Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Vol. 4 No. 33 The Bunion Derby a Review by Thomas Coyne

Sometimes doing this blog is just too easy.  This week Thomas Coyne took  us off the treadmill of life  and sent in a review of two books by the same author Charles B Kastner about the Bunion Derby, a footrace across America held twice in 1928 and 1929.   The story rang a bell for me, because I first heard of the races back in the mid 1950's when one of my father's "men's magazines"   True or was it Argosy  had a story about that race.  I remember a picture across the title page of some heavily  tanned runners lined up in the desert about to take off on muscled legs. Yet is seems they looked more like modern racewalkers than runners.    Thomas can tell the story better than I.  He's read the books.  I hope it sharpens your appetite to hobble out and buy a copy after reading this review.  The review was originally published in Tom's brother's blog " Peace Corps World Wide"   which covers writings by former Peace Corps Volunteers.  Kastner was a volunteer in the Seychelles from 1980-82.    I've culled a few pictures from Google Images and a couple of links to some film of the race and a separate article from the Seattle Post Intelligencer on Eddie Gardner an African American who ran both years.

"The Bunion Derby"
"Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace Across America"
Syracuse University Press
April , 2014
304 pages

Reviewed by Thomas E. Coyne

Would you run across the continental United States?

Would you run across the continental United States....twice?

You will notice that I did not ask if you COULD run across the country twice.  In his book, The 1929 Bunion Derby, author Charles Kastner makes it clear there were any number of men quite willing to put on their running shoes and try....willing, just not able.

Charles Kastner has written two books about C.C. Pyle's epic, but almost forgotten, International Trans-continental Foot Races in 1928 and 1929.  The first, published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2007 grew out of a 2001 Kastner article in Marathon and Beyond magazine about Ed "the Sheik" Gardner, a legendary Seattle, Washington African American runner who completed the first Bunion Derby and was 1,536 miles into the second before leg injuries force him out.

The two books deserve reading together.  While they have much in common in  detailing the difficulties, agonies, courage, and almost criminal incompetence of C.C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle that characterized the two ultra-long distance running events, there are some significant differences.  In 1928, Pyle capitalized on both the endurance fads that were sweeping the country during the 1920's Golden Age of Sports and the opening of the first transcontinental highway, Route 66.  If men try six day bicycle racing, flagpole sitting and marathon dance contests, surely they could run across the United States from west to east.  Professional distance racing was second only to horse racing as a spectator sport in the 1880s Kastner points out.

However, the first trans-continental footrace was less a race than a survival contest.  Although Pyle had seeded his starting entry field of 199 men with some experienced European long distance racing champions the majority of contestants were working class men, many unemployed, captivated by the possibility of pulling themselves out of near or actual poverty just by placing in the money; with the $25,000.00 first prize as the ultimate gold ring to be captured.  Others were adventurers, men anxious  to revive careers though the publicity the race would bring or representatives of cities or organizations.  The 55 men who actually made it from Los Angeles to New York had, by run's end, forged themselves into distance runners in the crucible of extreme weather conditions, outrageous physical demands on their bodies and terrible living conditions for the majority.  The winner's gap of fifteen hours over the second place finisher was a triumph as much of planning and execution as it was of physical prowess.

In his 1929 Bunion Derby book, Kastner describes a real race.  How real it was is shown by the two minute and forty-seven second margin between first and second place.  Kastner provides a wealth of data about the race, this time heading west from New York to Los Angeles.  Notable was the difference in the starting fields from 199 in 1928 to 77 in 1929 with 19 men finishing in Los Angeles.  A surprising number of men who competed in the first race returned for the second and twelve of them completed both races.  The second time around, however, those veterans came, not  poor men clutching at straws, but as experienced long distance runners, confident in their abilities and prepared with trainers and support teams for almost any challenge.

Key to Kastner's book is the story of Johnny Salo, second in 1928 and winner the following year.  An immigrant from Finland, a World War I veteran and a blue collar worker Salo combined determination, physical stamina and the ability to learn and adapt.  He was both a survivor and a racer.

That the men were truly racing is also demonstrated by the drop in per mile time from Andy Payne's winning effort in 1928 at 10:04 pace per mile to the 8:53 per mile maintained by 1929 winner Salo and second place finisher Pete Gavuzzi.

Kastner tries and, to a large extent, succeeds in portraying the physical agonies of the race.    However, it is difficult to really describe to someone who has never been involved with distance running the mental and bodily struggles that take place in the sport.  Even those average or elite marathon runners who experience reluctant muscles on an early morning run will find it hard to comprehend starting out, day after day after day , each morning on distances that ranged from 21 to 79.9 miles with muscles that were not just reluctant but actively resisting.  Toss in weather from desert heat to winter winds and words fail actual understanding of what it was really like to compete in those races.

Kastner does well in this 1929 Bunion Derby account, and even better in his earlier book, in showing the appalling racial hatred existent in 1920's America.  The four Negro runners who competed in the first Bunion Derby deserve the most applause, not just for completing the race, but for doing so in the face of every injustice and obstacle short of violence.  That two of them returned in 1929 was a marvel and Philip Granville who completed both races quite probably benefited from the fact of his Jamaican origin and Canadian citizenship.

There is much more to tell of the pre-Depression United States, the abilities and failings of one of the great sports promoters in American history and of two truly astounding feats of human endurance.
But I'm not going to tell you.  I want you to buy this book and its predecessor as well.  You need to read what men can do when they refuse to give up.

A last word on.....Bunion Derby.  This nickname given by the press to an unheard of footrace has always struck me as a squeamish effort by men to trivialize what they themselves could not do.  What one cannot appreciate enough to honestly applaud is cloaked in a mean and petty manner.  As Kastner noted in his original book, that shrewd observer of the American scene, Will Rogers, had it right when he wrote  "You'll find it's the grit and heart that's doing this more than bunions".

There have been other, later , trans-continental runs.....and more power to them.  However the men who in 1928 and 1929 first attempted this feat brought to the starting line something special in the way of determination and resolve.  Their story is well told.

Thomas E. Coyne has been a runner since 1947.  In all that time he has never once felt the urge to run one step more than the 26.2 mile marathon distance.

More about this race came through a brief search on the web.

Johnny Salo
John Salo #107 was given a certificate of appointment to the police department of Passaic, New Jersey, as the Bunion Derby ran through his hometown. On October 6, 1931, only three years later, he was stuck on the head by a baseball in a sand lot game and died as a result of the injury. Salo finished the race in second place, earning $10,000.

Newsreel footage:



African American Viewpoint


Link to a documentary:  The Great American Footrace


Eddie Gardner   Seattle Post Intelligencer Article 2007


A brief account of Foyil, Oklahoma's favorite son  Andy Payne

Soon after Route 66 was completed, Lon Scott, a promoter for the newly formed Route 66 Association, came up with the idea of a transcontinental footrace. Calling it the “Bunion Derby,” the race followed the new highway from the Pacific Ocean to Chicago and then on to New York City. Running from California, across the desert of Arizona, the open lands in New Mexico, through the Panhandle of Texas and right through his own hometown; through sand storms, snow storms, rain and city traffic, Andy ran 3,423 miles into New York City and the finish line 84 days after the race began. He finished hours ahead of his nearest competitor to claim the $25,000 prize. Andy went home a hero with the American public comparing him to Charles Lindbergh and other famous icons. Will Rogers, a native of Oklahoma, said, “I kind of felt jealous when I read that someone had supplanted me as favorite son.” Andy came back to Foyil, used the prize money to pay off the mortgage on his parent’s farm and married Vivian, his former high school teacher who was just one year older than him. He retired after 38 years serving as the Oklahoma Supreme Court clerk and passed away peacefully in 1977.

A French website with the finish order and times of the 1928 race and other links to the race

Andy Payne Winner of the 1928 Bunion Derby

Two of the African American Runners

Andy Payne on Right

Eddie "The Sheik" Gardner

   When I was teaching history at Trotwood-Madison High School (Dayton, OH)  in the 1970s, some of our courses were mini-courses, invented during those contentious days to make the topics more interesting and to examine learning in a more innovative way.  Maybe that happened and maybe it didn't but such attempts were typical of the 1970s.  One of those courses was the 1920's-30s and in that course we studied extreme activities such as marathon dances, flagpole sitting and the Bunion Derby.  As the track coach I found it very interesting and ironically many of the students felt the same way although none of them thought it made much sense.  Shortly after that I read Bruce Tulloh's book about running across the US, Four Million Footsteps, which was also very interesting.  He made many comments on America but I remember one in particular where he thought that much of America looked very much the same and you could not always tell where you were without knowing. After his comments I started looking at America to see if he was right and realized that he was.  You cannot tell if miles of strip malls were in New Hampshire, Illinois, Utah or California.  They pretty much all look equally ugly.  However, the natural beauty of America continues to be much the same and very different and magnificent.     Bill Schnier

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