Reviewed by Thomas E. Coyne
This is a book worth reading! And well-illustrated, besides!
Actually, it is three books in one, drawing on Charles Kastner’s previous histories of the, now largely forgotten, 1928 and 1929 C. C. Pyle’s International-Trans-Continental Foot Races. The two races are covered but this is, equally, a focused look at race relations in the United States in the 1920s and the efforts of African Americans to achieve full integration into white America.
Author Kastner uses the story of Edward “Eddie” Gardner to tell his tale. Gardner, born in Alabama, was a respected African American distance runner in the greater Seattle, Washington community. In 1928 he participated in the trans-continental race planned by the Route 66 Highway Association to draw attention to the nation’s best-known national highway. The Association contracted with C. C. Pyle to conduct the event. Pyle succeeded, displaying a flair for attention and ballyhoo plus a level of incompetence and callousness that, in retrospect, makes one marvel even more at the tenacity of the runners who completed, not one, but two such races.
Money, not glory, was the motivation for these runners. They were international distance running stars and poor, but athletic, working-class Americans. The latter, with the same desire as countless other Americans, generations before them, who had walked East to West next to their covered wagons in pursuit of a better life for their families.
Pyle offered his competitors a shot at $25, 000 for the winner with $10, 000, $5,000 and $2,500 for second, third and fourth. Finishers five through ten would win $1,000. In 1928, this was life-changing money for the average person. To seek it, one hundred ninety-nine starters toed the line on March 4, 1928, in Los Angeles and, after running 3,422.3 miles, fifty-five crossed a finish line on May 26 in New York City.
A year later, reality had set in. Seventy-seven contestants, including forty-three repeaters from the first race, started on March 31st in New York City and, running a different route of 3,553.6 miles, nineteen finished on June 16th in Los Angeles.
A major difference; the runners in the 1928 race received their prize money. The finishers in the 1929 run received worthless promissory notes and never collected.
In his two previous books, the author focused on the races with some attention given to efforts by the African American runners to show their fellow white citizens they could compete as well as white athletes as distance runners. In this writing, Kastner shines his light on Gardner who finished in eighth place in the 1928 race. In 1929 he was the sole African American to return for the second running and led the run in its early stages but succumbed to injury and fatigue and dropped out after 1,536.60 miles.
Eddie Gardner clearly wanted to successfully represent his race and African American newspapers were the primary sources of information about that effort. Yet, there is no doubt he also had the same motivation as the white runners. Finishing in the top money meant a better life for him and his family.
Gardner, however, had to face the Jim Crow South as well as racial prejudice in other states on his journeys and Kastner’s recounting presents a sobering look at race history in the United States. To the credit of his fellow competitors, Gardner was treated as a respected comrade runner who shared the same miserable treatment C. C. Pyle gave everybody.
Kastner deserves accolades for the years of research that has gone into his three books about C. C. Pyle’s Bunion Derbies. This account gives graphic descriptions of men who ran through rugged terrain and terrible weather conditions at paces per mile that would be respectable in modern-day marathons and ultra-marathons.
While the author does not comment on the hundreds of subsequent runs across America, he should take pleasure in knowing that the spirit of the bunioneers lives on. Since Andy Payne’s 1928 run of 3,422.3 miles in 84 days the cross-continent record has now dropped to Pete Kostelnick’s 2016 run of 3100 miles in 42 days-six hours-30 minutes.
Read the book! The will power of these runners will impress you.
Thomas E. Coyne (full disclosure-he’s John Coyne’s older brother) has been a runner since 1947. In all that time he never once felt the urge to run one step more than the 26.2-mile marathon distance.