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C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America Hardcover – July 10, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Pyle, a sports agent and promoter, came up with the idea of a footrace (mockingly known as the Bunion Derby) from Los Angeles to New York that promised $48,500 in cash, including $25,000 to the first-place winner. For a $125 entry fee, male participants got the chance for a nice payday while subjecting themselves to harsh weather, primitive housing and Pyle's ego and shady business practices. They also had to run 3,500 miles over 84 days (the equivalent of 40 miles a day) long before comfortable running shoes and sophisticated sports nutrition. Williams, a contributor to Entrepreneur magazine, has evocatively recreated a long-forgotten sports event, mixing colorful anecdotes from the race with vivid portraits of the runners. There's Brother John, a bearded zealot who raced in a sackcloth, and 20-year-old Andy Payne, a part-Cherokee Oklahoman who competed to pay off his family's farm and to win the attention of the girl he loved. What could have been one long injury report or a sappy piece of nostalgic nuttiness is a breezy, entertaining read that properly balances the runners' integrity with the comedy of errors that was Pyle's grand experiment and his life. Photos. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
On March 4, 1928, 199 men set off from Los Angeles on foot. Their destination: New York City. It was the Bunion Derby, perhaps the most grueling contest in the golden age of endurance competitions, an era when dancing, flagpole sitting, eating, and even coffee drinking turned into tests of will. The race was the brainchild of huckster C. C. Pyle, who shares the focus of this fascinating account with some of the racers (especially young Andy Payne, who entered the derby in the name of true love). In a broader sense, though, author Williams tells the story of pre-Depression America, when the world seemed an exciting place, and when the horizon was bright. The race was an exhausting, punishing event (amazingly, more than 50 racers finished it), and Williams recounts the story with gusto, giving us a real sense of the physical and mental toll the competition took on its participants. Pyle comes off as a likable rogue, a classic Roaring Twenties, get-rich-quick kind of guy. The book is like a time capsuleand an extremely entertaining one at that. Pitt, David
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(below is additional information and photographs of Brother John)
John B. Nash, Jonas Israel, or Brother John is my grandmother's grandfather on her mother's side of the family. She is 92 and still lives near Elk Garden, WVa. She told me a story about how her mother would get mad when he visited, because he would have them outside, in all kinds of weather, walking or playing with no shoes on. She has post cards from him and an article from a local paper of his death stating he was found dead in the desert and buried in an unknown location.
For me this book will be an absolute treasure. I question my own sanity sometimes, having an unusual grandfather who boasted, "I have been arrested 65 times, been in jail 27 times, declared Insane 11 times, but only got a hair cut once." (this quote is from a typed post-card)
Author Geoff Williams came across such a tale that dates back to 1928. It's the story about a run from Los Angeles to New York, cleverly nicknamed "The Bunion Derby" (and I have no idea why that didn't fit into the title or subtitle somewhere).
Williams has gone through microfilm of every newspaper he could find from 1928, or so it seems, as well as talked to relatives of the contestants. The result is the book "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race," which does a good job of describing what this traveling circus must have been like.
The central character is not one of the runners but Pyle, who staged the race. It was a time for marathons of all sorts, such as flagpole sitting and dancing. Pyle was filled with plenty of ideas and smarts, and he was always willing to take a chance on a money-making idea.
Pyle became a little bit famous by serving as the personal manager for Red Grange, the famous football player of the time. Pyle came up with the idea of staging a race across the country, giving big prize money ($25,000 to the winner) out while taking a traveling carnival with him along the way to make money in small towns and big cities. About 200 runners sent in an entry fee, and away they went.
The problem, as with most of his ventures, was that Pyle was underfinanced and making it up as he went along. He tried to keep one step ahead of bill collectors, lawyers and town officials along the way, and he was moderately successful at it.
The runners -- a generally lower-class mix who had little idea what they were getting into -- were a step behind Pyle, trudging through unpaved roads, bad shoes, poor weather, and nutritional hardship (the food was pretty bad) in an attempt to win the life-changing grand prize. The dropout rate was high, as could be expected, and it's easy to wonder if all of the runners wondered if there would be money waiting for them if they finished in the top 10. But somehow the race reached New York.
The runners are the heroes of the book, and Williams does a good job of bringing them back to life (the last surviving runner died a couple of years ago). "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race" is nicely done, and ought to more than satisfy anyone's curiosity about this odd spectacle.
Pyle, a pioneer in sports agency and marketing, managed to gather a field of experienced runners, as well as eager but inadequately prepared hopefuls attracted by the promised $25,000 prize. Some of the runners had run races or exhibition runs of hundreds of miles, some were experienced marathoners and Olympic athletes. Others were not athletes at all, just ambitious men with big dreams.
On March 4, 1928, 199 runners started out in the rain and mud, thousands of miles ahead of them. Williams gathers newspaper accounts, personal memoirs, and historical documents to chronicle the race from its inception to the finish. We learn the back stories of the runners and witness the drama of the race. Runners dropped out along the way, of course, from injury, exhaustion, frustration, mental breakdown, or some combination of all of these.
Williams's account is full of great anecdotes. For instance, two decades before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, Pyle invited African-Americans to race. The black runners faced some opposition along the way. As a Texan I am sad, but not too surprised, to report that some of the worst encounters were in Texas, where the KKK "were enraged that there were blacks running alongside whites. . . . Somewhere between the border of Texas and the town of Vega, a mob tried to set fire to a car full of people shouting encouraging words to Gardner," an African-American runner. The Klan harassed the four black runners throughout the Texas panhandle.
For all the personal side stories, including the hilarious misadventures of Pyle, running from ex-wives, the police, and debt collectors while trying to put on this spectactle of a race, Pyle's Amazing Foot Race is all about the race itself. The distances themselves are numbing. Other than the first leg, a mere 17 miles, and maybe one or two others, the legs were all ultramarathon distance, some as much as 50 or 60 miles or more. And then they'd run again the next day! No days off in this race.
Many runners, especially ultramarathoners, will empathize with the perils of the runners, including blisters, lost toenails, sunburn, frostbite, nausea, sore muscles, etc. If you've ever experience these on a run, imagine the worst you've felt, then imagine getting up the next morning to do it again, and again, for weeks! And the conditions ranged from blazing heat and sandstorms to driving rain and blizzards. It's no wonder that after 8 days and 295 miles, half the runners had dropped out.
Williams makes much of the diversity of footwear chosen by the runners, and the impossibility of keeping their feet in good shape. I don't think even avid barefoot runners would endorse running 3422 miles non-stop barefoot, but I was amused by Williams's use of this quote from a New York Times editorial in 1878: "It would be impossible to form any accurate estimate of the enormous amount of human suffering that has been caused by boots and shoes." If you're familiar with Christopher McDougall, the author of Born to Run, you've heard him say similar about modern running shoes.
I do wish Williams had included some summary information, such as a chart of the runners' finishing times, the names and hometowns of the runners, and a map of the course. That information is all in the text, but I would like to have seen it in another form. He does include some small pictures at the start of each chapter, but I would like to have seen more pictures. But wait, he didn't have to! At the end of the Acknowledgements he notes a PBS documentary about the race, which has a web site with all that information! Now to get my hands on that video. . . .
As a result of Pyle's financial mismanagement and poor planning, the end of the race was rather anticlimactic. Many were surprised that he actually came up with prize money! (The next year he put on the race again, this time from the east coast to the west coast, but in the end, the winners walked away empty-handed. Wouldn't that be a let-down!)
Andy Payne, the winner of the Bunion Derby, averaged a bit over 10 minutes per mile. That's amazing to me. His statue can be seen on Route 66, in Foyil, Oklahoma, Payne's hometown.
Pyle's Amazing Foot Race is a great read. Runners will enjoy it, especially those who love to run long distances. But the book also presents a colorful picture of life in the U.S. between the wars, and, ironically, captures some of the adventuresome spirit of the early days of the automobile and the mobility that Route 66 came to represent. Highly recommended!