Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Amazing Bunion Derby of 1928

C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America by Geoff Williams

I spent New Year's Day 2007 running 12 miles from one end of Dauphin Island to the other. And I spent the first day of 2008 finishing Geoff Williams's utterly charming book about a crew of guys who would have viewed a 12 mile run as a picnic.

Sometime in 1927 (a year I know far too much about), the "P.T. Barnum of sports promotion," C.C. Pyle, cooked up a scheme for the marathon to end all marathons, from Los Angeles to New York City with a $25,000 prize to the first finisher. 199 runners from around the world paid their $125 entry fee for C.C. Pyle's First Annual International Transcontinental Foot Race, dubbed the Bunion Derby, and set out on March 4, 1928. Astonishingly, despite inclement weather, poor footwear, careless motorists, and Pyle's abominable management of the event, 55 runners finished on May 26, 1928. More astonishingly, no one died during the event.

Williams follows the stories of the race's competitors, an eclectic mixture of world class athletes, desperate types, and fame-hungry eccentrics. There's Andy Payne, the part Cherokee Oklahoma farm boy who ran to save his family's farm and to impress the girl of his dreams, and Lucien Frost, a cult member and Hollywood bit player with a foot-long beard. Then there's Tobie Cotton, a 15-year-old African-American boy with a paraplegic father, whose family bought a $50 touring car to follow him across the country.

The runners faced immeasurable hardships during the race. The roads were bad, and athletic equipment for competitive runners was primitive. Underdog Frank Von Flue began the race wearing a pair of baseball shoes from which he'd removed the spikes, but quickly switched them out for a pair of patent leather street shoes. Another runner wore lumberjack boots. However, much of the runners' suffering was caused by Pyle himself. Trying to eke a profit out of his poorly planned venture, Pyle saved money by having runners sleep on the ground in tents, and half-starving them.

It's an unbelievable, wacky tale of the period with loads of colorful figures and amazing anecdotes. If you're a fan of endurance contests of the 1920s, Route 66 lore, or the general loneliness of the long distance runner, this book is for you.

Also, if you like this sort of thing, check out my post today on the 1947project, detailing chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.'s ill-advised January ocean marathon from Catalina Island to Palos Verdes. It's a story that involves a plucky young Canadian, fabulous prizes, and full frontal nudity.

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