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 64� 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.