Saturday, January 30, 2010

C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America

There are ultrarunners, and then there are ULTRArunners. At the entry level are runners like me, who run the occasional 50 miler with hopes of maybe completing a 100 mile race one day. Then there are the veterans, who regularly race in 50 and 100 mile races. Then there are the runners portrayed in Geoff Williams's account of a 1928 cross country foot race. In an age of dance marathons, flagpole sitting, and wing walking, showman and sports promoter C.C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle came up with the idea to stage a race from Los Angeles to New York. He traveled the country and the world recruiting runners and promoting "C.C. Pyle's first Annual International Transcontinental Foot Race, From Los Angeles to New York." As you might guess, the unwieldy name didn't stick, but the nickname did: The Bunion Derby.

Pyle, a pioneer in sports agency and marketing, managed to gather a field of experienced runners, as well as eager but inadequately prepared hopefuls attracted by the promised $25,000 prize. Some of the runners had run races or exhibition runs of hundreds of miles, some were experienced marathoners and Olympic athletes. Others were not athletes at all, just ambitious men with big dreams.

On March 4, 1928, 199 runners started out in the rain and mud, thousands of miles ahead of them. Williams gathers newspaper accounts, personal memoirs, and historical documents to chronicle the race from its inception to the finish. We learn the back stories of the runners and witness the drama of the race. Runners dropped out along the way, of course, from injury, exhaustion, frustration, mental breakdown, or some combination of all of these.

Williams's account is full of great anecdotes. For instance, two decades before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, Pyle invited African-Americans to race. The black runners faced some opposition along the way. As a Texan I am sad, but not too surprised, to report that some of the worst encounters were in Texas, where the KKK "were enraged that there were blacks running alongside whites. . . . Somewhere between the border of Texas and the town of Vega, a mob tried to set fire to a car full of people shouting encouraging words to Gardner," an African-American runner. The Klan harassed the four black runners throughout the Texas panhandle.

For all the personal side stories, including the hilarious misadventures of Pyle, running from ex-wives, the police, and debt collectors while trying to put on this spectactle of a race, Pyle's Amazing Foot Race is all about the race itself. The distances themselves are numbing. Other than the first leg, a mere 17 miles, and maybe one or two others, the legs were all ultramarathon distance, some as much as 50 or 60 miles or more. And then they'd run again the next day! No days off in this race!

Many runners, especially ultramarathoners, will empathize with the perils of the runners, including blisters, lost toenails, sunburn, frostbite, nausea, sore muscles, etc. If you've ever experience these on a run, imagine the worst you've felt, then imagine getting up the next morning to do it again, and again, for weeks! And the conditions ranged from blazing heat and sandstorms to driving rain and blizzards. It's no wonder that after 8 days and 295 miles, half the runners had dropped out.

Williams makes much of the diversity of footwear chosen by the runners, and the impossibility of keeping their feet in good shape. I don't think even avid barefoot runners would endorse running 3422 miles non-stop barefoot, but I was amused by Williams's use of this quote from a New York Times editorial in 1878: "It would be impossible to form any accurate estimate of the enormous amount of human suffering that has been caused by boots and shoes." If you're familiar with Christopher McDougall, the author of Born to Run, you've heard him say similar about modern running shoes.

I do wish Williams had included some summary information, such as a chart of the runners' finishing times, the names and hometowns of the runners, and a map of the course. That information is all in the text, but I would like to have seen it in another form. He does include some small pictures at the start of each chapter, but I would like to have seen more pictures. But wait, he didn't have to! At the end of the Acknowledgements he notes a PBS documentary about the race, which has a web site with all that information! Now to get my hands on that video. . . .

As a result of Pyle's financial mismanagement and poor planning, the end of the race was rather anticlimactic. Many were surprised that he actually came up with prize money! (The next year he put on the race again, this time from the east coast to the west coast, but in the end, the winners walked away empty-handed. Wouldn't that be a let-down!)

Here's a picture of a statue of Andy Payne, the winner of the Bunion Derby. His pace averaged a bit over 10 minutes per mile. That's amazing to me. The statue can be seen on Route 66, in Foyil, Oklahoma, Payne's hometown.

Pyle's Amazing Foot Race is a great read. Runners will enjoy it, especially those who love to run long distances. But the book also presents a colorful picture of life in the U.S. between the wars, and, ironically, captures some of the adventuresome spirit of the early days of the automobile and the mobility that Route 66 came to represent. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A year of push ups

I'm not one to make new year's resolutions, but I saw on some blog somewhere (wish I could remember where so I could give proper blame credit) a description of the one-year push up challenge.  The idea is to start on January 1 with 1 push up, do 2 on 1/2, 3 on 1/3, etc., so that eventually you do 365 push ups on 12/31.  Sound a little crazy?  They did say you were free to split up the reps later in the year, so on New Year's Eve you can do 180 in the morning, 5 at lunchtime, and 180 before you go to bed.

I've been meaning to start some upper-body work, so I decided that even though we are a few weeks into 2010, I can still catch up.  Starting Friday night, I took up the challenge.  I am up to January 12 now, doing a set or two a day.  I figure if I do at least 2 sets a day from now on, I can catch up in about 2 weeks.  The first half of the year won't be too bad.  Do a set in the morning, a set in the evening, 40, 50, 60 push ups a day.  But later on, we'll see.  200, 250, 300, 350 push ups a day?  I don't know.  By January 1, 2011, I will have done 66,795 push ups.  If I start looking extra buff this year, you'll know why. 

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I am definitely ready for a recovery day.  This has been a long week.  First of all, I worked a lot of overtime, putting in 10-12 hours every day.  But this week I had also scheduled my highest mileage before I start tapering for Rocky Raccoon.  I was determined to get in as much as I could, so I this week I ran, ate, worked, and didn't get quite enough sleep.  Total mileage for the week: over 72 miles, including back to back long runs Friday (22.3 miles, road) and Saturday (20.1 miles, mix of road and trails).  Here's hoping the kids let me sleep in a bit in the morning.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Things Seen While Running: Ice and . . . Pelicans?

Sunday morning I got up at the crack of dawn to get in a few mile repeats before church.  I headed down to the neighborhood lake and saw some rare sights.

First of all, around the edges of the lake there was ice!  OK, not let's-get-the-skates or drill-a-hole-for-ice-fishing ice, but still, it was ice!  I brought the boys down later and broke off some pieces, which were over 1/4 inch thick!  My Michigan friends would scoff, but it provided a great deal of excitement for us Texas boys!

Then, perhaps even rarer than that, there was a flock of pelicans on the lake.  I guess there are some migratory pelicans who don't always live by the coast, but I have never seen them here.  Pretty cool.  I also saw a new kind of duck I didn't recognize, and a bird that looked like a bald eagle.  Could it have been one?  Sounds like I need to go to ornithology school.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nice Place to Run: Tandy Hills

Driving east from downtown Fort Worth, you may have noticed a swath of undeveloped land on the south side of I-30 between Beach and Oakland.  Most of that land is Tandy Hills Natural Area and I've found that it's a great place to run!  It may not look like much as you drive by, but its 160 natural acres have some really nice trails.

The Fort Worth Nature Center manages this land, and the Friends of Tandy Hills have been the park's greatest advocates.  They sponsor Prairie Fest every spring (with Brave Combo playing live!), publish a book of wildflowers at the park, and generally promote conservation and preservation of this Fort Worth gem.

The trails vary from wide and smooth to steep and rocky to narrow and overgrown to sketchy.  The terrain provides some short, challenging, ascents/descents.  There aren't too many flat stretches.  I'm not a trail running expert, but I was excited about the variety of trail types this little park took me through.  And though the park isn't huge, much of the time your vision is limited only to trees and trails and grass, so (if you can tune out the roar of traffic on I-30), it's very easy to imagine you are in the middle of nowhere, or, as the Friends of Tandy Hills want us to imagine, that we are in Fort Worth when it was open prairie, before it was settled.

The main entrance to the park is at the corner of View Street and Tandy, where there is a grassy area with paved walkways and benches.  This is the location of Prairie Fest.  I started near some picnic tables near the corner of Meadowbrook and Chelsea.  I ran down a sort of arm of the park, between two neighborhoods, then went on a sort of clockwise loop, with a couple of short out and backs as I explored other trails.  My total distance (per my Garmin) was 5.88 miles, and, aside from the out and backs, I did not repeat trails.  I could easily see doing a few loops here and not getting bored.

For me Tandy Hills's greatest asset is proximity to my home, just a few minutes' drive.  But for the quality and variety of trails, the seclusion it offers so close to the heart of the city, and the views of downtown Fort Worth, this park is worth a visit for any trail runner, casual hiker, or wildflower lover.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Stuff I Like: Arriva Headphones

When I run, I usually run a long time.  The shortest I'll run at once is maybe 5 miles, but normally I'm out at least an hour or two, sometimes several hours.  I'm not one of those meditative runners, so I like to have something to listen to.  I don't often listen to music.  It messes up my stride.  So I listen to podcasts, either sermons or interviews or speeches.  Lately I've been listening to Francis Chan and, as well as Lew Rockwell's podcasts and Cato Institute policy forums.  Sounds compelling, I know.

I had a first generation ipod shuffle, given to me by a generous friend, that I wore on an armband with the cord hanging through my shirt.  I wore that one out.  So I bought a second generation ipod shuffle, and used to clip it on my collar with the headphone cord hanging down my back.  All the cord hanging got old, so I started looking around for a solution.  I thought, why not have the ipod integrated into the headphones?

As is the case with most good ideas, someone will think of it eventually.  The folks at Arriva already had developed what I was looking for, and I love it!  For about 30 bucks, my listening-while-running needs were met!

It wraps around my head and the ipod sits on the back of my head.  It stays in place well and sounds great.  And there are no cords running down my back, down my arm, or around my neck!  You'll notice the scotch tape.  When I first started using it, my sweaty head would get moisture in there and make the ipod quit.  Eventually I had to replace the ipod (thankfully still under warranty--kudos to Apple for their generous exchange policy).  The Arriva web site suggests the scotch tape, but I thought that sounded dumb, so I didn't try it.  Now that I tape it, I haven't had any trouble with moisture.

I know, Mom, I badly need a haircut.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Last week I started back training in earnest after a bit of a holiday break.  Between now and Easter, I have four 50 mile races on the calendar.  I've worked out a running schedule, hoping to be prepared for each race but not burned out.  So I am determined to stick to it as closely as possible.  I definitely did not want a little cold weather to get in my way!

I am usually OK running in shorts.  Even with temperatures in the 30s, and sometimes below freezing, I feel great in shorts.  But the forecasts for this week were calling for temperatures in the teens, with windchills at zero or below.  So I decided to put aside my reluctance to run in tights and try some out.  Kelly found some for me and did a wonderful job picking them out!  They fit perfectly.  My legs stayed warm, and I like the compression qualities enough that I may run in them even when it's not 20 degrees!

I realize I probably look like an idiot, not just in terms of fashion but also for the fact that I am out there running when it's so bitterly cold.  I remember hearing about a guy in Minnesota years ago who went out running in the cold with shorts on and got frostbite on his legs.  If I remember correctly, he had to have at least one leg amputated.  Then there was this runner who had to have some toes amputated because of frostbite he got during a race:  I'm sure I'll never face temperatures that extreme in Fort Worth, but it's a good reminder to bundle up.  You will notice that I did  choose to run in shoes and socks today; I thought they might be warmer than my VFFs.

By the way, the goofy hat is one of the USA winter Olympic team hats from the 2002 Olympics.   It may look a bit goofy, but it's perfect for cold weather running!  It's supposed to get back above freezing today.  We might not see temps that low for the rest of the winter, but I'll be ready!  I read that my next race, Rocky Raccoon, at Huntsville State Park, has the distinction of being run in 60 degree weather one year, and in a snowstorm the next!  I'll keep my fingers crossed for about 40 degrees.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Nice Place to Run: Cedar Ridge Preserve

This morning I greeted 2010 with a bunch of new friends from the North Texas Trail Runners.  We met at Cedar Ridge Preserve, on the south side of Dallas, for a cold morning run.  This was my first time to run with a group from NTTR, and they're a great bunch of folks.  I ran with a couple of 67-year-old experienced trail runners who could probably outrun me on any given day, a woman who's run countless ultras, including the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which consists of four of the toughest 100 mile races in the U.S, all run in one year (in the span of about 14 weeks!).  Plus there was a guy who rides a unicycle on mountain bike trails.  Nuts!  It's great to be with people who not only share my passion, but who have run the races and met the goals I aspire to.

The preserve, a park maintained by Audubon Dallas, has about 10 miles of loop trails of varying difficulty. My favorite, the Cedar Break Trail, has some steep, rugged climbs; my running partners today said that's one of the best trails in the area for practicing technical ascents and descents.  A couple of them ended up on their rears as testament to the toughness of the trail.  Today Cedar Break had the additional virtue of not being sloppy muddy.

When we started out, it was still in the high 20s, so the first hour or so we crunched over frozen mud.  But after a couple of hours, some of the trails in the low-lying areas were just nasty.  I guess running in that muck is the only way to learn how to run better in muck!  (Is there a good way to run in muck?)  I had considered running in my VFFs, but I was glad I didn't.  The trail had some very rocky sections, which I may be been able to navigate OK, but my feet would have been wet and cold in that mud.  I was happy to have on my Gore-Tex lined NB trail shoes.

I didn't take my camera today, so I lifted these photos from some other web sites.  I hope that's OK with them!

The trails are very well-maintained, with steps, logs, rocks, etc. to control erosion.

I'll have to go back in the spring to see it this green.  Not so green today.

There are several bridges throughout the park.  There is also an observation deck where you can take in a terrific view of the area.

I'll definitely be back here for some training runs, and may bring the kids for a hike in the woods.  It's a beautiful place!