Peter Takes on History
June, 1, 1809
Robert Barclay Allardice was made for walking
On November 24, 1974, the nearly complete fossil skeleton of a 3.2 million year old human ancestor was found in Ethiopia. She was nicknamed “Lucy.” Lucy was a surprise to anthropologists. There was evidence Lucy walked upright though she didn’t have that big brain they'd thought distinguished early hominids from their simian relatives. Turns out, before we grew our big brains, we got all bipedal!
And ever since then, we’ve been hoofin’ it.
But, over the centuries, as horses and carriages became more ubiquitous, walking became less necessary, more elective and became recognized as about the healthiest thing a body can do. Walking increases blood flow to the brain and improves mood. Walking also improves balance and coordination. Walking cuts your stroke risk and, get your 10,000 steps a day and you can burn an extra 3000 to 3500 calories a week! And you can double that by race-walking.
The father of Racewalking was a Scotsman named Robert Barclay Allardice. Yes, his family was the “Barclays” of “Barclay’s” bank and were widely known to be physically strong people. Robert Barclay Allardice was a trainer of bare-knuckle boxers in addition to being, as was noted in a local paper, a “Celebrated Pedestrian.” Consider this reported catalog of feats (yes, the pun was intended):
In 1801 Captain Barclay walked 110 miles in 19 hr 27 min in a muddy park (it’s noted)
In 1802 Barclay walked 64 miles in 10 hours
In 1805 Barclay walked 72 miles between breakfast and dinner
In 1806 Barclay walked 100 miles over bad roads in 19 hours
In 1807 Barclay walked 78 miles on hilly roads in 14 hours
So it was no surprise to anyone when on this day, June 1st, 1809 Barclay began the trek that proved he was a step above. He wagered a fellow pub patron 1000 pounds that he could walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours. Think about that! That’s the equivalent of walking from Milwaukee to New Orleans … in 1000 hours!
He spent the next six weeks walking one mile at the end of an hour and another at the beginning of the next hour. That’s a half hour of walking followed by approximately 90 minutes of rest. That works out to a mile every hour. His course was a half mile track of level, smooth and uncultivated land to be walked out and back. But it was no walk in the park.
Despite having trained extensively, Captain Barclay suffered cramps, spasms, swelling and crippling aches and pains. Though he ate five to six pounds of meat per day, he lost 32 pounds during the challenge. His biggest obstacle was sleep deprivation. At times his aide had to beat him on his shoulders with a cane to wake him in time to complete the next mile. But Barclay persisted and by the fifth week crowds had swollen into the thousands requiring police to rope off his circuit and provide 24 hour crowd control.
On the 42nd day “he finished his last mile “with perfect ease and great spirits, amidst an immense concourse of spectators.” The crowd cheered and Barclay was awarded his 1000 pounds. A princely sum made pawlty in comparison to the 100,000 pounds he earned by participating in the feverish wagering that developed on the sidelines. That’s more than $9M in today’s dollars.
Walking 1000 miles in 1000 hours became known as the Barclay challenge and in the years since nearly 200 people have tried and nearly half have succeeded. But before I wrap up this story I want to praise one particular effort.
The first woman to ever accomplish the Barclay challenge was a 30 year old Brit named Emma Sharp. In 1864, when Mrs. Sharp mounted her challenge, it was widely believed women were too frail to participate in such strenuous exercise. Her own husband thought it was unladylike. Many tried to dissuade her. Dissuade might be too gentle a word. As local papers reported her progress, immense crowds gathered and with male egos on the line, there were many malicious attempts to stop her. People threw fiery embers in her path. They tried to drug her food and trip her. During her final two days she carried a pistol to ward off attackers and reportedly fired it 27 times.
In the end, 25,000 people watched her cross the finish line to a mixed chorus of cheering and jeering. There was a big brass band and the city roasted oxen to feed the crowd. Her husband forgave her the indiscretion of this exhibition when, again, the winnings from the many sidebets made the couple very wealthy and widely well known.
Against all odds, Emma Sharp prevailed “backwards and in high heels” so to speak. A notable victory for all women.