Trail Runner’s Book Review: Race Across America

Race Across America: Eddie Gardner and the Great Bunion Derbies, by Charles B. Kastner. Syracuse University Press, 2020. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark for the spring 2020 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.

I initially learned of the Great Bunion Derbies of 1928 and 1929 when I read C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race by Geoff Williams where he documents the first transcontinental run across America. Intrigued, I later read Tom McNab’s fictional account, Flanagan’s Run. Charles Kastner’s impeccably researched volume adds a further layer of complexity.

Imagine running roughly 45 miles a day for 78 days straight. Now picture doing this sans state-of-the-art modern running shoes, in sweatpants and cotton clothes, without a hot meal or a hot shower to look forward to at the end of the day. Next, visualize doing this on minimal training at an average pace of 9 minutes per mile with some 5-7 minutes per mile pick-ups thrown in. Still, times were tough and wanna-bees signed up viewing the promised prize money as a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity to provide a better deal for their families.

You all know the caution about first-time race directors. But what if your race director is a charlatan like C.C. (Cash & Carry) Pyle whose main objective was not the success of his athletes but his own financial enrichment? His perspective on the event was not the race but more about the traveling circus-style acts that would roll into each town with the athletes and fill his coffers.

Kastner’s take on the journey, however, focuses on an overlooked aspect of the experience: at a time when racial discrimination was a fact of life, there were actually five African Americans enrolled in the 1928 landmark integrated sporting event, the most promising being Eddie Gardner, a Seattle-based amateur runner. As if things weren’t tough enough for any of the participants, the Route 66 based journey took these men through Southern states firmly entrenched in the grip of Jim Crow.

Here Eddie was faced with the choice of slowing down to let the white boys win these stages, or proceeding apace, literally risking his own life in the process. There are many ways to protest racial inequality and the black athletes of the Bunion Derbies were among the first to quietly enforce an equal playing field by their determination and calm demeanor, earning respect for their Gandhi-like approach. To their fellow competitors, however, these five brave men were more than dogged protestors, but simply part of the “band of brothers” who battled difficult weather conditions and Charley Pyle’s lack of solvency.

While Eddie disappointed himself that that he was unable to keep up during the longer stages of the Second Bunion Derby, his pioneering efforts did pave the way for other Black athletes like runner Jesse Owens, boxer Joe Louis Barrow and baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Next time you struggle during a marathon, a 50K or a 50 miler, think of these athletes who risked so much so that we would have an easier time of it.

Editor’s Note: Be safe as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, continue to follow the recommendations and updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including proper hygiene practices. Also consider reading iRunFar’s COVID-19: A Trail Running and Ultrarunning Community Guide.