Charles B. Kastner ’81
University of New Mexico Press, 2007

For generations, the 1920s have provided fodder for authors. The super-hyped sensationalism of those ballyhooed years seems a bottomless pool of entertaining topics. The decade of Lindbergh, Valentino, Capone, and Ruth, of flappers, Mah Jong, crossword puzzles, and marathon dances, also produced the Bunion Derby, a marathon footrace across America. It is to his credit that Seattle author Charles Kastner (’81 M.A. History) not only uncovered this nearly forgotten story, but also that he treats it with respect, for it would have been easy to dismiss the derby as just another 1920s phenomenon, no more significant than flagpole sitting.

Charles C. Pyle had a knack for get-rich-quick schemes, some of which actually worked. His shrewdest deal had him signing Harold “Red” Grange to a contract as a business partner and as deputy director of the Bunion Derby. Among the celebrities of the time, perhaps only Lindbergh outshined Grange, still considered by many the greatest football player of the 20th century.

Pyle conceived the Bunion Derby as a 3,400-mile, 84-day race from Los Angeles to New York, the bulk of it along the new Route 66, which was mostly still unpaved. Pyle would not only provide prize money to the top 10 finishers, he’d also set up tent camps for runners, feed them, coerce local chambers of commerce to pay for the privilege of the great spectacle to come through their towns, and arrange for nightly carnivals where admission-paying locals could rub shoulders with Grange, mingle with The Turtle boy and other oddities, and consort with young women of apparently multiple talents.

One hundred ninety-nine men started the race, among them some of the world’s outstanding runners and walkers, along with a host of others who held little chance of winning but were long on hope. Enduring desert heat, icy winds, and heart-straining elevation gains, only 55 made it to New York, led by a young, unknown Oklahoma farm boy named Andy Payne, who demonstrated the wisdom of slow, steady pacing. Payne won handily and became a hero in his home state, where a stretch of Highway 66 is still named Andy Payne Boulevard.

Pyle’s moneymaking scheme proved to be a bust. Chambers of commerce balked at making payments. Communities disallowed his racy carnivals. Thousands lined roads to watch the runners, but refused to pay for the privilege. Red Grange dutifully showed up every day, but even he could not bring in the dollars. The quality of life in the runners’ tent city deteriorated; the food became inadequate. Soon it became apparent that only those runners with the means of feeding themselves and securing dry rooms at day’s end had a real chance at victory.

But in a sense, Pyle was always only a sideshow at his own event. The strength of Kastner’s book is its human focus. The author has dug deeply in community archives and local newspapers—particularly the Black press—to develop biographical sketches of nearly all the runners. While it is easy to laugh at Pyle, the men who made the run were strong, modest, and dedicated to the task of completing the event.

The bulk of Kastner’s book is a day-by-day accounting of the race. Here you see the tactics and strategies played out. There were the hares, intent on winning stage races, building insurmountable leads, playing off the cheers of crowds. There were the walkers, certain that no one could run across a continent and that the race would eventually come to them. And then there were those who were confident that their bodies could hold up to the rigors of daily 30- to 60-mile jogs. Included in the latter group were South African Arthur Newton, the greatest distance runner of his generation; Peter Gavuzzi, a chain-smoker from England; and Payne. Severe injuries eventually forced Newton and Gavuzzi to withdraw, and Payne won by averaging 10-minute miles over every type of terrain imaginable.

Within the story of the athletic contest, Kastner weaves a tale of the times, particula rly that of Seattle’s legendary distance runner, Edward “the Sheik” Gardner, so nicknamed because of a trademark towel tied around his head, flowing behind him as he powered through distance races with seemingly effortless form.

Gardner might have been the most talented runner of the group. He won more stage races, some at startling speeds. But even his magnificent body could not recover on a daily basis, and he also struggled through excruciatingly slow days of near-walking, as he limped through injuries, eventually finishing eighth, 86 hours behind Payne.

But the real story of Gardner and the four other Blacks in the derby was the racism they encountered as they wound their way through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, in the form of catcalls, slurs, segregated dining and housing, and even death threats. That they continued to compete—even winning stage races against whites despite threats from bystanders—is a testament to their athletic abilities and their belief that on the dusty roads of Route 66, at least, all were equals. The Black press made Gardner into something of a hero, and when he returned home to Seattle, local residents raised funds for his new house. It’s hard not to feel good about the Northwest after hearing that story.

Like the sports pages, Bunion Derby is something of a guilty pleasure, for at its heart, it is a sports book, the day-to-day retelling of a long-distance run. But it’s also the story of America, particularly small-town America, in the 1920s. Kastner tells the story without fanfare or unnecessary flourish, but his admiration for the participants is always apparent. It would have been easy to caricature these men and their obscure passion, but Kastner sees them for what they truly were: among the world’s outstanding athletes on a quest to test the limits of their physical and mental abilities. You come away knowing these men. And you care. And what on one hand is light beach reading is at the same time an entrée into the human spirit.