Around noon, with the race still an hour away, the walkers began to arrive at the red crushed-shale track of Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo. They carried blankets and extra clothing: sweatsuits, hats, shoes. Some brought oilskin ponchos because rain had been forecast. Before getting into their socks and track shoes, sneakers or Hush Puppies, they rubbed Vaseline between their toes to prevent chafing and put moleskin on areas likely to get sore or blistered. Some taped the gap between shoe rim and sock or slipped on spats cut from old stockings to keep the small sharp shale pebbles out of their shoes.
Wives and children, the only spectators on hand, set up a couple of tents and a table to serve as a feeding station. They produced sandwiches, honey, coffee, unfizzed Coke and special energy drinks like BP (not a fuel, but Body Punch) and E.R.G. (Electrolyte Replacement Glucose, a "Gookinaid"). Six judges sat down under a canopy, ready to record and announce everybody's quarter-mile splits.
There were only 30 walkers at the start on that last Saturday in September (as compared to 2,180 runners in this year's Boston Marathon), and only a few of them could realistically expect to finish the race, for this was no weekend stroll. The distance was 100 miles, a staggering 400 laps around the track, to be completed within 24 hours. The contestants would have to walk at least at a 14-minutes-per-mile pace, which would allow 40 minutes for "pit stops" in the restrooms at the top of the stands, clothing changes in the cold of the night and perhaps a brief nap in a tent.
This was the 10th National 100-Mile Walking Championship, which is billed as the toughest track event in the U.S.—Race Director Joe Duncan calls it "the ultimate madness." Columbia was a fitting site. Besides being the home of the giant killer football team of the University of Missouri, it is a sanctuary for some 20 serious race walkers. Larry Young, twice an Olympic medal winner, lives there; so does Augie Hirt, who ranks second to Young in the 50 kilometers and works as an accountant for a CPA. Hirt returned from the 50 km. World Championship in Sweden, where he finished 27th, just in time to enter this year's 100.
It was another Columbia resident, Bill Clark, who conceived the 100-mile championship in 1966. He had been inspired by the Centurion Club of Great Britain and its 100-mile walks that had been going on since the turn of the century and by the feats of three American amateur walkers who in 1878 completed a 100-miler within 24 hours on an indoor track in New York—the country's first centurions. But when Clark sent out invitations in 1966, nobody came.
In the fall of 1967, however, five competitors did show up, and off they went. After 64½ miles, 60-year-old Larry O'Neil was the only survivor and on his way to what still stands as the record—19:24:34—churning along at an incredible 11:40 pace. Only Larry Young has gone faster, but his record of 18:07:12 was set indoors in 1971 when the Hickman track was flooded by rain.
O'Neil, now 69, revered as the dean of the event, was back for his ninth try after having completed four of the previous eight. A trim, bright-eyed man, he trains eight miles a day in the mountains near his lumber business in Kalispell, Mont., wearing shorts whether it shines or snows. He will don a sweatsuit only when the temperature drops below zero. "I was very happy when I finished my first race," he said, "even though my feet were covered with a bloody scab from the crushed shale on the track and all my toenails had fallen off."
John Argo, a little 62-year-old timber feller from Mattawa, Ontario, a town of 2,600, was also back. He had entered the Columbia walk in 1970 and 1973 and the British one in 1971 and finished all three. He is also renowned for having paddled Canada's three-day, 122-mile canoe race from Ville Marie to North Bay six times and for winning the snowshoe competition at the North Bay Winter Carnival nine years in a row. In 1970 fie traveled 43 miles on snowshoes to the Winter Carnival because its organizers, who viewed him as a special attraction, had promised to pay his way to the Columbia walk if he made it.
The pre-race favorite was Chuck Hunter, the defending champion, a 39-year-old air traffic controller from Longmont, Colo. He had entered three previous races and gone the distance each time. Built like a football player, he is often asked whether his size—6', 180 pounds—is not a handicap. "It's just like a Clydesdale horse against a quarter horse," he likes to answer. "You get more work out of the former, but in shorter distances it is an advantage to be the latter." The work Hunter does stomping along the hilly roads near his home amounts to 5,000 miles a year.
Another of the old regulars was Chris Clegg, a 59-year-old security doorman for a Los Angeles department store and still very much an Englishman though he became a U.S. citizen 22 years ago. He had walked 100-milers in England, at Columbia and in Australia. Others in the field included an executive of Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri and his colleague, a professor of political science, a vegetarian from Springfield, Mass. who is notorious for a fast shuffle that fills other walkers' shoes with pebbles, and a prisoner from the Fordland Honor Camp—Albert Van Dyke—who is serving a sentence for second-degree murder. Van Dyke arrived with a broken jaw. "Showed off doing calisthenics," he said.
To keep youngsters out of the race—in the past they would start it as a lark—the age limit is 19, but the most serious competitors are to be found in the over-40 bracket. "At that age," explained the anthropology professor, Rob Spier, "man should be mature enough to handle boredom. The older competitors in this race seem better disciplined than the younger ones." Augie Hirt, who is only 25, said, "This race is not important to us. We are race walkers, not survivors." Three years ago Hirt entered the race, and after 57 miles he had to be carried off the track. Last year he completed 62¼ miles (100 kilometers). This year he said, "I wish I could finish it once, so that I would never have to try it again." How do they manage to pass the time? Humming a song, perhaps, but mainly counting laps, keeping track of their splits. "After a while," said one walker, "the mind can't handle more than that anyway."
The race was a jaunty affair as long as daylight lasted. The walkers chatted; one listened to the Missouri-Ohio State game on a transistor radio. Enjoying his brief freedom, Van Dyke led the first mile in 9:48, then Hunter took over. His first 25 miles were the fastest ever recorded on the track—4:26:13. But Hirt, who had set out at an 11-minute pace and had kept an eye on Hunter, caught him after 48 miles.
By that time the race was becoming a nightmare. Heavy showers had made the inside lane a muddy river and the back-stretch a lake district. The walkers were forced to weave around the deeper puddles, covering added distance each lap. On the dimly lit track Hunter and Hirt battled for the lead, and Hunter sprinted to a personal best for 50 miles. But eventually the quarter horse pulled away from the Clydesdale.
In the early-morning hours Hirt lapped Hunter with 20 miles to go, and Hunter told him, "These are going to be the hardest 20 miles of your life."
"They were," said Hirt later. Soon he had to shorten his stride because of a twinge in his left hamstring. "At one point," he said, "my body was hurting in six places. It was trying to convince my head that I should stop."
The rain had claimed its victims. O'Neil developed a blister on his left foot and had to retire after 64½ miles, 13½ hours. Clegg, the security man, stopped to rest after 75 miles and got so chilled in his wet clothes that he was unable to start again. When dawn finally came, gray and unfriendly, only seven of the 30 starters were still going for the 100-mile mark.
Hirt, now leading the vigorous Hunter by a mile, resembled a suffering Biblical figure. His eyes were half closed, his feet dragging. His wife Joan walked with him for a few laps, but he could not talk. Leonard Busen, a St. Louis newspaperman, was in third place, and next behind him was Jack Blackburn, a 40-year-old counselor at a drug-control center in Springfield, Ohio, a newcomer to the event. Blackburn had tried out for four Olympics—without success. "I think today I'm going to make the team," he said, walking on like an arthritic old man.
Hirt won in 19:55:16, beating Hunter by 10½ minutes but missing O'Neil's record by half an hour. "I don't believe I did it," he mumbled, sinking onto a bench. When Joan and a nurse led him away, he began to cry softly. Each of the seven still walking at dawn finished the 100 miles in the allotted 24 hours.
"You feel like a baby," said Blackburn after he crossed the line. "You ache so much that you have to show it. You just can't be manly."
Two days later Augie Hirt was feeling much better. In fact, he was able to walk again.