The 1929 Bunion Derby: Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace across America
by Charles B. Kastner (Seychelles 1980–82)
Syracuse University Press
$24.95 (hard cover)
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, Bunion Derby: The 1928 Footrace Across America, 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 forced 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 sports agent and organizer 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 could 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 1830s Kastner points out.
However, the first trans-continental footrace, as detailed in Bunion Derby 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 price as the ultimate gold ring to be captured. Others were adventurers, men anxious to revive careers through 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 The 1929 Bunion Derby, 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 as 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 1920s America. The four Negro runners who competed in the first Bunion Derby deserve their 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 achievement. 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 (full disclosure-he’s John Coyne’s older brother) 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.