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When America Was Crazy About Walkers

EIt was midday on a Wednesday, March 12, 1879, and 38-year-old Dan O’Leary, thin, tall, and still with a large mustache, had a problem that should not be underestimated: he was miserable. And everyone could see it. O’Leary stumbled Madison Square Garden, as if he had eaten a three-bottle lunch on an empty stomach, sweat dripping down his forehead and pooling in the shawl tied around his neck. His mouth was open, his eyes wide, one of the spectators later remarked that Don’O Leary looked like a corpse, a corpse that could still move.

The Astley Belt Race, a six-day race to find the best walker of the day, started three days ago. Between Wimbledon and the Champions League final, tens of thousands of New Yorkers flock to Madison Square Garden to watch the biggest sporting event of the year. Highly accomplished walkers from around the world followed New York Americans’ hopes were pinned on one thing above all else: Don O’Leary, an Irish immigrant from New York who, nicknamed the Plucky Pedestrian, had caused quite a stir in recent years.

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