Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Bunyan Derby - The Grandaddy of Long Distance Races

Since this is publishing on July 4th and I'm sure there are foot races sometimes run in connection to the celebration, what better topic than a footrace that lasted days and months? 

We're all familiar with marathon races, and some of you may have completed in cross country when you were in school. But I recently learned of a race that took place in 1928 that started in Santa Monica, California on March 4, 1928, and ended at Madison Square Garden in New York City on May 26, 1928. That's 3, 323.5 miles!

1928 publicity photograph of KGGM (now KNML), a "portable broadcast station" hired by C. C. Pyle, which each evening transmitted reports along the route of the race. Photo: Wikipedia, Public Domain

Dubbed the Bunion Derby as you can imagine, it gained a lot of attention. Sports promoter Charles C. Pyle organized the race and promised a $25,000 first prize which is a lot of money now, but back then it was a huge sum. 
Andy Payne, taken several years
after the race

One-hundred-ninety-nine competitors began the race, but by the time they arrived in New York, only 55 runners remained.The runners, mostly made up of ordinary men with ordinary jobs, what today, we might call blue-collar workers, traveled same route as the infamous Route 66. There were among the runners professional athletes, both runners and race walkers, but none of them finished the race.

According to author, Charles Katsner, in his book, Bunion Derby, the 1928 Footrace Across America, Route 66, from L.A. to Chicago, was the toughest portion of the race. "In 1928, it snaked through mountains, deserts, mud, sandstorms, and blizzards. Little of the road was paved west of Oklahoma." But farther east after all of that, the racers would endure the industrial cities of Chicago, Gary, and Cleveland. Back then they may not have coined the term "smog" yet, but there was plenty of it in those cities.

A young Cherokee from Oklahoma named Andy Payne had entered the race with hopes of using the $25,000 to pay off the mortgage to his farm. Most of the latter days of the race, Andy held the lead but the second place runner was hot on his heels, until health setbacks forced him to drop out. Finally on May 26, Andy won the race and received the $25,000 prize. He used the money as planned and built a new home on the property.

The following year, another transcontinental race, following the same route was held and John Salo, the second place winner in the first race, won. But that time around, the race was financially insolvent and Salo never won any money.

You can read more about this interesting race by going to this article on Runners World's website or Wikipedia .

Here's actual footage from the race with both it's start and the finish at Madison Square Garden (which was an outdoors arena back then). There is no sound on the clip.

Have you ever participated in a marathon? Please leave a comment and tell us if you did.

Pamela Meyers has written several historical romances set in her hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and has another in the works to be published in May, 2021.

She lives in northern Illinois with her two rescue cats, not far from her home state of Wisconsin and can often be found there enjoying Friday fish frys and gathering fodder for new stories.


  1. Wow! I'm not a runner by any stretch of the imagination, so I can't imagine participating in something like this. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm in awe of people who take on challenges like this and actually enjoy it!!! I know several people who right now are competing in virtual races/marathons. It takes a level of commitment that I don't think I possess. Great post, thanks.