Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review: A Man in a Hurry

Before there was the English Premier League, before the NFL, there was the brief moment in the spotlight for pedestrianism, an early form of competitive walking that became very popular in the 1860s and 1870s in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Pedestrianism first started out as a trial of distance – sometimes vast -- against the clock and then evolved naturally into a race between men. The pedestrian movement saw a great rise and then all but disappeared, supplanted by contemporary competitions such as the marathon and the modern Olympics.

Fortunately, Nick Harris, Helen Harris and Paul Marshall have collaborated to stitch together what is a relatively thin historical record to provide a highly readable account of the life of Edward Payson Weston, the original and most famous pedestrian. Weston’s 90 years spanned 1839 to 1929, a time of enormous change, in the world and in sport and is chronicled in A Man in a Hurry: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Edward Payson Weston, The World’s Greatest Walker.
Weston’s competitive career was largely of his own creation; it began as a bet and turned into a business opportunity that he would exploit repeatedly such that it became a career and a calling. At the peak of his popularity more than 20,000 people turned out in London in 1876 to watch him walk around a track in a 6-day race in which he took on all comers. It may sound a bit odd to hear of 20,000 people turning out to watch men walk around a short oval track, yet today not far away from the location of Agricultural Hall in Islington 60,000 people turn out regularly to Emirates Stadium to watch 22 men kick around a ball on a rectangular pitch. Many years later, when Weston had become famous mostly just for being famous, he drew a reported half-million people to the streets of New York to watch him conclude a cross-country walk which had started in California.

The thinness of the historical record makes it difficult to get a good reading on who Weston actually was. Much more is known about the competitions that he participated in and walks that he took on, and so the book emphasizes these events in its recounting of Weston’s life. There are hints of snake oil salesman in Weston’s character, with tantalizing but ultimately unverified associations with illegal gambling and political corruption in the form of what today would be called match fixing. Weston preferred to walk in finely tailored and distinctive clothing, adding to the spectacle of the event. He made and lost several fortunes across his long life and throughout there were hints of a playboy lifestyle. In most respects none of this would be surprising to observers of star athletes today.

At his peak form Weston was known for his stamina and remarkable powers of recovery with little or no sleep. During Weston’s first visit to the UK, the British Medical Journal reported that he had been chewing coca leaf, from which cocaine is distilled, while he walked. The negative reaction and quick denials by Weston of more general usage illustrates that even at this time the notion of doping – a word that had yet to be invested – was a concern in sport. Weston’s use of the drug led to a spat among experts on the pages of the BMJ (another dynamic familiar to modern observers of sport) leading the journal to opine quite presciently:
“Pushed to excess, coca is said to become a narcotic; and we shall, no doubt, hear a great deal about its use and abuse. Possibly we may be indebted to Mr. Weston for the introduction of a new stimulant and a new narcotic: two forms of novelty in excitement which our modern civilization is likely to highly esteem.” 
Weston was no fool and quickly embraced science as a route to legitimacy, first presenting himself as a subject for scientific research and later extolling the virtues of walking for health and serving as one of the first anti-smoking advocates.

Pedestrianism’s moment in the spotlight did not last long. The automobile, organized sport and age saw Weston fade from public view. When he died senile and poor few turned out for his funeral. But over his 90 years he never stopped walking. Thanks to A Man in Hurry, this delightful part of sport history has been brought back into view.

1 comment:

  1. I would have thought that bicycle racing would be the replacement for walk racing rather than autos.