In 1928 (and again in 1929) a man named C.C. Pyle organized a running race across the United States, offering $25,000 in prize money to the first place winner. That's $351,000 in today's dollars, not exactly the millionaire-level stuff Survivor contestants gets but pretty good for amateur-level prize money. The race was a big deal: football star Red Grange helped host it (he was a client of Pyle's), Will Rogers mentioned it, sportswriters in the newspapers talked about it a lot, and it even eventually became the subject of a Broadway play (albeit an unsuccessful Broadway play.)
Despite that, I'd never heard of the race, or Pyle, or any of the people involved in the race, and I suspect you hadn't, either.
While the book is built around the race, it's equally about the lives of the people who organized it, took part in it, and to an extent, experienced it as spectators. It's about, too, an American culture that became obsessed with endurance contests: flagpole sitting, dance marathons, swim contests, and a variety of man-vs-animal or long-distance challenges took the public's imagination in the 1920s, and Pyle's race was an attempt to capitalize on that and make the fortune of a man who'd long wanted to make a fortune.
Pyle is an interesting guy, well worth having a book about. He worked as a "promoter," and was a somewhat-shady seeming character. He tended to marry, and manage, entertainers, and he got himself Red Grange as a client and ran a bunch of different businesses, achieving varying levels of success that never stuck. He was generally ridiculed when he floated the idea for the race, which quickly got the nickname "The Bunion Derby" from sportswriters.
The book details Pyle's shabby treatment of the runners -- they slept in tents, were often kept awake and underfed, he lied repeatedly about daily prize money (and needed to be bailed out to pay the prizes for the first race; the second race he never actually did pay)-- and of his brushes with creditors. His traveling bus was seized by sheriffs, he was sued several times along the way, and he treated sponsors so badly that some of them (like a group trying to promote Route 66) decided not to pay him at all.
The book also talks about the runners, and some of them end up being almost personalities, although there's so many of them that only a few stand out at all.
What really was interesting about the whole story was how different America seemed then, and how similar, all at the same time. It was a world where people turned out in the thousands to see runners come into town, and where Chambers of Commerce sponsored 'local boys' who ran the race in hopes of getting enough money to save their farm. Roads weren't paved, there wasn't much running water in places, and cars were both scarce and dangerous (several runners got clipped by drivers, ending their runs).
It was also a meaner place: the lead runner had to be escorted by police near the end because of rumors someone in the crowd was going to try to hurt him, just so the second place runner could finish in first; and runners of any ethnicity other than white had to be escorted at times, too.
But those things, and the reasons people raced and the race itself, weren't so different. Racial tensions aren't much better now, and I can recall people coming out to see the Olympic torch being run past. We have TV now, and the Internet, which makes it both harder and easier for something to capture the world's attention -- harder because there are a jillion competing things, but easier because people can spread the word about something even if the formal media don't care about it.
In place of endurance contests, we have reality shows, which are really the same thing: The Biggest Loser, Survivor: these are modern versions of dance marathons, rewarding people for holding our attention.
What I kept focusing on in the book were the runners, and others, who seemed addicted not just to money, but to fame. At the end of the book, Pyle is broke but thinks he's created something that could last and make him famous and rich forever. He tries the race again and, as I said, the race was completed but he couldn't pay the prize money. He hit a low when he had to file bankruptcy after being unable to pay for a taxi ride, and ended up working in radio broadcasting in relative obscurity.
Red Grange broke with Pyle and announced he was going into the movies, planning to make $4,000 a week. His movie career never took off, and he drifted around until he became a popular sports announcer.
Other runners tried to stay in the limelight -- joining vaudeville acts, running other races, marketing foot remedies -- almost to no avail. It all reminded me of various hangers-on reality stars that show up on blogs or commercials for home shopping networks, people who seem to have almost a need to keep in the public eye.
Mostly it was fascinating just to keep thinking of this thing that had fascinated big chunks of the nation less than 100 years ago, and yet it is almost completely forgotten. I often think about what parts of history will survive 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years. It's hard to say why something is, or is not, memorable, and what impact it has on later years is sometimes decided by whether we remember it or not. Yesterday, we were in a grocery store, picking up a surprise for Sweetie on our way home from the library. Sitting on the ledge of the customer help center, for no reason, was a little Yoda statue. A puppet created for a science fiction movie is recognizable over 30 years after he was first introduced, popping up over and over in our culture. Andy Payne ran across the United States, doing it in 573 hours over 84 days, and if you mentioned his name on the street I bet not even 1 in a thousand would know who he was.
The old lascivious Italian in Catch-22 talks with Nately about survival, and longevity. He asks Nately about how long America might hang in there, saying:
“The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is highest in the world, will last as long as...the frog? ”
An article I read after Terry Pratchett died said that to make long-lasting books, books that will be remembered forever, you have to appeal to lots of people. You can't write brilliant books that nobody will understand, you have to have books that a billion people read over and over and talk about and wear t-shirts about and get made into movies. That's what Shakespeare did. He didn't make high art; we just think it's art because it's a half-millenium old. Mozart and Beethoven and the other classical composers were making pop music. Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror stories, Jane Austen wrote romance novels.
In the end, though, popularity isn't enough to make things memorable. There has to be something about it that reaches a bit further, that becomes not just universal, but personal. Guys like me used to pick up our dad's golf clubs and make a rrzzrrworwark sound as we crashed around our garages pretending they were lightsabers.
I discovered religion watching Luke Skywalkerrescue Princess Leia and destroying the Death Starby letting go and closing his eyes.
Said Guy Forsyth, and that might be the lesson on how to make yourself live forever: give people not just something that they want, but what they need.