Dickens took to coaching with a seriousness that alarmed his two prot�g�s. "If we had been professional pedestrians instead of amateurs," Dolby later wrote, " Mr. Dickens could not have paid more attention to Our 'coaching' for the great event." Wherever the pair happened to be, Dickens dragged them out for, if they were lucky, the type of walks he called "breathers," or, if they weren't lucky, the type he called "busters."
"Being requested to give them a breather yesterday," wrote Dickens, "I gave them a stiff one of five miles over a bad road, half the distance uphill, in the snow. I took them at a pace of four and a half miles an hour, and you never beheld such objects as they were when we got back; both smoking like factories, and both obliged to change everything before they could come to dinner."
By the time Dickens and his entourage reached Boston, public interest in the race had risen to such a pitch that it was deemed necessary to keep secret its time and place. Otherwise, claimed Dolby, half of Boston would turn out to watch.
Along with his other duties, Dickens was to choose the course. Three days before the race he set out to find the most devilishly difficult 13-mile route in all Boston. Judging from one gloating letter home, he clearly believed he had succeeded: "The condition of the ground is something indescribable, from half-melted snow, running water, and sheets and blocks of ice. The two performers have not the faintest notion of the weight of the task they have undertaken."
Whatever they were expecting, Dolby and Osgood must have been disheartened on race morning. Conditions were so atrocious that even Dickens was moved to a kind of awe. "To the excessive rigour of the icy blast, and the depth and state of the snow, must be added the constant scattering of the latter into the air and into the eyes of the men, while heads of hair, beards, eye-lashes, and eyebrows were frozen into icicles. To breathe at all in such a rarefied and disturbed atmosphere was not easy, but to breathe up to the required mark was genuine, slogging, ding-dong hard labour."
Although a carriage followed and provided them with what were euphemistically termed "creature comforts for the inner man," Dickens initially refused to ride in it. Instead, he acted as rabbit for half the race before dropping out.
The start was quick. "They got away exactly together," noted Dickens, "and at a spinning speed." For three miles the two walkers spun along quite comfortably, but at four miles they accelerated noticeably, with Dickens urging them on, through a deep snowbank and up a steep hill. Neither could gain an advantage until the turnaround at Newton Center. From there on, it was all Osgood, who "pegged" over the finish line in an impressive two hours and 48 minutes, with Dolby a respectable seven minutes behind.
That night Dickens gave what he immodestly described as "a very splendid dinner" for 18 that included such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And at the head of the table, Dickens was in fine form, regaling the giddy company with a stride-by-stride account of the day's proceedings, making up in wit for what his tale lacked in veracity. Dolby and Osgood's plan had worked: For a short while, Dickens forgot his other problems.
When Dickens sailed back to England in April, his bank account was considerably more robust than when he had left five months earlier, but he himself was noticeably frailer. "I'm nearly used up," he confessed to Forster. "Climate, distance, catarrh, travelling, and hard work have begun to tell heavily on me."
Dickens refused to heed his body's warnings. Instead of easing off, he hurled himself into more activity—work on a new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, speaking at banquets and, most enervating of all, yet another reading tour of England. Still he continued to walk regularly. His posture was no longer upright, his stride no longer vigorous, but Dickens walked and walked as if he meant to outpace mortality.