Route 66 Great Transcontinental Footrace Winner
Today's unrelenting spray of televised extreme sports and competitive absurd-a-thons makes it hard to appreciate the unique folly of the Transcontinental Footrace of 1928. Back then, the idea of a 3,400 mile race from Los Angeles to New York City was novel. Some 2,400 miles of the route was along then new Route 66, the highway that connected the nation.
The event was concocted by the Route 66 Association and a slick promoter, Charles C. Pyle. Known as the "P.T. Barnum of professional sports," Pyle aggressively pursued product endorsements, orchestrated media coverage, and whipped up public interest. Many reporters didn't take the competition seriously, and dubbed it the "Bunion Race."
That didn't stop a 20-year old from Oklahoma, Cherokee Indian Andy Payne, from signing up -- he wanted the $25,000 first prize to save his family's farm and marry his girlfriend. And besides, the guy loved to run.
Andy was a 1927 graduate of Foyil High School. According to an older monument along old Rt. 66 toward the town of Foyil, "He practiced by running to Foyil school 5 miles from the family farm."
On March 4, 1928, over 275 runners began the grueling odyssey; by the third day over half had dropped out. Pyle arranged for towns along the way to bid for the privilege of the route traveling up their Main Streets. Towns that didn't come up with the money were bypassed, causing the race to take odd alternate paths.
Pyle also made sure his Footrace carnival preceded the runners in each town. The traveling side show exhibited the embalmed remains of Elmer McCurdy, Oklahoma Outlaw, and featured "a 5-legged pig and a dog that talked with its ears," according to Elmer McCurdy, the Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw (Mark Svenvold, 2002).
The race continued through desert heat and torrential rains. Runners succumbed along the way to injuries, exhaustion, and one was even hit by a car that sped away. Andy Payne emerged as a contender against a Brit, Peter Gavuzzi, trading the lead back and forth for five weeks until Gavuzzi dropped out in Ohio complaining of a "bad tooth."
As a final indignity, Pyle made the runners circle around Madison Square Garden for 20 miles before crossing the finish line. The Transcontinental Footrace of 1928 had covered 3,423.5 miles.
Payne set a world record by completing the distance in 573 hours, 4 minutes, 34 seconds -- he averaged 6 miles an hour. He got his $25,000 dollars, returned to Oklahoma, and married his sweetheart.
In a quiet spot along Route 66 in Foyil, a monument commemorates Andrew Hartley Payne and his Footrace victory. We were the only ones present on a summer morning. The statue of Andy stands by itself -- a snapshot of the way he probably ran much of the race. A bench is provided to rest from your short-distance sprint from the parking lot.
As lonely as this statue appears, Andy is not forgotten in Oklahoma. Another statue commemorating the Indian long-distance runner stands at the Cherokee Heritage Center, Tahlequah, OK. An "Andy Payne Bunion Run" marathon is held every May in Oklahoma City - the 27th one occurred in 2004. In 1998, a committee of runners unanimously voted Payne among the first on the Oklahoma Long Distance Running Wall of Fame, Tulsa, Oklahoma.