It was only a marathon

The Joplin Globe reported earlier this week (Dec. 2) that the city has dropped the Mother Road Marathon after three years and declining interest.  The footrace between Commerce, Oklahoma and Joplin covered the traditional 26.2 miles on the original Route 66.

The end of the Mother Road Marathon in late 2013 invites us to turn the clock back 85 years, to a time when Route 66 was brand new, even before  John Steinbeck christened it “The Mother Road” in Grapes of Wrath.   On April 19, 1928, runners arrived in Joplin after racing FORTY miles from Miami, Oklahoma. 

It was eleven days short of the second anniversary of the day some highway officials had met in Springfield to propose the name of a new highway from Chicago to Los Angeles.  A federal law signed in 1927 designated the road as U. S. 66, one of the first U. S. highways. It was gravel or dirt for most of the distance in 1928.  It would not be paved for its entire distance for another decade.

A quickly-organized U. S. Highway 66 Association set out to publicize the new route and hired promoter C.C. Pyle to develop the program.  Pyle’s idea: a footrace the length of the road.   The runners who arrived in Joplin that day in ’28 had been running for 47 days.  The finish line in Joplin marked 1,761.6 miles from their starting point in Los Angeles on March 4.   They had run more than a marathon in 43 of those 47 days.  They had run at least fifty miles in one day five times; at least forty miles a day sixteen times.  Their longest day was 57 miles.  

But they weren’t done in Joplin.  The next day they ran 46.7 miles to Miller before a short run of 33.6 miles to Springfield.  The next two stretches covered 95 miles to Waynesville.  They had stops in Rolla, Sullivan, and outside St. Louis (because the city would not pay Pyle to bring his runners into the city) before they crossed into Illinois on April 27.

They reached Chicago on May 5.  On one of the days, they covered 59.1 miles.  

But they weren’t done.  They had completed the run on 66, but the ultimate goal was New York and Madison Square Garden.  The run from Chicago to Gary, Indiana was a mere 28.4 miles.  After that, they reeled off sixteen straight days in which the shortest distance was 41 miles.  They topped out at 74.6 miles, almost THREE marathons in one day, between Waverly and Deposit, New York.  They also had three days in that stretch of running of sixty miles or more.  They averaged 55.6 miles a day.

The last four days were pieces of cake. They average about 33 miles a day.   They ran at least one marathon for 51 of the 84 days and 3,422.3 miles they were on the road.   A remarkable 54 of the 198 runners that started the race made it to New York. 

This incredible athletic event made history in another significant way.  It was open to runners of all races. Indians and African-Americans were among the participants. 

The winner of the $25,000 first prize was Andy Payne, a 20-year old Cherokee Indian from Foyil, Oklahoma, whose time of 573 hours, 4 minutes, 34 seconds was a world’s record.  He took his money back home, paid the mortgage on the family farm, married his high school sweetheart and got a law degree.  He was elected Clerk of the Oklahoma Supreme Court and served for 38 years. Payne never ran another race.  He died in 1977, at the age of 70.  Every year, an Andy Payne Memorial Marathon is run in Oklahoma.  

But this remarkable story has a second chapter. 

C. C. Pyle, who struggled to get the money to finance the great race, decided to promote a second one.  It would be from New York back to Los Angeles in 1929.   Passaic, New Jersey policeman John Salo, who had finished second in the first “bunion derby,” crossed the finish line in Los Angeles in a record 525 hours, 57 minutes, 20 seconds, winning by only two minutes.  But by then, Pyle was broke, and Salo never collected the promised $25,000 prize.   Two years later, Salo was beaned in a baseball game.  He refused to go the hospital and directed traffic after the game.  Then he collapsed and died at a hospital five hours later.  

The last of the competitors in those historic foot races, Harry Abrams, died at the age of 87 in 1994.  He competed in both races.  He was 11th in the first race.  He was ninth in the second one.

So Joplin has pulled the plug on the Mother Road Marathon.   That’s too bad.  

But it was only one day.  And it was only 26 miles.

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