Vacationers 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.
Willie 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.
Inside 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
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
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!
Runners (sports)—United States—biography
Running races -- United States -- History.
Sports agents -- United States -- Biography.