[This is an updated version of a post originally published March 4, 2008]
On March 4th, 1928, 88 years ago today, 199 men — including some of the most accomplished runners and walkers of the era — set out by foot from the Legion Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles bound for New York City, a distance of 3422 miles to be covered over the course of 84 days.
It was billed as the First Annual International Transcontinental Footrace, and it was the brainchild of an unscrupulous sports promoter named C.C. Pyle, the P.T. Barnum of his day. Pyle had big dreams of capitalizing on the public’s interest in the race and in the new highway — Route 66 — which stretched from L.A. to Chicago. He planned the race to hit many of the big and little towns along the way, and hoped to make money with a traveling sideshow that would follow the runners from town to town.
The field included some of the best long, long distance runners (and walkers) of the day. One entrant was Arthur Newton, a legendary ultra-distance runner and many-time winner of South Africa’s Comrades Marathon. Another was Willie Kolehmainen, a great runner in his own right and trainer for his brother Hannes, the marathon gold medalist from the 1920 Olympic Games. The field also included a litter of near-destitute young men hoping to persevere long enough to claim one of the top ten places and a cash prize. One of them was Andy Payne, a 19-year-old from Oklahoma and member of the Cherokee nation, who had entered the race against the wishes of his father.
The first day of racing was an “easy” 17 mile stage. After that the stages became longer and the terrain and conditions for the competitors became more and more difficult. With stages of 40 or more miles a day and little support, many dropped out while attempting to cross the Mojave Desert. Pyle had promised to feed and house the competitors, but that promise had been based on the assumption that towns would pay big bucks for the right to be included as endpoints for the stages. In fact, the towns had little interest in paying for the dubious benefits that the race brought, and Pyle started running out of money. With finances strained, Pyle looked for every excuse to shirk responsibility for the runners’ well-being. After a few weeks, the race had turned into a slog. Almost without exception, the best athletes had retired from the race, and the ones who were left wouldn’t have known an Olympic medal if it dropped out of the sky and hit them on the head.
As a spectator event, watching bedraggled men walking or stumbling along at 10-minute mile pace was less than compelling. Here’s how one modern-day scribe has described it:
“C.C. Pyle’s First Annual International Transcontinental Foot Race, better known as the Bunion Derby, was a plodding, disorganized event that taxed the health and sanity of the runners and was largely greeted with indifference by the American public.”
And yet the race went on. Public indifference notwithstanding, the longer it did, the more the grit and determination of the participants emerged. After surviving the Desert and the Great Plains, the runners who were left were mostly ordinary people with an extraordinary ability to survive, while somehow finding the motivation to get up every day and drag themselves another 45-50 miles along a stretch of anonymous highway.
In a particularly cruel twist, to bring the race to a “swifter” conclusion and save money on food and expenses, Pyle lengthened the stages as the runners crossed Ohio, trying to “kill off” the slower runners. he announced that if a runner couldn’t make the midnight cut-off time for that day’s stage, he was out of the race. During one three-day stretch, the “bunioneers” covered 173 miles – 58 miles a day.
The race produced genuine heroes. Andy Payne, the 19-year-old, showed a patience beyond his years — rarely winning a stage, but rarely having a bad race. When Peter Gavuzzi, who was leading the race with less than 700 miles to go, was forced to drop out due to the the excruciating effects of an abscessed tooth, Payne found himself in first. He would go on to win the race, taking the win and the $25,000 first prize. Johnny Salo, a Finnish immigrant and policeman from Passaic, was second. Third place went to Phillip Granville, a championship walker who had switched to trotting after the first few weeks. Fourth was Mike Joyce, a bricklayer from Cleveland.
The story of the race is well-told in “The Bunyan Derby,” by Charles B. Kastner.
In 2002, a documentary, The Great American Footrace, aired with a focus on Andy Payne’s race. You can watch it here: http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/the_great_american_footrace
I heartily recommend both.
Against all odds, the race returned the next year, this time running from New York to LA, but was even more beset by logistical and financial issues. The unlucky Gavuzzi, once again leading the race, was persuaded to hold back to make the race close and increase the drama. Through a miscalculation (or perhaps a mis-representation on the part of the race promoters), he discovered on the last day that his time was considerably behind the new leader, and he failed to make it up, finishing second. In any case, the 1929 race was the end of Pyle’s Trans-Continental Footrace, and there’s never been anything like it since.