The most famous pedestrian, and perhaps the greatest walker that ever lived, Edward Payson Weston, once said,
“Anyone can walk. It’s free, like the sun by day and the stars by night. All we have to do is get on our legs, and the roads will take us everywhere.”
Physical Culture Magazine, 1910
While his words may seem like an expression of wanderlust, Weston was nothing, if not someone who practiced what he preached.
As an American born in 1839, his life exemplified the indomitable independent spirit of a young and bold new nation. It still is hard to imagine anyone matching his accomplishment of walking over 100,000 miles in a lifetime.
It was largely because of Weston’s grand feats of long distance walking that a wildly popular, if short-lived, sport called pedestrianism was born. It quickly became a highly competitive sport that brought as much fame and fortune as any sport today. Weston’s success may have been due to his remarkable endurance and pure form, more than his strength. But, it was his skill as a promoter, ad man, and speaker, which ultimately led to his fame. He would become known as “Weston the Walkist”, or simply “The Pedestrian,” for his ability to elevate the act of walking and inspire thousands.
Starting on the East Coast, word soon spread of his exploits across the nation, and then worldwide. As Weston’s fame grew, large money purses were offered, competitors appeared and the contests became fierce. Even a great national competition was born – this time a friendly one –between the United States and England for the “Long Distance Champion of the World” title. By the 1870’s pedestrianism had become the great popular pastime that would whet the public’s appetite for so many other public sports to follow.
The following is the first in a series of articles on the life and times of Edward Payson Weston, a man who lived to be one of the most influential individuals of his time but whose accomplishments have been largely forgotten in our time. Today, with the cultural importance of sports and fitness, and a resurgence of concern for pedestrian issues , it’s time to look again at how the two came together over 150 years ago.
Weston’s life can be viewed in several stages; from his initial long distance walks that captured the attention of a nation, to his career as a world renown and highly paid professional athlete, and finally to his remarkable comeback years as a senior citizen, capable even then of amazing physical feats. In each phase, Weston re-defined the popular views of what an individual could physically accomplish by his sheer will and the simple act of walking.