Tracing their footsteps: the Bunion Derby of 1928

Neil Weintraub and forest intern Griffin Boehm walk part of the course of the 1928 Transcontinental Footrace on old Route 66 near Parks, Arizona.

Photo by Wendy Howell.

Neil Weintraub and forest intern Griffin Boehm walk part of the course of the 1928 Transcontinental Footrace on old Route 66 near Parks, Arizona.

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Photo/Creative Commons

The 1928 Transcontinental Footrace began at Ascot Motor Speedway in Los Angeles.

A buzz of excitement permeated the community, as the residents of Williams eagerly awaited the arrival of dozens of men running from Seligman to Williams on day 13 of the 1928 Transcontinental Footrace.

The 1,700 foot climb from Seligman unfortunately was the undoing of several runners. Enduring typical mid-March wind and freezing temperatures, the men were focused on the promised comforts of a warm cot and hot meal when they arrived in Williams. However, of the 199 men who began the race in Los Angeles, only 100 were still running.

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Photo/Creative Commons

C.C. Pyle was a sports promoter with a reputation as a schemer in search of big money. Some referred to him as "Cash and Carry" Pyle.

The race was designed to bring attention to the expansion and paving of Route 66 through the United States and was led by sports promoter and master showman Charles C. Pyle.

Nicknamed the Bunion Derby, the runners had completed 479 miles of the 3,400-mile race across the United States. The stretch to Williams was a 45-mile haul and the runners were facing a difficult climb.

Arthur Newton cruised into town first, completing the stage in seven hours and ten minutes. Behind Newton were Cherokee runner Andy Payne, Finnish physician Arne Souminen and Englishman Peter Gavuzzi.

According to the March 23, 1928 edition of the Williams News, the runners who made it to Williams were treated to a hardy meal at the Grand Canyon Café. Five or six hundred meals were served before the marathon began again the next day. That night the men slept at the Williams Opera House.

“The trailers at the end of the race were a pitiable sight, crippling along with sprained ankles, blisters, lost toe nails and other troubles,” the News reported.

The racers were also treated to a carnival put on by Pyle and his entourage, however, most of the racers took to their beds to renew their strength for the next day’s run to Flagstaff.

Origin of the race

It is under debate as to who was behind the idea for the Bunion Run. Some believe it was created by the Route 66 Association and others believe Pyle himself was behind the idea. But no matter who was the brainchild for the race, the idea of an endurance competition was nothing new.

Throughout the country in the 1920s, endurance fads had taken hold. People were already familiar with pushing the limits of the mind and body with dance marathons. For those who weren’t into dancing, there were swimming, bowling and even food eating marathons.

The Route 66 Association promised to pay Pyle $110,000 to promote Route 66 with his race. However, Pyle’s vision was more focused on a circus type atmosphere and to make a dollar any way possible.

And they’re off

When the race began, Pyle had an entourage of 50 trucks and cars, including a 60-man carnival and concessions.

Pyle agreed to provide food, lodging and medical care to any man who braved the race to New York City. This promise opened the doors for African Americans, Native Americans, poor farmers and immigrants along with former Olympian marathoners and world champion racewalkers.

On March 4, 1928, the runners lined up for the start of the race. The runners, from 24 countries, were adorned in a variety of clothing ranging from running shorts and tank tops to long underwear and logging boots to even one man who ran in a business suit.

The first day of the run was a mere 17 miles that was more ceremonial than anything else. At the head of the pack were Finnish runners Willie Kolehmainen and Gunnar Nilson, Hopi runner Nick Quamawahu, Newton and Payne.

As the runners got into the routine of running, eating and sleeping, the carnival atmosphere of the event continued. The nightly circus was highlighted with Egyptian belly dancers, a two-headed chicken, a five-legged pig, a glass-eating man and a tattoo artist.

The miles of hot, dusty roads were not the only difficulty the racers endured. It became obvious that Pyle was unable to provide the comfort he promised the runners. The $1.50 daily food allowance was inadequate, the runners slept on army cots with dirty sheets, and the thin canvas leaked during the rain and did not keep out the sounds from the nightly carnival.

The men jostled for the lead over the first few weeks of the race, with several strong runners filling the lead spots. Payne, Netwon, Quamawahu and Arne Soumien were regularly at the top.

Local runner

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Photo/U.S. Forest Service

Hopi Nicholas Quamawahu was a favored runner who ultimately dropped out of the race eight miles east of Seligman, Arizona.

Quamawahu received a hero’s welcome in Needles, California. He was welcomed with cheers and applause from a large Native American crowd and a 12-Indian marching brass band accompanied Quamawahu for the last two miles into town.

However, Quamawahu incurred a heel injury that eventually sidelined him and forced him to drop out of the race eight miles east of Seligman. He had been one of the lead runners out of Los Angeles, but the heel injury and a sprained ankle were too much to overcome.

“He was one of the favorites,” said Kaibab National Forest historian and archaeologist Neil Weintraub. “The Hubble Trading Post in Winslow sponsored him. There used to be races across the country where different Indian tribes would race each other. This was a big deal back in the 20s. The Indian runners were known as the fastest runners, especially the ones from altitude.”

As the race progressed across Arizona, Newton built an eight hour lead over Payne. However, an ankle sprain slowed Newton and he struggled for four days as the race proceeded to Winslow.

With Quamawahu out of the race, Newton and Payne jockeyed for position across Arizona. Newton eventually succumbed to an ankle injury and Payne developed tonsillitis. However, Payne recovered and was back on his feet as the race left Holbrook.

Andy Payne

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Photo/Creative Commons

Cherokee Andy Payne was the winner of the 1928 Bunion Derby.

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Photo/Creative Commons

Andy Payne and another runner make their way through Parks, Arizona during the 1928 Transcontinental Footrace. Payne was the eventual winner of the 3,400 mile race.

Andy was the son of a Cherokee farmer and a descendant of those who were removed in the 1830s Trail of Tears. His father was a hardworking man and Andy was the oldest sibling in the family. He was known as a strong long distance runner in his hometown of Foyil, Oklahoma. When his brothers went to school by horse, Andy preferred to run. He ran everywhere.

Upon graduation, Andy had few prospects and times were hard for Cherokee farmers. Andy and his brother worked odd jobs and often jumped trains to travel to California for work. When Andy saw the announcement for the Transcontinental Foot race, his father borrowed money for the entry fee and Andy applied. He believed he was strong and stood just as good a chance of winning as any of them.

The final stretch

As runner after runner dropped out of the race, Payne continued with his slow and steady mantra. He was in the lead as the racers entered his home state of Oklahoma, where he received a warm welcome from the many Native American children attending boarding schools there.

Gavuzzi and Payne battled through the next three states until Gavuzzi was forced out of the race with an ulcerated tooth.

Payne’s optimism, as well as his endurance, carried him through the grueling 84 days of racing. The men finished Route 66 in Chicago on day 63 and then headed to New York.

As the runners arrived in the city, more than 20,000 spectators watched as the 55 remaining runners finished the final leg of the race across the Hudson River.

On May 25, Payne crossed the finish line at Madison Square Garden 15 hours ahead of the pack to win first prize. His race through 10 states lasted 573 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds.

He was followed by Johnny Salo in second and Phillip Granville in third. The runners were awarded $25,000, $10,000 and $5,000 respectively. Several other runners won $1,000 awards, but 44 runners went home empty handed.

Payne retired from competitive running after the summer of 1928 and married that December.

When Payne returned to Oklahoma, he used his race winnings to pay off the mortgage on his family’s farm. He went on to graduate from Oklahoma City University Law School, and was elected Clerk of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma in 1934. He held that position for 38 years before his death in 1977.

Pyle organized a second derby in 1929 but many considered it a failure and he was unable to pay out any award money.

When asked why he wanted to do the race, the shy, soft spoken Payne said, “I just thought I could do it.”

Keeping the memory alive

Walking the 1921 alignment of Route 66 through Parks, Arizona, one can imagine what it was like for the 100 runners who came through the area. Clad in singlets and shorts, their feet pounded the pavement in some areas and dirt in others. The men were cheered by the small crowds who formed near the businesses and homes in the area.

“In 1928, this was still known as the Old Trails Highway,” said Weintraub as he walked the route. “We’ve been taking trees off of it and restoring it. This stretch of road is on the National Register of Historic places. Its only 330 meters, but it’s in great shape.”

Weintraub hopes to create an interpretive display with the photo of Payne running through Parks to share the story of the phenomenal race that was a fascinating part of Route 66’s history.

“We want to continue to maintain the route,” Weintraub said. “Sweep off the pine needles, put an interpretive sign in with the 1928 photograph. People can then hike down this and learn about the route and the race.”

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