The craziest race you’ve never heard of happened on Padre Island

Starting in the 1950s, participants in the Padre Island Walkathon covered 110 miles – all walking, no running – over three days.

By W.F. StrongJune 19, 2024 11:30 am, ,

Before there were crazy hordes of teenagers celebrating Spring Break on Padre Island, and before there were modern causeways at either end connecting the 113-mile longest barrier island in the world to the mainland, the island was occupied mostly by cattle, a few adventurous fishermen, surfers and brave day cruisers in Model Ts who would cross over Col. Sam Robertson’s rickety two-track trestle to go where no car had gone before.

It is said that in the 50s, hot rod racers would get ferried over to the island on the Brownsville end and race all the way to Corpus and back. This was possible then because there was no Port Mansfield Cut blocking their way.  

Another fascinating race held back when all of Padre was intact had far more participants but was much slower: It was a race to see who could walk from South Padre to North Padre the fastest – no running. If you ran, you were disqualified. In fact, there was no thought of ultra-marathons in those days. Such ideas were immediately dismissed as beyond human capacity.

This race was dreamed up by Cash Asher as publicity for the island. He called it the Padre Island Walkathon.

Writer Davy Crockett – yes, that is his real name – provided a splendid history of the event for the Ultrarunning History site that I have relied on for the details of the event. He said the race was from Friday to Sunday starting on March 27, 1953: “The oldest walker was 67 years old, and the youngest starter was 15.”   

The race began at 8:30 in the morning with 70 participants. Within a few hours there were only 50; the wind whipping up the sand discouraged weak resolves quickly.

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The first day was restricted to 25 miles. Jesse Shamblin, 42, came in first at 5:32 p.m. Bonnie White and Winnie Beth Brillhart came in tied at second, about an hour behind Shamblin. The fact that women were invited to participate was quite progressive, as such integration of the sexes was not common in those days.

Camp one at 25 miles had only 29 overnighters. More than half the starters had already dropped out. Those still in the race were fed well and provided with tents to get a good night’s sleep.

Day two began at 6:45 a.m. They had 42 miles to cover – over sand! No wonder 20 dropped out the second day. Blisters claimed victory over walkers in many cases. Interestingly, those with leather shoes fared better than those with canvas shoes. 

Day three saw only six racers at the starting line with 43 miles to go. Three crossed the finish line that day. First place and a $250 prize went to Shamblin of McAllen, with a walking time of 28 hours and 48 minutes. Second place went to Frank Jurecko at 31 hours; he got $50. And cheers for the 15-year-old Boy Scout, Charles Bolton, who had come prepared and walked away with $40. 

This event was continued each year until 1969, but after the Port Mansfield Cut was dug, they shortened the race to just 40 miles. It was just a one-day event, and half only at the north end of the island near Corpus. 

I think they should bring back the original – and during spring break. All those college kids with unlimited energy and stamina would make it a fascinating event. The Port Mansfield Cut would require a brisk, refreshing swim across the channel. It would add a little Iron Man challenge 30 miles in. And maybe, continuing with that theme, there could be a day of beach cycling, but only those one-speed bikes with the big tires.

I would even participate myself – well, participate as support crew. I’d drive the beer truck. 

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