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A Myth Is as Good as a Mile

In the very long ago a sturdy Scotsman set out on a remarkable walk

The walkers who come to the attention of the world these days are usually—like Justice William O. Douglas—interesting for other reasons than their prowess at walking. Time was, even before the walkathons of the '20s, when walking went with mighty (and perhaps mythical) qualities. In the early 19th century a Scotsman known as Captain Robert Barclay once walked one mile in each of 1,000 successive hours.

This incredible man once went out at 5 in the morning to do a little grouse shooting. He walked at least 30 miles while he potted away, and then after dinner set out on a walk of 60 miles that he accomplished in 11 hours without a halt. Barclay did not sleep after this but went through the following day as if nothing had happened, until the afternoon, when he walked 16 miles to a ball. He danced all night, and then in the early morning walked home and spent a day partridge shooting. Finally he did get to bed—but only after a period of two nights and nearly three days had elapsed and he had walked 130 miles.

Captain Barclay was born in August 1779. He grew into a handsome 6-footer of incredible strength. When he was in his 20s he lifted a weight of more than half a ton and also transported a 250-pound man standing on his right hand from the floor to a table.

At 15 he won 100 guineas in a walking match, going six miles in an hour, and between 1796 and 1809 he performed at least 26 remarkable walking and running feats. He used to bet on himself, on one occasion as much as 5,000 guineas. He won that bet by walking 90 miles in 20 hours and 22 minutes. In that same year, 1801, he also walked 110 miles in 19 hours 27 minutes, striding most of the time up to his ankles in mud. On another occasion, while attempting to do 90 miles in 21¾ successive hours, he made the mistake of drinking some brandy after having gone 67 miles in 13 hours. It made him sick, and he was unable to continue. He walked 64 miles in 10 hours on two separate occasions, and in 1805 walked 72 miles "betwixt breakfast and dinner." In 1806 he walked 100 miles in 19 hours "over the worst road in the kingdom."

Barclay also did some running and once was credited (by legend, not by eyewitnesses) with running a quarter mile in 56 seconds. Walking was his prime interest, though. When he walked he bent his body forward, throwing his weight on his knees. His step was short and his feet just skimmed the ground. He used to wear a flannel shirt, flannel trousers, a night cap, lamb's-wool stockings and thick-soled leather shoes.

Before his walking feats he used to go into bouts of training that were as much a testimonial to his constitution as his performances were. His training started with a course of purgatives, usually three doses of 1¾ to 2 ounces of Glauber's salts over a period of about a week. After that Barclay started regular workouts that covered up to 24 miles a day. He would rise at 5, run half a mile at top speed, walk six miles and have breakfast at about 7. Breakfast normally consisted of beefsteaks and mutton chops with stale bread and beer. Later he walked another six miles before lying down at 12 for half an hour's rest. Up again, Barclay went another four miles before dinner, which was a repeat of his breakfast repast. Immediately after this meal he ran half a mile at top speed. This run was followed by another six-mile walk. That did it for the day.

This regimen normally governed a period of from two to three months. After the first three or four weeks, he also underwent a weekly sweat that he induced by first running four miles swathed in flannels. On his return from this run Barclay drank a hot "sweating liquor," made from an ounce of caraway seed, half an ounce of coriander seed, one ounce of root licorice and half an ounce of sugar mixed with two bottles of cider and boiled down by half. After swallowing this concoction he got into bed, was covered with six to eight pairs of blankets and remained there for half an hour. When Barclay was eventually taken out and rubbed dry he put on a greatcoat to go for a gentle two-mile walk before a breakfast of roast fowl.

The remarkable thing (or perhaps his saving grace) is that for his most notable feat—walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 successive hours—Barclay did not bother to go into regular training. He thought it would be so easy he simply went down to Brighton on the English south coast and did some swimming. The walk, which was for 1,000 guineas, took place at Newmarket. It started on June 1, 1809 and ended on July 12, and aroused nationwide attention. During it he lost 32 pounds, weighing only 154 pounds when it was over.

This loss was not because of a poor appetite—he ate about five to six pounds of meat daily. For breakfast each day he had roast fowl, a pint of strong ale, two cups of tea plus bread and butter. At lunchtime he ate either beefsteaks or mutton chops, and at dinner roast beef or mutton chops, which he took with porter and two or three glasses of wine. An hour before midnight each day of the walk he had a supper of cold fowl.

When he first started he was in continual good health and spirits, and it was not until the 12th night that he first complained of some pain in the back of his neck and shoulders. The following day Barclay noticed a little pain in his legs, too—particularly in the back tendons. It was, in the end, his legs that gave him the most trouble, although the pain that he felt was always intermittent. His legs were first bathed with vinegar and given warm baths. On the evening of the 23rd day of his feat, Barclay got a toothache that interfered with his snatched sleep, but the following evening it had nearly gone. It was then noticed that the warm baths being applied to Barclay's legs were softening his feet. His attendants applied flannel soaked in boiling water and wrung dry, and rubbed an oil-and-camphor mixture on his legs. Shortly after the 31st day, Barclay needed help to lift himself up after he had sat or lain down. His walks and treatment began to take up so much time that his rest periods grew progressively shorter. At times he could not move without crying out. Barclay's average time for walking the mile increased from 14 minutes 54 seconds in the first week to 21 minutes 4 seconds in the sixth week.

On the 42nd day—the final one—a large crowd began to gather in the morning. The evening before, so many people had traveled to the area to witness the last moments of his walkathon that a bed was not to be had in Newmarket, Cambridge or any other local towns or villages. There were thousands of people present to watch him when he walked his last mile, including a distinguished body of dukes, earls, baronets and knights. At 3 o'clock on the afternoon of July 12, 1809 they cheered Captain Barclay as he walked his thousandth mile. It took him 22 minutes.

After a hot bath, Barclay went to bed. The following morning he felt fine. He traveled to London in a chaise and four on July 14 and three days later left to join the British military expedition that captured Walcheren in The Netherlands.

Although Barclay retired from competition after his 1,000-mile walk, he never gave up the strenuous outdoor life. Twice a week during 1810 and 1811 he rode 51 miles to hunt, and after hunting rode back home the same night. Captain Robert Barclay was apparently a frank and hospitable man who devoted himself, apart from walking, to agriculture. He did not die until he was 74. And then it was three days after a horse had kicked him.