The 1929 Bunion Derby
Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace across America
On March 31, 1929, seventy-seven men began an epic 3,554-mile footrace across America that pushed their bodies to the breaking point. The race was nicknamed the "Bunion Derby" by the press. The men averaged forty-six, gut-busting miles a day during seventy-eight days of non-stop racing that took them from New York City to Los Angeles.
This was the second and last of two trans-America footraces held in the late 1920's. Forty-three of the racers were veterans from the first ever trans-America race held in 1928. These veterans had learned hard-won lessons of pace, diet, and training, and they put them to good use the next year. Among this group, two brilliant runners, Johnny Salo of Passaic, New Jersey and Pete Gavuzzi of England, emerged to battle for the $25,000 first prize along the mostly unpaved roads of 1929 America, with each man pushing the other to go faster as the lead switched back and forth between them.
To pay the prize money, race Director Charley Pyle cobbled together a traveling vaudeville company, complete with dancing debutantes, an all-girl band wearing pilots' outfits, and blackface comedians, all housed under the massive show tent that Charley hoped would pack in audiences.
This is the story of, arguably, the greatest footrace in the world.
Roger Robinson, "Footsteps" Running Times, September 2014
The 1929 Great Transcontinental Footrace
After 78 days and more than 3,500 miles of intense racing from coast to coast, two men were together on the track. As they ran lap after lap of the final stage of their long journey, the stadium crowd of 10,000 was on its feet, keeping up a "continuous din," according to the account in the San Diego Union. With 20 miles to go, the two were even on cumulative time. The lead changed for the last time, and at the half marathon a gap had risen to 4 minutes. But then it began to close again. The last miles were like Meb Keflezighi hanging on from Wilson Chebet, an unrelenting drama of attack and resistance.
That was the grand climax of the 1929 International Transcontinental Footrace, New York to Los Angeles, the so-called Bunion Derby, when Johnny Salo finally beat Pete Gavuzzi by 2 minutes and 47 seconds. That's a micro-margin when Salo's overall time was 525 hours, 56 minutes and 10 seconds.
It was no slow shuffle. That last day, 4 miles on the road and then an exact marathon around the track, Salo ran 7:35 per mile, Gavuzzi 7:59. That's 3:18/3:29 marathon pace, good for the top quarter of any 21st-century field. For those ill-clad bunioneers in their clunky leather shoes, day 78 was one of their shortest, in a schedule that imposed daily mileages often above 60, once as high as 79.9. Salo's average was an extraordinary 8:53 per mile for the full 3,553.6 miles, many of those on muddy roads, across scorching desert and over two great spines of mountains. It was a mind-blowing achievement of quality running and adaptation to unrelenting physical effort.
This almost forgotten story is told in an enthralling new book, The 1929 Bunion Derby: Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace across America, by Charles B. Kastner (Syracuse University Press), a sequel to Kastner's study of the first such race in 1928. His painstaking research and statistical tables provide the reality that lay behind Tom McNab's exuberant fiction, Flanagan's Run.
The truth is as colorful as any novel. It's a story of the heroic aspiration of 77 men, mostly from near-poverty, who set out from New York in hopes of a share in the promised $60,000 prize. It's a story of villainy, or at least self-delusion, by the silver-tongued entrepreneur C.C. Pyle, who never paid the money for which these runners had labored so long. He hoped to raise it by staging a variety show at every finish point, with an all-woman band dressed in pilots' outfits, high fashion in that era just before the great Wall Street crash. They didn't get paid, either.
Kastner is good on the often overlooked social issues that always interact with sport. The book is dedicated to Eddie Gardner, one of the first great African-American distance runners, who with defiant courage led the race into the still segregated South, where he received death threats and insults and had to sleep on garage floors.
Salo was a Finnish-born immigrant who became a New Jersey police officer. Gavuzzi was a cockney Englishman whose parents were a French parlormaid and an Italian chef. Additional bunioneers came from Australia, Mexico, Sweden and other places, and included the greatest ultrarunner of the day, Arthur Newton, a South African farmer who was knocked out of the race by a speeding car. It's easy to lose track of how many runners were hit by cars as they ran on those crowded, inadequate roads. Pyle himself broke an arm and shoulder in a smash.
Yet with all this social interest, it is the race that stays in the mind, the swinging contest between Gavuzzi, the polished stylist, unbeatable over good footing, and Salo, the sturdy ironman who could sustain 8-minute miles all day in deep mud. The 19 runners who finished, who stayed so resolute for so long, who were unjustly unpaid and soon forgotten, well deserve the tribute of this book.
- Roger Robinson
Linda Martin, Goodreads.com
Following in the Footsteps of the 1929 Bunioneers
My husband and I just completed a trip from St. Louis, MO, to Huntington Park, CA, following two-thirds of the route of the 1929 Bunion Derby. It was a strange journey through lonesome country, made in honor of my father Elwin Harbine who finished twelfth in 1929. I kept Charles Kastner's book beside me, marveling at distances and weather as we drove through Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We stopped at each town center where the bunioneers stopped, walked around, shopped for souvenirs and talked with residents. Although people were amazed to hear the story of the race, it is an event lost to local histories. Without the careful and scholarly recounting Kastner makes in his book the details would be scattered. My father is one of the "shadow runners" of Kastner's book. He race walked for days after finishing seventh in several stages through the Alleghenies. His story is not one of spectacular times (he was 200 hours behind the leaders) but of endurance and perseverance, without a trainer or support except for the kindness of Arthur Newton.
I am grateful to Charles Kastner for the scrupulous scholarship shown in this book, and in his account of the 1928 race also. To me and to members of my family the race has always been shrouded in a lack of details. By the time my parents moved from California to Montana in 1942, Dad had stopped talking about the race because people didn't believe him. I saw that same disbelief on some faces as we made our way across the country. This book restores and honors the magnitude of effort that was the Bunion Derby.
- Linda Martin
The 1928 Footrace across America
On March 4, 1928, 199 men lined up in Los Angeles, California, to participate in a 3,400-mile trans-continental footrace to New York City. The Bunion Derby, as the press dubbed the event, was the brainchild of sports promoter Charles C. Pyle. He promised a $25,000 grand prize and claimed the competition would immortalize U.S. Highway Route 66, a 2,400-mile road, mostly unpaved that subjected the runners to mountains, deserts, mud, and sandstorms, from Los Angeles to Chicago.
The runners represented all walks of life, from immigrants to millionaires, with a peppering of star international athletes who Pyle included for publicity purposes. For eighty-four days, the men competed in this part footrace and part Hollywood production that included a road show featuring football legend Red Grange, food concessions, vaudeville acts, sideshows, a portable radio station, and the world's largest coffeepot, sponsored by Maxwell House, serving ninety gallons of coffee a day.
Drawn by hopes of a better future and dreams of fame, fortune, and glory, the bunioneers embarked on and exhaustive and grueling journey that challenged their physical and psychological endurance to the fullest while Pyle struggled to keep his cross-country road show afloat.
News: University Press Audio has released Bunion Derby as a digital audiobook. Get it at Amazon.com
"No writer owns a swath of history the way Chuck Kastner owns the wildly crazy C. C. Pyle Bunion Derbies. The inaugural race was a truly American epic: from its massive scope to the fact that it was dominated by a handful of second-rate runners who decided there was no future in continuing the underdog role. Chuck's book makes you want to schedule your next vacation for Route 66, there to relive the zaniness of the heroics of 1928."
- Rich Benyo: Editor, Marathon and Beyond Magazine