Review

Bunion Derby
The 1928 Footrace across America
by Charles B. Kastner (Seychelles 1980-81)
University of New Mexico Press
October 2007
242 pages
$24.95

Reviewed by Philip Damon (Ethiopia 1963–65)

    TRAVELING DISTANCES by the running footstep is a relative matter. Starting from having to catch the occasional bus, there is a scale of increasing levels of exertion up to unimaginable distances, speed, frequency, and accumulated time and mileage.
         Practicing distance or “endurance” runners comprise three essential types, which can be thought of as the running natures. And since practicing runners — who by their nature fall into one of these types — run more or less regularly in organized races, it follows that the variety of races reflects the three natures. Of course some accomplished runners eschew all sanctioned races, yet even such individualistic harriers do their lonely running according to their natures, which primarily have to do with aptitudes for distance.
         Most runners who enter races expect or hope to finish in a respectable time, signaling their best effort, even at the back of the pack. If they’re beginners, they may opt to enter a shorter race, a 5K, 8K or 10K, because they know they can finish even if having to limp. Or they may be experienced age-division runners, who have discovered these to be the best distances for their running nature — and who are willing to suffer from early in the race yet for a briefer period of time. These men and women run in the front of the pack, at least within their age divisions. It is also common for runners to cut their teeth at these distances and then graduate (if not upward, then outward) into the half and full marathon. It necessitates a greater investment, in training and races, to satisfy the demands of this second “nature” and to meet its fundamental challenges in distance and effort. In terms of racing, this type of running is epitomized by the marathon. For most of us road racers, the marathon is (short of the capital-I Ironman) the king of all events. It is hard to run 26.2 miles at the best pace you can muster.
         But there are other, even longer races, which dwarf the marathon, making it look as comparatively puny as a marathoner would consider a holiday costume-party 5K fun run. Most of these longest races are off the radar even of marathoners, and all involve trail running and extreme distances in resistant conditions, incrementally beyond the marathon to 50K, 50 mile, 100 mile and more, across Death Valley and the Sahara, or up the tropical, vertical ridge trails of Oahu. This is the ultra running nature, in its ultra-habitat, which is why anything beyond a marathon is an “ultra.” Ultra-marathoners scoff at the clean shoes, paved surfaces and urban charms of “designer” marathons. They’re a breed apart, and if in 1928 there hadn’t been the most amazing event in footrace history, the ultra-running nature would inarguably set the standard for endurance.
         But as challenging as I can only imagine it to be, a one hundred and fifty mile overland run in a single continuous effort itself pales toward the puny beside the suffering inflicted upon the 199 men from 26 countries who entered C.C. Pyle’s First Annual International Transcontinental Foot Race, from Los Angeles to New York. (I debated internally over the adjective to use here in describing the men, and settled for their number after deciding that no word I knew of would do them justice — “legendary” if enough people had heard of their legend, “awesome” if it wasn’t such a tired cliché.) Alas, only a few know what they heroically did — though this was far from the case at the time, both nationally and around the world. In newspapers everywhere and on radio they were the poster boys for endurance in the decade of the do-it-’til-you-drop contest. Marathon dancing, swimming, kissing, remaining awake or sitting on flagpoles all held their hazards, but to run 3,400 miles across the U. S. in eighty-four days? Hopefully the publication of Charles Kastner’s Bunion Derby betokens a new and admiring awareness of these men’s accomplishments, whether or not they were even among the fifty-five who eventually made it to New York.
         Yet predating this incredible feat (of running feet) there had to be Charley Pyle’s vision of what a footrace like it could possibly be — and to be the kind of promoter who could stage it. Pyle had the prescience to tie in with the uneven opening of U.S. Highway 66, from LA to Chicago, a route full of young towns looking for a galvanizing event to pass through with a traveling carnival attached. Pyle was charismatically fronted by and partnered with none other than the country’s earliest football hero, Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost.” Grange was Pyle’s client as a player in the pro league Pyle also owned, the original AFL. The plan was that Grange would be signing autographs and entertaining the people along the way with stories about football. Actually, the parallel story of Pyle’s caravan epic, the one apart from the physical running and focused on all of the accompanying political, financial and cultural drama, is enough to make this book a fascinating read.
         But it’s the physical running that makes it more than a fascinating read. Bunyon Derby’s narrative arc transcends the academic approach one would expect from a university press, as it ranges beyond the 2001 article on the race Kastner originally published in the journal Marathon and Beyond. His germinal article featured a single runner, Eddie “The Sheik of Seattle” Gardner, one of the Derby’s four black entrants, who suffered racial attacks in Oklahoma and Texas and shin splints in Indiana and Ohio to become a black national hero. Six years after the publication of that article, it is to Kastner’s well-earned credit that he has expanded his portrait of Gardner along with many others, including the infamous Cash and Carry Pyle and the story’s many non-running characters. Exemplifying this is how often in this engaging narrative of the race, a previously unknown runner emerges into the foreground of the story. Among the unnamed many — who endured hundreds more hours of suffering in accumulated time, who toiled without hope of an award at the back of the pack. Arguably, these men performed more heroically than the fifteen or twenty who at various points over the 84 days were challengers to finish in the money, which ranged from $25,000 to awards of $1,000 for finishers five through ten.
         (Coincidentally, that issue of Marathon and Beyond contains an article about a 1992 race intended to replicate Pyle’s cross-country footrace, without the media fanfare and financial payout. While six hundred miles shorter, it also went from California to New York, and was the first and only attempt of its kind in sixty-four years or in the fifteen years since. Twenty-eight men answered this challenge, from seven countries and thirteen states, and the article nicely summarizes the various strategies and the brutality and exhilaration of the 63-day effort — all within the constraints of fifteen pages. It’s unfortunate, however that it is never clear how many of them finished.)
         I have to say that this book really got to me by the end, which is always a great feeling, and not just because I’m a runner. I might have an advantage in appreciating the off the chart implications of this incredible feat. Maybe I can commiserate more readily with the 144 runners who shut it down along the way, 17 within 30 days of the finish. I might have a better idea what it means to run an average of 40.4762 miles every day for 84 days, across the Mojave Desert, across frozen mountains, across mud and dust. But if I told you I knew what any of that was like I’d be lying. I run 2,000 miles a year and I run in weather, but what I run in fifty weeks these guys ran the first fifty days. Toward the end of the Derby, with Pyle hurting for money (how he got there is part of the parallel story), he shortened the race by a number of days and stretched each leg into the fifties and sixties, topping out on Day 79 to Deposit, New York, “under a blistering sun and on a winding mountain road.” The 75-mile stage was won by John Salo, a New Jersey policeman, in a time of twelve hours and thirteen minutes, cutting Okie Andy Payne’s cumulative lead to sixteen hours. I can only wonder how long it took the stragglers.
         As a veteran of numerous injuries, I might better relate than most to the range of them incurred by the “Bunioneers” — if, that is, I was accustomed to running the next day after a bad injury, and then day after day for weeks or months, until I recovered painfully on the run, as Eddie Gardner was forced to do with his shin splints, dropping out of the leaders during that couple of weeks. A day off with an injury meant the end of the race. If Pyle had made good on his plan to pay an award for each day’s winner, Gardner would have benefited from having the highest number of stage victories, most of which came early in the Derby. Andy Payne, on the other hand, held back his pace throughout the race and outlasted many flashier entries, including international favorites who held early leads but were also early casualties. Few runners easily gave up the quest. Throughout the race it was common for a man to be sufficiently hobbled to be unable to make a midnight deadline, thus required to run those miles in the morning, after a short night’s sleep, before starting the next day’s leg.
         It is not entirely true to say the ’92 version of the Derby was the only other transcontinental footrace. Pyle had imagined a yearly event, and a better businessman might have pulled it off — and the world’s idea of distance running might have a totally different look. In 1929 he held a second race, this time east to west, and extended the awards from ten to fifteen runners. Only eighty men entered, many of them back for another try. The field included Gardner and Salo but not Payne, who “joined as part of the race patrol and as an entertainer in the evening tent show, where he told jokes and performed rope tricks while the ladies of the vaudeville company changed costumes.” Fifty thousand New Yorkers cheered them off, but within a week it was clear that no money was forthcoming from Pyle, pretty much shutting the book on the International Transcontinental Footrace.
         Finally, I should point out that Bunyon Derby isn’t the only book to be published this year about Pyle’s mind-bender of a race — furthering the hope that the story will gradually acquire a wider audience. C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race, by Geoff Williams, can be read as a valuable companion piece to this one. It features very different material and historical and cultural reference points, not to mention a host of different runners, which only goes to show what a hugely diverse topic the ’28 race actually became. If I had to say which of these new books I’d consider to be the definitive text, it would have to be Kastner’s, which I read first myself. The style is sparer and sharper in time and on the cast of runners. It is also rich in notes and bibliography, photos, and four appendices, which include the names and homes of the starters and the names and times of the finishers. These are names which I now feel blessed and honored to know.

    Philip Damon is retired from the University of Hawaii and now writes and runs in the Pacific Northwest. He has finished almost as many marathon as he has published short stories, and at seventy, he still runs five or six marathons a year. He is putting the finishing touches on a collection of stories called The Karma Sutras: Cautionary Tales of Spiritual Yearning.