Competitive walking appeared around 1600 in England. It appears to have grown from the practice of having “footmen” accompany the English aristocracy on their journeys by horse-drawn coach. The footmen hurried off ahead of the coach to carry messages or make advance arrangements at the inn or country house that was the coach’s destination for the evening.
It became an amusement of the nobility to match their footmen against one another in races and place large bets on the results. Eventually, talented footmen were trained to compete in matches arranged over varying distances, and a class of professional pedestrians evolved.
The rules were fairly loose, however it was understood that footmen were expected to keep pace with their master’s carriages without actually running. According to Phil Howell:
Competition between footmen gave way during the second half of the 18th century to men racing against time over long distances. “Pedestrians” (as the walkers were called) could win a very handsome fee for walking dozens — or even hundreds — of miles within a proscribed time. Side bets were, of course, very welcome.
One of the more popular goals involved covering at least 100 miles in less than 24 hours. Those meeting this goal were (and still are) called Centurions…
The early 19th century saw the return of races between men. Town-to-town events, supported by gambling, became quite the rage — even becoming the most popular sport in England for a while.
Full publication information: Newbold, 303 and 304 Strand, W.C., London: August 11, 1866.
Howell, Phil. “A Brief History of Racewalking in the United States.” North American Racewalking Foundation. 1996. Online at Run the Planet. http://www.runtheplanet.com/resources/historical/rwushistory.asp (13 May 2009).
Milroy, Andy. “1000 Miles: a history.” Ultramarathon World. 1998. http://fox.nstn.ca/~dblaikie/uw-1000m.html.