Weston's Comebacks
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Sunday, 22 November 2009 21:58

Weston the Great Failer

This article contains an account of Edward Payson Weston's challenges against time and against himself in his later years, bypassing his competitive career on indoor tracks. The stage is set with a derisive editorial and some accomplishments between 1879 and 1884. Then the article springs thirty years forward to the senior Weston's outdoor feats.

An amusing rant appeared in the NY Times in 1879, entitled, "The Walking Torture: Weston the Great Failer."

Part of the article went like this "...the public now regards Mr. Weston as a tedious and wholly unnecessary person... Mr. Weston... will survive the international walking match, and will live to make a dozen more pedestrian failures before he retires from public life... There is not one interesting or redeeming feature in the walking-matches as they are usually conducted." There were also suggestions that Weston should be made to walk the plank by pirates or that retired treadmills of English prisons be resurrected for him.


It would be worthwhile to compile a list of Weston's many failures, such as lost challenges, late finishes, and bad performances. He made many failed attempts to set one-day, two-day, and five-day records that would be considered extraordinary accomplishments for the average person. Those failures played a role in connecting with the public, and served as springboards to even greater successes.

Cross-country walks in England

Two of these achievements, a failure and a success, involved cross-country walks on roads in England.

In 1879 Weston set out to walk 2,000 miles in 1,000 hours on the roads of England, publishing the schedule of towns in advance, including 50 speeches along the way. Despite the interruption of enthusiastic crowds, the injury of being trampled, and oppressive winter conditions, he persisted to the finish. By arriving in 1,008 hours, he lost £100 instead of winning £500.

In 1883-1884 Weston walked 5,000 miles in 100 days in England, which was 50 miles daily at the age of 44. He walked 2,000 miles indoors and 3,000 miles on roads. According to a 1909 NY Times article, Weston regarded this feat as his "star accomplishment.."


Cross-country walks in USA

Weston felt the onset of "rheumatic twinges" at the turn of the century, so he resumed his walking challenges. "Walking is equivalent to sleep," he later said, "for it is the most healthful thing you can do." The source of this continued without an attribution, "It earns a healthful sleep, a good digestion, and a limber old age." (The 1913 NY Times)

In December 1893 he demonstrated his vitality to skeptical physicians by walking 160 miles from the Battery park in New York over ice and snow to the Albany capitol in 60 hours. (NY Times, Feb 28, 1909)

On May 2, 1906, Weston walked from Philadelphia to New York, 100 miles less than 24 hours. He bettered his previous time, made 43 years earlier in 1863, by 18 minutes. Some of well-wishers had witnessed the feat the first time. "Every Little Town Had a Cheering Throng as the Old Man Passed By." (NY Times, May 24, 1906)

Note, the above article contains a fleeting reference to an 1863 event for which no other document may exist.

In 1907, Weston repeated walked from Portland, ME to Chicago, IL, in a repeat of 1867 triumph 40 years later. He walked 19 miles farther and bettered his time by 29 hours (also recorded as 40 hours). The exultant crowds may have prevented an official reception planned in his honor. (NY Times, Nov 28, 1907, May 14, 1929)

Westbound failure - 1909

In 1909 Weston set his sights on an ambitious westward transcontinental walk, starting on his 70th birthday. He added 1,000 miles to the most direct itinerary. Facing unexpected storms, muddy roads, snow drifts, desert heat and separation from his support vehicle, he arrived in 105 days. (NY Times, with Weston as correspondent)

A letter to the editor by one Carl Temple, printed on July 16, 1909, who had seen Weston in nearly all of his greatest walks 30 years earlier, lauded Weston as "the one great inapproachable athlete of the world." (NY Times, July 16, 1909)

Notwithstanding the praise, Weston must have been fuming. He wrote, "This has been an effort which should be called one chapter of mistakes from beginning to end... This is the most crushing failure I have encountered in my career." (NY Times, July 11, 1909)

Eastbound success - 1910

On February 1, 1910 Weston departed Santa Monica, CA on an eastward transcontinental walk with an itinerary of more than 40 miles per day (except Sundays). There is mention of his walking 72 miles on his 72nd birthday. Weston turned 71 on March 15 (born 1839), so perhaps he was celebrating entering his 72nd year.

Weston arrived in Fredonia, NY, 3,000 miles into the journey, 17 days ahead of his schedule. Correspondent H.C. Long filed a report for "Physical Culture Magazine," estimating a May 2 arrival at New York city hall.

Weston apparently was amazing his support crew, as well as H.C. Long, by the daily mileage that he scored. He must have secretly planned to complete the transcontinental walk in three calendar months, including February, the shortest month of the year. A report indicates Weston completed the walk in 76 days, 23 hours, 10 minutes.

In checking the calendar of 1910, and observing that May 2 falls on a Monday, it appears that Weston wanted to finish on the Saturday of April 30 before taking his Sunday rest. In my opinion, the man wanted to make a splash for the record books. For reference, these are the 77 days Weston walked, with asterisks (*) for Sundays.

Feb 1 2 3 4 5 * 7 8 9 10 11 12 * 14 15 16 17 18 19 * 21 22 23 24 25 26 * 28
Mar 1 2 3 4 5 * 7 8 9 10 11 12 * 14 15 16 17 18 19 * 21 22 23 24 25 26 * 28 29 30 31
Apr 1 2 * 4 5 6 7 8 9 * 11 12 13 14 15 16 * 18 19 20 21 22 23 * 25 26 27 28 29 30

The walk was projected to cover 3,483 miles across the continent. The distance was later reported at 3,600 miles. Whatever the distance, Weston knew how to make an impression. He liked to arrive in important towns wearing his dress clothes.

EPW-Weston-07949vCurtain call

In 1913 Weston walked 1,546 miles from New York to Minneapolis at age 74. The noted educator and walker, Dr. John H. Finley, was the official starter.

"Amid the roar of cannon, the clanging of bells and the tooting of whistles, Edward Payson Weston completed his tramp from New York to [Minneapolis] to-day .  The aged pedestrian ... added 100 miles to his schedule and walked 1,546 miles." (NY Times, (Aug 2, 1913)

With time to spare because he had arrived four days ahead of schedule, Weston was met at the city limits and escorted into town by the major, the Boy Scouts, several hundred members of the Minneapolis Athletic Club, and a platoon of mounted police. Then Weston laid the mortar on the conerstone of the Minneapolis Athletic Club at the construction site.

Winding down

There has been (undocumented) mention of Weston looking for work as a courier and walking around the streets of New York in his old age. His obituary states that at the age of 85 Weston was shot in the leg while beating off instruders at his Kingston, NY farmhouse. A 1926 editorial cites an interview by the Saturday Evening Post, when he would have been 87. Apparently Weston was separated from his family, looked after by an "adopted daughter" and destitute when rescued by a benefactress, Anne Nichols. He was struck by a taxicab and relegated to a wheelchair at age 88. His passing made news around the world.

In 1910, H.C. Long had observed that, despite his freshness and the vigor of his step, Weston was not a strong man physically. Constant exercise was the source of his endurance.

Weston on Weston

One can remark that Weston accomplished many of his walking feats outdoors, which might provide a clue to his mind that distance hikers of today can relate to:

"Anyone can walk," says Weston. "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. It's too easy. It doesn't cost anything; therefore we have no use for it. If we had to pay to walk... we'd all be crazy about it."




The photographs in this article show the start and end of Payson's famous 1913 walk from New York to Minneapolis at the age of 74, from the Bain Collection.  The thumbnail headshot is probably the last in chronological sequence.  (Please corroborate or correct if you have better information.)

These were press photography photos taken on glass plates.  Copies of the original photos, including the surrounding environment, can be viewed at this link:  Weston Slideshow.

Print media:

Physical Culture Magazine (1910)
New York Times, articles reproduced in "The Gentle Art of Walking" (1971)
King of the Peds, P.S. Marshall (2008)


~ Charlie Duane

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 March 2010 06:53
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