"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 bergères, résinières 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.