When Walking Was a Spectator Sport

We may think of baseball as America’s national pastime, but in the 1880s there was another sports craze sweeping the nation: competitive walking. In the decades after the Civil War, there was mass urbanization in the U.S., with millions of people moving into the city. There wasn’t much for them to do with their free time, so competitive walking matches filled that void for people. Huge crowds would pack indoor arenas to watch the best walkers walk. Think of it as a 6-day NASCAR race…..on feet. Competitors would walk 600 miles in six days. They were on the track continuously and had little cots set up inside the track where they could take a nap — sleeping maybe three hours a day. For 21 hours a day, they were in motion walking around the track. People didn’t just go to watch the competitors walk, it was a real spectacle. There were brass bands playing, vendors selling pickled eggs and roasted chestnuts, and a lot of celebrities attended. People would pay 10 cents to sit and watch the men walk around a circular dirt track, and that was the highlight of their week. What was in it for the walkers? The winner walked away with $10,000 ($266,368 today) and national fame.