The History Of The Ultramarathon

Oct 28 2014 0 Comments October 2014

Marathon runner
Edward Payson Weston was an American who found fame by walking long distances.  Long distance walking became a celebrity sport in the States in the mid to late nineteenth century, with thousands turning out to cheer on their heroes. Weston, who was later nicknamed Weston the Pedestrian by the press, made a name for himself by saying that he could walk from Boston to Washington in ten days and be there in time for President Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861.  Unfortunately, Weston was half a day late but President Lincoln was so impressed with the attempt, that he offered to pay his fare back to Boston.  Weston thanked him but politely declined his offer and then walked back to Boston.
In 1867 Weston decided that he could make a living from long distance walking and began his professional walking career with a 25 day walk of 1,326 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago.  Weston was usually dressed in black velvet knee breeches,  a blue sash, kid gloves and a white silk hat to please his cheering fans. Weston set his sights on breaking records and began by walking 100 miles in 22 hours and 19 minutes.  In 1874 he broke another record by walking 500 miles in under six days and became the Champion Pedestrian of the World.  Weston then went to London and won the Astley Belt, which was a six day walking match – he was 100 miles ahead of the next competitor. Weston continued his competitive walks and at the age of 72, he planned to walk from Santa Monica to New York in 90 days – he achieved it in 76.  Weston died at the age of 90, having spent the last two years of his live in a wheelchair after being hit by a New York taxi.
The popularity of long distance walking waned with the advent of the car.   The next time we see a long distance event is in South Africa in 1921.  World War I had left seventeen million people dead and families were torn apart.   Ex soldier, Vic Clapham wanted to start an event which would not only reunite old comrades in arms but would also be run in honour  of the fallen heroes of World War I.  He wanted to organise a run from his home town of Pietermaritzburg to Durban, which was a distance of ninety kilometres. Clapham put his idea to The League of Comrades of the Great War in 1918 but they refused to sponsor the event.  Clapham was again unsuccessful in 1919 and 1920 but in 1921, the League finally gave in and gave him a loan of £1.  The first Comrades Marathon had a total of 34 runners.  The race is still run every year and has a field of 23,000 runners who come from all over the world to compete.
In 1953 the London to Brighton marathon became an official race, even though it had been run regularly over the previous fifty years.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that ultra running started to become really popular and now it has its rightful place as one of the world’s top running events. Weston and the early Comrades runners would not have needed reflective vests, as they did not have to contend with the road conditions of today, but today’s runners need to wear either a reflective running vest or reflective belt.


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