The best professional athletes of the 1870’s and 80’s hoofed it around a track for six days straight, racking up 600 miles or more to the excitement of a sold-out crowd. The six-day race lives on today as an amateur fringe event, but few competitors have bested the performances of those forgotten superstar athletes.
By Greg Salvesen
Pedestrianism — the 19th-century sport of competitive walking/running — was more talked about than the weather during its heyday c. 1874–1880. The six-day race was the main event, with prize purses equivalent to US $1 million today. Competitors regularly surpassed 500 miles, sometimes resorting to desperate measures like applying electric shocks to stay awake and even bloodletting to relieve leg pressure. The pedestrianism craze ended by c. 1890, being superseded by bicycle racing and baseball.
The ultra-running subculture emerged during the marathon boom of the 1970’s. Competitive interest in modern six-day racing culminated with the breaking of the nearly century-old record in 1984. Today, the six-day world record is 644 miles for men and 549 miles for women. Collecting nearly 40 years of six-day race results, ultra-runner and astrophysicist Greg Salvesen ran the data through a statistical model to predict the probability that the records will fall in the future. Over the next ten years, the model forecasts a 53% chance of surpassing the men’s six-day world record and only 21% for the women’s record. “The data suggest the world records are definitely breakable,” says Salvesen, “but running over 100 miles each day for six days is easier said than done.”
Despite the potential for new records to be set, few among the growing population of elite ultra-runners consider competing in the six-day event. There is no money or fame in six-day racing anymore, and concerns about the time commitment and extreme boredom are common deterrents. “Six-day racers are a special breed,” says Salvesen, “and participants all share the same track, building a rare community where everyone roots for each other.” Fans of six-day racing can look forward to a highly anticipated race on the indoor, 445-meter track at the Pettit Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin starting on August 25, 2019. One is left to wonder how the top pedestrians would perform against today’s athletes given the right footwear, nutrition, and facilities.
Read the original article, published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, here: