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 Williams gathers newspaper accounts, personal memoirs, and historical documents to chronicle the race from its inception to the finish.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!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome book....glad you read it too!