Today’s New Yorkers have a reputation for being speed walkers, but nineteenth-century New Yorkers—and Americans in general—took it to the next level by making speed walking an extreme sport. People would gather en masse to watch a couple of folk try to outwalk each other. Competitive walkers would go round and round a dirt path nonstop for up to six days, clocking in hundreds of miles. It was tedious and exhausting, but New Yorkers loved it.
Although this competitive walking craze took hold of society in the 1870s – 1880s, its roots go back all the way to fifteenth century England. Back then, nobles used to pit their footmen against each other to see who could walk the fastest. The objective of this sport hadn’t changed much by the late nineteenth century, but pedestrianism, as it was called, had transformed into an extravaganza. Thousands of New Yorkers would crowd into venues to witness these events. (In 1879, a riot even broke out over a sold out race. The disappointed mob battled the police and eventually had to be beaten back with clubs. Yeah, that’s how wild these things got.)
But as hyped as New Yorkers were to watch other people walk till their legs gave out—like a really low-tech version of NASCAR—that wasn’t the only reason why they’d go to these events. According to Matthew Aldeo, the author of “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport,” these events featured brass bands, treats like pickled eggs and roasted chestnuts, and even celebrity appearances. Being able to see a guy circle a track thousands of times, plus catching a glimpse of Tom Thumb and Phineas T. Barnum was well-worth the ten cents admission.
So what happened? Why don’t we have 100-hour walking events at Madison Square Garden today? It seems that people found something more exciting to watch than people walking in circles: they moved on to people bicycling in circles. But competitive walking is far from being a thing of the past. It has actually been an Olympic sport since 1904. There are also a few local options if you want to take your speed walking to the next level: there’s the New York Walkers Club, headed by Olympic race walking coaches and champions. Or if you’re too intimidated, try joining the Racewalk-NYC Meetup group. At the very least, you’ll up your New York street cred as you tear up the city sidewalks.
Want to learn what New Yorkers are really like? Read my previous post, Your Questions About New Yorkers Answered.