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Endurance Racing: First Leg, the Bunion Derby

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Charles Borah (left), Digital ID 101299, New York Public LibraryVacationers traveling in the United States usually do so by car, plane or train, but in 1928 (and again in 1929), approximately 200 runners signed on for the challenge of crossing the country coast-to-coast on foot. These were the runners in the Transcontinental Footrace, jokingly called the “Bunion Derby” by the newspapers. The race was used to advertise everything from foot products to the new Route-66 highway to Madison Square Garden, and was managed by a sports promoter of questionable character named C.C. Pyle, whose legal troubles added an additional bit of entertainment for the reader or radio listener following the race.

For $125, any male runner could enter to run from Los Angeles to New York City (and in reverse in 1929), and would be refunded $100 at the end to cover their return travel costs. The runners would cover distances of 30 to 70 miles a day, every day, much of it along the newly built Route-66 highway. They ran 3,422 miles across desert, over the Great Divide of the Rocky Mountains, through rain, in traffic, and in blistering sun and winds. Most had no crew to assist them, nor the fancy running shoes nor energy gels runners appreciate today. The grand prize to the first-place finisher was a hefty $25,000, with each of the top 10 winners taking home a cash prize. 

Kolehmainen, Winning a Ten-Mile Championship at New Brunswick, N.J., Digital ID 101267, New York Public LibraryWillie Kolehmainen, one of the 1928 runners

Who were these men who ran such incredible distances? Well, in 1928 there were around 200 runners present for the starting gun on March 4th, and 55 survivors who limped into New York at the end of May, only to find they had to run a final 20 miles around the cement floor of the new Madison Square Garden. In 1929, the numbers were 76 and 19, respectively. There were trained professional racers, speed-walkers, a millionaire’s son, a member of the Hopi tribe, farmhands, mechanics and even a bum. According to the New York Times, the youngest runner in 1928 was 16 years old; the oldest 63.


Competitors came from as far away as England, Italy, Finland and South Africa. The men ran for fame, to earn money to start their own farms or businesses, and to impress their sweethearts. While it’s pretty amazing that 55 runners managed this feat in 1928, that means over 70% of the competitors dropped out! The men who quit did so because of exhaustion, heatstroke, blisters, injuries to knees and feet, plain ol’ loss of motivation, and in a few cases, after having been hit by a car on the open roadway.

The race itself was rather poorly organized by sports agent C.C. Pyle—referred to jokingly in the papers as “Cash and Carry” (pdf) or “Cold Cash” Pyle (pdf). He had intended to make a mint off of the race, charging towns along the route for the honor of featuring it on their roads, and hosting the traveling carnival that accompanied the runners each night. The caliber of the carnival can be summed up by two images: two-headed chickens and the taxidermied remains of a bank robber.

Unfortunately for Pyle, many of the towns in question balked at paying, the runners curiously demanded decent meals and sleeping conditions, and Pyle became entangled with the law in several of the states they crossed. Authorities in Illinois even appear to have lain in wait for the race, attempting to recoup around $20,000 in defaulted personal loans Pyle owed one bank in their state (pdf).

All of these financial and legal troubles meant that Pyle did not have the promised $48,500 in prize money to pay the winners in New York, hence the extra 20 miles tacked on at the end: the owner of Madison Square Garden, Tex Rickard, put forward cash in exchange for the “free” advertising. 

Madison Square Garden, N.Y.C. Circus., Digital ID 1691057, New York Public LibraryInside the new Madison Square Garden, 1925

Okay, to cut Pyle some slack, organizing a race of such proportions is pretty tough. One would think he might have worked out some of the kinks by the second run in 1929, but one would be wrong. An August 4, 1929 article (pdf) in the New York Times indicated that Pyle's money had run out, that he “didn’t have a thin dime” to pay his athletes or staff. The article ended ominously with the Deputy Labor Commissioner of Los Angeles promising to issue a warrant for Pyle’s arrest “first thing Monday morning.” Poor Pyle once again had trouble with the law, but at least he gave the American public an interesting spectacle to talk about, two years in a row!
 
And what of the runners? The winner in 1928, Andrew Payne, was a 21-year-old from Oklahoma who worked on his father’s farm. You’ll find him here in the 1920 census (pdf).
 
Payne’s strongest competition, second place winner and policeman John Salo of Suffern, NY, ran the race again in 1929. The second time around, Salo won the race by a lead of only two minutes (pdf), but due to Pyle’s ongoing shaky finances, he never saw his prize money. Salo died just two years later (pdf) after being struck on the head by a ball in a baseball game in New Jersey.
 
And the last man standing from the Derby, Harry Abrams (pdf)--who was known as Abramowitz at the time of the race--lived to the ripe age of eighty-seven, passing away in 1994 (pdf)!
 
You’ll also be interested to know that there was a Broadway musical written about the race—Ballyhoo—featuring lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
 
If this post whet your whistle for more about the quirky Bunion Derby and endurance racing, check back for my next post on recent developments in the world of ultramarathon running. You also can’t go wrong by checking out the titles below!
 
 
 
 

 

Subject headings:
Endurance sports
Runners (sports)—United States—biography
Running races -- United States -- History.
Sports agents -- United States -- Biography.

 

Comments

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This is awesome! I love the

This is awesome! I love the part about the two-headed chickens. I'm imagining the carnival to be a lot like the one from the HBO show Carnivale. But with running!

Carnivale

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I haven't seen Carnivale, but will definitely have to investigate now.

2028 re-enactment?

A man before his time in some areas but a race done at the right time since there would've been less car traffic to deal with then. Perhaps there could be a 100th anniversary of the race in 2028. You mention ultramarathons at the end -- what do they think of "re-enacting" this race? Doesn't get any better than the ultimate cross-country race. So, any C.C. Pyle's out there now ready to organize it?

2028 Re--enactment

I agree that a re-enactment would be an interesting thing to see! Holding it in 2028 might give all of us mortals just enough time to train for it. You're right about traffic levels being lower in 1928, however I believe the rules of the road were less stringent, as well as I don't believe divider lines or light poles were frequently seen in all regions. In my next post I will provide a small sampling of the hundreds of ultras run these days, including one race for which the mileage is similar to the Bunion Derby.

An additional resource on the Bunion Derby

The following website--produced in conjunction with a documentary on the Derby--features bios and pictures of many of the runners, a map of the route, and other information surrounding the race. http://archive.itvs.org/footrace/index.htm

1929 C.C. Pyle race

My grandfather ran in this race. His name was Charles Eskins. Finished 16th. My father and grandmother(Phoebe) drove their car following him all the way. I remember stories growing up about this race and all that happened during the race. The founder of the town they lived in Elyria funded his entrance fee. Mr Ely. Grandfather would run to work at the Steel plant in Lorain, Ohio and home to Elyria to get in shape for the race. He showed me the shirt he wore in the race. There are many articles in the Chronicle Telegram the newspaper in Elyria, Ohio about him and the race. Judy Eskins(Jesse)

1929 C.C. Pyle Race

Ms. Eskins, It's wonderful to hear from someone whose relative ran the race. He must've been quite a determined soul! You would definitely enjoy reading the books I listed about the races, in addition to the newspaper articles you've already seen.

Retracing a few miles of the 1928 Footrace

This past weekend Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association retraced a few miles of the 1928 Bunion Derby by running the 1922 Old Trails Highway dirt road bed up Ash Fork Hill. Thought folks would enjoy our blog - http://www.flagstafftrailrunning.blogspot.com/2012/03/getting-our-butts-kicked-on-route-66.html

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