September 25, 2021

The strange 19th-Century sport that was cooler than football

2 min read

The race continued, and as the last crucial moments approached, the crowd turned into a mob, elbowing their way onto the pitch. It all ended just before 22:00, with Rowell the victor, followed by Hazael and Hart. Bouquets of flowers rained down upon them, and the event was front-page news the next day.

Oddly, the champion was roundly criticised. Many fans had made lunchtime bets that he would make 531 miles (855km) or even 535 (861km) – had he continued for another hour, he might have saved them from losing devastating sums of money. The New York paper The Sun went so far as to say he “tarnished” his triumph.

An evolutionary advantage

The Great Six Days Race has since been surpassed by a number of modern endurance events, such as the gruelling 52-day Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, which requires contestants to walk 60 miles each day in order to make the target.

But how are such feats of stamina even biologically possible? One hotly debated theory is that it’s down to our early evolutionary history. “Persistence hunting” involves chasing large prey animals for hours or days, until they collapse from exhaustion and can be easily killed. Some hunter-gatherer peoples use the technique to this day, such as the San tribe, who have territories across southern Africa.

The benefits of persistence hunting are thought to hinge on a quirk of human biology. As hairless, sweaty apes, we may have an advantage over furry ungulates such as deer, which don’t have the same ability to use evaporation to dissipate heat – and therefore might overheat more quickly over long distances.

As it happens, the question of who has superior endurance, man or beast, has been a fascination for centuries. It was first posed by pedestrians – and as ever, it started with a bet.

In 1818, the English athlete J Barnett wagered that he could beat a horse in a 48-hour race. The horse won by 179 miles (288km) to 158 (254km), though it was carrying 168 pounds (76kg). However, since it was a short race, this was not considered a definitive defeat. Guyon was next to attempt it, over 60 years later – again he was thwarted, losing by 50 miles (80km) over 52 hours (he blamed the cold air).

But what about one of the famous six-day races? After an unsuccessful first try, in 1880 15 men and five horses took to a track in Chicago for the grand showdown. In front of a packed-out crowd, the horses initially decimated their two-legged adversaries – by the second day, one horse had achieved 220 miles (354km) to man’s 195 (313km). Then something unexpected happened.

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