Charles “The Cambridge Wonder” Rowell, ‘Long Distance Champion of the World’

Imagine walking or running for six whole days with only a couple of hours to eat or sleep? Could you do this while competing against the greatest athletes in the world? 

If your answer is yes then the ‘Astley Belt’ races are for you: the Astley Belt was the ultimate prize in the world of 19th century pedestrian  race walking (now the modern Olympic sport of race walking), in a series of seven gruelling multiday races between 1878 to 1881 athletes competed to win the Astley Belt and whoever won the belt three times in a row would be declared ‘Long Distance Champion of the World’ and keep the belt permanently. The man who achieved this was Charles “The Cambridge Wonder” Rowell and yet within twenty years of winning this accolade in 1881 he would sell his prize and never see his greatest achievement again. Read on to discover more about this man’s incredible story.

Charles Rowell was born in Chesterton, Cambridge in 1852 to a shoemaker and his wife. As a child he worked at the boatyards in Cambridge and by the time he was 15 he was a competent rower and competing in rowing regattas (Have you ever seen the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race?). He was a keen sportsman and was already displaying the incredible pace and stamina that would mark him out as special for the rest of his career.

In February 1876, Charles competed in his first major pedestrian race  which was against the famous American pedestrian  Edward Payson Weston and although he lost, at only twenty-four and with a powerful and muscular physique, he so impressed his opponent that he was hired as a professional pacemaker to help him train.

This began a remarkable career in pedestrian racing that saw him set new world records in 1882 for 100 miles (13 hours 26 minutes 30 seconds), 200 miles (35 hours 9 minutes 28 seconds) and 300 miles (58 hours 17 minutes 6 seconds), the latter of which still stands today.

The highlight of his athletic career was his competing in the six day  'Astley Belt' races , which in terms of popularity was comparable to the modern Tour de France; he competed against a variety of British, Canadian and American athletes in seven races between 1878 and 1881, winning four in total and three in a row to successfully become the permanent owner of the belt. He had won around two million dollars for his racing in total and gave walking and running tours around America and Britain until he retired and settled back in his home town of Cambridge.

However, his return and retirement was not the happily ever after Charles would have wanted. He invested a lot of money in racehorses and gambling, often on pedestrian or horse racing events. In 1891, he married Henrietta Disbury , but this only made his financial woes worse and in 1902 he was arrested for  embezzlement . It was around this time that he sold his belt.

Charles still had one more race in him. In 1908, he competed in the professional  Marathon Race from Windsor to London at the age of 56. A year later he was dead.

Charles Rowell was a fantastic athlete and truly deserves to be remembered as the ‘Long Distance Champion of the World’.

Design your own prize belt, trophy or medal so you can follow in Charles’ footsteps!