C.C. Pyle’s First Annual International Transcontinental Foot Race, better known as the Bunion Derby, was a plodding, disorganized event that taxed the health and sanity of the runners and was largely greeted with indifference by the American public.
Fortunately, a new book about the race fares much better.
Geoff Williams’ “C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race” (Rodale, $25.95, 322 pages) turns out to be a briskly paced, entertaining account of that 3,400-mile event. Subtitled “The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America,” the book brims with fascinating detail, interesting characters and drama — even though most Route 66ers already know who won. This is the first in-depth book about the race of which I’m aware.
The book should be of interest to Route 66 aficionados because much of the Bunion Derby took place on the fledgling U.S. 66 and provided early publicity for the highway. The U.S. Highway 66 Association even underwrote some of its costs.
Route 66ers also know about one of the runners — Andy Payne of the Route 66 town of Foyil, Okla. He figured the $25,000 top prize would pay off the family’s farm and help him woo a new girlfriend, Vivian. Despite going against the world’s best long-distance runners, Payne became an unlikely contender.
Overseeing it was the infamous C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle. Part promoter and part conman, Pyle saw the race as a potential cash bonanza. But the foot race became drenched in so much red ink, it was questionable whether the top runners would receive prize money at all. Because of absurdly Spartan accommodations and broken promises, Pyle was so despised by the runners that they cheered when his luxury travel vehicle was seized by creditors. Pyle even stiffed an Oklahoma City repair shop for a $288 bill.
The race started in Los Angeles with 199 runners. Almost three-quarters would drop out before the New York City finish. Almost 50 runners dropped out from the hellish uphill slog of Cajon Pass alone. Runners said the second-worst time was when they were caught in a blizzard west of Amarillo.
The hardships they dealt with were staggering — primitive roads, desert heat, numbing cold, sunburn, lack of food and chronic injuries from running 30-60 miles a day, seven days a week. Black runners were threatened by white supremacists. A few runners got hit by cars. A few suffered nervous breakdowns. By the time the remainder made it to New York, they looked more like POWs than athletes. Somehow, nobody died.
The winner finished the 3,421.5 miles in 588 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds. That’s 5.8 miles per hour. That’s equivalent to a 4 1/2-hour marathon, all the way across the country, every day. Over bad roads. And in all weather conditions.
The 1920s were an era in which endurance events such as marathon dancing, nonstop flights and flagpole-sitting were all the rage. But the Bunion Derby has to be considered the endurance event of them all.
Bunion Derby runner Phillip Granville said: “Lindbergh only sat down and drove an engine for 36 hours. I ran for 84 days, on my feet.”