By Hillary Delaney
Though race walking is an Olympic sport, it seems that much of the American athletic community does not measure it with the same seriousness as other sports. For example, sports commentator Bob Costa once compared race walking to “a contest to see who could whisper the loudest.” All joking aside, there are athletes all over the world in training to fast walk their way to gold.
Once called “heel and toe walking,” for the strict standards placed on the gait, this sport gained widespread popularity after the Civil War. Competitors were of all races, creeds, ages and genders, and all were fast walkers. In 1884, there was a race in Louisville, and the competitors, comprised entirely of African American men, walked in a two-day race event, for a total of about 100 miles each.
A page-one feature in the Louisville Courier Journal in 1888 was focused on the training and health habits of several winning pedestrians. A Spanish champion featured in the article advised a diet comprised of fruits, vegetables and lean meats, while an American champion with a similar record seemed to favor mutton, steaks and chops, followed by Bass ale. Though it may not seem the healthiest diet, he was still claiming to run for two hours each day, and could walk at a pace of nine miles per hour. In a single race (over several days) the hearty eater walked a total of 531 miles.
One of the champions of the sport was a man named C. G. Hubbell, from right here in Boone County. Though it’s unclear where he began his training as a heel-and-toe walker, he moved from our area sometime around the turn of the century and was at the height of his athletic noteriety after relocating to Pennsylvania. It was in Carlisle, PA, in 1907, that Hubbell took on an interesting exhibition race. The day after Christmas, a local skating rink advertised the race between “Champion Heel and Toe Walker of Boone County, Kentucky: C. G. Hubbell” and Mr. Frank Herman, who was to compete on roller skates. Though the winner remains a mystery, Hubbell continued his pastime. Two years later, this time referred to as the “Champion of Pennsylvania,” Hubbell issued a challenge to anyone who was interested in the sport to join him on a fast walk. The goal seemed less focused on the competition aspect, than on raising awareness of the sport. He proposed a race from five to twenty-five miles (challenger’s choice) in a public space, where all could attend admission-free. Within a few years, Hubbell had moved on to marathons; but only those which allowed very fast walkers.