A podcast and posts about Ultrarunning History in America by Davy Crockett. Ultrarunning has been around for more than 130 years. Too many of the pioneers are being forgotten. It is time that they be remembered.
In recent years, some of the ultrarunners who have run across America performed it by pushing baby joggers to carry their stuff in a self-supported mode. Once when Phil Rosenstein was pushing his jogger during his transcontinental run, an alarmed passing motorist called the police, and reported that a crazy person was pushing his baby along a busy highway in a baby carriage. In the general public’s mind it is just too crazy to imagine someone running across the country pulling or pushing a contraption.
What about pushing a one-wheeled, wooden wheelbarrow across the country? That is exactly what Lyman Potter of Albany, New York did in 1878. He was one of the earliest known ultrawalkers to legitimately walk across America. He became known as “The Wheelbarrow Man.” The country was fascinated by him, but he behind his back, he was called by many an idiot, a lunatic, and a fool. Why would anyone want to push a wheelbarrow across America, especially across the West when there were just rough wagon roads and a few railroads?
This is the story of “The Wheelbarrow Man” who would eventually be called “the hero of the greatest feat of pedestrianism.”
R. Lyman Potter
Richard “Lyman” Potter was born about 1840 in Marietta, Ohio. His father was an inventor, establishing patents. In 1862 the Potter family moved to Albany, New York. Lyman Potter then served as a private in the civil war. He returned to Albany where he worked with his father in patents and later as a plumber, an upholsterer, a cabinet maker, and a mattress maker.
In 1872 when President Ulysses Grant was reelected, Potter was so upset that he vowed he wouldn’t cut his hair or shave his face until a Democratic president was in the white house. His neighbors always thought he was very odd.
In 1875 at the age of 35, he was a widower. His wife likely died in childbirth the year before. He was left to raise two daughters, Bertha age four, and Harriet, an infant. They were cared by a live-in nanny/housekeeper, Mary Robinson. His furniture business soon experienced hard times so he did odd jobs about the city to support his family. He was a smaller man, about 5 foot 8 inches, 137 pounds, and wore a long straggling black beard and long hair. In early 1878, he was 37 years old, although looked older.
The Wheelbarrow Wager
In 1878 Potter and some friend were discussing the exploits of the famous Pedestrian, Daniel O’Leary. They started to banter about “this and that,” including whether any of them could walk for 100 consecutive hours. Potter said that was too easy, and before he knew it, a $1,000 wager resulted challenging Potter to push a wheelbarrow all the way from Albany, New York, to San Francisco, California. There were many individuals who put up money for the $1,000 purse which was deposited in a bank for Potter to collect if he was successful.
Potter explained, “It all came from too much talk. We was talkin’ about work and earnin’ money, and hard times, and I said I’d wheel a wheelbarrow to San Francisco for a dollar a day rather’n be without work. The Albany fellows took me up and made up $1,000. I had nothin’ to do and I wouldn’t back down.”
The terms for the wager required that he make it to San Francisco in 215 traveling days and in no more than 250 total days and must walk up to 4,085 miles during that time. He was not to travel on Sundays. Why was he doing truly doing it? He figured that he could make money, take many photographs, and write a book about his experiences along the way. A newspaper stated, “He is like the rest of mankind, ‘on the make,’ and is not doing all this wheelbarrowing for glory.”
Potter’s unique wheelbarrow was made specially for the trip. It was constructed as a box and weighed less than 45 pounds, although it looked heavier. When loaded with his things it weighed up to 75 pounds. A covering protected his luggage from the elements. It was painted “drab blue, with red trimmings.” Lettering was painted on it that read, “From Albany to San Francisco in 250 Days! Sundays out, 215 days. Started April 10, 1878.” On the end toward the wheel was a little flag staff with a United States flag. At the other end, directly in front of the him was a receptacle for a tin cup, and a book for signatures. A box inside “contained necessary clothing, provisions, camping conveniences and other necessary luggage.” He was required to push the vehicle “without the aid of any strap or other device.”
The Start through New York
Potter rolled out from his home in Albany on April 10, 1878, at 3 p.m., in drenching rain with only $3.55 in his pocket. He needed to reach San Francisco by December 15th, taking off 35 Sundays. While it wouldn’t be a true transcontinental walk since he was starting in Albany, it was close, about 180 miles from New York City. During the early stages of his walk he was accompanied by Richard Downy who watched him, representing those involved with the $1,000 bet.
His first day’s journey to Schenectady, New York, of sixteen miles was horrible. He arrived footsore, wet, tired, and somewhat dispirited. It also rained the next day. He reached Utica, New York in six days after 125 miles and was tempted to quit. He might have done that if it hadn’t been for the negative tone in the newspapers. He said, “I intended to get through without making any stir or attracting any attention in the papers, but I had only got to Utica, New York when they began to talk and blow.” They ridiculed him, calling him an idiot, tramp, and a brainless fool, predicting that he would fail. After reading that, he was resolved to push on.
Potter traveled across upstate New York on a wagon road turnpike and averaged 30 miles per day. He reached Buffalo, about 350 miles, on April 25th (Day 15). He was starting to get a lot of attention on the road and through the towns and cities. Imagine seeing a man with very long hair and a long beard pushing a very strange contraption with lot of graffiti written on it passing by you on the road. It was reported, “his appearance in front of the Post office and on Seneca Street this morning naturally attracted a good deal of attention.”
Potter sought room and board at nights in hotels in the towns and in farmhouses when in the open country, was treated kindly across New York, and rarely was allowed to pay for lodgings and meals. He claimed he wasn’t begging along the way but was willing and glad to accept a meal from anyone who saw fit to give it to him. He was budgeting ninety cents a day as he traveled. To make some money, he put advertisements on his wheelbarrow as he passed through towns and cities.
In early May, after traveling through rainy weather over difficult muddy roads, Potter reached about the 600-mile mark at Cleveland, Ohio and stayed for two days. He went to the post office for his mail, stopped off at a saloon for the afternoon, and then continued to a boarding house. That was the typical daily pattern he used when he arrived into towns.
The newspaper wrote, “Potter is an eccentric individual, both in appearance and speech. He would impress the stranger neither with his greatness nor with being remarkable in any particular. He walks with a sort of easy, shuffling gait, nor lifting his feet very high from the ground nor stepping very far at a time. He seems to enjoy the notoriety he is gaining. He wears thick boots, evidently cowhide.”
At Tiffin Ohio (about mile 700), much of the city folk were anxious for Potter to arrive. Someone pulled a prank and disguised himself with false hair and whiskers, and pushed a wheelbarrow toward town a few hours before the true Potter arrived. Businessmen and everybody who could find the time swarmed around the bridge crossing over to the city. Sure enough, there was the Wheelbarrow Man, with a man on horseback following him. They came in at a “rattling pace” and passed through a cheering crowd.
The real Potter arrived at Tiffin a few hours later in cold and rainy weather. He was in good spirits but suffering from exposure. Once the people figured out that they had been tricked, they came back out by foot or horse carriage to cheer him into their city.
Since leaving Albany he had been averaging 26 miles per day. He needed to walk about 19 miles per day on his walking days and he believed that he was about seven days ahead of schedule. When he reached Toledo, Ohio he stayed over for Sunday. It bothered him that he was being called a “lunatic,” “king of tramps,” and “drunken bummer” in newspaper articles. Leaving Toledo, he was “accompanied by a large and enthusiastic crowd of small boys.”
Potter reached about mile 850 at Fort Wayne, Indiana on May 16th (day 37). He had been pushing his load on the Wabash Railway tracks. At the city, was met by a delegation of city officials along with a large crowd. By then his wheelbarrow was covered all over with business cards and advertisements. He was tired of walking on the railroad ties and wanted to travel on good dirt roads. In his wheelbarrow was a box that contained among things including “a rubber coat, a change of underclothing, and some medicine.” The medicines were mostly for his feet, tannin and carbolic salve. He said, “You see, when I first started, my feet got very sore, and I had to doctor them a good deal, but they are quite tough now. I carry along everything but whisky. That I can get plenty of along the route.”
Potter had a book full of autographs of the people he met in every town, village, and farmhouse. An example entry read, “I saw Mr. R. Lyman Potter at Monroeville, Ohio. I left town about five or eight minutes after Mr. Potter started and trotted on my horse one and a half miles before I overtook him. I rode aside him for four and a half miles and found it quite difficult to keep up with him without trotting. I have a fast walking mare. Mr. Potter is a very sociable man and seems to be a very good man.”
Potter picked up his mail at the Fort Wayne post office and then went back to the train depot followed by a large crowd, consisting mostly of boys, and then went to a house for the night. The next morning a big crowd saw him off. He said that his appetite was good and he appreciated those who took him in and fed him meals. He said of his long hair, “If the Indians scalp me, they won’t be disappointed, but will get a handful of hair.” About 300 people watched him leave town heading toward Chicago.
Greeted by a large crowd, Potter trundled into Plymouth, Indiana on May 20th. He was about six days ahead of scheduled, still averaging about 26 miles per day. It was reported, “He is dressed in a suit of butternut brown, and wears a broad brimmed, white wool hat. He walks easily and rapidly.” A crowd and a brass band led him into the town playing, “See the Conquering Hero Comes.”
Potter reached Chicago on May 23rd (day 44) looking weary and “tired of the job.” He was about ten days ahead of his schedule. One reporter called him “The Wheelbarrow Idiot” and described him, “He is represented as being the most dilapidated looking biped that has worn shoe-leather in these parts for a considerable period. The pants that encase his slender limbs would make a tailor heartsick. He wore a pair of shoes with white canvas boots that look as though pedestrianism had run into Potter’s family for generations back, and each of his ancestors had worn them across the continent several times. His hands are gloved with black kids and the wheelbarrow which he rolls before him, letting the handles rest in the hollows of his arms, is a small box.”
The Chicago paper noted, “Nobody goes with him to see that he doesn’t cheat, for it would be no use. The farmers know of him all along the way, and he could not ride without being detected. Newspaper men watch him pretty close too.” He left the city pushing his load on the Chicago-Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.
Newspapers didn’t hold back on how stupid they thought this journey was. One stated, “Another lunatic is abroad, he has engaged to drive a wheelbarrow from Albany, New York, To San Francisco, Cal.” The news reached London and they worried what would happen if Potter ran into Indian chief Sitting Bull along the way.
On June 4th, Potter reached Geneseo, Illinois and continued on to Rock Island at the Mississippi River. It was reported, “He looks seedy and travel worn on the way, but when cleaned up presents not a very unpresentable appearance. He has the look of a tired man, though he says he is determined to win, and eats his meals with utmost regularity and relish.” He stopped off at a brewery and loved the beer. Crowds followed him to planned visits to bars and he received a share of the profits. He also made money by accepting letters to be delivered to California for 25 cents each. As he earned money he sent some of it home to support his children. He paid for his first hotel room on his trip in Rock Island.
Potter arrived in Davenport, Iowa on June 5th (day 57) and Des Moines, Iowa on Jun 14th (day 66) where a large crowd gathered around his hotel “to the great discomfort of its patrons.” It was observed, “His health has improved daily ever since he started, all but one shin, which is considerably swollen. He walks in heavy soled army shoes.” Artist W. M. Drain was traveling along the railroad in cars to keep an eye on Potter and to sketch things of interest. Potter was traveling on the turnpike but rain and high water pushed him back to walking on the railroad. He arrived at Council Bluffs on the Missouri River on July 6th (day 88). He received a special permit to cross the river on the railway bridge but was only allowed to cross on Sunday when there were fewer trains, so he was delayed for a couple days.
At Omaha, Nebraska, Anton Bechler joined him provide safety and act as an interpreter with the Indians on the journey across the plains. Bechler was to be paid $1.50 per day. Potter first followed an old military road to Fremont, Nebraska and then jumped on the Union Pacific Railroad which he would use all the way to Ogden, Utah.
At Plum Creek, Nebraska he needed to stop for a few days because he had suffered from sunstroke. He wrote from Central City, “Plenty of wolves, snakes and everything that kills and murders.”
Near Idaho City, Nebraska, Potter said he ran into some railroad tramps (hobos). “They demanded tobacco and he gave them half his store of the weed. Then they wanted whisky and when he told them that all the whisky he had with him he used to bathe his shins, when walking caused them to swell, they knocked him down and reviled him. He drew a pistol (of which he carries several) and frightened them off. Thus was the whisky saved for legitimated use.”
At North Platte, Nebraska on July 14th (day 96), Potter reported that the weather was very hot but he was in good health. Near Ogalla, Nebraska, a frontiersman named Ash Hollow Bill used Potter’s wheelbarrow for target practice and smashed one of the springs with a rifle ball. After a good 40-mile day, near Sidney, Nebraska it was reported that he was frequently chased by cattle, and that might have been why he had such a high mileage day.
On July 20th (day 102) Potter reached Cheyenne, Wyoming. They gave him the “freedom of the city,” and then “the hoodlums who abound there got hold of him and filled him up with [booze].” He was very drunk when reporters tried to get a story out of him. His wheelbarrow was now stuffed with letters for California.
At the Red Desert, Wyoming railway station Potter wrote a letter that described a typical remote station that serviced the trains and tracks. “Total population consists of the railroad agent, night operator, track boss, engineer of the steam pump and family, also five moon-eyed Mongolian laborers. Splendid game country. Railroad men kill deer and mountain sheep and also sage grouse whenever they choose. Breakfasted on bear meat.” He was also getting much help from the railroad, “The railway boys along the route take great interest in me and furnish me with plenty of grub and wish me success and ‘God be with the traveler on his way to the land of Gold.’”
At Table Rock, Wyoming, Potter was confronted by a mountain lion. The report included, “Potter kept backing, and the beast pursued for nearly two miles, and then turned off. A little further along he came upon a small Indian encampment. Potter opened his box and presented them with what tobacco he had.”
“The natives demanded whisky but he had none.” He wrote a letter about his visits with Indians along the way. “I have not lost my scalp yet. I have met lots of Indians, but all seemed to be quite friendly”. One Indian mother named her baby, “wheelbarrow” and hoped that he would grow up to be a good walker like Potter. They liked him so much that they invited him to come live with them.
Potter arrived at Ogden, Utah on September 3rd (day 140) and stayed at the Union Depot Hotel. The people of Utah were not very impressed with his effort compared to the Mormon Pioneer treks a couple decades earlier in harsh conditions. “His trip is nothing to be compared with the journey of Mormon women with hand-carts across the Great American Desert, before there was any railroad to mark the path and when there were no houses or stations to rest at and recruit by the way.”
Sergeant Gilbert H. Bates was a civil war veteran who created quite a stir when he walked the length of England carrying the stars and stripes on a pole in 1872. He returned to the United States and continued his walks through the Southern states at times expressing extreme political views. Most communities considered him a nuisance and many compared Potter to him.
Potter arrived in Elko, Nevada on September 16th, about 30 days ahead of schedule. The newspaper called him a “damn fool” and wrote, “If he makes the trip through to San Francisco successfully we propose that he be engaged to wheel Sergeant Bates over Yosemite Falls.”
Near Hanging Rock, Nevada, someone threw Potter a bottle of beer from a passenger train. Very thirsty, he drank the entire bottle. Within a mile he was seized with violent pains in his stomach and knew that he had been poisoned. He ate butter and drank saltwater that caused him to vomit out the poison but he was still sick and had to stop for several days. “He ascribes these persecutions to the agency of some individuals who have bets pending and desired his failure.”
Potter reached Winnemucca, Nevada on September 18th and he stayed at the Central Pacific Hotel. He joined in with the “boys” at the local saloon and bought drinks for them for a half dollar. The local paper wrote, “Unless he succumbs to the influence of whisky, he will accomplish his task with ease.” He had added some antelope horns to decorate his wheelbarrow.
Between Wadsworth and Reno, Nevada, Potter camped out one night with his time-keeper. “They found some railroad ties and threw up a little enclosure about breast high, and in the night were fired upon by some fellows who ran off in the darkness. A ball cut Potter’s coat-sleeve.” Potter returned fire with his six-shooter and thought that the men may had been wounded.
Potter arrived in Reno, Nevada on September 27th (day 171). His trek across Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada took about two months. He was about 23 days ahead of schedule. A Reno newspaper wrote sarcastically, “Sergeant Bates has solemnly declared that if Mr. Potter and barrow arrive at San Francisco on time, he will choke himself with his own flag and disembowel himself with the pole thereof.”
Crossing over the Sierra Nevada was difficult because of all the trestles to cross. “He trundled his barrow over bare trestles six and eight miles in extent, guiding the wheel along the inner foot of the rail, walking himself on the ties, and approaching trains seeing him in these positions invariably slacked up to give him time to get across. He passed through the forty miles of snow sheds across the Sierras without molestation, camping one or two nights in the sheds. His barrow is supplied with springs, the jolting over the ties doesn’t bother him much.”
On about October 5th (day 179) Potter arrived at Sacramento, California followed by a crowd of several hundred men and boys to the City Hotel. He was interviewed by a newspaper and mentioned that along the way he needed to stop several times to have his wheelbarrow repaired, “as the jolting threatened to knock it to pieces.” He said he did not get footsore, but was tired of the job and wished it was over.
The Sacramento paper reported, “Potter is a fine-looking man, of splendid physique. There is not the slightest sign of the madman about him, but on the contrary he exhibits the elation of the winner in a long and arduous contest against him.”
He continued to Oakland walking on the railway and then walked another railway to San Jose where he arrived on October, 18th (day 192). He went on to the suburbs of San Francisco and stopped for about a week.
Potter’s official entrance into San Francisco was on October 27th (day 201). Potter proceeded to the very popular Woodward’s Gardens, in the Mission District, where he had been hired to appear. It was a combination amusement park, museum, zoo and aquarium.
The press called him, “the hero of the greatest feat of pedestrianism, and notorious as the Wheelbarrow Man.” He came into the city by a police escort and led by a band to the Gardens where an eager crowd of up to 15,000 people were gathered, wanting to get a glimpse of him. An Oakland paper mocked, “he now is in common with the other monkeys, on exhibition at Woodward’s Gardens.” Potter received a salary to appear at the Gardens and would earn $250.
On May 10, 2019, America will celebrated the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. This is the third article in a series to recognize some historic accomplishments walking or running across the American continent. In the previous articles, the history was given of the 1855 walk across South America by Nathaniel Holmes Bishop, and the story of Dakota Bob was shared as an a example of the many fraudulent characters who would claim to walk across America.
Women got into the game too! The most famous of the transcontinental woman walkers of the late 1800s, and perhaps the first, was a Spanish-American world-famous actress, Zoe Gayton. The may have also been the first person to walk the history transcontinental railroad end-to-end. Here is her amazing story of her walk in 1890-91.
Zorika Gaytoni Lopez Ares “Zoe Gayton,” was born in about 1854, in Madrid, Spain. When she was about four years old, her father became a political exiled immigrant and they came to New York City. Zoe Gayton started performing in the theater at the early age of 14 in Tennessee and then joined a company in New York City.
Zoe Gayton married at about 18 years old, to famous rich man, John H. Church, who was the owner of the Golden Gate Theater in Oakland, California. He had many wives, some at the same time. Zoe toured with him to South America. They lived in Utah for a time, building the first hotel in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah (location now of Alta and Snowbird ski resorts). They divorced in 1873 and Zoe then went through a series of other marriages as she continued to perform. She later joined companies in the west, performed in many places, and took a company to perform in Hawaii.
Zoe Gayton became a world-known “equestrian actress impersonator” who traveled performing a four-act play based on a legendary poem, “Mazeppa” by Lord Byron. In the plot, Zoe played the male character Mazeppa, a horseman and page for a Polish Count. When Mazeppa is caught in an affair with the Countess, he is tied naked to a steed and set loose. The terrifying scene is the play is when Zoe is bound to a horse in scant clothing and rides on planks to the theater’s ceiling. It was much like a circus act.
One newspaper described it this way, Zoe “is strapped to the side of her ‘barbed steed’ and ascends the precipitous ‘runs’ to the ‘flies’ in the roof of the theater. It is a very exciting scene, and never fails to elicit tumultuous applause from the audience.” Another paper wrote, “Besides possessing a clear and pleasing voice, she has a splendid physique and graceful movement.”
In 1882 Zoe Gayton performed “Mazeppa” in England at Queen Victoria’s New Royal Theatre. As she was touring, Zoe was arrested for stealing things at a boarding house where she was staying with her manager William J. Marshall. She took ten table clothes, a silk-velvet cape, a shawl, an umbrella, a lace scarf, and other items. They were found in her possession, she was convicted and sentenced to four months in prison.
In 1883 she was back touring in the United States in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, New Orleans, and Alabama. In 1884 in deep financial trouble, after performing in Alabama, she raffled off her famous performing white Arabian steed, “Gypsy” to raise money to pay off debts when her theater company “went to pieces.” In 1885 she was performing with a new steed, “Fearless.”
Zoe had performed all over the world including England, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, Australia, India, Peru and all over America. But her years of success playing Mazeppa finally came crashing down. In 1885 her company was bankrupted performing in Kansas and her personal luggage was sold off to pay debts.
In 1886 Zoe was traveling and performing again but in a new roles as Leah in Jewish play, “Leah, the Forsaken,” and in another play, a military drama, “The French Spy.” At this time she had her own “Zoe Gayton Company.” She performed for the next few years in Upstate New York, Illinois, and Canada. But by 1889, her company had folded and she was out of work. A play had been written for her, but no one could be found who wanted to produce it. She was pretty desperate to get into the limelight again.
Plans for a Transcontinental Walk
During the summer of 1890, Zoe Gayton with others, were talking in a hotel dining room. George H. Clark, a well-known sporting man and a heavy gambler told the story about two young men who on a wager rode horseback from New York to San Francisco, averaging 15 miles per day. In half jest, Zoe said she could walk it in that time. Others disputed her bold claim and it evolved into a large wager by Clark.
Zoe later admitted, “I have always been lazy, and never walked a block if there was a cab or a car in sight. Yet I had made the statement and so I determined to stick to it to the letter. My friends tried to dissuade me, telling me that it would be the death of me.”
In 1890, Zoe Gayton, at age 36, shocked the theater world when she accepted a $2,000 wager, plus expenses, to accomplish a transcontinental walk from San Francisco to New York City in 226 days for an average of 15 miles per day. Her theatrical manager, William J. Marshall, would accompany and support her along the way. Joseph L Price also would go along as a witness for the wager and make sure she didn’t take any rides.
Zoe claimed that she had never accomplished long distance walking, but Marshall mentioned that she was already an accomplish pedestrian and yeas earlier in 1884 walked from Los Angeles to Deming, New Mexico, 600 miles in six weeks. Perhaps Zoe chose to keep that quiet for betting purposes.
Early Miles in California
Zoe Gayton’s journey began in San Francisco without “noise or flourish of trumpets” with a train ride around the bay to Oakland. She was up front that her walk officially started on August 28, 1890 at Oakland, California and she walked 26 miles the first day. Her route was nearly exclusively on railroad tracks, and they obtained permission from the railroad companies ahead of time. Through the west from Sacramento to Omaha, she walked on the historic transcontinental railroad that was finished in 1869.
Zoe Gayton, Marshall, and Price were accompanied by two dogs, Zoe’s “Beauty,” a cocker spaniel and “Lion,” a Gordon setter, a fine hunting dog. Near Lathrop, California, Marshall shot a duck. Lion went to fetch it, but when crossing a train trestle, coming back with the duck in his mouth, a train struck the dog. The next day he died.
Zoe’s trip was nearly stopped early near Stockton, California. She said, “I was caught on a railroad bridge and while there was plenty of room for the train to pass, I took my dog ‘Beauty’ in my arms and jumped into a marsh, a distance of fourteen feet. I was not hurt at all but was all covered in mud.”
On September 2, Zoe arrived in Sacramento in what the newspaper called a “tramping” effort to “gain fame and dollars.” A few days later they arrived in Colfax and it was reported that Zoe was getting stronger each day. She said, “There was fruit along the tracks and we could get plenty to eat. The road has a nice gravel path between the rails.”
Nevada to Colorado
When asked what they ate, Zoe replied, “We fished, and I tell you, mountain brook suckers are good when you are hungry and tired. We shot quail and jack rabbits.” Zoe even shot an antelope in the Sierra Nevada and didn’t know what to do with it. She said, “We got some good meat off it. But no vegetables, we went for sixteen days without even so much as a potato.”
Near Clark’s Station, Nevada they had a scare. Zoe recalled, ”We usually had all the apples, oranges and apricots we desired, but this time we were short in fruit. Mr. Marshall went to a certain orchard to procure some when he was discovered and the angry farmer shot him but fortunately, he was only slightly wounded. I always carried my rifle and revolver while out west.”
As for their supplies at first, they packed tea, sugar, bacon, butter, two blankets, one knife and one fork. They bought bread along the way. Zoe said, “Lots of people took us for tramps (railroad hobos) and wouldn’t give or sell us food. I had offered as high as $1 for a loaf of bread and didn’t get it.” They later carried four changes of linens and left some behind to get laundered and then mailed ahead.
By September 28th, Zoe Gayton was in Winnemucca, Nevada, 73 miles ahead of her 15-mile-per-day schedule. Her journey was getting attention in the newspapers across the country. One night she badly sprained her ankle near Rye Patch, Nevada. Her companions carried her to a ranch nearby where she stayed for four days, carefully taken care of by the kind ranch hands. After those days, even though the ankle still hurt bad, she tried to go again. “But after three miles had to take refuge in a deserted ranchman’s hut. We stayed there three days longer.”
They had difficulty at times finding water in the desert and each of them had to carry a canteen. After leaving Battle Mountain, Nevada, there were no house seen for three days and they went without food. They only carried small hand satchels.
As they were approaching Elko, Nevada, Zoe recalled, “We sighted a small hut four miles away and Mr. Marshall made for it. When we got there we found it deserted. He made a search of the place for food and finally found a small piece of bacon about two inches square. I don’t think I ever enjoyed anything better. I suffered a great many untold hardships. Often, while on the barren plains at sunset, tired and lame, would sit down on the plain sand or alkali plain. We carried no bedding but a blanket, and many are the nights, Beauty and I have laid on that piece of cloth and gone to sleep with nothing but the skies for covering.”
Their trip over both the Sierra and the Rocky mountains was difficult and they had to carry a heavy outfit through the west. At times they used stray railroad ties to construct shelters to get out of the wind and the storms.
Curiously, there was no news coverage found for about 1,000 miles through Utah, Wyoming, and western Nebraska. It is very odd that the newspapers in Utah didn’t cover their journey since Zoe once lived there. Wyoming was the most remote section and they would have had to received help from the railroad way stations. However, analyzing their miles and days, it all seemed to fit into a realistic pace.
In mid-December, Zoe Gayton arrived in Silver Creek, Nebraska and was about 14 days ahead of schedule. She was reported to still be in good health and confident that she would succeed. Local newspapers started to more consistently cover her arrivals into their cities. Readers were captivated to think that a lady brought up in “luxury and refinement” was taking on this challenge. As she walked, she wore full-length skirts even though they were a bother when the wind blew. She explained, “I started out with bloomers. They were comfortable, but I looked like such a guy that I got a regular plain skirt of this gray flannel, a black armless jacket, and a plush cap.” Now that they were closer to towns, they stopped carrying so many provisions and gave up on their “camping life.”
Unlike Dakota Bob’s transcontinental farces, Zoe’s daily route and mileage were carefully recorded and reported. Did she receive rides? We will never know for sure but her walk appeared to be legitimate. In Nebraska, her manager, Marshall and Price used a horse-drawn buggy at times. Price usually walked all the time. When not using the buggy, the older Marshall would sometimes catch a ride on a train while Price walked.
Zoe made sure she stayed ahead of the 15-mile-per-day average. Up to this point, she was being successful walking 20 miles average per day. Her biggest day had been 34 miles. She didn’t walk every day. They were delayed by storms and took days off, requiring her to do bigger mileage days.
Zoe arrived at Omaha, Nebraska on December 19th and the next day crossed the Missouri River and stayed at the Revere House. She then continued her walk on the Chicago-Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and was 15 days ahead of schedule. Thus far she walked 1,917 miles in 113 days.
Not everyone considered her attempt as heroic. One newspaper in Kansas wrote, “The craze for notoriety still pervades this country. Those who are thirsting for it seem willing to resort to anything to obtain it. And there are as many women as men in the throng.” A paper in Delaware speculated that after she completed her walk that she would be hired as a “pedestrian freak” for some dime museum.
On January 6, 1891, Zoe and her crew arrived at Davenport, Iowa, and the next day crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. One observer said, “They are an unpretentious three and make it a point to stop a private boarding houses where they attract little attention.” It is curious that someone such as her, who was used to a lot of attention and was seeking for more, would avoid attention during her walk. She said, “In some places there were large crowds at the stations to see me, and when I could not dodge them, I had to pass through the ordeal of answering a thousand questions and shaking hands with hundreds.”
Thus far she had only left the train tracks a few times. For one week she did it to avoid the crowds at small towns. “If it is known that she is coming, crowds of several hundred hoodlums gather around to see her coming in, which is very annoying to her.” The most miles she put in during a given week was 187 miles.
On January 14, 1891, Zoe Gayton arrived at Chicago, twenty days ahead of schedule, and she stayed at the Waverly Hotel. She had gone through several pair of shoes and said, “I had walking shoes made for me and they blistered my feet so that since then I have worn nothing but common pebble-goat shoes half-soled.” Her preferred shoes were high laced, two sizes larger than usual, with studded nails in the soles.
Media attention became more intense and because of all of her railroad traveling, they called her, “The Queen of Ties.” She spent ten days in Chicago and had about 1,000 miles to go as she plodded along on the Michigan Central Railway.
On February 6, 1891, Zoe Gayton arrived in Detroit. Reporters gathered at the place she was staying. She explained that she was getting tired. “At first I was very eager for morning so that I could get started, but I am getting over that now. You have no doubt seen men driving cattle along some road and noticed how weary the poor animals looked. Well, I feel just as the cattle appear, just as if somebody were driving me with all their might.”
A Detroit newspaper dispelled the idea that she was a lovely woman in a short skirt tripping along over the railway ties and dodging express trains with a vigorous little shriek. “After allowing the effect of exposure to the weather, Zoe could not honestly be called good looking. Regarding danger, should a tramp molest Zoe, he would subsequently regret his boldness. Her good right arm could fell an ordinary man to the ground. No, the danger is delusion, as well as the beauty.”
When Zoe left Detroit, she crossed over the Detroit River by ferry, and entered, Windsor, Canada. She next walked on the Michigan Central Railway toward Buffalo, New York. Zoe and her company were starting to be called the “Sunset Special” by the railroad men who passed by them often.
On February 17, 1891, Zoe arrived at Bismarck, Ontario, Canada. The walking in Canada had been terrible. She had been away from San Francisco for 173 days and had walked 138 of those days.
On February 25, 1891, Zoe Gayton crossed the International railroad bridge back into the U.S. and was met by a huge crowd on Niagara Street in Buffalo. The bridge operator said she was the first woman ever allowed to cross the bridge on foot. Once in Buffalo, “it was almost impossible to get along, owing to the numerous handshaking. A cab was finally hailed and the weary pedestrian was bandied in and driven to the Stafford house in Buffalo. It is presumed that she will start from the point where she took the cab.”
It was written of her, “She looks as brown as an Indian and strong as a young colt. She moved about with the agility of a cat.” She had walked 2,951 miles, in 184 days, including 148 walking days. Thirty-seven days had been lost because of bad weather. Her best week was between Chicago and Detroit when she walked 195 miles on a very good road.
Marshall went ahead to make arrangements for their stay in Rochester, New York. He was described as a gray-haired but hardy looking man. He expressed that he was very appreciative toward the railroad companies,“Men have been very kind to us along the route and have shown much interest in the trip. Nearly all the employees of the different divisions were kept informed of our whereabouts and often as the through trains passed us on the plains, where we were the only human beings in sight of the passengers for hours, handkerchiefs would be waved at us and frequently flowers and other presents thrown from the train.”
Zoe’s walk between Buffalo and Rochester in early March was very hard. The snow drifted and the wind blew terribly. She took much longer than expected for the 80 miles between the cities and arrived in Rochester on March 4th. Crowds of spectators were getting bigger. After a 26-mile walk to the small town of Palmyra, New York, crowds came out and a reception was held in her honor at Clemons Hall.
To win the wager, Zoe needed to arrive in New York city by April 8th. On March 20th she arrived in Albany, New York with about 160 miles to go. She soon started to struggle from headaches and had to take a day off. Her feet were doing fine and the end was coming close. She trudged south through the Hudson River Valley on the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. She decided to leave the train tracks at Tarrytown, New York, because of the frequent dangerous trains, and walked he rest of the way on roads.
Her last night was spent in Irvington, New York, with about 22 miles left. It was reported, “As soon as she reached the hotel, she sank down into a chair. The tears sprang to her eyes, and she lay back in her chair completely worn out. She felt better, however after she had partaken heartily of supper. Shortly after supper she retired to her room.”
On March 27, 1891, Zoe Gayton, crossed over High Bridge into New York City and was met by an escort of five mounted policemen and about 300 others, who led her to Grand Central Station, the end of her journey.
Banners were hung in her honor. An open horse-drawn carriage took her to the Police Gazette newspaper office where a reception was held. She said that was the first time she took a ride in seven months, but she must have forgotten the ride she took to a hotel in Buffalo. It was reported, “When she reached her destination a more weather-stained weary looking woman was never seen. She was covered with dust from head to foot.”
Zoe went to stay at the Ashland House where all visitors were turned away. Doctors advised that she rest for two or three days. It was observed that her feet and limbs were swollen much larger than normal. It was believed that she was having a “nervous prostration” for the past few day and had not been able to sleep or eat. She was asked if she would ever do it again. She replied, “Not for the world. When I left San Francisco my hair had no gray hair in it. What you see there now are due to the strain I have been under, and I had all I could to keep from breaking down.”
Zoe Gayton won an estimated $12,000, $2,000 for the original bet, $2,000 for expenses, and $8,000 from side wagers. That is valued about $355,000 in 2019 dollars, a terrific fortune. Zoe had walked a total of 3,395 miles in a little over 212 days, confirmed by J. L. Price, winning her wager. Along the way she stopped for a total of 46 days. When she started out, she weighed 163 pounds and finished weighing 139 pounds. Her achievement was published for days in newspapers across the globe.
However, there were skeptics. A newspaper in San Francisco shared false reports that she wasn’t known by the theatrical people there. They again speculated falsely that she never performed much during her acting career. They didn’t believe that she started from their city. It was also alleged by some that she had taken trains between many points in the west appearing only occasionally at obscure railway stations.
When approached about these accusations, Zoe’s eyes filled with tears. She said, “I tell you candidly that this talk of my not having made the trip is maddening. The station agents and trainmen along the line can testify whether or not I made the trip. All I want is justice.” She challenged her accusers to “put up or shut up” and produced news articles from California that were published during the early stages of her walk.
Did Zoe Gayton really do it? With all the news stories left behind, the evidence seems to confirm the accomplishment. The largest gap in new stories was in Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska where the population was very sparse along the railroad lines. Without taking rides on trains, they would have had to receive significant help from the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. The story of her accomplishment was published in just about every newspaper at the..
On May 10, 2019, America will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. This is the second article in a series to recognize some historic accomplishments walking or running across the American continent. In the previous article, the history was given of the 1855 walk across South America by Nathaniel Holmes Bishop that inspired others to try transcontinental walks.
Starting around 1890, dozens of “pedestrians” attempted transcontinental walks and many claimed to have succeeded. In 1896 a Buffalo article commented, “No less that a score have passed through Buffalo within a year.”
But did these walkers really accomplish these journeys all the way on foot? Verification was impossible in those days, Walkers wanted to succeed at all costs and were motivated by large wagers and the potential for great fame. Even in more modern times there have been fraudulent attempts and claims. Some of these very early walks that received attention may have been legitimate, but with careful analysis of the evidence left behind, most of these early transcontinental walks were likely hoaxes. The Buffalo Enquirer further stated in 1896, “Dead broke pedestrians have lived off gullible hotel keepers and charitably-inclined residents of the various states through which they pass. The American people like to humbugged.”
It wasn’t until about 1909 that more of the press started to accept the fact that many of these walkers cheated. One reporter wrote, “Several alleged walks across the continent have been heralded from time to time, but their accuracy has been so vague as to be valueless for records of bona fide achievements.”
Faking Transcontinental Walks
The biggest challenge for walks of the late 1880s and early 1900s was the very remote western states section. From Kansas to over the Sierra in California, towns were very spread out and the dirt roads were terrible, still rutted wagon roads. Winter travel on these rural roads was extremely dangerous and frequently impassible. It was impossible for walkers to travel that section solo without aid. Aid by automobile wasn’t yet practical. Rainy weather made roads impassable by the early motor vehicles. The first transcontinental dirt road highway, the Lincoln Highway, wasn’t completed until 1913 and even then, the automobiles were very unreliable for such journeys and frequently became stuck in sand or mud.
Using a pack horse or having a rider along on a horse providing aid was possible, but not practical because the horses would need to be changed out. Those who claimed to do it solo without a pack horse, or without a rider, were very likely frauds.
Walking on the railroad between California and Kansas, like a hobo, was a practical solution in those early days but it involved a slow surface that was mostly away from roads. On the railway line, the towns and way stations were very spread out. For walkers to really succeed passing through the west, they would need to have a lot of help from locals providing food, liquid, and shelter. Night walking would be critical during summer months.
Newspapers frequently covered these attempts, but because communication and verification were poor, it was very simple to fool the public and the press, performing fraudulent transcontinental walks. In 2019, with so many old digital newspapers available, it is fairly simple to track an early walker’s travels reported in the papers and stitch the stories together to determine fact or fiction.
The story of Dakota Bob is a great example to examine and illustrates the reality of most transcontinental walks before 1910. Dakota Bob was a colorful figure who became very famous in the East. During his walking career, he walked across the North America continent eight times or more! Or did he? Here is the story of Dakota Bob.
It is believed that George A. Osborne “Dakota Bob” was born near Buffalo, New York on March 10, 1856. His true life history is a mystery because the only source was from him. It may be true, it may not be. Details shifted over the years, but this early life history was told fairly constantly.
Dakota Bob came from a good family. He attended college at Cornell University but felt a yearning to go west and “ran away.” He claimed that he was adopted by the Indians, lived among the Sioux for thirteen years, and was part of Sitting Bull’s family. When he left the Indians, he became a lumberman and then an Indian scout. “With a record as a gun fighter and a crack shot, Dakota Bob was for a long time range guard for some of the wealthiest cattlemen in the western country. He encountered many hair-raising and spine-chilling experiences.” In the 1880s, he returned to Buffalo, New York, and worked as a newspaper reporter.
Dakota Bob was at the Sioux’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when hostilities broke out during the Sioux uprising in 1890-91, and served as a reporter and scout for the Army. He frequently carried messages between South Dakota and Nebraska in the soles of his shoes for General Nelson A. Miles (1839-1925), the commander of the U.S troops.
Dakota Bob claimed that he was at the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee when Sitting Bull was killed, but his account of the event didn’t match the historical facts. He wore a medal that he said was presented to him by the government for his gallant service and fine marksmanship during the Indian wars. He received numerous serious wounds from the Indians and showed scars. He was given the name Dakota Bob by Buffalo Bill Cody who he worked for at one time in his western show. Later Dakota Bob never shared his real name.
1897 – San Francisco to New York
As transcontinental walks started to be covered in newspapers across the country, Dakota Bob claimed that on January 1, 1897, he started to walk without a cent from San Francisco to New York on a wager of $3,000. Out of the blue, he appeared in the news for the first time in May 1897, in Buffalo, New York, stating that he was finishing up his transcontinental walk.
The newspaper reported, “His clothes were greasy and his dark oily looking locks hung from underneath a Western sombrero and floated down his back. On his shoulder was a pink-eyed white rat and around his neck he wore a necklace made from molar and incisors which in happier days had comfortably nestled in the mouths of the best citizens of towns in the West.”
Dakota Bob came to the Buffalo Courier newspaper office and said, “I’m Dakota Bob and I’m here to let you fellows know something about me. I’m an old Buffalo boy and I know more about this town than the man who made it.” He then said some unkind things about some well-known people in the city. “Finally, his whisky laden breath became monotonous and he and the grease, teeth, and rat were ushered into outer darkness.” Even with this poor first impression, Dakota Bob was successful in speaking to well-attended paying spectator gatherings.
On July 20, 1897, after a claimed eight months, Dakota Bob showed up in New York City, claiming that he walked across the country and had worn out fifteen pair of shoes.
There are many red flags with Dakota Bob’s transcontinental walk claim. During that time, newspapers in the west were fascinated by such stories, but contained complete silence about his first transcontinental walk. It supposedly took him more than 2,500 miles to be first introduced to the public at Buffalo. Dakota Bob claimed that he carried no baggage with him, just a knapsack. He said that he never begged or asked for charity, that he worked as he traveled by giving lectures. Using that no-aid approach for crossing the remote western states would have been an impossible strategy, but the Eastern press had no idea. He claimed that he started his walk in the dead of winter but never mentioned how he crossed the snow-bound Sierra and Rockies solo on foot.
1897 – New York to San Francisco
Just five days later, on July 25, 1897, Bob started a return trip on another wager that required him to return to San Francisco in only four months, half the time of his alleged first trip. His wager sources were always curious. The bet was usually for $3,000 and involving the same men, his best friend, William Lee of Yonkers, New York, and a Joe Mills of Portland, Oregon. The betters seemed to never worry about verification, and the terms of the wager changed on the fly as Dakota Bob traveled. It is believed there never were wagers for or against him, that it was just the story he gave to explain why he was walking to impress people.
After three weeks, on August 20th, he was in Buffalo, New York and an article reported, “Bob dresses like a scout or cowboy. His hair is long and he is covered with mementos of various kinds. He has among other things, a necklace made of wire on which are strung 120 white men’s teeth. This necklace was obtained from an Indian on the Cheyenne reservation while Bob was on his way east.” He carried a book filled with signatures from officials of the cities he passed through. For all his walking career, he always had his books along and it was his source of verification. In cities he would seek out mayors or other city officials to sign or stamp his book. He would gain their trust and get hired to give lectures.
How did Dakota Bob actually arrive in the towns to get these signatures and stamps? With the hundreds of articles written about him over the years from dozens of towns, not once was there an article that included an eye witness that he walked by their farms and was invited to stop. He was only seen in the towns and cities. He most likely arrived on trains and probably used the hobo method of traveling on freight trains.
On this walk, despite the four-month arrival requirement, Bob didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, staying at Buffalo for three days to lecture, get money, and attend events. In October, three months into his journey, he arrived at Fort Wayne, Indiana and said he was represented by the New York Illustrated News and now planned to finish in January. It is strange that that the wager was changed from four to six months. In November he had only made it to Illinois and the newspaper called him a “freak.”
A month later, four months in to his walk in December 1897, Bob was in St. Louis, Missouri, clearly in no hurry. “With his big hat, his long hair falling over his shoulders, his coat covered with medals and a necklace of panther’ teeth about his neck, he attracts much attention.” He even claimed falsely that he had made a half dozen previous transcontinental pedestrian trips. He changed his story again and said he planned to arrive in San Francisco in July, a year from his start. He said he stops in each town two days and in each city four days and earns money by ‘passing samples and advertising matter.” The St. Louis article was the last one for seven months.
Where did Dakota Bob spend the winter? Did he wait for spring until continuing over the mountains? There were no stories about in the western newspapers. Finally, in June 1898 he was in the news again! Was he nearing San Francisco? No, he showed up in Indiana claiming that he was on his way back to New York!
1898 – San Francisco to New York
Bob next arrived in Buffalo, New York on July 30, 1898 spreading his falsehoods for money. He explained his walking timeline. He said he had arrived in San Francisco on January 1, 1898 and started his return trip on January 25, 1898. His wager required that and needed to be in New York by September 1st. As evidence, he showed the railroad stamps in a book as proof of his travels. If anyone was keeping score, he had last reported to be seen in St. Louis, Missouri on December 4, 1897. Prior to that it had taken him about 132 days to “walk” west about 1,300 miles, averaging about ten miles a day including all his stop-overs in cities. But then he really kicked it into gear and went from St. Louis to San Francisco, about 2,300 miles in winter weather, against prevailing winds, over the mountains in about 27 days, for more than 84 miles per day.
Muncie, Indiana was convinced Dakota Bob was legit. His book even included stamps from foreign countries. The newspaper mentioned, “The man is a fluent talker of various languages and in no doubt the genuine and original “Dakota Bob.” Going through upstate New York, it was mentioned that he traveled with his dog, “Nero” and his manager Charles Ohms. One city he scammed wrote, “He will be in the city all day and the small boys can feast his eyes on this product of the plains.”
On September 17, 1898, Bob showed up in New York City proclaiming that he had finished walking to San Francisco and back. But no one in 1898 knew that his story was false. Instead he was treated as an amazing hero for little boys to look up to. He claimed that he had now walked across the continent four times and held the fastest time ever of six months and 19 days. (Others had claimed in earlier years doing it in about half that time.)
1898 – Philadelphia to San Francisco
Dakota Bob had a good scam going that he didn’t want to see stop. Just two weeks later in October 1899, he started a purported journey to walk from Philadelphia down the Atlantic coast, and through the gulf states to San Francisco by July 1, 1899. In December he was in Atlanta telling a tale that recently he had to jump 150 feet off a railroad bridge because a train was coming. In January he was in Florida, and February in Mississippi. In May, 1899, he was back in New Orleans, stating that he had given up on the transcontinental walk because his primary sponsor died. He disappeared from the news for a year.
1900 – San Francisco to New York – Changed to Portland OR, to Portland ME
In Apr 1900, working his scam in the Midwest again, he showed up in Fort Wayne Indiana, stating that he was on a San Francisco to New York walk again. While there, he was arrested in a prostitution sting at a saloon. In May he appeared in his favorite upstate New York cities again and they joked that he was just like a migratory bird, showing up every year. He arrived in New York City on June 29, 1900 claiming that he had finished his 4th transcontinental walk. He was apparently losing count because he had said the last one was his fourth.
One newspaper reporter called him a “poser.” “Dakota Bob is in town again, with more hardware dangling from him than he had last time he was here.” In Fort Plains, New York, they were catching on. “Dakota Bob, the long hair beauty who thinks or pretends to think that he is constantly walking from this, that or the other place. By the manner in which he manages to dodge real work, it’s safe betting that he is a tramp. If the people would stop making heroes out of those cheap guys of the Dakota Bob genus, this wager walking racket would soon peter out.”
But he didn’t stop, he wanted to extend his scam into New England so just two weeks later he changed his story and said he was finishing a walk from Portland, Oregon to Portland Maine. He said he started in Oregon on Christmas Day, 1899 and needed to finish in Maine on August 1st. After fooling various New England cities, he showed up in Portland Maine on the very day his phony bet required, and he said he won $2,000.
1900-1901 – New York to Mexico City and Back
The next month, in September 1900, Dakota Bob was in Philadelphia claiming that he left New York City on August 24, 1900 and was on his way to Mexico City and back!
After two months In October-November he spent a month giving lectures and putting on shows in North Carolina. In December he took his fraudulent, but colorful lectures to Atlanta, Georgia where he spent several days because he said he was ahead of schedule. The Atlanta Constitution reported, “Dakota Bob would attract a crowd anywhere. He looks as if he just stepped from the canvas of a western picture. He is rather small in statue, but does not carry a surplus ounce of flesh upon his well-knit frame. His face is swarthy, and a mass of long black hair, with here and there a silver strand, covers his head. His hair is parted Indian fashion in the middle. A blue flannel shirt covers his broad chest, and his coat fails to conceal a single one of his seventeen medals, buttons and charms which are suspended from his shirt front. His only luggage is a small satchel, and in this he carries books of clippings from all parts of the country, cards of hundreds of prominent people.”
By the time Dakota Bob reached Alabama, he now said he left New York on September 15th. He spent a month, January 1901, in Alabama. He said that for the past five years he had walked more than 30,000 miles, averaging 6,000 miles a year! In February, five months into his walk, he was working Mississippi, still claiming to be heading toward Mexico. He said he always walked on the railroad tracks instead of roads. In March he was back in Alabama advertising the Francis Cigar. He was telling people he was on his way back from Mexico City! That was quick! He must have walked more than 3,000 miles in only one month from Mississippi to Mexico City and back! It makes you wonder how gullible the press and city leaders were to believe his claims.
However, in Anniston, Alabama, he was caught. Their newspaper reported, “Dakota Bob, the long distance walker of America, who has already walked from New York to the city of Mexico and this far on the return trip, as he says, didn’t walk out of Anniston this morning according to the program. He was a passenger on an east-bound train.” Word got out. Another Alabama paper called him a “fake pedestrian.” But he continued on with his fake walk to North Carolina where he said he walked ten hours per day and slept nine hours each night. He showed people the fake seal he claimed to have received from Mexico City.
Ten days after being in North Carolina, He showed up about 550 miles away in New York City, finishing up what he claimed was a 6,300-mile journey to Mexico City and back in just 8 months. He would have had to average walking 787 miles per month!
The 1901 Pan American Exposition
Dakota Bob kept telling people that a 1,000-mile competition had been arranged against a champion walker from France and that he would be sailing for Paris. First it was said to be scheduled for July 1901 and then for October. But Dakota Bob didn’t sail. Instead he went to the Pan-American Expo (World’s Fair) in Buffalo.
He then issued a challenge to a famous German walker, Gustav Koegel of Germany to come to American and compete against him for 1,000 miles at the Exposition. Koegel replied publicly, “This Dakota Bob is a bluffer, and he has no intention of meeting me in a contest. I am champion and he knows it.” No competition took place.
Koegel claimed that he walked around the world in 1894-96 taking two years. In 1896 after completing that walk, Koegel allegedly did a transcontinental walk from Los Angeles to New York, trying to break the record of 92 days. He walked solo with a canteen, carried very little, stopped to lecture in cities, and carried books that were stamped along his route by mayors which always took a lot of time. Clearly Dakota Bob had copied Koegel’s approach. In analyzing Koegel’s 1896 transcontinental walk of about 113 days, it is pretty obvious that it is fraudulent, especially crossing the Sierra and the Nevada desert in the heat of the summer at a pace of 50 miles per day. Very few city newspapers had stories about him walking in their cities.
On September 21, 1901, the Buffalo Times revealed Dakota Bob’s real name, George Osborne who 20 years earlier worked for the Buffalo Sunday Times. Osborne was currently working for a museum of anatomy at Buffalo and stood in front of the shop peddling posters “and being altogether extraordinary in appearance.” Dakota Bob dropped out of the news for a year.
1903 – Tearing it Up
In 1903 Dakota Bob was at Scranton, Pennsylvania, employed by the Grand Union Tea company to sit all day in a large display window making “pretty doilies, table covers, and other fancy articles out of sheets of paper.” Apparently, he had very good skill tearing paper, a skill he said he learned from the Indians. He sat in display windows in other towns for the company. At the end on 1903, he declared that he was through traveling and stayed out of the news for four years. Later, he claimed that in 1906 he traveled to Australia and “won a fat purse and medal for defeating one of the champion walkers of that country in a long distance contest. In France too, he won money and medals and world-wide publicity” (which can’t be found.)
1907 – Portland, OR to Portland, ME
In 1907, Dakota Bob, now 51 years old, was back doing his fake transcontinental walks. He showed up in Indiana out of the blue on August 7th, claiming that he left Portland, Oregon on March 10, 1907 and was on the way to Portland, Maine. There had been no news coverage before Indiana. This time, Dakota Bob said 20-mile rides were allowed on each rainy day. What? He likely had been caught taking rides and this was his cover story. He finished his “walk” at New York on Nov 20, 1907 and won that wager of $3,000. A wager that allowed for rides? Somehow the destination of the apparent phony wager also shifted from Portland Maine to New York City.
1908 – New York to New Orleans
Immediately, Dakota Bob started another fake walk on November 20, 1907 from New York to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras, and then continue “back” to Portland Oregon. He claimed to be a rival of the famous pedestrian, Edward Payson Weston and falsely told people that his recent walked ended his recent transcontinental walk in Portland, Maine.
His new idea was to say that he was walking in a circle around all the United States in fifteen months. But he spent more than a month giving shows in North Carolina. He then appeared in Alabama and the went then took a detour to Nashville, Tennessee. He said he was in a hurry to visit his aged mother in California, but he spent a lot of time giving shows and taking detours to visit with mayors and governors.
Again, off course, in April 1908, Dakota Bob went to Louisville, Kentucky. The newspaper wrote,“Covered with dust and medals and the glory of having walked more than 58.000 miles in the past fourteen years, W. Fish Cook, better known as Dakota Bob, an Indian scout and globe-trotter entered the city yesterday.” In May he was in Ohio. What happened to his walk around the states?
1908 – Portland, OR to Portland, ME
Two months later, In July, 1908, he was back to his favorite city of Buffalo, telling people he was again finishing a walk from Portland, Oregon to Portland Maine. He told the same..
On May 10, 2019, America will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, that was recognized with a “Golden Spike” ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah. For more than 150 years adventurers desired to travel across the American continent by various means: horse, wagon, train, automobile, and eventually on foot in one go. With this celebration coming up, it seemed appropriate to recognize some historic accomplishments walking or running across the American continent.
The most notable early walk across America was accomplished by the famous Pedestrian Edward Payson Weston in 1909. Weston accomplished the transcontinental walk at the age of 70. That was just six years after the first two men drove an automobile across America from San Francisco to New York in 63 day. By the time Weston began his famed walk, the fastest known time driving across the continent had been lowered to 15 days, 2 hours, 10 minutes. A train had accomplished it in 71 hours 27 minutes. Weston would capture the attention of the country and the world when he accomplished it on foot in 1909. That story will be covered in Part 2.
However, Weston first got the idea in 1869 when a best-seller book was being read about a young man, who years before had walked across South America. Weston very likely got the idea to walk across North America from the adventure that took place in 1855. Few have heard this story. It needs to have a place in ultrarunning history because it inspired the Pedestrian world and planted in the minds of many to do cross continent walks and runs in the future.
Not only would runners run across America (3,100+ miles), but they would go across Australia (2,890), New Zealand (1,350 miles), Europe (1,729 miles), Canada (4,179 miles), Asia (5534 miles), the Soviet Union (7,321 miles), the length of Great Britain (840 miles), Ireland (375 miles), and South America (8,500 miles).
But it seemed to all start with a young seventeen-year-old American adventurer in 1855. Here is his story.
Nathaniel Holmes Bishop (1827-1902)
Nathaniel Holmes Bishop was born to a wealthy family on March 23, 1827 in the city of Medford Massachusetts, near Boston. As a youth he had a restless adventuresome spirit and at seventeen years old vowed that he would walk across South America from Argentina to Chile, climbing over the Andes.
With only $45 in his pocket he hired on as crew on a roach-infested merchant ship that was heading for Buenos Aires, Argentina. He endured weeks of seasickness but “became tolerably familiar with the duties of life at sea” growing strong and hearty. For three weeks the rainy season arrived and he was “wet to the skin” as clothes, bedding, everything was “saturated from the effects of a leaky deck.” He arrived in South America during the “pampero” hurricane season and witnessed tragedy as other vessels were capsized and sailors drown.
At Buenos Aires Bishop was still obliged to his mariner duties and remained on the ship for an entire month waiting for orders that he could be set free. Finally on February 20, 1855, he was discharged and was able to go ashore and went to the American consulate.
The Consul thought he was crazy to undertake a walk of about 1,000 miles across the continent alone especially because he was unable to speak Spanish. Bishop wrote, “However he furnished me with the necessary papers of protection, together with letters of introduction to various persons in the interior.”
Bishop would first have to face the vast “Pampas” which are vast plains including places without trees. He learned that the realistic way to cross the Pampas on foot, was to hitch up with a caravan of merchants, otherwise it would be impossible to obtain food, water and follow the right trail. This is because after March the Pampas sees very little rain and is filled with wildlife on its grasslands.
Bishop learned that a merchant caravan would be starting out during April from Rosario, located about 200 miles to the north and it would be traveling across the Pampas to Mendoza, a town at the base of the Andes. He wanted to join their company but had to wait two weeks for passage on a steamboat to take him to Rosario. While waiting, he met a young man who took him to his home in nearby Uruguay where he was able to observe the life of the guacho (horsemen).
Bishop met an Irish gentleman who had crossed the Pampas recently, giving him a discouraging description. The Irishman described the Pampas, “the country is more uninteresting than any I ever traveled over, in any quarter of the globe. I should divide it into five regions; first, that of thistles, inhabited by owls and viscachas (rodents); second, that of grass, where you meet with deer, ostriches, and the screaming, horned plover (birds); third, the region of swamps and morasses, only fit for frogs; fourth, that of stones and ravines, where I expected every moment to be upset; and; last, that of ashes and thorny shrubs, the refuge of the tarantula and giant bugs.” Bishop was told that he should give up the idea and return to America.
Start in Rosario
Bishop was undeterred, returned to Buenos Aires and took a 48-hour steamboat ride to Rosario, a city of about 8,000 people. He arrived there on March 30, 1855 and was paddled ashore from the steamboat in a log canoe. He still had to wait about a week before the caravan departed. He was able to join the company for $22, payment in advance that included food, hauling his things, and most important, protection.
Bishop let the company know that he wanted to cross the Pampas on foot. They didn’t believe it could be done. The caravan consisted of 14 two-wheeled carts loaded with sugar, iron and other merchandise pulled by oxen. Also with them were about 20 spare oxen, a dozen mules and many horses. People in the company told him he should get in a cart that walking was “injurious to the system.”
The company included a cook who he relied on for his meals. He started his transcontinental walk in early April 1855 with the first goal to reach Mendoza. The distance for that segment in those days was said to be 800 miles and typically took the merchants 40 days to travel. But the distance was probably less than 700 miles. It can be driven today in about 550 miles. The Pampas are pretty flat but with some hills to climb over. The route climbs about 8,000 feet and descends about 5,000 feet along the way.
Walking across the Pampas
Day after day Bishop walked with the caravan, usually ahead of them, as they passed over the plains and through towns. They met others on the road going to or from Mendoza. One day a woman in Bishop’s caravan got a large splinter in her foot. He played the doctor role and successfully extracted it. He wrote, “As I was successful, she seemed overwhelmed with gratitude, and from that time she was almost the only friend that I had among the people of the troop.”
The Pampas have their own unique beauty. Bishop commented, “We continued our journey while the sun left in the western heavens beautiful clouds of purple and gray as souvenirs of his company through the bright, warm day.” At sunset, Bishop would see numerous owls leave their holes for the night in search of food. Night on the plains were cold. At times Bishop was tormented by mosquitoes and flies and had to roll a blanket around his head to sleep.
Mirages were fascinating to Bishop as he walked along, “The clearness of the atmosphere gave great effect to the mirages that we constantly beheld around us. Twice we seemed to see large lakes far in advance of our caravan, but they vanished utterly upon our moving nearer them. On our right, in the distance, the mirage so much resembled the ocean, that our carpenter exclaiming, ‘Jul mar!’ (the sea).”
What did Bishop do as he walked? He said, “I usually had enough to occupy my mind; sometimes I was studying the habits of birds or insects, at others following with my eyes the movements of a herd of cattle, or gazing upon the mirage in the distant horizon, in which our caravan was reflected with wonderful distinctness.”
Bishop had to learn the etiquette of his company of gauchos at dinner time. He described, “Our meal was served with one iron spoon and two cow’s horns, split in halves, were passed around the group, the members of which squatted upon their haunches, and freely helped themselves from the kettle. Each member of the company in turn dips his spoon, or horn, into the center, of the stew, and draws it in a direct line towards him, never allowing it to deviate to the right or the left. Being ignorant of this custom, I dipped my horn into the mess at random, and fished about in it for some of nice bits. My companions regarded this horrid breach of politeness with scowls of impatience; they declared that gringos did not know how to eat.”
Bishop tried to fit in. During a rest, he turned his blanket into a poncho by cutting a hole in the middle, and thrusting his head through it. He said, “When the gauchos saw my new garment, they shouted in admiration; and one or two exclaimed, ‘Gaucho, Boston.'”
They reached the town of Rio Cuarto, about 250 miles from their starting point. It was a beautiful town filled with “fine white-washed houses” inhabited by a wealthy class of people, many who owned thousands of cattle that were grazing outside the village. While there, a great commotion arose as an alarm went out that “Indians” were planning to attack the town. Guards were reinforced by troops sent by the governor. Bishop’s company stayed for a day and then continued westward through plains of long grass. Water was very hard to find and had to be hauled.
Rio Cuarto to Mendoza
Bishop’s journey wasn’t totally on flat plains. For several days, they needed to cross over high hills but his physical fitness had increased. He knew he was always surrounded by dangers from thieves, animals, and the elements, but gained confidence as he went along. He wrote, “everything was novel and captivating to the fancy. I was at last among a strange people, and their habits and mode of life, and the many incidents that were constantly occurring, were full of interest to me. Although my heart was light, I trudged along cheerfully and with courage.”
However, as they went along, he noticed that the gouchos started to be unfriendly toward him. He said, “their coolness grew more noticeable, and at length I began to fear that we should not part without a collision.” He had been warned by the son of the woman friend in the company that certain men might try to poison him. One morning when the leader of the caravan, Bishop’s protector, was a away, Bishop was apparently poisoned by some members of the caravan who didn’t like him. After breakfast he became violently ill, could not move, and passed out in a cart. Unfortunately he had to ride instead of walk for a few days. But once he recovered, he continued his “pedestrian journey.”
After many days and several hundred miles, Bishop was overjoyed with a sight seen ahead. “Far in the distance a dim, blue line, penciled upon the heavens, told me that I had obtained my first view of the Andes, that mighty range of mountains which traverses two continents and a dozen countries though known by different names. What emotions were aroused within me as I gazed at that faint streak that seemed floating in the air, for below it all was enveloped in clouds.”
At the town of Santa Rosa, with the Andes in full view, he started to ask around about the possibility of still going over the mountains into Chile this late in the season. He obtained some good information of about conditions and met for the first time on his walk others from North America. They were an “Olympic Circus” company that had been traveling and performing for years in the various countries of South America. The performers peppered him with questions about news from the United States.
Pressing on toward Mendoza, when Bishop reached a crossing of Mendoza River, he decided to take a bath, only his third one since starting his journey. He wrote, the [gauchos] laughed derisively at a gringo who could not travel eight hundred miles without washing himself. These disgusting fellows, with one or two exceptions, had not applied water to their skin for more than forty days, and did not intend to cleanse themselves until the troop was close upon Mendoza.”
As they came closer to the mountains, their fall weather became colder. Bishop wrote, “The wind blew direct from the west, and coming from the snowy mountains, was very chilly. All night I turned and rolled upon my hide in great discomfort from the cold that benumbed my limbs.”
Bishop finally arrived at Mendoza, at the base of the Andes. He had covered about 700 miles in an estimated five weeks. However he was disappointed to learn that the last caravan to for Chile had left on the day after his arrival. But later he learned that the troop had barely succeeded in reaching Chile alive.
It was May and winter was arriving in the southern hemisphere. For the next 21 days the Andes were enveloped with clouds and storms. He realized, “to have attempted a passage at that time would have been certain death.” So, while he was disappointed, he became resigned that his walk would need to be halted until late spring when the snow drifts that blocked the passes had melted.
Winter Delay in San Juan
After spending a few weeks in Mendoza, some circus performers persuaded Bishop to join them traveling about 100 miles north to the city of San Juan, a city of about 9,000 people. Bishop agreed and traveled by mule train to that city. During the winter this city stays warm with temperatures into the 70s and is wine country. In the 1850s large fields of clover surrounded the city. Canals brought water from the San Juan River.
Bishop wrote, “As soon as I arrived at San Juan, I made inquiries for parties who were about crossing the mountains; but owing to a most severe snow storm that set in, the clouds of which were plainly visible from the town, I was forced to the disagreeable necessity of remaining until the snows melted. The people told me that the winter had proved to by the most severe of any season within the last thirty years.”
Word circulated that an American was in town and Bishop was invited to come to the estate of Don Guillermo who had been born in North America. Bishop took a job to oversee Don Guillermo’s grist mill which ground wheat to flour. He was given fifteen minutes of training and then put in charge of the entire operation. He became very contented in his work. It was a very busy time for mill the business. Traveling merchants would frequently sell their goods for wheat and then bring it to the mill.
Through the winter, Bishop still longed to get to the mountains. He wrote, “Leaving the dusty atmosphere of the mill, I frequently wandered out into the night air to gaze upon nature by moonlight. The Andes towered above the plains a few miles to the west, while on the east the solid range of the mountains of Cordova, stretching far to the north, gave an additional grandeur to the scene. While I strolled along the banks of the canal the mill hummed on as usual,”
Bishop experienced the very odd “Vicente de Vonda” or Vonda Winds that were local to San Juan. In the dead of the winter, these hot winds (thought to be volcanic) would blow from the Andes bringing huge clouds of dust. Everyone would leave their work and seek refuge in houses. Sickness including headaches would result and at times people dropped dead. They usually only lasted 3-4 hours.
As spring came, Bishop learned that the northern passes in the Andes were still buried in snow and that a party of eight who were attempting to cross into Chile were frozen to death. At another valley, eleven had fell victim to a fierce snow storm. Bishop was planning on an early start of his trek but a man visited him who had just attempted the passage and said, “Suddenly a great temporal came flying from the south and enveloped us for many hours in its terrible folds. The snow fell in clouds and I, of all my party, escaped. My companions are frozen in the drifts, and there they will remain until the melting of the snow.” He showed him his frost bitten fingers, cheeks, and nose. Bishop decided to postpone continuing his walk for another month.
Walking over the Andes
After a six month delay, on November 10, 1855, Bishop bid goodbye to his winter friends, returned to Mendoza and set off toward the Andes crossing terribly swollen rivers. He took a horse with him as a pack animal but did ride on it to cross the raging rivers. One night he stayed overnight in a small poverty stricken village with huts and the women were alarmed that he was traveling alone on foot. At 18 years old, they thought he was too young and asked if his mother knew that he was out there.
The road ahead became more narrow, rough, and steep. Thunderstorms would roll by. Reaching a pass, he wrote, “A magnificent view rewarded me for the exertion of making the ascent. The rocky grandeur filled me with awe, for I was surrounded by a sublime chaos, broken hills, valleys, and barren cliffs of the sierra.”
He ascended and crossed high plains. “Upon one side of the plain rose several low hills, green with coarse herbage, upon which a small herd of llamas were feeding, as if unconscious of the presence of man.”
He arrived at Uspallata a town near the Chilean border at 6,690 feet and passed by the last house along the road in Argentina. He was informed be the house owner that the road conditions ahead were difficult and he was advised to stay a few days. But Bishop knew the dangers of delays so continued.
Soon a caravan driving mules arrived who knew his winter friends from San Juan. They had been on the lookout for Bishop and invited him to travel with them. He accepted. They put shoes on his pack horse to prepare for going over the Andes ahead.
The ruggedness of the Andes was spectacular. “In some places the path wound like a thread along the bold front of a precipice; then it descended to the water, and followed its course, until it again ascended. As we gazed above, the huge pieces of detached rock seemed ready to fall and crush us. The melting snow had undermined the soil in some places, and slides of earth and stones had fallen, and covered up the track.”
As Bishop walked along the mountainous road, he noticed piles of bones from animals that had died of hunger or fell off cliffs, lodged in the rocks. “It was truly, like going through the Valley of Death, so numerous were the carcasses and bones.” Giant condors were seen on the cliffs and circling high in the sky. He said that the difficult mountain walk at altitude “thoroughly jaded me, and I needed no narcotic to insure a sound sleep” at nights. His companions cautioned him against walking because of the danger of inhaling bad air which could make you sick. (At that time they didn’t understand the cause altitude sickness.)
They hit deep snow drifts near the summit of a stretch of a mountain range they called Paramilla. Footing was terrible, especially for the animals who sometime fell into concealed holes. Finally, the main range of the Andes rose above him, glistening in the sun. His caravan leader ordered everyone to drink a concoction of starch water and sugar that was believed to help against the effects of altitude. They then wrapped their faces with cotton handkerchiefs to protect from the sun rays. But Bishop had failed to bring goggles with him and soon was plagued with painful snow blindness.
Bishop walked south of the massive peak, Aconcagua , the highest peak in South America that rose to 22,841 feet. They pushed on and soon entered into Chile, crossing over the Andes spine at about 12,500 feet. The snow thawed faster and the mules post-holed badly. At times they came to steep descents. Bishop said “we slid down the drifts in a most exhilarating manner. Getting the mules to also slide was a hard task, but eventually they would sit on the snow and “gracefully descend without injury.”
Bishop walked near the mighty Aconcagua River in Chile that roared along the mountain sides and in most places was still hidden under frozen snow. But soon their path became easier, Bishop wrote, “After following many windings, and experiencing much danger in crossing the river, the dry brown earth was reached, and we looked up to the lofty mountains, that shone in the moonlight, with great satisfaction, for our labors were ended.”
Civilization soon appeared and Bishop was impressed that the Chileans in the valleys were very energetic and intelligent. They wore short ponchos and had lassos hanging in coils on their saddles. As he went along, farms became more frequent and the buildings were roofed with red tiles shaded by groves of fruit trees.
Bishop bid adios to his faithful pack horse who was enjoying grazing in an alfalfa field. He wrote, “When I left him, he gave a pleasant whisk of his tail and shake of the ears, apparently thanking me for leaving him so literally ‘in clover.’”
Bishop chose to end his pedestrian journey at Santa Rosa (now called Los Andes), a town about two days’ walk (40 miles) from the Pacific Ocean. The leader of the mule train insisted that he stay with him, as his son’s home. He wanted to introduce him to his countrymen and Bishop had a wonderful visit.
The next day he was taken to Valparaiso on the coast and he showed his papers to the US consul. He wrote that he was given a kind reception “and warm congratulations on the success of my long journey.” The consul arranged for Bishop a berth on an American vessel that would take him around Cape Horn and back to his home in Massachusetts.
Most accounts say that Bishop took two years to cross South America but that is not correct. While his personal account doesn’t specify exact dates often, it is very clear that he accomplished it all within 1855. His trek over the Andes of about 200 miles, only took about two weeks. He finished on about November 24, 1855. The elapsed time for his walk, including his long six month winter stop was about 7.5 months. His total traveling weeks were about seven weeks or about 50 days, covering about 900-1,000 miles, walking about 20 miles per day.
A newspaper in Valparaiso, Chile reported on November 27, 1885, “There arrived here, a few days since, a young man belonging to Medford, Mass., who has walked across the Pampas and Cordilleras (Andes), more than a thousand miles, unable to speak the language, and with an astonishingly small amount of money. So much for a Yankee.” In 1868 Bishop published a booklet that was widely read entitled, The Pampas and Andes: A Thousand Mile Walk Across South America. His book..
After the golden age of Pedestrianism of the late 1800’s, a new breed of ultra-distance runners emerged in the early 1900s. Events were few. The world wars and the great depression all but snuffed out their efforts to continue to go the distance, to demonstrate what was possible. It became impossible to try to make a living with their legs. In America, only the most determined runner emerged out of the strife of the 1930s and 1940s to continue their craft into the post-war modern era of ultrarunning. One of these athletes was Alvin “Mote” Bergman.
In 1896 the first marathon was competed in the inaugural Olympic Games at Athens, Greece. The idea was quickly adopted elsewhere and the Boston Marathon soon was established. Other marathons followed and competing at that distance grew in attention. But there were only a small number of runners competing at longer distances such as 50 miles and 100 miles. The Trans-America races “Bunion Derbies” of 1928-29 did gather together talented runners, but soon America turned their attention to just surviving during the depression.
Without very many ultra-distance professional events to compete in, some of these early ultrarunners used their marketing creativity to transition to “solo artists.” Mote Bergman would eventually take this road in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area and would become known as “the wizard of the colossal art of walking,” and the “world champion birthday walker,” He was one of the very few American ultrarunners who kept up ultrarunning through the Great Depression, through the World War II years, and went on to span into the modern era. He was likely the first American to walk or run a sub-24-hour 100-miler in the post-war modern era of ultrarunning.
Early Running/Walking Career
Alvin Floyd Bergman (Bergmann) was born in Virginia on May 14, 1887 weighing only four pounds. His father was a carpenter and his grandparents came from Germany. He was frail as a child and started walking for exercise when he was ten years old. His family moved to Leetsdale, Pennsylvania, a small town on the Ohio River outside of Pittsburgh. In 1900, at the age of 13, he began long distance walks to build himself up physically. He had read a story about the walking champion, Edward Payson Weston, who advised people seeking good health to “walk, walk, walk.” That year he started a very long string of his birthday walks, matching miles to his age. Those birthday walks were eventually featured in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” column and Mote would keep them going until he was 80 years old.
He wasn’t a powerful looking man, only 145 pounds and 5 ½ feet tall. His nickname “Mote” was derived from his small stature. Mote became a barber, also turned into a professional runner in 1909, and participated in some running races. That year he ran a “marathon” of about 36 miles, near Pittsburgh, in a bad snowstorm and finished in 5:25. Late that year he also participated in a 72-hour “go as you please” race.
Walking from his hometown in Pennsylvania to many major cities in the East became a lifetime activity in the summer during his vacation time. In 1914 at the age of 27, Mote set off on a 300 mile walk from his home in Leetsdale to Huntington, West Virginia, a distance of about 300 miles. He expected it to take eight days. For the first day, his birthday, he walked 27 miles to celebrate. His various walks received newspaper attention and he said he believed he could break the “world’s record of 121 miles without a stop.”
In 1915 at the age of 28, he achieved his most proud accomplishment. He walked from Pittsburgh to Chicago, a distance of about 503 miles in an incredible six days, 23:45, believed to be a “world record” at that time. During that trip he walked with pedestrian legends, Dan O’Leary of Chicago and Edward Payson Weston of New York.
Mote ran several years in a professional “foot running race” called “Pittsburgh Leader Race” that went from New Castle to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The race was billed as a 50-miler, but the distance varied each year depending on the route. It was probably closer to 60 miles. The runners were aided by helpers in horse-drawn buggies along the way. In 1915 the winner finished in 8:39. A 72-year old civil war veteran, and famous pedestrian, Stephen G.“Old Soldier” Barnes came in 17th. Wagering took place as to whether the old man would finish. Mote finished two minutes after “Old Soldier” in 18th. A few months later Mote and Old Soldier dueled against each other in a double Pittsburgh Leader, a two-day-stage race from Pittsburgh to New Castle and back for more than 100 miles. (Sadly later in 1919 “Old Soldier” Barnes came down with cancer, walked his last match and passed away that year.)
The 1916 Pittsburgh Leader Race was Mote’s finest year in that event when he finished in second place in a revised course that was closer to 50 miles. He would look back on that finish as his greatest race. He ran that race every year that it was held and was sponsored several times by a newspaper.
In 1929, at the age of 42, Mote ran 400 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Dover, Delaware in seven days. He had prepared specifically for this event, piling up 1,200 miles in training. He hoped to compete in a race across America in 1930, but that event was never held. He did run 74 miles in 12 hours, in Philadelphia. In 1930 Mote tried to break a record running from his home 37 miles to New Castle, Pennsylvania, where a family reunion was to be held. Unfortunately he was stopped by a policeman and questioned for 50 minutes before he could continue on. He still covered the distance in 5:20.
Walking through the Great Depression
Mote’s real passion was for walking. He wasn’t out to set records. He just wanted to walk.’By 1930 he “slowed down” and concentrated mostly on walking. As he perfected his walking, he was able to maintain a speed of up to five miles per hour.
In 1931 Mote “hiked” from New York to Pittsburgh in seven days and stated that “he thinks nothing of walking 50 miles a day.” For a couple days he covered 67 miles in 15-16 hours each day. He said, “Everybody ought to forget their autos for an hour a day and walk five or six miles. It’s the greatest health builder in the world.”
His local fame increased. He was mentioned in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” publication. In 1936 he accomplished a 55-mile walk to Sharon, Pennsylvania, fueled only by a saucer of grapefruit at the start. When he arrived, he was greeted by the mayor and a band. In 1937 at age 50, his birthday walks began to get attention nationally. He said “A man is as old as his legs.” That year he claimed to have walked 250,000 lifetime miles.
Walking 100 miles in a day became a goal. In 1939 at age 52, he took his walking talents to the Leetsdale High School track where he walked/ran 100 miles in 22:05 on the quarter mile track. He would accomplish several other sub-24-hours 100s in the future. It was reported, “He frequently walks 20 miles before breakfast just to get up an appetite, and he always fasts as part of his training before a long distance stroll.”
The next month, Mote received a lot of national attention by walking about 400 miles to the New York World’s Fair in six days, five hours. Once there, he was honored by participating in a radio program.
In 1940, now age 53, Mote walked 150 miles to participate in a festival in Elkins West Virginia. His days were carefully planned to walk about 50 miles per day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. At the festival, he participated in a wood-chopping contest and demonstrated his barber skills by shaving a man with an axe. Many other times he would do unusual things at the conclusion of a walk. Once after a walk to Washington D.C. he washed his feet in the fountain on the Capitol lawn.
Walking During World War II
Mote gave up the barber profession because it was “too confining.” In 1943, during the war, Mote was an auxiliary military policeman at a war plant. Gas rationing was in effect and the local newspaper thought it would be funny to do a feature on Mote because gas rationing was not a problem for Mote. It was reported, “Never in his life did he own an automobile. His only possible concern could be over his supply of walking shoes. But Mr. Bergman possesses five pairs, which at 5,000 miles to the pair and 500 miles to the sole, should last him for the duration.” Whenever he would buy a new pair of shoes he would put them on and wade in a bathtub full of water for an hour. Then he would go walk 40-50 miles letting them dry on the way. He said, “The shoes squish around a little but walking around in them for the rest of the day takes care of the squish. They dry out and fit like gloves.” The most miles he achieved on a pair of shoes was 10,000 miles. He would put a bit of tape around the backs of his shoes “to keep the stones from jumping in,” an early version of gaiters.
In 1944 for his 57-mile birthday walk that year, a young woman, 19-year-old Emily Centoni, a war worker at the American Bridge Company’s ship yard, paced him for ten miles on his journey around the Ambridge High School athletic track. During his walk he ate eggs, olives, raisins, bread, orange juice, dextrose, and coffee.
Usually his son, John Bergman (1918-1979), would keep track of his laps and times, but he was away serving in the Medical Corps, in England, so Mote’s wife, Verna (1889-1958), kept track of his long walk from the sidelines. She said that since the war started, Mote had worn out all his shoes and used all her war coupons. Every room in their house was littered with shoes. She said that after his birthday treks that he relaxed on their living room couch and required “bell service” from her to bring him cream for his feet or a little lemonade.” She joked that she covered nearly the same miles he does by fulfilling his requests.
Mote estimated that he had walked or run about 260,000 miles so far during his lifetime. To “keep in shape” he would fast three times a year from three to seven days. He said his secret was to just “put one foot in front of the other and push.” He described a long walk to be a distance greater than 25 miles. “I wouldn’t get dressed up for less than 25 miles.”
At the age of 58 in 1945, Mote, now a pipe inspector, set off to again walk about 500 miles from Pittsburgh to Chicago, duplicating his 1915 achievement when he covered the distance in less than seven days. He took off from the Post-Gazette building on a September afternoon in pelting rain. He had no intentions of trying to break his record. He just wanted to get there in time to watch the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Mote sent money ahead to the hotels he would stop at. With the rain coming down, it forced him to walk on the cement pavement. He preferred to walk on the dirt shoulders. To fuel himself, he took along a mixture of dextrose and orange juice. But he said, “After 40 to 50 miles, I like a couple of bottles of beer. Then I’m good for another 10 miles.” His walk took 10 days and the weather was poor.
Mote had perfected the “ultra shuffle” and explained that the secret of long-distance walking was keeping the feet as close as possible to the ground. “I never raise my leg if I can help it and I never turn around and look back. That’s wasted effort and I find it means a lot.”
When Mote walked, he carried a two-foot long walking stick, not only to club dogs but to help with his balance. The stick was heavier on one end. When he first started out he would grip the stick on the heavy end but by the time he was nearing the end of his run, the stick had dropped and the heavy end was swung like a pendulum. He explained, “It give me momentum, sort of a push with each step.” On most of his walks that lasted a day, Mote didn’t eat along the way but would stop for orange juice.
Walking During the Post-war, Modern Age of Ultrarunning
In about 1948 he participated in a 75-mile race on a track, which was his last formal race. Mote explained, “There were 16 of us in it and all 16 finished. But at one point in the race they accused me of fouling – stepping on the other fellas’ heels and nudging them in the ribs. A fight broke out among the spectators when they accused me and while the fight was going on, somebody robbed the box office. I came in third and got 39 cents.”
During his 1949 summer vacation, Mote set off to Atlantic City, 400 miles away. At mile 13 he stopped for a cup of coffee and said, “Rough going today,” nodding at the traffic, “Very hazardous. I remember when I first started walking. All I had to look out for were the horses and buggies and an occasional pig.” On reaching Atlantic City his plan was to “walk up and down the boardwalk a few times.” Mote sent his luggage ahead in separate boxes to various hotels and hoped to average 50 miles a day. His wife Verna was worried because Mote wasn’t in the best of shape that year.
Mote’s Atlantic City walk was successful. It only took him about eight days. As soon as he arrived he changed his clothes, ate, and took a walk on the boardwalk that he would grow to love. He planned to stay for a few days “to look over the bathing beauties.”
As with most of the running “solo artists” over the years, he was a blatant self-promoter who constantly sought sponsors to help fund his walks and he frequently found them. He would get sponsorships from the clubs he belonged to and local businesses. While he gained national fame, he was never rich and stayed true to his main message: “My advice to all if they want to enjoy good health and long life is to walk, walk, walk.” He told reporters continually that he had a transcontinental walk across America in his near-term plans, but he never attempted it, probably because of the lack of sponsorships.
Mote’s worst obstacle during his walks were usually dogs. He said, once while walking across Indiana a “dog tried to make a dinner out of me. My foot swelled up like a watermelon, but I recovered after treating myself with beer and whisky. Not the dog though. He died.” But Mote loved dogs and very often walked with his dogs. He had one dog that lasted 70,000 miles. “They’re the best companions on the road you can get. No matter what the weather is like, no matter how cold it is, they never complain about sore feet. I love all dogs, but all dogs don’t love me. Down through the years, I’ve had 13 dog bites.”
On August 26, 1950, Mote accomplished another sub-24-hour 100-mile walk. He walked through several towns with a car following to measure the distance on the speedometer. When it showed 50 miles, he turned around and started back. He finished in about 23:30. It was likely the first sub 24-hour 100-miler accomplished by an American in the post-war era of ultrarunning.
Mote continued his annual birthday walks and at age 65 walked from Detroit to Pontiac, Michigan and back, for the Detroit Elks Club. His wife, Verna, was asked about his walking hobby. She replied, “It’s a better hobby than hunting or fishing. The only trouble is, he’s always too tired to enjoy his own birthday parties.” Verna passed away in 1958.
Over 70 and Still Going
For his 70th birthday in 1958, Mote traveled to Atlantic City to start a 70-mile walk back and forth across the boardwalk which took him about 16 hours. His total birthday miles were nearly 2,500 at that point. Also that year Mote did another World Series walk, this time to New York to watch the Yankees play. During his walking career he had walked to about a dozen World Series games. His biggest worry wasn’t about the walk, it was whether he would be able to get tickets. “I’ll pay for the tickets but I thought perhaps somebody could reserve them for me.” From his Pennsylvania home he had walked to New York about 30 time and to Chicago about 25 times.
Around his hometown, everyone knew him. He waved to all he saw when he walked. He explained that it sometimes had its disadvantages: “Once I was standing on the corner and I decided to take a bus. I waved at the bus driver and he just smiled and waved back, and kept on going.”
In 1961, Mote was sounding a little cocky when he offered $50 to anyone who could stay with him on a 50-mile walk through neighboring towns. He said about walks in the past with people, “A few can keep up with me for a while, but sooner or later they fall off – from exhaustion, stomach cramps or sore feet.” At the end of this walk he planned to dance at a bar. Two men took him up on his offer. One man was Young Kemper (age 44) who had been training with Mote. The other was John Oros (age 27) who was a golf caddy. Oros boasted, “After lugging two golf bags over both shoulders for 100 holes a day, I could walk to the moon and back.” By mile 20 the trio had walked for four hours. All three ended of doing well. Mote finished the 50 miles in 12:38, Kemper in 12:40, and Oros in 12:43. The two split the $50.
Mote’s most historic 100-mile run came in 1961 when he was 74 years old. The course was to walk between Leetsdale and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, walking back and forth between the towns, along the Ohio River, 8 ½ times. Two others entered to attempt it, John Oros and Jack Hiller. But once some storms arrived they both dropped out. Mote reached 100 miles in 23:50 which was at least the 4th time he had walked 100 miles in less than a day. At the finish he was exhausted, but the only ill effect was a big blister on his left toe.
At age 76, in 1963, during the 50-mile craze started by President Kennedy, Mote set off on a 300-mile stroll to Washington, D.C. “in order to show these youngsters how to really hike.” His walk was sponsored by a local real estate agency who accompanied him with a crew car. When Mote arrived at Washington a congressman from Pennsylvania waited to greet him on the steps of the Capitol. Mote said, “I feel better than when I started.” He had walked through a snow storm and in temperatures down to eight below zero. President Kennedy sent him a message of congratulations with the congressman.
To celebrate his 80th birthday, Mote made three round trips to West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania for 60 miles and then next day walked 20 miles to Oakland, Pennsylvania to celebrate with Stan Musial before a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals. He still had never owned a car and said, “If I don’t walk, I don’t feel good.”
While 81 years old in 1968, Mote walked 25 miles to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball home opener. His string of birthday walks likely ended that year to cap off an amazing birthday walk string of nearly 70 years.
In 1978, Alvin F. “Mote” Bergman died at the age of 90 in the Elks National Home, Bedford Virginia, where he had been living for the previous two years. He finished his walking career with about 385,000 miles. Mote set his mark on ultrarunning history by being one of the very few Americans who spanned the pre-war era of ultrarunning into the modern era. While he didn’t participate in races after about 1948 because they were few and far between, he most likely was the first American to cover 100 miles in less than 24 hours during the modern era with his walks in 1950 and 1961.
Pittsburgh Press, Jan 31, 1909, May 10, 1914, Mar 24, 1915, Oct 7, 1931, Sep 30, 1940, May 12, 14, 1944, May 12, 1946, Aug 21, 1949, Apr 11, 1965, Aug 15, 1949, Jul 3, 1961, May 6, 1967
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct 26, 1917, May 24, 1943, Sept 24, 1945, 15 Aug 1949, Aug 28, 1950, Sep, 9, 1958, 21 May 1960, Jul 4, 1961, Sept 5, 1961, May 7, 1962
The Barkley Marathons, the toughest trail race in the world, is held in and near Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, with a distance of more than 100 miles. The first year it was held was in 1986, and it is now world famous. Only 40 runners are selected to run.
Barkley is the brain child of Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake) and Karl Henn (Raw Dog). In 1985, they had been intrigued by the very few miles that James Earl Ray had covered back in 1977 during his 54.5-hour prison escape in the mountains. Cantrell felt that he could do much better. See Barkley Marathons – The Birth
That year Cantrell and Henn went up into that wilderness to backpack, in two days, the “boundary trail,” about 20 miles, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps decades earlier. Four people died building the trail. When they showed the rangers their route around the park, they were told that they wouldn’t be able to make it. The rangers didn’t want them to go on the hike because they didn’t want to have to rescue them. But the rangers were convinced to give them a permit. The first 7.5 miles took the two ten hours to cover.
They did finish their backpack trip and told the rangers that they had some friends who would probably like to run the trail. The idea for Barkley had been hatched and a course was designed and plans put into to for the first year of the Barkley in 1986 at Frozen Head State Park. Cantrell later said, “The best description of the course I’ve heard? Someone told me that every ultra has its signature hill, the nasty one that’s totally unreasonable and makes or breaks the race—the Barkley is like all those hills just put end on end.”
In 1933, the Tennessee Governor set aside a large portion of the Brushy Mountain State Prison’s lands to establish the Morgan State Forest. That year the Civilian Conservation Corps came and constructed roads, facilities, and some trails that Barkley uses today including the Boundary Trail. The CCC worked for multiple years. Rattlesnakes and all the prison escapes taking place every year made it difficult to establish a camp in the forest until 1938. In 1952 a large portion of the forest was burned and prison inmates were used to fight the fire. In about 1970 the Frozen Head State Park was established.
One of the unknown heroes of the Barkley is Don Todd (1918-2005) of Wartburg, Tennessee. He was active since the 1960s in an effort to protect the area that became Frozen Head State Park. Since the 60s he led wildflower-spotting hikes within the park to acquaint others with its diversity of plants and animals.
Todd pushed to have nine square miles around Frozen Head declared unsuitable for coal mining and helped stop plans for a huge strip mine on Frozen Head which would have been visible from 80% of the trails within the park. Thankfully that didn’t happen and Todd was proud that the park looks pretty much the way it did when “the first white men came.” He said, ”it’s something I put value on trying to improve the quality of life in the mountains a little bit. In 1985 he was awarded the Gulf Conservation Award for his efforts.
Coal strip mining was a constant worry for the area. In 1971 a coordinated effort gathered petitions and fought to not allow state land close to the park to be sold off to potential strip miners. In 1973 a state bill was introduced to prevent strip-mining of 2,500 acres of coal land near Frozen Head. But strip mining was a constant threat to the park.
In 1978 a public hearing was held in Wartburg about doing strip mining on Bird Mountain, right on the future Barkley course. The hearing was heated and dominated by miners. Three members (including two women) of the “Save Our Cumberland Mountains” organization were “verbally and physically abused” by miners after the hearing. The man said, “I was hit several times by a number of miners. Two women in the crew got attacked. One of them was thrown around by the hair of the head and hit while another woman was struck.” If these plans had gone forward, it likely that there never would have been the Barkley Marathons.
Also in 1978 another prison was planned to be built right near the entrance to Frozen Head State Park where a prison “Honor Farm” had existed. It would have been a $7.5 million 400-bed structure. A citizen’s group filed a suit against the plans stating it would impede development of an environmental education center planned nearby. The Frozen Head State Park Association also joined in the suit. The suit was dismissed by Judge Ben Cantrell but it was also found that the Correction Department officials did not use proper guidelines for selecting the site.
Barkley, The First Year – 1986
In 1986 Gary Cantrell, now a veteran runner of more than 50 ultras co-created the Barkley Marathons with Karl Henn (Raw Dog.) The grueling event with unsuspecting runners was held for the first time on March, 1, 1986. The race was named after one of Cantrell’s early running partners, Barry Barkley. Cantrell said, “Barry was injured in Vietnam, so he can’t run, but he’s always been enthusiastic about the sport. He came once back in the 80s, but he’s a farmer, and spring is planting season. He keeps saying one day he’ll retire and come see it.”
For the early years, the race was 50-55 miles or so, with about 25,000-27,000 feet of climbing, and a 24-hour cutoff for the first year. Cantrell likes to point out that the course has always had a net elevation change of zero. In 1986 the course was run in a counter-clockwise direction and from 1987-1995 the direction.
Thirteen unlucky runners started that first year, including Cantrell. They paid the entry fee of 35 cents. Three runners arriving late, were the luckiest. During the first hour before dawn they went up the wrong mountain (Frozen Head) and soon were out. After 12.5 miles, the remaining eight started to tackle the very difficult North Section. Cantrell explained, “It is poorly marked, severely eroded, over-grown, and laced with deadfalls.”
Cantrell remembered, “There were places where you would come to a pile of tree trunks. Me and Gary Buffington came to one and we were trying to figure out how to get across. It was on such a steep hill side. I then had an idea. I told Gary to give me his pack for a second and he gave me his pack and I threw it over the top of the trees onto the trail on the other side. I then took my pack and threw it over there too. I said, ‘Now we have to get there!’ We got across.”
Two thrashed runners completed the first 20-mile loop in under nine hours but were wise and chose to quit. Three “fortunate” runners got lost and took an easy way out on the “quitters” jeep road and headed for home before completing the loop. These included Doyle Carpenter and Fred Pilon, who ran together. But on the North Boundary Trail, they got lost after Jury Ridge which was about three quarters around the loop.
Three remained. Buffington and Cantrell finished the first loop in 12:18, and called it quits. They were probably the only ones who ran the loop correctly. Only Damon Douglas continued on, reaching 35-37 miles in 17:08. He knew he couldn’t finish the last 20 miles by the 24 hour cut-off and called it quits. So there were no finishers that first year and Cantrell called it “a rousing success all around.” The participants believed that the course was much longer than claimed. Historian Nick Marshall who knew Cantrell wrote that he was a “devious trickster.” In his Ultrarunning Magazine report Cantrell wrote, “Of course it is still impossible to run 50 miles on a trail in a day, but if anyone wants to try, we’ll be doing it again next spring.”
Cantrell was a regular columnist for the Ultrarunner Magazine, writing a column “From the South.” In his writings he revealed his philosophies about running and the sport. Even though he was a serious runner, and loved the sport, he put it all in perspective. For example, in 1986 he wrote, “I do believe our sport is good for us, the participants. However, it really doesn’t contribute anything significant to mankind. Some say we are exploring man’s limits. I think we are only exploring our own.” Given all the problems in the world “how far a man can run in 24 hours is hardly a burning question.” He knew that Barkley wouldn’t cure any world problems, but he could never foresee that in the decades to come tens of thousands would receive intense inspiration from the race that eats its young.
At various races, Cantrell spread the news of his new race and tried to convince runners to come give it a try. Sixteen unwise runners showed up for the second year in 1987 to run what one returning runner described as, “Gary Cantrell’s excuse for a trail run.” The first woman runner started, Linda Sledge. Entry was a lot easier in those early years. You simply called or wrote to Cantrell. His contact information was published in the newspapers. But the entry fee was increased significantly to 50 cents, a penny for each mile. Cantrell offered a “full refund if you stick it out and have a cubic inch of your body not in extreme pain.”
Tom Possert entered the 1987 Barley and all eyes (the very few at Frozen Head Park) were on Possert. He was from Cincinnati, Ohio. When Possert was 14, he and his friends would go on 100-mile bike rides. He ran track in high school but quit because he didn’t like getting lapped. After he graduated from high school he rode his bike all the way across the country. In college he took up running to get into shape and discovered the further the distance, the more competitive he became.
Possert ran his first ultra in 1984 and among the first races was the 100K at 1984 AMJA Ultra road race in Chicago. He ran a speedy 8:43. Next he started his long career with fixed-time races at Across the Years 24-hour race in Arizona. A fellow runner commented about Possert in that race. “Tom Possert was walking strongly. He’s tall and thin, with a fine walking stride. It was amusing to watch him stride past those of us trying to run.” Possert won with 124 miles which was the best 24-hour performance that year by an American.
The next year, in 1985, he ran JFK 50 and finished in 18th in 7:40. In 1986 he finished 4th at American River 50 with 6:29. That year he also ran 147 miles at Across the Years with was the 5th furthest for an American in the modern era of ultrarunning. People thought Possert was certainly a serious contender to finish the 50-mile Barkley.
1987 Race Details
The 1987 race was moved to April 11th that year. Possert came early and hiked most of the trail (and got lost) a few days before the race, except for a new section added last minute because many wildflower enthusiasts were expected to come to the park on the same weekend and they didn’t want to conflict with all those people. Even the park rangers had never been on the new section. It involved doing a 1.25-mile climb to the top of Frozen Head.
The course that year consisted of three 16.67-mile loops with a 36-hour cutoff. Pre-race chatter among the dozen runners involved being intimidated by the terrain and talking about James Earl Ray’s escape from prison and his suffering in the hills.
Soon after the 6 a.m. start, Possert and another runner took the lead. The field included six marines, led by Sergeant Stone, with backpacks, canteens, and heavy boots. (The marines that year watched from a ledge, a wolf pulling down a deer.) These marines had previously marched the JFK 50 and believed they would certainly finish Barkley. Stone told his men that if they didn’t finish, they would get extra duty. First up was climbing switch-backs up to the top of Bird Mountain.
Fred Pilon, of Massachusetts, was an experienced race director who owned a runner’s shop. He was a co-editor for Ultrarunning Magazine and also was an early veteran of mountain 100-milers. He had finished Old Dominion 100 twice, in 1979 and 1980 and Wasatch 100 in 1983. He had also competed in orienteering contests but those skills had not helped him enough when he attempted Barkley the first year when he went off trail.
Pilon again returned in 1987 for more punishment. After several miles, he caught up with the Possert and another runner in the lead, and they all worked together for a while, trying to not get lost. When they hit the new section, it first went down New River Valley and paralleled the river to the base of Frozen Head. They believed that no one had ever been there before.
Pilon wrote, “The top of the valley was guarded by dense stands of briars, blown-down trees, huge boulders, and numerous cliffs.” They couldn’t find the trail that supposedly was built in 1941, but never used. Once at the base of Frozen Head, they found no trail heading up, so they just bushwhacked up. Along the way they passed “numerous seams of coal, old wells, wheels and pulleys of all sorts, and a cave (mine).” It took them two hours to reach the top of Frozen Head. Others took four hours and couldn’t find much of a trail either. It was believed that inmates from the prison used the long forgotten trail to reach a coal mine years before. (See Barkley Marathons – The Birth).
With all the struggles, Pilon reflected on the spirit of Barkley that is still true years later. “All of this creates the charm, or curse, of Barkley. You are on you own, away from civilization for hour after hour, with only the occasional wild animal or bird to welcome as another moving object. The wildflowers, trees, clouds, and the silhouettes of the hills compete for your attention. But we carry along our internal set of images, desires, thoughts, and hopes that pride another set of challenges to overcome, adding pressure beyond the mere physical act of trying to run the race.”
1987 Barkley Course Wins
Possert and Pilon completed the first 16.7-mile loop in 7 hours. They headed out for loop 2, wondering if they could follow the trail once it became dark. Possert went on ahead once Pilon knew he couldn’t keep up. Halfway through the loop during the afternoon, before the most difficult New River Valley section, Possert stopped, rested, ate, and slept until Pilon caught up. He asked, “Do you plan to go through Hell again?” They both declined, knowing that no one would make it through that section twice.
The two of them enjoyed the much easier “loser run” back to the start, reaching there in 14:30, and felt OK with their decision to quit. The course won once again. No runners finished. Possert finished with bad blisters and his legs were badly chafed from using tights. Pilon was dehydrated and had a badly sore Achilles tendon. They found out that elite runner Mac Williamson had shown up to the race late and completed the first loop in only five hours. But he had never passed them and they doubted he went the right way. It didn’t matter because he quit too.
Cantrell also finished a loop but his time is unknown. The marines didn’t make it all the way and were worried about the extra duty that they would have to perform. They did make it through “Hell” up to the top of Frozen Head. Linda Sledge was hiking near them and found some deer antlers. She conned a polite marine to haul it to the top of Frozen Head for her. Some runners hoped to return the next year but knew “Gary will change the course, find some more hills, discover more undiscovered trails.”
The Brushy Mountain Prison below Frozen Head was still a violent place. A prisoner, E. Scott McHenry, arrived later that year and in October was beaten by guards for two days. He successfully sued them for “unconstitutional, cruel and inhuman punishment and was awarded by a jury $2,600 which was upheld by a federal appeals court.
Nineteen brave, but foolish, runners came in 1988, including eleven newcomers (later called virgins). The entry form that year was entitled, “The Barkley Marathons, the race that eats its young.” Entry that year introduced a requirement that each runner write an essay on why they should be allowed to enter. In his letter to the entrants Cantrell wrote, “There is no way you’ll be finishing the race.” They gave out race shirts that year that included a picture of a wolf-like animal feasting on a fallen runner at the bottom of a mountain.
Frozen Ed Furtaw
Ed Furtaw, from North Carolina started to run ultras in about 1985. In 1987 he ran Cantrell’s Strolling Jim 40. Cantrell had invited Furtaw to run Barkley. He decided to take up the challenge in 1988. Cantrell mailed information to Furtaw and would address it to “Frozen Head Furtaw” or “Frozen Ed Furtaw.” The nickname soon stuck and Frozen Ed would become a Barkley and ultrarunning legend.
Cantrell invited Furtaw to join in with him to do recon on the course about a month before that 1988 race. They discussed the previous challenges of verifying that runners ran the correct course. Furtaw suggested using a “book” feature, which Cantrell would adopt, with three book checkpoints. Runners had to bring back a page from each book. But Cantrell was still pampering the runners and let them have drop bags that were taken to two locations, Frozen Head tower and Coffin Springs.
In mail communication with the runners before the race, Cantrell warned runners that Barkley would “bite them in the ass.” He taunted them with, “There is no way you’ll be finishing this race.” He mentioned the “Hell” section and wrote, “believe me, there aren’t four miles to compare to Hell anywhere on the planet.”
Furtaw previewed it with Cantrell and left this description, “Hell is an incredibly steep ascent that goes westward straight up the side of Frozen Head Mountain. I was amazed at the steepness of the climb. We had to literally pull ourselves uphill from tree to tree in the steepest places. I was astounded to see that there were paint blazes on some of the trees along the hill.” Cantrell explained that they were on an old mining trail used by the prisoners years ago.
Cantrell described Hell, “It starts with a cross-country effort that calls for not only an internal compass, but also an altimeter. On a mountain honeycombed with coal mines and coal roads, the failure to reach the 2600-foot bench buys the runner an opportunity to log miles of useless searching for the proper cutoff. Once the drop off is located, there is a steep drop of 1,000 feet.”
That year Eric Clifton was one of the newcomers. Clifton was from North Carolina and later from California. He would become the fastest and most dominating 100-mile trail runner during the 1990s. He started distance running in high school in 1976 and ran several marathons including Boston. He then found his way to triathlons and distance cycling. In 1986, he discovered trail running and started his long career running ultras. He attempted his first 100 at 1987, Western States, but didn’t finish because of stomach problems. As a rookie, he had not yet figured out how to recover from problems and continue on. In 1988 he made himself known to runners in the South when he ran Wild Oak Trail 50 in Virginia. He ran nearly the entire race uncontested, although the second place runner put on a furious charge toward the end, coming up four minutes short. In 1996 Clifton would break the Rocky Raccoon 100 course record with 13:16. In 1988 somehow he thought Barkley would be a nice challenge
1988 Race details
With speedsters Possert and Clifton in the race, Cantrell gave Furtaw some pre-race advice to not play the guide role, let speedsters go on. If he did that, he thought Furtaw could both finish and win. That year the climbs totaled about 27,000 feet during the 55-60 miles. Again, there was a 36-hour cut-off.
Possert and Clifton flew around the first loop. Clifton finished in 5:50 with Possert arriving two minutes later. Furtaw finished in 6:54 and Pilon in 8:00. Seven runners became confused and missed one of the checkpoints. One more runner quit after “Hell.”
In all, eleven runners finished the first loop, but only six started loop two. The course was faster this year because the park had removed many blow-downs. During loop two, Possert and Clifton made a critical error, missing a short section to go to the top of Frozen Head again. They thought they didn’t need to summit on the last two loops but they misunderstood. Cantrell had said that they didn’t need to climb to the top of the tower on the last two loops. This was discovered later. Possert finished loop two first, followed by Clifton ninety minutes later who quit at that point, and Ed Furtaw an hour after that, in 15:09. While Possert was struggling with loop three, word came in to the start that he goofed on his second loop and he would repeat the mistake on this third loop, cutting the course distance by a total of about one mile.
Out in the darkness, in fog and rain, Possert continued, not knowing that all his effort would result in a DNF. At 23:47, he finished his third loop as Ed Furtaw scrambled to start his third loop after a very long three-hour rest. Possert received the sad news that he had been disqualified and commented, “I know what I did and I’m satisfied with my effort. That was the hardest 24 hours I’ve ever experienced.” Cantrell commented, “His class in the face of bitter disappointment stands alone as the brightest moment that will ever be seen at the Barkley.” (There would be many much more disappointing moments in the years to come.) By dawn, Furtaw was the only one left on the course. After three years, Barkley finally had its first 55-mile finish! Furtaw came in at 32:14.
Furtaw later wrote, “As I approached the finish line, I was expecting a congratulatory crowd to greet me. However when I arrived at the campground, only Karl’s wife, Cathy Henn, and their two children were there.” Cantrell soon returned after retrieving the drop bags and presented Furtaw with the “Barkley Cup.”
In Cantrell’s report of the Barkley, commenting on the number of runners who went off course, he wrote, “The runner cannot afford to lapse into a semi-comatose state of pure running and suffering. Failure to stay alert for even a moment can lead to a wander off the trail and finding it again can be quite difficult.
Runners were of course curious that now that a runner successfully finished his course, would Cantrell make it harder. Cantrell announced that for 1989 there would be a 100-mile option with 50,000 feet of “wonderful climbing” with a..
The Barkley Marathons, with its historic low finish rate (only 15 runners in 30 years), is perhaps the most difficult ultramarathon trail race in the world. It is held in and near Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, with a distance of more than 100 miles.
The Barkley is an event with a mysterious lore. It has no official website. It is a mystery how to enter, It has no course map or entrants list is published online. It isn’t a spectator event. For the 2018 race, 1,300 runners applied and only 40 selected.
Those seeking entry must submit an essay. The entrance fee includes bringing a license plate from your home state/country. Runners are given the course directions the day before the race and aren’t told when the race exactly starts. They are just given a one-hour warning when the conch is blown. To prove that they run the course correctly, books are placed a various places on the course where the runners must tear out a page from each book matching their bib number. If they lose a page or miss a book, they are out. Directly opposite of most ultras, the course is specifically designed to minimize the number of finishers.
The inspiration for creating the Barkley in 1986 was the 1977 prison escape by James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Prison. Ray was the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. He spent more than two days trying to get away in the very rugged Cumberland Mountains where the Barkley later was established. Ray’s escape has been a subject of folklore. This article will reveal the details of his escape, where he went, what he did, and why he was only found a few miles from the prison.
This is how the madness of the Barkley Marathons started…
Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake)
In 1978, Gary Cantrell (later also became known as Lazarus Lake), was an accounting student at Middle Tennessee State University. He was a tough marathon runner with eight finishes to his name at that time. He even finished one marathon after shotgun pellets struck him in the legs during a race. (It turned out that there were some hunters in nearby woods shooting quail).
Cantrell was interested in stepping up to run an ultramarathon, so in 1979, he and his fellow “Horse Mountain Runners” created their own ultra to run, Strolling Jim 40-mile Run in Wartrace, Tennessee. It was named after a famed horse, and became one of the oldest yearly ultras in the country. This was Cantrell’s first experience at creating a tough race. He said, “Six or eight doctors will be in the race and that sort of surprised me. You’d think of all people they’d know better.”
Cantrell’s masochistic race directing skills were further honed when in 1981 he put together “The Idiot’s Run” in Shelbyville, Tennessee consisting of 76 miles and 37 significant hills. He was surprised when a number of runners expressed interest. He said, “Is there no run so tough as to discourage these maniacs? If we had a 250 miler through Hell with no fluids allowed, I think we’d get 10-15 people.” A dozen runners showed up for The Idiot’s Run and only two finished.
The next year, 1982, he extended “The Idiot’s Run” course length to 108 miles and eliminated flat sections, gaining experience adjusting courses each year to make them harder. Cantrell explained, “The objective isn’t so much to see who finishes first as to simply see who survives for the longest distance. I’m confident this is the single grimmest race held anywhere in the world.” An article about his race was printed in newspapers across the country. Six of the twelve starters finished that year, the winner in 17:43:45, so it wasn’t really that hard. Cantrell could do better and did, extending the distance to 115-120 miles in 1984. Eight runners signed up that year.
Gary Cantrell and a buddy, Karl Henn (also known as “Raw Dog”) became intrigued with Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee where they had hiked many times during the 1970s. Nearby was the Brushy Mountain State Prison, the home of one of the most famous prison escapes in US history, James Earl Ray’s escape into the mountains in 1977.
To understand the complete history of the Barkley Marathons, one must know about the rugged mountains it runs through, the deep mines, the violent history of the prison that is part of the course, and the men in the past who chose to escape and face the rugged mountains that “eats its young.” The mountains, the mines, the prison, and the escape all played a part in the birth of the Barkley.
The Cumberland Mountains
The Barkley runs in the Cumberland Mountain range in Tennessee which includes the Crab Orchard Mountains on East Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. These mountains also used to be called the Brushy Mountain range. Frozen Head is the highest mountain in the region. These mountains were made rugged by erosion of many streams that cut deep gorges. They are remote and challenging to travel through, and are known for their towering crags, massive bluffs, and dark caves. But there is something else about these mountains that paved the way for Barkley and its trails and roads… An old account said, “Buried in the bosom of this plateau are huge treasures of coal and iron.”
Brushy Mountain State Prison
In the late 1800s, the state of Tennessee leased convicts as unpaid labor to work in coal mines. Some claimed that this was a brutal type of slavery. Career miners revolted in 1891 in what was called the Coal Creek War. The labor conflict ruled in favor of the miners.
To get around this ruling, and to cut out the middleman, in 1896 the state got into the coal mining business which proved to be very lucrative. The state purchased 13,000 acres that included a good portion of the future Barkley course. They then used inmates to build Brushy Mountain Prison, a four-story wood structure and then made the prisoners do the mining in the mountains.
The prison was tucked in a valley with mountains on three sides like a horseshoe. A park ranger explained recently, “The mountains are more of a prison than the prison is. There is only one way in, and one way out, and that is through the mouth of the valley through the town of Petros. Of course, many people have tried to escape by going over the mountain and that did not fare well for most of them.”
One piece of false folklore is that Brushy Mountain Prison was a very secure site, practically escape proof. That is false. Prisoners escaped all the time, but the mountains and terrain did present a challenging obstacle. Officials always downplayed escapes. “Most of the convicts who get away are recaptured, although it is a difficult matter to trace them through the forests and underbrush. Just outside the stockade nine bloodhounds are kept, and as soon as an escape is made they are put on the trail of the fugitive and follow until he is found or it is demonstrated that recapture is impossible.”
Quite a few men who escaped did suffer in the Cumberland Mountains like present-day Barkley runners. But many made it out of the rugged terrain. From 1922 to 2009 there were hundreds of escapes. Most of them were because the prisoners were constantly being moved to and from the mines, the prison farm, and the courthouses. But many escaped from the prison itself. They would escape on foot, in stolen cars, and in 1931 one even escaped on a mule.
Mining in the mountains near Brushy Mountain Prison was harsh, dangerous work and many prisoners died in them. Early on, thirteen died in just a 15-month period. These deaths were rarely reported in the news. The mining business for the stake was very profitable. In 1900 the mines brought in more than $175,000, worth more than 5 million dollars in 2018 value. The inmates built railroads and ovens to process the coal. Eventually more than than 1,000 tons of coal was pulled from the mines each day. But it all came at a price. More than 400 bodies are buried on the prison property.
In the early 1900s the prison didn’t have very many long-term prisoners. Those who were selected for the prison needed to be able-bodied so they could work in the mines. A prison official in 1907 gave this highly suspect description of working the inmates, “Every convict is allotted the task of digging a certain quantity, and the work of each is checked each evening. Should he finish his task before the time for stopping work, he is permitted to spend the remainder of the time in the mine as he pleases.” In reality it came to light publicly that a “punishment strap” was freely used in the mines and if they didn’t meet quota for a day they were also whipped back at the prison.
At the prison, the men were awakened each day at 5:45 a.m. by a whistle and quickly given breakfast. They then marched in lines of five to their tasks. Mine 1 was very close to the prison. They walked up a steep trail and into the mine, carrying their lunch pails. They worked until 4:45 p.m.
The governor was delighted with the operation in 1907. “The Brushy Mountain mines are in a more prosperous and profitable condition than ever before in their history. More coal is being mined, shipments are larger and more prompt and prices are better, while expenses are relatively less than ever before. It costs the people just as much to keep the prisoners in idleness as it does to keep them at work. Unless profitably employed, they would be an enormous burden on the State.”
The 1933 Mutiny
In 1932 former inmates wrote articles about the terrible conditions at the prison. After working in the mines during the day, they would spend the night in the over-crowded disease-infested building. A 1931 investigating committee reported, “conditions at the state’s Brushy Mountain prison at Petros approach conditions which prevailed in the Siberian prisons under the old Russian regime.” The 35-year-old overcrowded wooden structure was a “dangerous fire hazard.” The new commissioner over prisons called it “one of the worst things in the state.” More than 900 inmates were held there.
In 1933, 182 prisoners rebelled, barricading themselves in a tunnel and refused to come out. They were protesting treatment from the prison guards. Flogging was known to be frequent. State Commissioner of Institutions, E. W. Cocke said, “We plan to just starve them out. They will come out sooner or later. We don’t expect any violence or serious trouble.”
Authorities gave an unbelievable reason for the mutiny, that the prisoners were upset about a recent search conducted by the new warden that confiscated “files, hammers, and other weapons” from the men in the prison.
By the evening of the second day, all but 17 inmates came out of the mine. The next day, the remaining men gave up their strike. The prison warden resigned because of the strike two days later. Shamefully prison officials stated that the leader of the strike was diagnosed through a blood test as being insane and was shipped off to a mental institution. The event did spur a new effort in the area of prison reform and improving conditions.
The new prison
In 1933 construction of a new rock prison in the shape of a Christian cross was approved. It was constructed out of sandstone from a quarry on the site. The inmates did the construction and at least two died from a reported accident. The structure was completed in 1935. The prison population grew to more than 1,000 prisoners.
The 1938 Escape
On March 27, 1938 a large number of prisoners from Brushy Mountain escaped from a coal mine located on Frozen Head where the Barkley course runs. Because the mining was so profitable, inmates were forced to mine even during the night, but were incentivized with payment of 25 cents per ton of coal. Eighty-five men were working the night shift. The guards didn’t go down into the mine but a foreman was supposed to be watching over them. However, that night the foreman was fast asleep. The prisoners had discovered a soft seam of coal about 1.5 miles into the mine. They dug a 30-foot shaft that was two-feet by two-feet and then used some dynamite to blast the final opening out on the mountain slope.
Their foreman (who was fired the next week) did not hear the blast, and remained asleep as prisoner after prisoner slowly squeezed through the shaft to freedom at about 4:00 a.m. When the night shift was over, the guards at the mine entrance only counted 37 men. They first thought the prisoners were in mutiny down in the mine, refusing to come out. Finally one of the inmates told the guards about the escape. A total of 38 men had escaped onto the future Barkley course.
The alarm was sounded and continued for hours. Posses were formed and they unhappily trudged into the rough mountains. Civilians quickly joined in, including mountaineers led by bloodhounds in the “untracked wilderness.” The warden said that the escapees were “scattered all through the mountains but we’re going to bring them back.” The news reported, “The small army of more than 100 volunteer deputies armed with squirrel rifles, shotguns and even pitchforks spread a 20-mile ring around the prison in the event that the men had hidden in the vicinity.”
By the evening, 17 had been returned to their cells. Some of them “trudged back to the prison on their own free will and surrendered” after struggling on the Barkley course. They chose to return rather than further suffer from exposure and hunger in the mountains.
Dressed in prison stripes, it was feared that the convicts might raid homes to obtain civilian clothes. Every light in the town of Petros burned throughout the night and residents who remained in town stayed up fearful through the night. It was discovered that some of the prisoners took sticks of dynamite with them which heightened the danger of the chase. Warnings were broadcast as far as 70 miles away.
By the next day, twelve more men had been captured without firing a shot. Local residents were helpful catching the escapees. “Uncle Ike,” a man in his 60s, was at home sick with pneumonia when he encountered four inmates and held them at gunpoint until the authorities arrived. Two escapees successfully made in through the back country and fled into Kentucky, about 50 miles away where they were caught.
After 60 hours, seven remained at large and another was found the next day. One of the six surrendered more than a month later in Denver, Colorado who said he had been all over the country but was hungry, broke, and tired of dodging the law. It is unknown if the other five were ever apprehended.
The Tragic 1940 Escape
One day during May 1840, a crew of 22 inmates were working on a water reservoir several hundred yards outside the prison walls. When they saw their chance, six of the prisoners attacked their guard with shovels. One of them grabbed a pistol from the guard and shot and killed the guard in the back as he lay on the ground. The six then fled into mountains, not truly understanding what they faced. Five of them were recaptured after three hours and bloodhounds were on the trail of the other, 24-year-old Howard Overby, scrambling up Frozen Head Mountain.
More than 100 people scoured the tough Cumberland Mountains near the prison but after a day the warden called off the search and said, “I have given up hopes of catching Overby immediately, and must conclude that he has made good his escape.” Overby, a terrible man, had previously escaped from a Georgia chain gang where he had been serving a life sentence for murder. Overby was eventually caught, given 10 more years to has jail time. He killed two more men while in prison and in 1964, after another escape from Georgia, was recaptured and admitted that he had been the one who killed the guard at Brushy Mountain.
In 1941, bank robber and murderer, Frank Hopson escaped over a 17-foot prison wall by using a pipe for a ladder. Deputies with bloodhounds took up the chase. He was eventually caught but again escaped a year later aided by a prison guard. This time his escape was successful for a year. He was captured in Kentucky. Three more inmates escaped in 1945. Escapes continued nearly every year.
Guards in the prison were a rough bunch. In 1949 two guard who were said to be good friends were in a guard house on top of the prison. They had an argument, took out their guns and shot at each other. Both were wounded and one man died from being shot in the stomach and chest. The surviving guard was found innocent of murder because the other man was beating him and shot first.
During the winter of 1950, soaking rain caused a massive mudslide to descent down Frozen Head. It was about a half-mile long and 100 years wide. It ripped out trees and brought huge boulders down toward the prison wiping out two mines. At the bottom it took out the road leading toward the prison making in impassible. The prisoners were immediately assigned to the difficult work of clearing the rubble.
Violence also occurred deep in the mines. That year four inmates tried to kill another man, John C. Farmer, by tying dynamite caps to his arms, legs and even one on the back of his head. Farmer managed to shake off the explosive on his head, but the others went off. He was taken to the hospital with mangled arms and leg. Later the next year the governor granted Farmer a pardon from his 3-5 year larceny sentence due to his “serious and permanent” injuries.
Brushy Mountain was once referred to as the most violent place in Tennessee. In 1950, the warden admitted that they whipped prisoners. “We use it infrequently and only for such offences as escape attempts. The whippings are not brutal, usually about eight licks.”
Each year prisoners continued to escape but frequently they were found within a year in other states. The prison included many very bad men. Oakley Hewgley, escaped in 1951 but was found about a week later in Kentucky. Two officials went to take him back to Brushy Mountain. On the way back, they stopped at a restaurant and Hewgley convinced them to take off his cuffs to eat. He seized one of their guns and tragically killed both of them. As hundreds searched for him in the hills, he walked into a police station, surrendered and admitted to the murders. He said he hadn’t planned to try to escape from the men or kill them but explained, “I hated to be going back to Brushy Mountain. I dreaded it more than anything.” He instead went to prison in Kentucky with two life sentences for the murders and ten years later hung himself in his cell with pants.
The 1958 Prison Riot
In 1957 the first prison riot in the history of Brushy Mountain occurred after inmates refused to go into a mine and were brought back to the prison. About 250 men started to “hoot and holler.” They then started to bang on wall and cell bars and started to make a “big mess” in the cell block littering the floors with shoes and clothing. The rioters ripped plumbing fixtures from walls and broke wooden furniture. They broke about 1,400 windowpanes and light bulbs, and set pieces of newspaper on fire. Guards pulled back fearing that they would be taken hostage. It ended when guards shot tear gas into the cell block. But they also heard shouts of “shoot us some more gas up here!” The riot had lasted five hours. The warden proclaimed, “We are not going to feed them until they behave.”
By morning, guards armed with tear gas guns came into the debris-strew cell block and brought all the prisoners to breakfast. They didn’t resist. Outside the block other guards were armed with sub-machine guns and sawed off shotguns making sure another riot would not take place that morning.
The warden said, “I don’t know what they are rioting about, but they’ve really torn this place up. We had to use tear gas to quiet them down. They’ve torn out a lot of plumbing and we just don’t know whether they will be able to force their way out.” On the second night rioting erupted again when four prisoners managed to break out of their cell. (Four were typically assigned to one cell.) They then got access to the master level and freed all 300 inmates. Guards started shooting into the cell block. Dodging the gunfire, prisoners wrecked up a foyer. But after a man was shot in the jaw they stopped rioting and agreed to send a spokesman to talk about their grievances.
News of the riot was widely covered in newspapers across the country. The Stake Corrections Commissioner negotiated with the prisoners who were protesting cruelty and “unequal treatment of prisoners.” A prisoner spokesman reported, “They gave us everything we asked for except two things, they wouldn’t give us a five-day work week in the mines and they wouldn’t agree to stop using the strap.” The prison damaged totaled to about $5,000.
A few months later 116 inmates seized four mine foremen in a mine and held them hostage. The mine was about 3/4th of a mile from the prison. They immediately released one foreman to inform those outside what was going on. The message they gave was that they were not going to work and would hold the hostages until further notice. After 26 hours they released a 63-year old foreman who had become ill and they said he was too old. He said of the prisoners, “It was the quietest crowd I ever saw. They just lay around sleeping or talking.” They had not done any damage. After 32 hours they ended their rebellion, came out, and marched back to the prison. The warden claimed that eleven booby traps and been left behind, rigged with dynamite and batteries from their mine-cap lamps. Eight “ring leaders” were punished and transferred to a maximum security prison.
Another protest took place in 1964 at a mine on Frozen Head. On a morning the mine workers took cable cars 3/4th mile up the mountain, and went another 3/4th mile into the mine to work. Six hours later guards outside of the..
Can a person walk or run 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours, doing a mile in each and every hour for nearly 42 days? That was the strange question that surfaced in 1809 in England. In Part 1 of the 1000-milers I covered the attempts to reach 1,000 miles as fast possible. This part will cover what became known as the Barclay Match, walking a mile every hour, which was feat of enduring sleep deprivation and altering sleep patterns dramatically. In a way, these matches were similar endurance activities to the bizarre walkathons of the 1930s that required participants to be on their feet every hour.
Critics of these 1,000-mile events called them “cruel exhibitions of self-torture” that had no point expect to “win the empty applause of a thoughtless mob” and put a few pounds into the pockets of the walkers. They said, “there is nothing to learn from such exhibitions save they are positively injurious, physically and morally.” But others thought the matches gave “convincing proof that man is scarcely acquainted with his own capacity and powers.”
These “1,000 miles in 1,000 hours” events captivated the world, were cheered in person by tens of thousands of people, were wagered with the equivalent of millions of today’s value in dollars, and launched the sport of pedestrianism into the public eye. It was first thought that this 1,000-mile feat was an impossibility, and it was called a “Herculean” effort. Betting was heavy and wagers were nearly always against success. But during a 100-year period, there were more than 200 attempts of this curious challenge and more than half were successes. How did this all begin?
Captain Robert Barclay
Robert Barclay Allardice, or “Captain Barclay,” of Ury, Scotland, was born to a Scottish family in 1779. His father had been a member of Parliament and owned extensive estates. When young Barclay was fifteen years old, he won a 100 guineas wager, walking heal-toe six miles in one hour which at that time was considered a great accomplishment. When he was twenty year old, he covered 150 miles in two days, and in 1801, in very hot weather, he walked 300 miles in five days. Also that year he walked/ran 110 miles in 19:27 in a muddy park. He became a very experienced walker who took on many wagers. He also was an officer in the army and thus called “Captain.”
In September 1808 Barley started to consider accepting a challenge to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 consecutive hours for 1,000 guineas, a large fortune at that time. (Worth about $155,000 in 2019). For a farm laborer, a year’s wages was about 50 guineas.
Barclay first he conducted a secret test at his estate in Scotland. One of his tenant farmers was able to walk one mile, every hour for eight day. Barclay decided to accept the 1,000 miles in 1,000 days challenge.
Others had attempted this before but no one went longer than 30 days. For example, in 1772 a tailor began a walk on a large wager to walk 1,000 mile in 1000 hours on “a spot of ground marked out for the purpose near Tyburn Turnpike” in London. It is believed that he was unsuccessful. A pedestrian named Jones sought to walk every hour for a month but quit in less than three weeks. Others were defeated by lack of sleep, swollen legs, and other various problems. A man from Gloucestershire rode a horse 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours, one mile in each hour, on Stinchcombe Hill in Dursley, England. “He won with ease.”
As word spread about this challenge, others 1000-mile ideas were spawned, including by George Wilson who wanted to attempt walking 1,000 miles in less than half the time, in 20 hours. (See Part 1).
1,000 Miles in 1,000 Consecutive Hours
Months passed and Barclay’s challenge was put together to be performed on open land near Newmarket, England. A half mile course was laid out to be walked out and back in a straight line over smooth and even uncultivated land. Tent camps were constructed at each end for recorders and assistants.
Barclay began the monotonous six-week task just after midnight of June 1, 1809. Seven gas lamps on poles 100 yards apart were lit each evening like street lamps. He would generally start each mile about fifteen minutes before the finish of the first hour and then do the next mile at the top of the second hour. In that way he could take about a 90-minute rest before heading out again for the next two miles. Over the first three nights he overslept by a few minutes and had to really speed up his pace in order to finish an entire mile before the hour ended.
He dressed in a “jacket and breeches, and woolen stockings. His shoes appeared to be very large, and a handkerchief hung loosely about his neck.” He would usually have two men walking on each side of him, day and night. After each mile they signed their names to a log book, describing the weather and how he was feeling.
On his first day, his slowest mile was 16 minutes and the average mile was 15:15. “He paced along at a sort of lounging gait without any apparent extraordinary exertions, scarcely raising his feet two inches above the ground.” He ate his first breakfast at 5 a.m. when he dined on roast fowl, drank a pint of strong ale and two cups of tea, with bread and butter. For the first few days he didn’t go to bed between walking stretches, and just reclined on a sofa or did a little strolling in Newmarket outside the course.
By the eighth day, Barclay had walked about 135 miles. Onlookers were curious to see if he was exhausted. He wasn’t, and appeared to be happy, with good health. At night he was able to fall asleep instantly and arose at the right time without any trouble.
At times he was greatly bothered by the dust. On day 10 he grew very tired because of high wind and rain. On the 12th day he rested often, slept well, but complained about pain in his neck and shoulders. It was believed that he wasn’t wearing enough warm clothes at night. On the 13th day his calf muscles were seizing up, and were very painful every time he started a new mile.
Barclay ate four meals a day, about every six hours. His diet generally consisted of cold beef steaks and mutton chops for a total of 5-6 pounds of meat each day. He also ate some vegetables and would drink about two bottles of port wine. For every mile, he added a few yards so that no one could cause a dispute. His mile times had slowed from about 15-minute-miles to 21-minute-miles.
On the 16th day he moved to new lodgings near the “Horse and Jockey” pub, with a new course laid out on the Norwich Road. The change was good for him and he felt more comfortable. His food was cooked outside. For some reason his muscles were in the greatest pain around 3 a.m. each night. On the 19th morning he had difficulty walking and would lie down frequently to sleep, but his appetite continued to be very good. The next day his legs and feet were soaked in vinegar to take away soreness.
The weather was consistent for the first 20 days, with some rain about every day. After that, heat became the enemy of his walks for the second half of his long challenge, which hardened up the road. They used a “water cart” once a day to soften up the road and pound down the dust.
Crowds came to watch. It wasn’t just a sporting event, it was also a social event. They held picnics and ran races among themselves. Not everyone wanted him to succeed, especially those who were betting against him. Some of gas lamps for the night were broken by rocks or shot by muskets. Barclay carried pistols on his waist belt and arranged for a bodyguard, John Gully, a former boxing champion.
By the 23rd day he had a terrible toothache and he became feverish. It took two days for it to calm down. On day 25 he had great difficulty starting his miles. His attendants used remedies such as oil and camphor to rub down his painful muscles. The pain progressed down to his ankles and his legs became swollen. When heavy rain would fall, he had to wear a heavier coat and his mile times increased to 36:30.
On the 26th day he fell into a deep sleep state and it was apparent he was still asleep as he began his 607th mile. His attendant, William Cross had to beat him on the shoulders with a walking stick in order to wake him up in time to complete his task within the hour.
On day 32, he needed help getting to his feet after resting. His mile times slowed to well over 30 minutes, making to hard to get any rest. He soon had so much pain he kept crying out and “walked in a shuffling manner.” It was said, “His courage was unconquerable.” By day 35 he had doubts if he could continue because of spasms in his legs. But with a few days to go, he was very confident about succeeding. It was reported, “He declared he would die on the road rather than give in.”
During the last two days of his long journey he was in good spirits and completed his miles in shorter times than he had for many days. The weather was better and he walked many hours without his large coat. The crowd of people during the concluding days had been “unprecedented.” No lodging could be found anywhere in the Newmarket area. The course became so crowded that Barclay was interrupted often and they finally had to rope off his walking area to keep it clear.
On the afternoon of the 42nd day he finished his last mile “with perfect ease and great spirits, amidst an immense concourse of spectators.” The crowd went wild. His body guard led the masses in three “rousing cheers.”
When he was asked what he planned to do now that it was over he said he looked forward to taking a long good sleep. But he said he would need to be awakened about three times during the night to transition into longer sleep. Right after finishing, he went and took a warm bath as the bells of Newmarket rang loudly. He won an enormous sum of about 16,000 guineas. All bets exceeded 100,000 guineas or about 8 million in 2019 dollars.
During the six weeks of walking, he lost about 32 pounds, weighing 154 pounds at the finish. His fastest mile was 12:00. This fastest walk time for 24 miles during a 24-hour day was 5:40 and his slowest was 8:39. Altogether his moving time on the course was 12 days, 8 hours for the 1,000 miles in 41.7 days.
Captain Robert Barclay died in 1854 as a result of injuries from being kicked by a horse.
Initial Unsuccessful Copycat Attempts
Captain Barclay had proven it could be done. The fame of Barclay’s accomplishment spread like wildfire. Similar to the 50-mile craze of 1963, a 1000-mile craze erupted instantly in 1809. Others tried to duplicate his accomplishment. It became known as a “Barclay Match.” History and been made. Some later called Barclay the “father of pedestrianism.”
Within a week of Barclay’s 1809 finish In Somerset, England, the first copycat was Mr. Howe, “a stout, athletic man,” took up the challenge for 300 guineas. with odds 10-1 against him. He walked over a piece of land from his own door at Cliffe Common. After twelve days he was still walking but “it was expected every hour that he would give in.” Howe quit after the 15th day and lost 200 guineas. It was reported that “his health was much injured.”
Another man, in Ireland, weighing 280 pounds took on a wager to accomplish the Barclay Match “to walk OVER a thousand miles in a thousand successive hours.” The betting odds were 50-1 against him. A report included, “The portly personage who was to be the hero in this extraordinary scene waddled forth to the race course. All eyes were eagerly fixed upon him and just as they thought he was about to start, he pulled out of his pocket a sheet of paper on which was written the words, ‘A Thousand Miles in a Thousand Successive Hours.’ He laid it on the ground, and then deliberately walked over it, to the astonishment and chagrin of the deluded beholders. A universal murmur was immediately set up at this hoax and many swore that they would not be ‘walked over’ in that kind of manner, but demanded their stakes be returned. It being the opinion of the umpires, however, that the wager was fairly won, the winner immediately pocketed the money and walked off.”
Many other attempts were made and failed. In 1811, A Mr. Blackie of Somershire made the attempt be had to quit after 23 days because of terrible swollen legs. He had lost nearly 50 pounds during his try. Others quite because of injured feet, pulled hamstrings. The newspapers seemed to delight in all these failures making Captain Barclays fame grow even more.
First Successful Copycat Barkley Match
In 1811 it was reported, but not widely know, that Thomas Standen, age 60, of Salehurst, England, successfully completed the Barkley Match at Newmarket and extended it to 1,100 miles in 1,100 hours. The event did not receive wide coverage or crowds. Why 1,100 miles? Many pedestrians want to “one-up” Barclay. They could not do it faster, but they could go further, and attempt variations that required their rest times to be shorter, and more frequent,, pushing the limits of sleep deprivation.
1,100 Miles in 1,100 Hours
In 1815, Josiah Eaton, age 46, was a baker from Woodford, Northamptonshire, England. He was a small man, only 5’2”. He announced that he would attempt the Barclay Match but add more to it, and walk 1,100 miles in 1,100 hours, not realizing that Standen had already accomplished this extended feat four years before.
Eaton would walk at Blackheath, at the same location where George Wilson’s walk caused riots and Wilson arrest just a couple months earlier. (See Part 1). It is puzzling why Eaton selected the same county that was so unfriendly to Wilson’s walking stunt. He did not want the local magistrates to interfere with his walk as they did to Wilson, so he made it clear that he wasn’t walking for money and cancelled all his personal bets. But betting on or against Eaton certainly did take place and the people even bet on whether the magistrates would interfere with the walk.
There was a lot of skepticism whether he or anyone could duplicate or exceed what Barclay had accomplished. . It was said, “Captain Barclay was not only a man of great constitutional power, but he also knew how to train, whereas Eaton did not appear to possess the former, neither had he adopted the latter.”
Eaton started on November 10, 1815 near the Hare and Billet pub on a quarter mile course with two small red flags marking each end. He wore a white hat, blue coat, and striped waist coat. He did his sleeping in the pub. He used the same crew chief that Wilson used, a Mr. Stevenson. His first mile was accomplished in only 14 minutes. “A great concourse of persons assembled towards evening.” Like Barclay, he walked one mile at the end of the hour and another mile at the beginning of the next hour, giving him about 90 minutes of rest between his walking efforts.
As Eaton went along well, unsubstantiated rumors emerged that he wasn’t walking at night. To counter this, Eaton made a statement, “I will, for 100 guineas, give up the distance now performed, and commence again with the assertion of such malicious falsehood, if he will enter the lists against me.”
After ten days, a poem was published in the newspaper:
Since tramping now is all the rage
Some hundred daily take the stage
The walking man to greet on;
And oft impatient of delay,
From meals unfinished run away,
To Blackheath, there, to Eat-on
Why Eaton walks, it is not known very well,
‘Tis for Pedestrian glory some have said;
But other folks with much more reason tell,
This is the way the baker makes his bread!
By Christmas Eve, 6 p.m., Eaton had walked 1,062 miles. There were still rumors that Eaton had cheated. An affidavit was issued signed by four witnesses that Eaton had not cheated, that one of the four had always been on the course with him since he started on November 10th. Eaton also included his testimony in the affidavit.
Eaton successfully finished the Barclay Match plus 100 more miles on December 26, 1815. The Gentleman’s Magazine wrote, “The extraordinary task of pedestriaism which has just been completed by Josiah Eaton, has not only exceeded all former experiments of this nature, but given convincing proof that man is scarcely acquainted with his own capacity and powers.”
Within two weeks, Eaton was disappointed to discover that he had not been the first person to accomplish 1,100 miles in 1,100 hours. Because Eaton did not receive money for all his effort, he was still just a poor baker. Within a month he was in debtor’s prison for not being able to pay a debt.
1,000 Miles in 1,000 Hours at the Top of Each Hour
After release from prison, Josiah Eaton organized another 1,100 x 1,100, again at Blackheath starting on June 10, 1816. This time he would be required to start each mile at the top of the hour, which would be much harder, only getting about 45 minutes consecutive rest. Also, all his miles were required to be walked within 20 minutes. The betting odds were “greatly against him.”
Early on Eaton had feet problems and then had swollen legs, but he was in good spirits and he quickly adapted his sleep patterns to cat naps. He could quickly fall asleep and was easily awakened by his attendants. Odds were in his favor when he reached 925 miles. It had not been easy, as opponents made attempts to obstruct him.
With about 75 miles to go, Eaton injured his ankle which forced him to use two walking sticks for a while. The last mile finally arrived. It was reported, “Eaton in performing the last mile, was attempted to be thrown three times by some supposed hirelings of his opponents.” But he successfully completed 1,100 miles in 1,100 hours on July 20, 1816 in front of an “immense crowd” after nearly 46 days of walking every hour. After winning the match, he went another mile in just 12 minutes. “At the conclusion of his performance, the air rang with acclamations, and partaking of some refreshment.”
He was soon offered a wager for 1,000 guineas to walk 100 yards every 15 minutes for 1,000 hours. He didn’t take that bet.
2,000 Half Miles in 2,000 Half Hours (1 Mile Each Hour)
Later in 1816, Eaton’s friends accepted a wager of 500 guineas that he could walk 2,000 half miles in 2,000 successive half hours. This would involve only getting about 22 minutes of rest each half hour, requiring an outrageous sleep pattern for nearly 42 days.
Eaton started on October 23, 1816, walking on a course about three miles from Croydon, England on the Brixton Causeway. He walked on a quarter-mile out-and-back path near a private home where he took his rests. Umpires were always on hand to witness the effort. Within a couple days, a Mr. Petty Sessions was trying to get magistrates to stop the match because of the inconvenience it was causing locally from the crowds coming to watch. Within ten days, the newspaper was calling Eaton the “Sleep Walker.” It was said, “he frequently takes a few winks during walking, and only requires, it is said, a gentle shake from his attendant to render him awake to what he has to perform.”
By the time he was halfway, skepticism had mostly gone away and betting was in his favor. As he was getting close to reaching the 2,000 half miles he issued a shocking statement, “I feel myself fully competent to complete the task I have undertaken, of walking 2,000 half miles in 2,000 successive half hours, which would have been finished on the 5th of December at noon; but being deceived by the gentlemen who should have supported me, I am determined not to complete the task. I therefore hereby give notice, I shall walk only until 11:00 on Thursday, December 5, 1816, being only 1,998 half miles, and recommend all parties to consider their bets to be null and void.”
The problem was that Eaton had been promised money from several men if he accomplished the task, but as he neared the finished he discovered that they were not going to follow through. He was told that the primary person had died and that the bet was void. Eaton realized that he had been duped, that actually no serious bet had been made. He stopped as he promised with one mile to go, walking his last half mile freshly in 8:30. He claimed he did not receive even a shilling from the pub owner. In all he only received 25 guineas which didn’t come close to covering his expenses. Despite the halt, his 1998 x 1998 half-mile effort was declared, “the greatest pedestrian feat ever performed.”
4,032 Quarter Miles in 4,032 Quarter Hours (1 Mile Each Hour)
Now it started to become truly stupid. In 1818 Eaton started an attempt to walk a quarter mile every 15 minutes for six weeks (4,032 quarter miles) in Stowmarket, Suffolk, England. Betting was 5 to 1 against him. He began his outrageous attempt across from the Pot of Flowers Inn on May 11, 1818. After each quarter mile, Eaton would ring a bell. Wet weather affected his performance early on, making him very tired and lame but he recovered and soon bets were close to even money.
It was reported, “He falls asleep immediately on throwing himself on his bed, which is placed in a hut at the end of his ground, and awakes at the slightest touch or call.” Hot weather arrived and caused problems but he continued to push forward. Eaton was successful and finished on June 30, 1818. He was paraded through the streets of Stowmarket in front of a crowd of 2,000 people.
1,000 Miles in 667 Hours (1.5 Miles Each Hour)
Yet another flavor of the Barclay Match took place in September, 1816. N. B. Barnet, age 72, started a 1,500 mile attempt in 32 days on a course at the Mitre Tavern, Lower Tooting, Surry. He was successful with 45 minutes to spare. Along the way he achieved 1,000 miles by doing 1.5 miles every hour, starting at the first of every hour!
A report included, “For the last five or six miles he was accompanied by a large concourse of person, male and female, on horseback and on foot, who were anxious to witness of his pedestrian power. At the end of the last mile he was received with shouts of applause by his friends at the Mitre; and after he had refreshed himself, they seated him in a triumphal car and bore him in grand procession through Lower and Upper Tooting, the village musicians, two fiddlers and a tambourine player, accompanying him in his progress with the very appropriate air, ‘See The Conquering Hero..
In the 1980s running 100 miles started to become more popular for the non-professional runner to attempt. By 2017 some in the ultrarunning community viewed running 100 miles as fairly common place. In recent years a saying of “200 is the new 100” emerged as a few 200-mile trail races were established, meaning that 100 miles used to be viewed as very difficult but 200 miles was the new challenging standard. This may be true, but what about running 1,000 miles? Will 1,000 milers ever be the “new 200?” What? Who runs 1,000-mile races?
In 1985 America’s first modern-day 1,000 mile race was held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York with three finishers. The 1986 race was probably the most famous modern-day 1,000-mile race held with a show-down of several of the world greats. But most ultrarunners have never heard about 1,000-mile races. 1,000-mile attempts in one go have taken place for more than two centuries.
A curious 1,000-mile frenzy took place for about ten years in England during the early 1800s by professional walkers/runners. They took on huge wagers making those who succeeded, very wealthy men. These 1,000-mile events attracted thousands of curious spectators who also wagered and spent much of their money at the sponsoring pubs during the multi-week events.
This will be a three-part series on 1,000 milers. Two main formats for these 1,000-milers took place during early 1800s. In Part 1, the stories will be told about walking 1,000 miles, “go as you please” as fast as the pedestrians could, to reach the distance within a certain number of days to win the wagers. They were not really interested in achieving best times. They were simply interested in reaching 1,000 miles in time to win the wager and gain lots of money donated by spectators. Massive amounts of money changed hands in bets.
In Part 2, stories even more famous will be told about reaching 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours, an effort commonly called, the “Barclay Match.” With this format the pedestrians were required to walk a mile during every successive hour, a strange battle to establish bizarre sleep patterns for nearly 42 days. Part 3 will include the modern-day 1,000-mile races.
Very Early 1,000 Mile Attempts
Running or walking the 1,000-mile distance in an event has taken place for more than 250 years. Before the modern era of ultrarunning (post-WWII), attempts to reach that specific distances were mostly conducted as solo attempts involving wagers.
The earliest known 1,000-miler was attempted in 1759 by George Guest, a wagoner from Warwickshire, England. At Birmingham, England, for a “considerable wager”, Guest attempted to walk 1,000 miles in 28 days. He knew that he needed to walk about 36 miles per day. His course was in the area of Mosely-Wake Green, about two miles from Birmingham. He only walked 31 miles the first day but from then on stayed on schedule. Half way through, on day 14 he was back on schedule at mile 490. It was reported, “He is perfectly well and it is thought he will perform the whole in the time.” By day 21 he had walked 720 miles.
With two days to go, Guest still had 106 more miles to go. He was feeling fine and to show off a bit, “he walked the last six miles within an hour, though he had a full six hours in which to complete his task.” He finished on February 1, 1759. The next month he again attempted to walk 1,000 miles, this time in 24 days for 1,000 guineas in five-pound shoes. His attempt took place on horse grounds in South Lambeth, a southern district of London. It is unknown if he was successful, probably not.
1,000 Miles in 20 Days
George Wilson of Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, was born in 1766. He was one of the pioneers of pedestrianism and would become known as “the Blackheath Pedestrian.” In his 40s, he had a “draper and hosier” (cloth and clothing) business that required him to visit London on occasion. He walked there and back, about 550 miles, in twelve days. He also was employed as a tax collector and would at times walk 50-60 miles per day. He went to work for a publisher writing a map book about Great Britain. Wilson would travel by foot for miles with a measuring wheel to verify the distance between various points and routes listed in the book. By 1808 he was a bookseller.
With his endurance walking skills, Wilson, a small man, only 5’4”, started to look for long distance walking wagers. His first one involved walking the 84 mile length of the historic Roman Hadrian’s Wall within 24 hours.
In September, 1808, it was announced that another pedestrian, Captain Robert Barclay Allardice of Ury would attempt to cover 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours, performing one mile only in each hour. (We will get to that in Part 2). Wilson read about these plans and believed he could accomplish 1,000 miles in less than half the time, in 20 days.
In October of 1808, Wilson, probably wanting to accomplish 1,000 miles before Captain Barclay, quickly took on a challenge to walk 1,000 miles in 20 days. Bets were in his favor. It was reported that he started the challenge by the end of the month if so, was not successful. A couple months later bets were again being taken for a Wilson 1,000-mile attempt. He was required to walk 50 miles each day within a 14-hour daily time limit. He was also required to drink only water during his journey. If successful he would win 1,000 guineas. His planned start date was April 11, 1809. Each day he would start from Shoreditch Church and walk to the 25-mile stone on Cambridge Road and back. It was reported, “The attention of the sporting circles is much attracted by this match. High odds are betting against the performance.” It appears that the event never took place.
By 1810, Wilson was selling pamphlets in Kent which at times required him to walk 40 miles per day. In 1814 he fell on hard times as his marriage was breaking up and he couldn’t pay a 20 pound debt to an uncle. He was thrown into debtor’s prison. While imprisoned he continued his ultra-walking ways, walking 50 miles in 12 hours in a small prison area, 11×8 yards, making 9,026 turns. He won a wager of 3 guineas, one shilling which helped him get out of prison. Less than a month later, Wilson announced his interest in covering 1,500 miles in 30 days near London.
The 1,000-Mile Riot
Wilson received public attention when he won a bet of 20 guineas walking 96 miles in 24 hours. He was urged to take on another walking event and soon a big one came together, 1,000 miles in 20 days for 100 guineas. Wilson went to work to train for the next four months. Instead of accepting a wager, he asked that that town of Woolwich raise 100 guineas to compensate him if he was successful. Eventually he announced the event publicly by making up hand bills and distributing them around his community.
On September 11, 1815, at the age of 50, Wilson again tried to accomplish walking 1,000 miles in 20 days and it turned out to be one of the strangest and most famous stories in early pedestrianism. His walking course was a one-mile triangle near the Hare and Billet pub at Blackheath, about eight miles east of London.
Rules for his walk specified that he must reach 50 miles in each of his 24-hour periods. The landlord of Hare and Billet agreed to feed and lodge Wilson, but after the second night he moved out because the pub was just too noisy when he needed to sleep, so he was taken to a nearby home each night. During his walk he ate “fowls, jellies, strong broth, teas, milk, eggs and a moderate quantity of Madeira wine”
On Day 5, Wilson was on schedule but it was very hot, and the dust was quite annoying. Wilson’s feet were dreadfully blistered. The next day he walked in good spirits. At times he was interfered with by some rowdy spectators who were betting against him. After finishing his 50th mile that day around 11 p.m. he was carried home “amidst the cheers of his friends.”
Halfway through, on the 10th day, Wilson had sore feet but doing well with a 16-minute-mile pace. He took stops every four miles. Curious crowds had grown to about 7,000 people. The dust kicked up by the crowd affected his breathing. He had asked that his route be roped off to give him protection from the pressure of the crowd but that was impossible. The area was “a complete scene of riot and confusion.” Some rich men who were betting in favor of him published hand-bills for the crowds that included, “Give him room! Keep back! George Wilson, the pedestrian, most earnestly entreats the spectators to keep a greater distance, so as to allow him sufficient space to walk with ease and have the benefit of the air.”
On the 11th day, the daily betting odds were against him. A couple disgruntled bettors tried to attack him and he fought back with his fist. His assaulter tried to get Wilson arrested. Previously two pretended friends had given him a drink on a hot day. Soon afterword his stomach became ill and it was determined that they had tried to poison him. As if walking 1,000 miles wasn’t hard enough, he had to face daily stress from all these people who wanted him to fail.
Wagers were estimated totaling, 5,000 guineas. Men with bayonets were sent out to clear his path. With the huge crowds the pub was doing amazing business. They sold 1,296 quarts of beer in one day. The Tartar fair was well established near the pub and had put up many tents and large booths with musicians and alcohol. A theater came to put up attractions but was stopped by the property owner. But some circus acts were approved including a trapeze. An elephant sat in front of the pub. Every time Wilson completed a mile lap, a roar would come from the crowd. It was an amazing spectacle.
The nearby roads were the scene of terrific confusion. The road to London was blocked up with all types of horse-drawn vehicles. Screams of terror could be heard. There were collisions between carriages, stage coaches, carts, donkeys, and horses. Vehicles were “pressed forward with an unwise impatience amidst the general crush. Friend and foes seem to have forgotten all the usual courtesies of good manners.”
Local authorities were not pleased with reports of drunkenness, prostitution, and riotous acts. On the 12th day alcohol was banned outside the pub and the booths were cleared. On the 13th day a warrant for Wilson’s arrest was issued but not yet executed. On Day 14, the authorities would not allow him to walk in their town on Sunday so he was taken to park in a nearby town where a half-mile out-and-back was measured off. Back in Blackheath there was great confusion as horse-drawn carriages were going in all directions in search of Wilson. “The inmates inquiring most anxiously of each other, whither he had gone.” Heavy rain fell and he only completed 32 miles before midnight. Torches and lanterns were used to light his way. He continued on through the long night and reached 50 miles by 5 a.m.
On day 15, after just a few hours of sleep, he was “under evident marks of a depression of spirits, and great bodily fatigue.” He made a statement at the day’s start, “In having accomplished so much of my task, I have done as much (700 miles) as any pedestrian who has preceded me, in the same time, and I am now about to commence three hundred more miles, which I hope I shall be permitted to perform without molestation. I sincerely hope the magistrates of the county will not feel it necessary to disturb me.” He completed his 750th mile that day.
After just one mile on the 16th day, it was rumored that a “posse of constables” were on the way to arrest Wilson. His friends took him off the course to the home he was staying at, but eventually the authorities showed up and he was placed under house arrest. The charge was for disturbing the peace with “a very tumultuous assemblage of people from the surrounding and other parishes and occasioning a considerable interruption to the peace of the inhabitants.”
Wilson was disappointed but gracious, addressing his friends and supporters with thanks and then was taken to bed where he slept all day. A hearing was held days later but eventually Wilson was “discharged and conducted home in triumph, decorated with ribbons, and accompanied by the shouts of the multitude.” But, the damage was done. It had been nine days since his walk was interrupted. A public collection was taken and he still received his 100 guineas.
It turned out that the warrant for his arrest had been conducted illegally. Ten magistrates had signed a blank warrant that was filled out later. That was why Wilson was released. The locals were not happy with a particular unpopular magistrate and a “great number” of people knocked on his door in the morning asking him “if they might have permission to walk over the Heath on their way to town.”
The 1,000-mile “Pedestrian Mania”
Despite Wilson’s failure to finish 1,000 miles because of interference, other pedestrians and inn keepers noticed that it had been an enormously successful profitable event. Plans were immediately put in place to mimic Wilson’s event to achieve 1,000 miles in 20 days.
Just a month later, in October 1815, William Tuffee, age 35, a laborer with a wife and five children, started his copy-cat walk in the town of Rochester, Kent, England, about 30 miles east of London. The spot for the walk was Cossack Field, where a 220-yard roped off out-and-back grass course was constructed in a hollow of a hill beside Cossack Pub. At one end of the course was a chair for Tuffee and at the other end was a British flag.
Before holding the event, they made sure that it was supported by the local magistrates so they wouldn’t have the same difficulties that Wilson experienced. Tuffee agreed to attempt to reach 1,000 miles in 21 days and bets were against him succeeding. His only training was walking 20 miles to work and back now and then. For his event it did not matter how many miles he walked each day, he just needed to reach 1,000 miles in 21 days.
Early on, all went well and Tuffee stayed right on schedule. After five days, he was at mile 248. Tuffee walked with two canes in his hands, stayed very upright, and did not “ramble” as Wilson did. On the 6th day he began at 5 a.m. and was in “high spirits.” He completed 13.5 miles by 9 a.m. and then went to his tent for a half hour breakfast of coffee and eggs. By noon he reached 22 miles and reached 46 miles by about 9:45 p.m.
The next day the crowds started to grow. “Rochester exhibited a greater scene of bustle than has been remembered for a considerable length of time, by person, some in carriages, some on horseback, and others on foot, arriving in all directions to view the performance of Tuffee, whose Herculean task is now the general topic of conversation.”
On day 7 some rowdy members of the crowd “threw impediments into his path.” He received bruises to a leg causing him considerable pain. It was reported that the crowd was loud, “given to shouting and singing to such an extent that Tuffee, who had been staying at the Cossack Inn, had to repair to his own home, some small distance away, as they were disturbing his rest.”
On Tuffee’s 9th day, his right knee was very painful. After walking 25 miles in ten hours he had to quit for the day. The next day he managed 30 miles, reaching 438 miles after ten days. He recovered well on day 11. He used a “good deal” of tobacco that day. He was asked how he felt and replied, “never better.” He was timed that day performing 15-minute miles.
The rain poured on day 12 and at night Tuffee wore a huge coat, with a pair of boots that had large nails in the bottoms so he wouldn’t slip. He held an umbrella and trudged along at 3.5 miles per hour. His feet were soaked and bad blisters formed. He finished that day with 534 miles. He was about 36 miles behind schedule but he was confident that the knee pain would stay away. “He had every hopes of finally accomplishing his undertaking” with only nine more days to go. Unfortunately, on day 13, Tuffee quit after going 553 miles. The course was in terrible shape.
It clearly bothered Tuffee to fail at his 1,000-mile quest, so just about a month and a half later in December, he participated in a new stunt, a 1,200-mile relay with his 12-year old son. When he rested, his son could continue to keep the mileage ticking up. Their course was in Maidstone, England, near the Roebuck Inn. They reached the half-way point, 600 miles on the 11th day. They succeeded and reached 1,200 miles on the 20th day. The boy covered 502 of those miles.
The promotors of Tuffee’s attempt were very savy. If Tuffee didn’t finish, they had John Baker waiting in the wings to replace him and thus keep the spectators coming. Once Tuffee quit, Baker was to start his 1,000-mile, 21-day walk just three days later on the same course in Rochester.
Baker, a Rochester native, was 33 year old and was 5’5”. He was very used to training “through the most dreary parts of Kent.” It was rumored that Baker gained his stamina while smuggling goods for long distances. The evening before his start, he made a bet that he could perform one mile on the course in less than 10 minutes. He completed it in nine minutes.
Because of the troubles that Tuffee had experienced with the rowdies who wanted him to fail, the mayor of Rochester sent assurances to Baker that he would receive officer protection during his walk, making sure no one tried to interfere his attempt. The one requirement was the Baker didn’t run between 10 a.m. and noon on Sundays during church services.
The next morning, Baker came to the start, accompanied by members of the Cossack Cricket Club, all who loudly cheered him. He wore an overcoat, several waistcoats, thick three-pound half boots, and a common round hat. His friends wanted him to wear shoes, but Baker insisted to walk in his favorite boots. It was reported “He carries in his hand a tick hazel stick, which he swings as he walks along in his gait he rather stoops.”
His first day went well. He had a plain diet of wine and beef tea and reached about 60 miles, maintaining a pace of about 15-minute miles. He reached 12 miles by 8:30 a.m. and stopped for breakfast, resting only 20 minutes. He reached 52 miles by 7 p.m. and retired for the night. The ground for the course was good and nearly the entire day the place was full of spectators.
Baker became concerned that some strangers trying to be friends with him had gained access to the room that he would use to rest. One had tried hard to get him to accept some pills which Baker refused. The committee over the event feared that someone might try poisoning Baker and ordered a sign be put on Baker’s door “that no person whatsoever, during this match of his, shall be permitted therein, except themselves and his known friends.”
On day 7 he reached 361 miles and by day 9, Baker had reached 465 miles. His diet mainly consisted of coffee for breakfast, and beef steaks at lunch with beer or wine. He had tea in the afternoon and for supper again beef steak or mutton chops. That is a lot of protein! During the day he would take a glass of hot wine and water with a little toasted bread in it. He still preferred walking in his favorite boots and his feet were holding up just fine. Bets were coming in on his side. Each day spectators would present him with money as he walked along.
Baker would often hum his favorite song, “Within a mile of Edinburg Town” as he took his breaks in his room. On one day, Baker was offered bribes to quit, including a very large one for 100 guineas. He “scornfully” rejected such offers.
On the 14th day, the weather was “more tempestuous” than the oldest settlers could ever remember. Baker started out at 4 a.m. in the terrible storm accompanied by attendants with lanterns. But it was so muddy that he and his pacers gave up after a few laps. He tried again a 6 a.m. but again gave up after five miles until the storm passed. “The ground had become so slippery that to attempt to get on he could not.” At 9 a.m. he finally could continue, but by afternoon he had traveled only 17 miles. That day in town several windows were blown in and chimneys were down. Most of the tents pitched at the Cossack were totally leveled except for a grand stand tent. A large wagon carrying an 8-ton elephant was moved to higher ground. On day 16 he reached 770 miles.
On day 19 when Baker was on his 50th mile for the day, “a fiddler came upon the course and accompanied him, playing some lively airs, which seemed to volatize his animation; for he intended to finish that 50th mile, but at the end of it, he, to the astonishment of everyone, danced a jig, and said he would add another tick top the clerk’s score.” He walked the next mile in less than 14 minutes. As he leaving the ground, he turned back to the course and said, “I’ll walk another mile merely for recreation.” He did another 13-minute mile and then danced the hornpipe dance.
On his 20th day, he really wanted to reach the 1,000 mark even though the bets were on 21 days. He needed 74 more miles. By 10:30 p.m. he had 50 miles. To the astonishment of his friends, he showed amazing determination to continue through the night. He stopped three times to dance a hornpipe. At about 5 a.m. he reached 1,000 miles and went one more mile for good measure. He then retired to the Cossack public house “amidst the acclamation of the spectators and the roaring of a huge elephant.”
Later that morning, he came back out at 10 a.m. and continued to walk up and down the course, wanting to do some more miles for those who came thinking he would finish that day. The course was crowded with thousands of spectators. By 1 p.m. he reached 5 miles, and he finished for good at 2:30 p.m. with ten miles. He was then put into an open carriage pulled by two beautiful black horses decorated with “leaves of laurel and blue ribbon.” His wife and oldest son went along as they rode through Rochester and other nearby towns. A marine band attended them playing, “See the Conquering Hero Comes?” They then returned to the Cossack pub to celebrate and rest the remainder of the day. He had become the first known Pedestrian to cover 1,000 miles in 20 days.
Apparently 1,000 miles was too easy. Bake issued a challenge to George Wilson to walk 1,500 miles in the shortest period of time but it never happened.
Before John Baker finished his 1,000-mile walk, another pedestrian stepped on a course to join in on the 1,000-mile craze. John Stokes, age 25, from Bristol took on the 1,000 miles in 20 days challenge for a 100 guineas award. He had previously taken up walking long distances to lose weight and to improve his health. He was taller than the previous 1,000-mile competitors, standing at 5’ 10.5”. Bets were five to one against him at his start. He was..
In Part One I covered the very early history of the sport of endurance riding from 1814-1954 when forgotten individuals established the sport they called “endurance riding” and paved the future for the sport. In Part Two I covered the early history of the Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup) from 1955-1970 and worked through some folklore about the history of the Ride. In this concluding part we will wade through some controversy and get to the ultrarunning fun, the founding of the Western States Endurance Run or commonly called, the Western States 100.
By 1970 with all the numerous endurance rides held across the country, the Western States Trail Ride, or “the Tevis” had emerged as being the toughest and the premier endurance ride in the country. It had survived intense criticism over the years from the public and animal rights groups. Under the leadership of Wendell Robie, the ride had made adjustments, weathered the storms of criticism, and increased in popularity.
By 1970 among the dozens of endurance rides, there were still only a few that patterned their event after the Western States Trail Ride, Virginia City 100, and two 50-milers in California, Castle Rock 50 and Blue Mountain 50. In 1971 two more were established, Big Horn 100 in Wyoming, and Diamond 100 in California which awarded a Wendell Robie Cup.
In all, across the country there were nearly 100 endurance rides of various flavors held in 1971. Some histories grossly under count and mislead readers into thinking there were just a handful of endurance rides in existence at that time. During 1971 there were at least 20 new rides established with distances between 25-100 miles and several of them were influenced by the Western States Trail Ride in one way or another. Some started to award belt buckles and some rode on tough trails. But most of these new “races” were doing their own thing. For example, the Wasatch Mountain 50 Mile Endurance Ride in Utah was particularly tough, doing loops near the present-day Wasatch Front 100 course with some big climbs. By 1971, endurance riding was ready to enter into a new era with the strong influence by those associated with the Western States Trail Ride.
North American Trail Ride Conference
Back in 1941, at Concord, California, an endurance ride was established by the Concord Chamber of Commerce, and was patterned after the Green Mountain Ride in Vermont. It was a two-day (later three-day), 80-mile ride going from the city of Concord on trails, winding across ranches, through wooded canyons, and along the slopes of Mt. Diablo. They emphasized that “to finish was to win,” that the last finisher could be the winner. This endurance ride in California was established 14 years before the first edition of the Western States Trail Ride in 1955.
Twenty years later, in 1961, members of the rider association in Concord established the North American Trail Ride Conference. That year in a newspaper article it was stated, “The purpose of the conference, or organization is to coordinate dates so there will be no conflicts, develop rules and regulations for member rides and riders, and generally help and promote new rides just getting established.”
With the many critics from influential organizations like The Humane Society, the NATRC emphasized looking after the “soundness of horses.” The NATRC said that their events were not “endurance rides” (but they really were). They also started to refer to their flavor of endurance riding as “competitive trail riding.” This semantic approach was used to distance themselves from the intense criticism that the Western States Trail Ride was receiving even though the Tevis claimed that it wasn’t a race (but it really was). The careful use of words was obviously part of a strategy to fend off attention and criticism from animal rights groups and the public. When the early NATRC events were announced in newspapers, the sanctioned rides made it very clear that their rides were not associated with races like the Western States Trail Ride.
The NATRC became successful and influential by 1970, sanctioning many events, and was careful to keep fairly true to long-established principles for endurance rides established long ago in Vermont. They did not want their events to be races. They established a point system awarded to riders in order to publish annual rankings and awards. Points went to finishers not to “first finishers.”
There was contention in the sport. The rides/races that started to be patterned after Western States Trail Ride were not sanctioned by the NATRC. There was heated disagreement about the racing aspect of events and what should be done to safeguard the treatment of horses. In 1970 there was also a split in the NATRC, and the Eastern Competitive Trail Association (ECTA) was formed in upstate New York, and started to sanction their own races.
Many of the new events cropping up in 1971 were not sanctioned by the NATRC, and were doing their own thing. Two horses died that year in a new 25-mile “Ride and Tie” race in California, again bringing serious public backlash on all types of endurance rides. Many Arabian horse breeders refused to sell horses to endurance riders. From the Western States riders’ point of view, something needed to be done.
American Endurance Ride Conference
In 1971 during this contentious environment in the sport, while a new 50-mile ride from Sacramento to Auburn was being planned, 25 riders from California and Nevada who were in in the “Tevis faction” met together led by Phil Gardner to discuss organizing a competing organization that would align better with their preferred form of endurance riding. Arguing resulted, but Gardner did soon create an organization and later in 1972 formalized into a legal entity as the American Endurance Rice Conference (AERC). Founders included Phil Gardner, Charles Barieau, Marion Robie Arnold, Kathie Perry, Todd Nelson, Hal Hall and Julie Suhr. Gardner was their first president.
Similar to the NATRC, the AERC started doing record keeping to preserve statistics and also ranked riders and horses. Eventually they standardized rules, started sanctioning rides, and controversially required sanctioning fees from events.
The original rules for an AERC sanctioned events described a limited definition for an endurance ride.
The first horse to finish (in the least amount of time) in acceptable condition is the winner.
An award for the best conditioned horse.
There can be no minimum time limit.
Everyone finishing a ride shall receive a completion award.
The ride is open to all breeds of horses.
While Wendell Robie supported the idea of the establishment of the AERC by his rider friends, he had no intention of participating, paying fees, and letting his Western States Trail Ride be governed by the AERC or any organization. This created conflict and eventually the AERC even denied to sanction to his ride until a compromise was reached to gather fees from riders who wanted their results in AERC records.
AERC rides had a set distance, a finish order, and an award given to the “first finisher.” Any outsider would call that a “race,” but the founders of the AERC eventually chose to avoid at all costs the words “race” and “winner.” This subject was hotly debated by the AERC founders, most who wanted to preserve the racing aspect of their flavor of endurance riding. Eventually they adopted a motto of “To finish is to win,” a principle that actually grew out of the NATRC’s flavor of endurance riding as far back as the 1941 Concord Mt. Diablo Ride.
Curiously in the AERC’s crafted history, it appears that they totally broke away from their common history roots with the NATRC and proclaimed that endurance riding began in 1955 because that is when they believed their preferred format of endurance riding first emerged. Actually it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the ”minimum time” was eliminated for good at the Western State Trail Ride. (rule 3). The riders for decades before 1955 called their sport “endurance riding” and Robie used some of the earlier endurance ride principles to help establish Western States Trail Ride. How could it all have started in 1955? It didn’t.
But, despite controversies and growing pains, the AERC lived on and was a huge stabilizing influence to the sport allowing it to be preserved and grow. The same can be said to NATRC’s contribution to endurance riding. By 1974 there were about 50 AERC sanctioned rides. Certainly because of the leadership of these organizations, endurance riding of all forms was able to better promote safety and certainly saved horse lives.
Let’s get back to the races that were called rides.
1971 Western States Trail Ride
In 1971 a young man, age sixteen, Hal Hall entered the now famous Western States Trail Ride for the second time. In 1969 when he was only fourteen, he attempted the ride but was in way over his head and didn’t finish. 1971 would be his second attempt.
Also In the field was a first-timer, a young, large athletic rider, 23-year-old Harry “Gordy” Ainsleigh, who rode on this eight-year-old horse, Rebel bareback. Staggered starts were used with small groups of riders starting together. Ainsleigh started in the 14th group, Hall in the 9th group. There were four key checkpoints in place that year with mandatory rest periods: Robinson Flat (one hour), Devil’s Thumb (half hour), Michigan Bluff (1 hour), and Echo Hills (1 hour).
Hall, young, fast, and eager, kept up with the leaders for many miles but at Michigan Bluff his horse was ruled lame and he was pulled out by the veterinarians. Hall would have to try again the next year.
Ainsleigh, disadvantaged because of his larger frame and weight would have to run many miles ahead or behind his horse to take the weight off and make faster progress. He finished at the fairgrounds stadium, with a time of 19:37, about five hours after Donna Fitzgerald, the winner of the Tevis Cup. For that 1971 finish, 74 finished and there were another 76 riders and horses that did not finish for various reasons including: “lame horse, thrown off horse, lost horse shoe, disqualified (switched rider), fatigue, horse pulse too high, missed cutoff, and rider quit.”
For many riders it took multiple years to learn and succeed in earning a buckle with a finish in 24-hours or less. There was no handbook or training manuals to refer to. They learned from their failures and successes. The Friday before the ride each year, was both a stressful and exciting day for the riders. They would arrive at Squaw Valley and get their horses all ready and have them inspected by the veterinarians. Each year many horses would not pass the examinations. Being passed off to start was a huge initial victory.
Friday evenings were exciting. The rider meeting was held with all the last-minute instructions. That evening also was the social event of the year for the riders. It was like a big reunion when they could exchange ideas, tips, and get educated. It also was a big party with dancing and a lot of drinking, making it tough for some to feel ready in the morning for the start.
The riders could use crews to travel to certain check points and assist them, but in the early 1970s many riders did not have a crew at all. They prepared drop bags that were delivered. For example, multiple Ride champion, Donna Fitzgerald, did not use crews. She would organize duffel bags of supplies which were dropped off at each of the vet stops during the ride. Occasionally someone held her horse, or if her husband, Pat got pulled from the ride, he provided assistance. The early riders, similar to experienced ultrarunners, were self-reliant and did not use the massive crews that a majority of the riders of today deem necessary to ride their horse in the Western States Trail Ride.
1972 – The First Finishers on Foot
The 1972 Ride was very historic for a new reason. Wendell Robie allowed twenty soldiers from Fort Riley Kansas to come and test their endurance ability to try to cover the course on foot during the Ride. Their goal was to complete it in less than 48 hours. An “adventure team” had been organized at the Fort and they sought for a very challenging test. The wife of Captain Joseph McCarthy who was on the team, Mary McCarthy, had finished the Tevis in 1967. McCarthy had brought forward the idea idea to march the Western States Trail. Robie was contacted and he was enthusiastic about the idea. Captain McCarthy would be the commanding officer of the team and crew chief, Lt. Larry Hall would lead the team on the trail. They came out about ten days before the event to make plans with Robie.
McCarthy explained what the adventure team was all about. “The Army has a new program of providing its men with challenges that give them an opportunity to see the country. It is adventure training, providing an incentive challenge, rather than marching in circles.” About 30 soldiers were bussed out, 20 to march and ten to support.
The soldiers started a day before the riders and were guided by experienced rider and runner, Jim Larimer. They marched in fatigues and boots, carrying canteens, but carried no food. They were sent off by a round of big cheers. Immediately they faced a 2,500-foot climb to 8,750-foot Emigrant Pass. Enthusiastic chatter was quickly replaced by labored breathing as they strained to climb in the thin air. Emigrant Pass extinguished any remaining cockiness among them. Doubts arose as they tried to catch their breath in the dry, thin air.
It was decided to break up into groups of three and eventually they became scattered across many miles, never altogether. At each Ride checkpoint they were crewed by soldiers from a local Army base and fed with Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The soldiers stationed in Kansas certainly were not ready for the altitude, heat, and climbs.
Hal Hall, age 17, rode again. A group of worn-out soldiers had arrived at Michigan Bluff, about mile 60, right before Hall. He recalled, “They looked a bit whipped. Their faces were blush-red, they were sweaty, and generally looked tired. They were under a shady tree, most of them seated, and some laying on the ground. Some were shirtless as they filled canteens, and wetted bandanas for their heads.” Most of the soldiers dropped out along the way but seven were successful in marching all the way to the finish. Six finished with a time of 44:54 and another soldier finished in 46:49.
Hal Hall finished the ride for the first time on his Arabian horse, El Karbaj. He had been determined to do well and came in 2nd place. He won the Haggin Cup for the best conditioned top horse to finish.
At the awards banquet that Sunday evening, the finishing soldiers were presented with many awards including a trophy for the first finishers on foot prepared by Wendell Robie. One soldier said, “It’s a once in a lifetime thing! I’d never do it again unless I had to, but what a great sense of satisfaction to have finished.” The Fort Riley Post stated, “This was the first time the trail had been competitively traveled on foot with a time factor involved.” See Western States 100 on Foot: The Forgotten First Finishers to read details of their historic march.
Gordy Ainsleigh saw the soldiers and knew that they covered the course on foot, and he passed by the finishing seven during the early morning. He finished ten minutes quicker than the previous year.
Gordy Runs his First Ride
In 1973, Ainsleigh, knowing that seven soldiers had been able to cover the Western States Trail on foot, went to a 50-mile ride event to attempt to run it. In 1967 the Castle Rock Ride, patterned after the Western State Trail Ride, was established in Henry Coe State Park in Northern California southeast of San Jose. “Locals described [the ride] as a test similar to the famed Tevis Cup Ride in Placer County, except on a smaller scale.” By 1973 it was a 50-mile point-to-point ride that attracted riders from several states. That year it started on the Pacific coast beach near Davenport, California, went through Castle Rock State Park, and finished at a ranch in Los Gatos near San Jose. Ainsleigh successfully ran the course in about nine hours, finishing in the middle of the pack of riders who had two mandatory one-hour stops.
Gordy Runs the Western States Trail Ride
In 1973, Gordy Ainsleigh rode again at the Western States Trail Ride, but only made it to Robinson Flat (mile 30), which took him seven hours. His horse was lame and couldn’t continue.
He gave away that horse and intended to ride again in 1974, but procrastinated finding another horse. Dru Barner, Wendell Robie’s assistant, suggested and encouraged Ainsleigh to run the course on foot, to try and finish it in under 24-hours. She said to him, “We’re all wondering when you’re going to leave the horse behind and just do it on foot.” In the previous years when he would ride, he would run much of the course leading or following his horse.
Just seven weeks earlier, he had teamed up to win the 42-mile Levi Ride & Tie Race with Jim Larimer of Auburn and Larimar’s Arabian horse, Smoke in Klamath Falls, Oregon. For “Ride & Ties,” two runners/riders and one horse, race to reach a finish line together. One person rides ahead, ties off the horse so it could eat and rest, and then runs ahead. The other runner catches up, rides the horse and continues the leap frogging to the finish. It took very skilled and fit runners and riders to win these competitions.
Ainsleigh decided to run the 1974 Western States Trail Ride and wanted finish much faster than the soldiers did two years earlier. In 1972 his running coach expressed the belief that no one could run that trail in under 24 hours. Ainsleigh believed otherwise. Wendell Robie, the “prime mover” in establishing Western States Trail Ride had his doubts if Ainsleigh could do it. He said, “It is probably a universal opinion that it is beyond the powers of human endurance to span the 100 miles of this rough mountainous trail on foot in a period of 24 hours, but Harry (Gordy) probably will make one or two of the control stations within the operational schedule.”
To train, Ainsleigh would get a car ride to Michigan Bluffs and then run to Auburn. He did that four times in six weeks. In preparation, a few days before the race, he rode his dirt bike to various points on the course, and dropped off Gatorade that he would need during the run.
On race morning, Ainsleigh was given a good head start on the horses and tried to stay ahead of most of them for the first 30 miles or so to Robinson Flat. With all the single track trails in that section he didn’t want to be delayed by stepping off the trail to let horses go by, so he ran faster than planned. The horses then started to pass him as he slowed, but he passed them again as they slowed and took their mandatory rest stops. A kind timing crew gave him canned peaches at Last Chance and at Devil’s Thumb he was really struggling in the 107 degree heat. He had decided to quit because he was so drained and felt so weak. His sister was stopped there with a lame horse and recognized that he was dehydrated and suffering from hyponatremia. She revived him with salt and water. Thirty minutes later, he was on his way again.
From Michigan Bluff to the finish, he “panhandled” for food and liquids from plenty of people on the course. He stopped at one point to help some riders with a horse that had collapsed in the river. With 20 miles to go, he asked for a guide rider to help pace him to the finish. Many people were curious and betting on whether he could finish by 24 hours. As the finish came closer, he had been passed by the majority of the horses and was running amidst the riders and horses struggling to make the 24-hour cutoff in time.
At the finish, at McCann Stadium on the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn, Hal Hall, had finished six hours earlier and was the winner of the Tevis Cup that year. He was Ainsleigh’s friend and had gotten up several times during the night to walk his horse, in order to make sure it didn’t stiffen up. Hall went back to rest and asked someone to wake him up to witness Ainsleigh’s finish. Around 4:30 a.m., exciting news arrived that Ainsleigh was close to the finish.
Ainsleigh entered the stadium, did a somersault and headstands before the finish line, and crossed with a time of 23:42. There were lots of cheers and congratulations. He became the eighth person to cover the course on foot and the first to break 24 hours.
Ainsleigh would become the icon of the future Western States 100 and the founders would make sure to “cement Gordy’s place in history.” For the next 44 years he was incorrectly credited as being the first to cover the course on foot during the Ride until the story of the soldier’s march was brought into the light and told in 2018. Nevertheless, Ainsleigh would be great ambassador for the sport, and the story of his 1974 run would be the most legendary story in ultrarunning.
The Western States Trail Run
For the 1977 Ride, Wendell Robie decided it was time to add a 100-mile run too. He was the founder of the infamous run. The first year it was called the “Western States National One Day Run.” Robie ordered a “mammoth” three-foot Tevis Cup trophy replica, a perpetual trophy for winning runner. It became named the “Wendell Robie Cup.” Those who finished in 24-hours would receive a belt buckle with an etching of the figure of Hermes, messenger of the gods. Robie said he hoped that the race that year would give Auburn “a name among the physical endurance enthusiasts.” He further stated, “from the quality and number of the interested runners signing up, it looks like the run will become a yearly event.” The entry fee was $30.
The 1977 race was organized by the rider organization, The Western States Trail Foundation with Ainsleigh given the race director role. He had talked about putting in a qualifier requirement that the runners had to have completed a marathon in at most 3:15. He said, “We don’t want anyone who isn’t a good runner.”
Mo Livermore and Curt Sproul were the race managers. Shannon Weil, an experienced finisher of the ride, was invited to help with the run. The four horse inspection stations were utilized as aid stations and the veterinarians would check the runners as they came through.
1977 was the only year when the Run was held concurrently with the Ride. It turned out to be the hottest day of the year. 200 riders and 14 runners started. If a runner wanted to pass a rider they would yell “Trail.” Weil rode along on her horse monitoring the runners and rode the final 40 miles with the front-runner and eventual winner, Andy Gonzales, who set the course record in 22:57. Only three runners finished. The other two finished in more than 24 hours. That helped race staff to consider extending the finish cutoff..