I want to use this post to do a sort of book review. I am in no way qualified to do this so that it has any meaning to anyone except myself. I guess in some ways it really isn't a review at all. I have no intention of lauding or lambasting the book. I only want to introduce you to it's story and hope you will be just as incredulous as I was to learn of such an historical event. I found myself at the library without my son and consequently time to peruse the books at my leisure. I found myself in the sport section and was looking for "Total Immersion Swimming", but instead discovered a book called, C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-coast Run Across America by Geoffrey Williams.
This race is alternately called the "Great American Foot Race" (there is a documentary of the same name I haven't seen but you can get info on it here) or as the sportswriters of the day dubbed it "The Bunion Derby". It was a foot race from Los Angeles to New York City held in 1928. The races promoter was a man called C.C. Pyle (or "Cash and Carry" Pyle). He was what may be considered the first sports promoter. His idea for funding the race was to charge towns the privilege of having the race come through their town. There wasn't much enthusiasm for the race so many towns didn't cough up the fee which left the event terribly underfunded.
C.C. Pyle speaking with one of the "Derby" Runners (From The Hells of the Bunion Derby by Charles Kastner)
You might not think such a race is a big deal, after all, we live in a time when we are used to hearing about endurance athletes, ultramarathoners, and individuals who perform transcontinental efforts of their own, often times to raise money for charity. The efforts of these athletes is admirable, exceptional, and humbling to say the least. The participants of the 1928 race had obstacles that today we couldn't even conceive of, the least of which was raising enough money to enter the race; $125. This covered their entry fee and the return fare home after the race (which wasn't enough for some poor finishers). Most of these men didn't enter the race because of their love of running, although there were a few like Arthur Newton. They entered for the prize money:
First place: $25,000
Second place: $10,000
Third place: $5,000
Fourth place: 2,500
Fifth - Tenth place: $1,000
Imagine, running 3,422.3 miles over the course of 84 days for only $1,000 (or nothing but $100 for your return ticket home for the rest of the field)? These men had families to consider, children to feed, mortgages that needed to be paid, dreams of a college education. There were the fame seekers as well, and other "odd" entrants, who at the very least kept the race interesting. The event was open to men (that's right ladies, no women allowed!) of all races and ethnicity's, which is pretty remarkable for it's day. I should also remind you that this was a time when "endurance sport" was de rigueur: flagpole sitting, tree sitting, transcontinental and trans-Atlantic flights, dance marathons, and Nathan's does not corner the market on the idea of endurance eating. In the 1920's Kathleen Hayden ate 36 raw eggs in 85 minutes, Frank Truckimowicz drank 90 cups of coffee in 3 hours and 28 minutes and Cadarino Nezareno consumed 7 feet of past....per minute......for 3 straight hours!*
The runners ran an average of 40 miles a day for the duration of the 84 days it took to complete the race. The race was run in city to city intervals. Runners started each leg as a group, times were added together for each successive interval to determine the winner. The shortest daily run was 17 miles and the longest, 74.6 miles, in one day. Imagine, the near equivalent of three marathons in one day and a daily average of two marathons per day. In case you are still not impressed with this Herculean effort, let me remind you these men were not running in Asics, not wearing dri-fit technology, not eating well balanced diets, not replacing their salts, electrolytes or calories during the race and they certainly were not resting their heads at night on 300 count, cotton sateen sheets at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. In fact, shoes were so badly made as to offer little flexibility and support for the wearer. Breaking in a new pair of shoes was something everyone dreaded so you can imagine the shape of things to come for these runners.
The route from Los Angeles to Chicago was to take place along the famed Route 66, which had just been built and was America's first federal highway. This was also when automobile travel was just coming into it's own. The idea was to promote the highway along with the race; if it was safe enough to travel on foot, then it certainly was safe enough to travel by car. However, Route 66 was mostly a primitive dirt road at this point, so one can imagine the conditions when it rained.
Race route. (From The Great American Foot Race website)
The race course took the men through states with hot desert conditions, freezing mountain passes, high altitudes and Jim Crow southern states of Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri. Runners of color were threatened with their very lives in these states. Ed Gardner, while in Oklahoma, was followed by a man on mule holding a shotgun to his back and daring him to pass any of the white runners. Several runners had to pull out of the race for various injuries sustained: inflamed Achilles tendon, abscessed teeth, broken arches, groin pull, sprained ankle, leg infection, shin splints and many more from sheer exhaustion. A few men were even hit by cars causing at least one runner to drop out with broken ribs.
The test of will didn't stop there. There wasn't always enough proper food and water, not only during the race intervals, but at the end of each interval's destination. Sleeping conditions were no better. Forced to sleep on cots, under tents using the same unlaundered pillows and blankets every night, that is if the truck with the supplies made it to the nightwatch (as it was called). Occasionally they got "lucky" and were able to sleep on the floor of some building basement, or school gymnasium.
Madison Square Garden IIIThe race came to an inglorious end inside Madison Square Garden in New York City. At that time MSG was located at 49th Street and 8th Avenue (the third of four incarnations of The Garden). The Garden at the time held 17,000 people, but fewer than 2,000 people showed up for the finish (perhaps daunted by the $1.65 admission fee).
Andy Payne. He completed the race with a time of 588 hours, 40 minutes, 13 seconds. The competitors numbered 199 when they left Los Angeles, but only 55 crossed the finish line. Finishers 11-55 received no prize money, just the $100 deposit for their return fare. As a final insult, that night the men with nowhere to stay slept inside MSG only to be kicked out the next day, spending several nights sleeping on the streets. The $100 didn't go far for those winning no prize money. They either spent it on a hotel room (if they chose not to sleep on the street) or to pay doctors' bills for broken bones and other ailments acquired during the race.
The availability of the prize money for the derby was continually called into question. C.C. Pyle had more than his fare share of financial troubles along the way and there were suspicions he wouldn't be able to come up with the loot. Local fellow promoter, Tex Rickard, bailed Pyle out and awarded the prize money himself. After the monies were handed out there was one more "requirement" for the top ten. If the transcontinental race were not enough, the top ten runners (along with some DNFers) were obliged to participate in a 26 mile "ballyhoo" run inside MSG a week after finishing. This race had it's own purse for the winner.
The race returned in 1929 with many of the same men entering for a second chance, minus Andy Payne. The route this time would be reversed, New York City to Los Angeles. Unfortunately ,for the runners, Pyle was broke by race's end. They received nothing for their efforts and thus, there would be no "three time's the charm" race for 1930.
I was continuously impressed by the fortitude of these runners with each page I read. I tried to imagine myself in their painful, muddy, uncomfortable shoes. The determination that one must summon in order to complete a race like this under these conditions is astounding to me. I think it goes without saying that I recommend this book if you want to be continually amazed by the human spirit in sport.
*From C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America by Geoff Williams.