by Russ Ebbets
The general public has long been fascinated by feats of human performance. If you think back to the days of PT Barnum and his circus the side shows were a stunning collection of strong men and women along with human oddities that kept the “suckers” stunned, amazed and returning year after year.
In Bill Pearl’s book, Getting Stronger (Shelter Publications) he chronicles a number of early strong men whose demonstrations defied imagination. These guys lifted momentous dumbbells, bent steel bars and ripped decks of playing cards in half signifying much more than just the simple vitality of a firm handshake.
It seems difficult to imagine in our “all news, all the time” times that anyone would pay to watch a dance marathon or the 17,000 laps of a 6-day bicycle race, but in the 1930s the bicycle race was a mainstay and routinely sold out Madison Square Garden.
Walking feats date back to the early 1800s when Robert Barclay Allardice walked one mile every hour for 1000 consecutive hours, covering 1000 miles. It took him 42 days to complete this feat. No doubt he suffered from “sleeptus interruptus.”
For the last 100 years a more popular endurance endeavor has been to walk 100 miles in a 24-hour period. This feat earns one the title of Centurion. To date less than 100 Americans have accomplished this feat, compared to over 1000 UK walkers. For those challenged by the math these walkers averaged 4.16 mph for 24 hours. Just try walking 4 mph on a treadmill.
Running seemed to lag behind all this hoopla. Even the venerable Boston Marathon drew small fields with only 18 runners in the inaugural event. It took 30 years before the race finally cracked 200 starters. The low participation rate may have been due to the dire predictions of the medical authorities that warned of cardiovascular collapse. Clarence DeMar won the race seven times and had a different opinion. He’s reported to have eulogized one of his marathon buddies, who died at 110 years old, “The experts said it was running that killed him.”
The attitudes about running all began to change with an idea from Charles C. Pyle. Sports promotor CC Pyle (a.k.a. – Cash & Carry) got the idea for a 3,400 mile run across America to promote the completion of the famous Route 66, America’s first transcontinental highway set to open in 1928. Professional runners from 24 nations signed up to participate. The first place prize was $25,000. That prize was figured to be the equivalent of 20 years salary for the average working man. The race began with 199 runners.
Despite the glorious payday hills, heat and the grind of 60-mile days thinned the ranks by 70 runners after the first week. Dubbed “The Bunion Derby” by the press and championed by Pyle’s incessant promotion the Bunion Derby soon captured the imagination of America.
With competitors from Europe, Africa and North America everyone had someone to cheer for. The race was set up like the Tour de France with daily destinations and cumulative segmental timing. Each day was a new day with rabbits and hares and the endless miles. National interest continued to grow as the ultramarathoners crept their way across the US.
Famed distance runner Arthur Newton from South Africa was one of the early favorites and early casualties. Soon three runners began to separate from the field, Englishman Peter Gavuzzi, New Jersey’s John Salo and Oklahoma’s 20-year-old Andy Payne.
In Ohio, Gavazzi dropped out due to dental problems and the battle for the top two spots was set. Early on Payne ran with a bout of tonsillitis but was able to remain competitive. It was in his native Oklahoma where he inched to the lead. From that point on he was never bested and labored on to a 15 hour victory by the race’s end in New York City.
The final leg of the 84 day race was a grueling 20-mile run around the board track at Madison Square Garden. At this point only 55 runners remained. Payne negotiated the 200+ laps in front of an enthusiastic crowd to win the well-earned grand prize.
The race was contested a few times more and has gone through several re-incarnations but has never captured the national attention of the inaugural race. Payne raced a few more times and went on to graduate from law school. He invested his prize money in Oklahoma land that eventually produced oil and gas. Salo won the 1929 Trans-America race only to die an untimely death two years later after being struck in the head by a wild throw at a baseball game.
The running boom of the 1980s was some 40 years away, but these early pioneers laid the roadwork that legitimized long distance running and served as living examples of the limits of human endurance. One of the fastest growing “divisions” of USATF is the Mountain Ultra Trail Council.
Editor’s note: this piece in its entirety was the editorial for Track Coach issue # 233
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Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. His most recent book, A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running articles was a 2019 Track and Field Writers of America Book of the Year finalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.