The event is run by a character known as "The Major." The Major appears at the beginning of the Walk to encourage the boys and start them on their way, and then occasionally thereafter. While the Walkers initially greet him with awe and respect, they ridicule him in later appearances.
The Walk begins at the Maine/Canada border and travels the east coast of the United States until the winner is determined. There are no stops, rest periods, or established finish line, and the Walk does not pause for any reason (including bad weather or darkness); it ends only when one Walker is left alive. According to the rules, the Walkers can obtain aid only from the soldiers, who distribute canteens of water and belts packed with food concentrates (apparently similar to the ones developed by NASA's space program) just before the Walk begins. They may request a fresh canteen at any time, and new food supplies are distributed at 9:00 every morning. Walkers may bring anything they can carry, including food or additional footwear, but cannot receive aid from bystanders. They are allowed to have bodily contact with onlookers as long as they stay on the road. While they cannot physically interfere with one another to detrimental effect, they can help each other, provided they stay above four miles per hour.
The winner receives "The Prize": anything he wants for the rest of his life.
It is implied that many past winners have died soon after the Walk, due to its hazardous mental and physical challenges. The Long Walk is not only a physical trial, but a psychological one, as the Walkers are continually pressed against the idea of death and their mortality. Contestants have actually tried to crawl at 4 mph to survive after their legs gave out. The story has several characters who suffer mental breakdown, one of whom kills himself by tearing out his throat, and most characters experience some mental degeneration from the stress and lack of sleep.
The protagonist of the novel is Raymond Davis Garraty, a 16-year-old boy from the town of Pownal in Androscoggin County, Maine. Early on, Ray falls in with several other boys—including Peter McVries, Arthur Baker, Hank Olson, Collie Parker, Pearson, Harkness, and Abraham—who refer to themselves as "The Musketeers." Another Walker—Gary Barkovitch—quickly establishes himself as an external antagonist, as he quickly angers his fellow walkers with multiple taunts of "dancing on their graves." This results in the death of a fellow walker, Rank, who is ticketed while trying to injure Barkovitch. Lastly, the most alluring and mysterious Walker is a boy named Stebbins. Throughout the Walk, Stebbins establishes himself as a loner, observing the ground beneath him as he listens to fellow Walkers' complaints, seemingly unaffected by the mental and physical strains. The only character Stebbins truly interacts with is Ray Garraty. In one conversation, Garraty alludes to Alice in Wonderland, likening Stebbins to the Caterpillar. Stebbins, however, corrects him: he believes himself to be more of a White Rabbit type.
Along the road, the Walkers learn that one of their number, a kid named Scramm—who is initially the heavy odds-on favorite to win