This excerpt appears in the book Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport by Matthew Algeo. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game(Listen to our interview with Matthew and read Bill’s book review.)

It may be worth pondering again the peculiar appeal of pedestrianism, an appeal that transcended the boundaries of social class, gender, and nationality at a time when such boundaries were rigid, particularly in Britain. Watching half-dead men stagger in circles for days on end might strike the reader as monotonous, if not outright boring. Yet, judging by the attendance at the first Astley Belt race at least, there was obviously something alluring about the sport. Perhaps it was the electric atmosphere inside the vast arena, with brass bands blaring and a packed house shouting itself hoarse. Perhaps it was the quirky personalities of the competitors: the genial, giant-striding Henry Vaughan; the brick-making, beer-swilling, bone-chewing Blower Brown; the impish, stuttering, eel-broth-loving William “Corkey” Gentleman. Perhaps it was the bitter rivalries the competitors embodied: [Daniel] O’Leary, the lone Irishman [and naturalized American citizen], pitted against the overwhelming forces of British pedestrianism—a metaphor for the Irish struggle for independence from imperialist Britain. Of the handful of spontaneous utterances of the audience that were recorded, nearly all express a degree of nationalism: “Vaughan, step out for England!” “O’Leary, hump it, and lick the Britisher!”

But there was something else about it, something oddly captivating. It was like watching a NASCAR race in super-slow motion: hypnotic, mesmerizing, with the promise of imminent catastrophe. “[A] brilliant poet,” [race promoter John] Astley wrote (without naming names, unfortunately), “confided to me one morning, in the small hours at the Agricultural Hall, that he had never been so interested in any show in his life.”