race began, rather unusually, at 01:00 on a Sunday morning. It was 21 September 1879, and 13 (mostly) moustachioed athletes in tight leggings and tiny shorts had gathered under the towering arches of the original Madison Square Garden in New York - along with 10,000 raucous spectators.

It was the most eagerly anticipated sporting event of the era, steeped in a kind of mania the world had rarely seen before. The contestants were already international celebrities, and arrived with an entourage of their own dieticians, doctors, chefs, dedicated sports masseurs and trainers – who often recommended that they drank champagne as they went.

Earlier in the day, large, jostling crowds had gathered outside the venue and more than 200 people tried to sneak in under the guise of being in the athletes' employment. One woman screamed "Let me in! I'm the chiropodist that takes care of [the contestant Peter] Panchot's feet!", according to an account in the New York Herald. It was rumoured that those who could not afford the $1 entrance fee might break down the doors.

The whole affair was a serious business. There were corporate sponsorships – one athlete present at the match, though not competing, was the spokesperson for a brand of salt. There were snacks, including roasted chestnuts and pickled eggs – and cups of beer, dispensed by communal taps. There was a full military band, lending the arena a certain nationalistic ambiance. Extravagant bets were made. The crowd was littered with flags, reporters and waving handkerchiefs.

This was no football match, tennis tournament, or basketball game – this was a "pedestrianism" contest, in which the public paid to watch people walk. This particular tournament was the fifth Great Six Days Race, set up by the British politician and sporting baron Sir John Astley.

The rules were simple – essentially, contestants were required to walk in circles for six days in a row, until they had completed laps equivalent to at least 450 miles (724km). They could run, amble, stagger or crawl, but they must not leave the oval-shaped sawdust track until the race was over. Instead they ate, drank and napped (and presumably, performed other bodily functions) in little tents at the side, some of which were elaborately furnished.

Just like sportsmen today, pedestrians were remunerated with eye-watering sums of money. Whoever travelled the furthest in the time available would win $25,000 (around $679,000 or £494,000 today) and a belt of solid silver, engraved with the words "Long Distance Champion of the World".

Eventually, it's popularity died out and has been, essentially, replaced by the modern marathon which, by comparison, sounds a rather easier feat of endurance.


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