In 1928, to capitalize on the nation’s enthusiasm for marathons, sports promoter C.C. Pyle proposed “the world’s greatest single athletic project”: a 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City.
Pyle stressed that the winner “must have guts and stamina,” and this proved to be an understatement. Of the 200 runners who showed up at the start on March 4, 77 had quit by the end of the first day, and only 91 remained by early April. “His left ankle was swollen to twice its normal size,” said the wife of Illinois’ Frank Johnson, who dropped out after 900 miles. “His lips were cracked so badly he bled when he tried to eat.”
But the race wore on, and on May 26, 55 exhausted runners stumbled into New York, where Oklahoma’s Andy Payne took first place with a time of 573 hours, 4 minutes, and 34 seconds. He’d won $25,000 and worn out five pairs of rubber-soled canvas shoes.
Payne paid off the mortgage on his family’s farm and went on to serve as clerk of the Oklahoma supreme court for 38 years. “One can’t be an athlete all his life, but he can use the same desire that made him,” he said. “For clean living, for love of God and country.”