If you see Chris Leonard out for a walk this week, give him a wide berth. He's a man on a mission.
A Connecticut native who moved to Schenectady 16 years ago, Leonard was named city historian by Schenectady Mayor Gary B. McCarthy in February of 2018. Along with his work at documenting and celebrating the city's long history, Leonard's primary focus next Saturday is to do some serious long-distance walking to help raise money for the Schenectady Foundation.
He's also hoping to use next weekend's walk to create some publicity for his own "pedestrian" event he plans to run in the city next spring. Leonard said the health benefits from walking are many, and with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting one's options these days, going for a brisk stroll outside has become a priority for many Americans.
"I think there are more people out walking because of the situation we're in, and I haven't seen it level off yet," said Leonard, who lives in the GE Realty Plot with his wife, Buffy. "I live in a great neighborhood so there's always people out walking, but it's not just the neighbors. There are a lot of people I don't know that come and walk through the Plot."
A University at Albany alum who majored in English and history, Leonard will walk a total of 30 miles during one 24-hour stretch beginning at the stroke of midnight Friday night/Saturday morning. He will cover his 30 miles with six five-mile walks in the same manner as the Yeti Challenge, held each year in Alabama. Leonard, while remaining home in Schenectady, did his own Yeti Challenge last weekend, starting his adventure at 12:01 a.m., and putting in his 30 miles by 10 p.m. Saturday night.
"It was a little weird going out for a walk at 12:01, and it was raining a little bit," said Leonard. "But I had my flashlight in hand and I followed a little loop through the neighborhood that my wife created for me. There actually were some people out and about, but it was a little odd."
Leonard was done with his first five-mile segment by 1:45 a.m., and then started up again at 6:20 a.m. and put in another five miles. He started his sixth and final five-mile jaunt around 8 p.m. and finished at 10.
"I got through it pretty well," said Leonard, who also participated in an event called Rock the Ridge in May of 2019, a 50-mile endurance walk held on behalf of the Mohonk Preserve in the Catskills. "I didn't have any problems, so I feel good about doing it again next weekend."
Leonard’s inclination toward hitting the streets harkens back more than a century ago when “pedestrianism,” best described as exhibition walking matches, was the No. 1 spectator sport in America. It became popular soon after the Civil War ended due in large part to the Industrial Revolution. People, some anyway, suddenly had leisure time.
Often precipitated by a wager, walking matches began taking hold of the American consciousness in the 1870s. By 1879, Madison Square Garden, built earlier that year, was filled with people watching an event called the Astley Belt race with athletes such as Dan O'Leary and Charles Rowell. Both were household names in America and Great Britain.
According to Matthew Algeo's 2014 book, "Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport," the 1879 race in March in New York City was front page news across the country. And when O'Leary, whose legion of fans included U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, quit halfway through the race, exhausted, the nation was stunned. "Gentlemen, I am finished," he told the judges, leaving Rowell and two other competitors to battle it out for another three days.
It was O'Leary's last big race, while Rowell went on to win the Astley Belt series capped off later in the year, also at Madison Square Garden, and earned a whopping $25,000.
Schenectady hosted its own six-day walking event back in the 1880s at Union Hall. Located at the northwest corner of State and Jay Streets, the now long-demolished Union Hall was reputedly the largest venue between New York City and Buffalo.
“They set up a track inside Union Hall, and the participants would walk, rest, sleep and walk again,” said Leonard. “They had tents inside the track where the walkers rested, and Union Hall was filled with people for six days watching it all. It was quite an event. Bands played while the walking was going on, and people actually paid money to get in and watch it all.”
Leonard isn’t sure yet just what form his walking event next year will take, but two people interested in hearing more about it are June Hendricks of Colonie and Skidmore College professor Paul Arciero. Hendricks is a dedicated daily walker, while Arciero is a nutrition and fitness expert who teaches at the Saratoga Springs college. Both are huge proponents of walking.
“During this pandemic you have the time to walk,” said Hendricks, who walks with her husband John nearly every day, either in their neighborhood are in various places around Schenectady County, including the bike path in Niskayuna or the Christman Sanctuary in Duanesburg. “I have a treadmill I use in the winter, but there’s nothing like going outside and getting fresh air, and since the pandemic started we’ve noticed many more people walking.”
Before the pandemic started, according to Hendricks, walking was for many people a solitary pastime.
“You used to see people, let’s say of a certain age, walking by themselves, but now you see young couples, you see families, people of all ages,” she said. “I’ve also noticed younger people, the kind you usually see cycling or rollerblading alone, walking with a friend. It’s definitely picked up more during the pandemic, and hopefully people will keep at it because it really is good for you.”
Arciero, a professor of Health and Human Physiological Sciences at Skidmore for nearly 30 years now, feels just as Hendricks does – perhaps even stronger - about just how good walking is for the body and soul.
“Walking offers numerous health benefits, and the scientific data out there supporting that idea is abundant,” said Arciero, who in 2018 was a nationally ranked tennis player in the 50 and over age division. “I would say walking is at the top of the physical movement activities that a human can engage in. There’s not so much jarring as you get in running or jogging, and it helps control blood pressure, blood vessels and your overall cardiovascular health.”
A Connecticut native who lectures on health and fitness around the country, he feels the health benefits of walking are much more than just physical.
“There are physiological benefits and psychological benefits, and the psychological benefits are really underappreciated,” said Arciero, who has authored two Amazon best-selling books, “The PRISE Life” and “The Protein Pacing Diet,” and has a third book, “The PRISE Life Cookbook,” coming out in the fall. “Think about Emerson and Thoreau, and Aristotle and Plato, all these great philosophers who espoused the benefits of walking, especially out in nature. The ‘nature pill’ is real, and there’s plenty of science behind it. It releases hormones in our brain that are responsible for our happy emotions. Walking out in nature is one of those lifestyle changes you can make to help deal with depression and anxiety. I do it myself and I highly recommend it.”
For his walk this weekend, Leonard is hoping others will want to get involved, raise money for the Schenectady Foundation, and feel good about themselves.
“People who feel moved to help fund raise by walking in their neighborhood, no matter what the distance, should reach out to me,” said Leonard, who has a Facebook page and can also be reached at [email protected]. “I hope to use the success of this campaign to create yearly Pedestrianism events in Schenectady.”