In March, 1914, a 71 year old named Dan O’Leary was given a letter from the Mayor of Portland, Oregon to deliver to his counterpart at City Hall, San Francisco. O’Leary took the mail, put it in his jacket and then walked the 650 miles that separate the two places. By the time he’d reached California, newspaper reporters had got wind of his exploits and when they sat him down, he dismissed the fuss about his latest jaunt, pointing out he’d walked an estimated 101,874 miles since 1874. Nobody quibbled with the number because they knew that in his younger days, O’Leary was known as “the champion walker of the world”.
“I always keep my feet in first class condition,” said O’Leary, explaining the secret of his success. “I don’t let any callouses grow on the bottom. By using a little sandpaper, I file off any growth and the result is my feet are soft and smooth as glass. I never use one pair of shoes two days running. In fact, I used up six pairs coming down from Portland.”
Born in Carrigroe, County Cork on June 28th, 1842, O’Leary left the family farm in Ireland to find a new life in Chicago, where things seemed to go well enough for him until the day in October, 1871 when the city caught fire. Hundreds died, tens of thousands more lost their homes and their livelihoods. Perhaps alone of those suddenly unemployed, O’Leary decided to try his hand at competitive walking, then an enormously popular professional sport.
“O’Leary was a small, tough Irishman who had lost his job and savings in the great Chicago fire and had decided there might be a living in the pedestrian game,” wrote Walter Bernstein in the Virginia Quarterly Review. “He started off by doing a hundred miles in 23 hours. The following month, he did 105 miles in the same time and challenged Edward Weston (the most famous name in the sport) on the strength of it. Weston refused, saying O’Leary did not have a big enough reputation.”
Like any West Corkman, that was motivation enough for O’Leary. Using his own money, he rented a venue and duly smashed Weston’s record of 200 miles walked in 40 hours. That caught Weston’s attention and the two eventually squared off in Chicago in a six-day event in 1875 where O’Leary prevailed by clocking 501 miles in 143 hours. Weston later claimed the result had been unfair because his opponent had benefitted from the “home” crowd in his adopted city. He alleged the locals had been threatening to shoot him and hurled rolled up balls of paper in his face during the race.
The billboard for the return six-day match, which started on Easter Monday, 1877 at the Agricultural Hall in Islington in London (Weston was a big star in England), put the prize money at 1000 pounds and declared it, “The Largest Amount Ever Walked for in the World”. The size of the cash on offer demonstrates how big walking was at that time. Gamblers bet huge sums on the races, newspapers ran coverage on the front pages and the biggest events were held at storied venues like the old Madison Square Garden in New York.
“Races were brutal endurance events, lasting many days; one of the central tactical questions the competitors had to face was when, and for how long, to pause for sleep,” wrote Brian Phillips on Grantland.com. “Walkers would push themselves to cover 400 miles in five days, or 500 miles in six days, often suffering bloody feet — think about doing 3,000 laps in mid-Victorian footwear — swollen joints, and nastier injuries. There were deaths on the track. Because of the influence of gambling, top competitors faced a constant danger of attacks intended to stop them from spoiling a bet; big matches often involved heavy police protection. Most hauntingly of all, to my mind: The crowds were kicked out at night, but the races kept going, hours and hours of exhausted men passing in silence around enormous, empty halls, judges noting their progress as they went.”
This was the world then conquered by O’Leary. Having put Weston in his place in London where 70,000 people paid to watch over the six days and Westminster adjourned to watch the closing stages, he became what some headline writers dubbed “the champion pedestrian”. When Sir John Dugdale Astley, an English politician and promoter, tried to make the sport more structured by creating an official championship of the world for “The Astley Belt”, O’Leary won the first two editions of that before runners started to infiltrate the sport. He continued to compete though and went all over the world to race.
After his own best days had passed, O’Leary remained involved. He sponsored an event at which the world’s best competed for “The O’Leary Belt”, also designated the official “Championship of America”. In perhaps the bravest move of his career, he also financed and coached Frank Hart, a Haitian immigrant who went from working in a Boston grocery store to earning $17,000 for winning a single race. Hart’s success was all the more remarkable because the colour of his skin meant many of those walking against him refused to speak with him or to shake his hand before events. The relationship between the protégé and O’Leary was such that the Haitian’s nickname in the sport was “Black Dan”.
Later in life, O’Leary was still renowned. At 80, he reportedly hatched a plan to walk to every state capital in the United States. No official results were available for that quest but when he died shortly before his 92nd birthday while wintering in Los Angeles, most of the obituaries mentioned he failed to reach but a handful of those cities. Six thousand miles from California, in Rathbarry near his native Carrigroe, the townspeople got together a while back and built a stone monument to the man who went away and found a strange kind of fame so far from home. “Dan O’Leary – World Champion Walker” reads the inscription. What else is there to say?
(First published in the 2012 Holly Bough)