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Original Issue

The Great Race on Stilts

"They still talk about it in the bistros of Bordeaux almost 80 years afterward. In the country cafés where they drink the new, raw wine of the local vineyards, someone is sure to start telling again how it was in that May week of 1892; how somebody's grandfather tottered at five miles an hour on his stilts to that very spot, paused long enough to drain his seventh brandy of the morning, took three more long strides and collapsed to the ground under the combined stress of exercise and alcohol; how the great-aunt of that fellow at the next table covered no fewer than 20 miles in a brisk afternoon's stilting and then went home to cook dinner as if nothing had happened.

Les Landes is the name given to a large flat expanse of the southwest of France, stretching roughly from Bordeaux to Biarritz alongside the Bay of Biscay. Its soil is sandy and agriculturally almost useless. A few pine trees flourish there, but otherwise the ground is given over to sheep, to heather and to scrubby bushes. Through most of its history, the undrained lagoons and marshes of Les Landes made normal walking impossible. To get over the ditches and through the water—and to be able to herd their flocks among the scrub and protect them against predatory wolves—the local shepherds wore stilts that elevated them as much as four extra feet above ground. They were handy as well for those who made their living gathering resin (for turpentine) from the high pines of the area. In the 4,600 square miles of Les Landes, the average countryman probably spent as much time on stilts as a Texas ranchhand spent on horseback.

The great, home-hewn ash poles were kept on hooks attached to the beams of cottage ceilings and could be mounted with ease by sitting on the mantelpiece, or with more difficulty from ground level. The walker lashed the stilts to his upper legs by cloth or leather bindings called arroumères, and thus left his hands free. He carried a third and longer pole as a balance, and when stationary he could prop his back on it to provide a firm tripod while he watched over the sheep. On his back he carried a little satchel, the baluchon, in which he kept food, animal medicines and the materials needed for knitting the footless stockings peculiar to the district.

Long before the New York press invented contests to promote circulation, the French papers were doing the same thing by organizing races. They organized road races on foot, on bicycles, on horses, even in the novel motorcar. In 1892 the proprietors of Bordeaux's daily paper, La Petite Gironde, were desperate for new, dramatic, circulation-building ideas that had not been tried. Someone seriously suggested a race among those who could walk on their hands. But it wasn't until some journalist noticed two peasants stilting at top speed toward Bordeaux that the final great idea took shape.

A preliminary suggestion, published in La Petite Gironde, brought a flood of interest, including hundreds of suggestions on the way the affair should be organized. The length of the course was not decided until long after the principle of the stilt race was established. At first, the newspaper contemplated a few brisk miles out and back. Some of the expert stilt men, however, disdainfully intimated that they couldn't be bothered. Then the course was fixed from Bordeaux to Bayonne and return, a round trip of 474 kilometers. Hardly had that been settled and published when the officialdom of Biarritz complained that their tourist season would be busy and their visitors would not want to miss the spectacle—so an extra 16 kilometers to Biarritz must certainly be included. The final route was set at a grueling 490 kilometers, or 305 miles: the estimated time needed was 8½ days—nonstop.

"What, men only?" shrieked a formidable bunch of berg√®res, résini√®res and other womenfolk well accustomed to traveling by the traditional Landais method. "Why leave us out?" "Because," the men replied shrewdly, "if we let you race, our families will starve; who will cook for them?"

As a compromise, a ladies' race was fixed as a mere one-day affair over 37 miles, which would get all the contestants home in time to perform their evening alchemy.

Never can sports promoters have been so gratified by a response: the newspaper itself was putting up prizes of 1,000 francs (then $170) and a gold medal for the winner, and appropriately less valuable sums and medals for the runners-up. But local and national organizations and merchants were not to be outdone: everyone who completed the course would be awarded some kind of a medal. Towns and villages along the route designed their own trophies for presentation to passing competitors. Watchmakers, bootmakers and hatters all proffered their wares to winners. There was a prize for the oldest competitor to finish and another for the youngest; a host of special awards for the women; and, naturally, a booby prize for the man who came in last.

Never before had the folk of Les Landes been treated to such an event. Before long, heavy betting broke out. The three competitors most favored were Jean Lafont, a paper-mill worker from Ste.-Eulalie; Pierre Deycard, a woodcutter of Salles; and a little 21-year-old house painter named Antoine Dugrand, who, although under five feet in height, was known to have the strength of an ox and a giant determination not to be beaten.

While the populace waited for the event, prospective racers unhooked their favorite stilts from the beams and went into serious training; they held short rehearsal races around the villages, perfecting techniques and equipment. Rubber sockets were fitted to the butts of stilts to deaden the shock of the hard road; special chafe-proof bindings were devised to stand up to a hundred hours of wear.

At 9:22 on the morning of May 26 a pistol was fired, and 69 male competitors strode, with their storklike two-yard paces, south from the center of Bordeaux. One minute later the 18 women racers followed, along the same route. One fell immediately but remounted without difficulty. Wearing simple bonnets or elaborate flower hats with veils, they did their best to present a picture of femininity, despite the obvious handicaps. The day was hot, and unladylike perspiration affected every competitor. Perhaps Mlle. Marie Pascal of Lanton, who strode home an easy winner, was particularly gratified when she received one of the many extra prizes—a case of soap.

In the meantime, the men were striding ahead. First, along the stone cobbles of the pavé; then, farther out into the country, along dirt roads, through shady avenues of tall poplar and sycamore, and past vineyards and villages with thirstmaking wine names like Graves, Barsac and Sauternes. From almost every café, the aproned proprietor walked out with a tray bearing glasses of the local product for the sustenance of the weary stilt racers, who reached downward, quaffed quickly and strode on to the next checkpoint.

Most checkpoints were cafés, and the proud innkeepers made sure that every racer was properly fed in his establishment—thus bringing in customers from miles around to have a look. Kilogrammes of beef and mutton, quintaux of vegetables, hectolitres of wine—all passed easily down the parched throats of the competitors. One local delicacy was in particular evidence: chabrol, a broth so liberally strengthened with red wine that bowl and bottle differed hardly at all in color.

Unlike modern long-distance races, this contest was not restricted to certain daily hours or distances; if you wanted to win, you just kept going. One old man finished his 120-hour effort having enjoyed no more than eight hours of sleep.

After three days the course left the flat plain and took to hills with awkward gradients. The wear and tear on legs and feet, despite the precautions of padding, was colossal; chafes and bean-sized blisters broke out on even the most protected, and first-aid men were kept overworked at checkpoints with the application of nostrums, salves and bandages.

On the third day the racers approached the turning point—Biarritz. Hurrying to make a dramatic midway spurt, Pierre Deycard covered the last five miles into the town in a mere 55 minutes, the rubber sockets on the butts of his stilts thudding along the hard road. News of his progress filtered back to later competitors, and one resolved that if he could not win a formal prize in the race, he could at least acquire temporary fame by setting an even faster pace than Deycard. They clocked him in at Biarritz, after he'd covered five miles in 42 minutes to register a speed of seven miles per hour. There crowds of tourists lined the streets, including King Oscar II of Sweden, visiting the town for his health. Brass bands played; amateur photographers did their best to capture on glass plates the sight of a battered procession of half-exhausted men in shepherd's smocks coated with fine dust and stained with sweat and spilt wine, their wide white hats drooping sadly.

When the first stilters arrived at Dax, on the return journey, they had already covered 200 painful miles. Spectators who had backed the three favorites—Lafont, Deycard and little Antoine Dugrand—were hastily placing fresh money on an obscure peasant called Dominique Roumégoux, who for several days had held an easy and unexpected lead. Those on the spot at Dax observing Roumégoux on his arrival noticed that he bore a fixed, wan expression from lack of sleep, while his rivals strode up to the check post in high spirits, and many hastily changed their bets again. Sound students of racing form in Dax plunged heavily on a shepherd called Peyserre and laughed up the sleeves of their smocks at those who still fancied the chances of the wavering, weary Roumégoux.

Fifty-five miles—and nearly two days—further on, the field was sadly depleted as the racers stilted wearily through the village of St.-Symphorien. By then, 56-year-old Jean Gaillard, by far the oldest entrant, had already given up at Orthez, after 185 kilometers of agony. The villagers had shouted out "A droite, √† gauche, √† droite, √† gauche" to cheer the old fellow on, but soon his legs could take no more. Others quit because of broken stilts, broken spirits, hunger, thirst or merely bruises and blisters. By St.-Symphorien, only 32 of the 69 starters remained in action.

Poor Roumégoux was faltering badly, and was overtaken time and again by competitors with an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy. Little Dugrand, in spite of a nasty fall, moved well up among the leaders; he kept friendly company most of the route with paper-mill worker Jean Lafont. And never far from them, still almost as trim and spruce as the day he had started, the stern-faced, mustached Pierre Deycard strode purposefully on—waving aside all offers of alcoholic stimulus and sticking strictly to black coffee.

At last the friendship between Dugrand and Lafont had to come to an end as the final long spurt for Bordeaux approached. Their strides lengthened and quickened; the dust spurted from the road as first one, then the other, drove ahead. Meanwhile, Deycard thrust stolidly—and soberly—into the lead.

It was a weary and long-drawn-out procession indeed that dragged into Bordeaux on the next day, May 30. Deycard, almost dozing on his long legs, was completing the 309-mile trip in just over 100 hours at an average speed of three miles an hour. The organizers had estimated eight days for the race: Deycard needed less than five. Sixty cyclists, hundreds of pedestrians and a brass band traveled to the suburbs of Bordeaux to meet him. Jean Lafont, the paper-mill worker from St.-Eulalie, came a close second. Four hours behind followed the stocky, 4'11" Antoine Dugrand, to gain third place, resplendent in a scarlet waistcoat, a wet handkerchief over his head and a scarlet beret on top of that.

After the finish Pierre Deycard, his white suit and straw hat almost as spruce as when he had started, was given an immediate medical examination. "Pulse 129, heart 120 a minute," reported the doctor. "A little swelling on the right foot. Wiry, muscular man—grand type of the Landais." Prizes poured in by the dozen. The city was en f√™te with fireworks. A friendly hotel owner whisked the hero away, gave him the best suite and the services of a masseur. The facade of the hotel glowed with a thrilling novelty—it was floodlit by the enterprising Société de l'Electricité. There followed for Deycard a six-hour sleep and the best banquet the hotel could provide—including raw eggs in Madeira and many, many bowls of chabrol.

Other early competitors were equally lavishly treated by the city; and diminutive Antoine Dugrand earned special sympathy for a great finish in spite of his handicap.

Three years later he donned his stilts for a solo journey from Bordeaux to Paris; thence into Belgium, to Brussels; back again to Paris; and home—a round trip of 1,300 miles with an average speed of three miles an hour. Perhaps, after all, a mere 300 miles was not really his distance.