by Andy Milroy
4. Across America on foot – The Pyle Races
There has been only one serious attempt in the twentieth century to develop professional Ultrarunning, and that was in 1928. Perhaps prompted by the rash of American ultra performances that had taken place in 1927, sports promoter Charles C. Pyle [better known to critics as Cash and Carry Pyle], decided to promote a footrace across America from coast to coast.
Pyle had begun his sports management career by signing up one of the first great stars of professional football, Harold `Red’ Grange. Grange was contracted to the Chicago Bears, and Pyle very successfully promoted a series of matches for the Bears in a tour across America. Pyle then moved on the managing Suzanne Lenglen, the great French lawn tennis star, created a tennis circus and moved around the United States with a portable tennis court.
C.C. Pyle then decided to extend his sporting empire further. Perhaps it was the influence of Mme Lenglen that prompted him to look closer at sporting events in France. The Tour de France. obviously caught his eye, as did probably a race that began in 1926, the arduous 500km plus Paris to Strasbourg walking race. Perhaps the success of these events gave Pyle the notion of combining the two ideas and promote an extended footrace to be competed in stages. The fact that Route 66 linking Los Angeles and Chicago had just opened up probably gave Pyle the idea that there was a new ready made course for a such long point to point race. But why stop halfway when a trans-America race would have so much more media appeal?
Pyle was not the first professional running promoter this century. Following the 1908 Olympic marathon when Dorando Pietri had been sensationally disqualified, a marathon craze had swept the world, but by 1928 most of the professional marathon runners of that era had been long retired. Pyle was probably aware of the recent U.S. ultra marks, particularly those by native Americans, but he relied upon the lure of prize money totalling $48,500 to attract other competitors from across the world as well, and it did. The announcement was made in Hollywood, and the news was carried by newspapers world wide.
Possibly the foremost runner attracted by the money was already a professional. Willi Kolehmainen, brother of the great Hannes who had won Olympic gold in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics, was arguably the greatest of the runners of the Marathon Craze twenty years earlier. Willi had set a world professional marathon record of 2:29 in 1912, a mark to be unmatched by an amateur until 1925. Willi Kolehmainen lined up for this race across America, as did several other Finns. [In the 1920s the Finns were widely regarded as the masters of distance running.] Another runner from the Baltic with excellent credentials had also entered – Estonian Juri Lossman, who had won the silver medal behind Hannes Kolehmainen in the 1920 Olympic marathon.
Perhaps Pyle’s greatest coup however was to sign up the greatest ultrarunner of the period, Rhodesian Arthur Newton, multiple winner of the Comrades,and recordholder for the London to Brighton.
The prospect of prize money did attract experienced American ultrarunners like Lin Dilks, as well as notable native American runners such as Nick Quamawahu, a Hopi Indian from Arizona. Quamawahu had defeated the world marathon record holder,Albert Michelsen over the 26 mile distance the previous year. There were also former Olympic competitors, Phillip Granville(CAN) and August Fager(USA), the latter having competed in the steeplechase.
There also a mass of unknown runners who were to make their names in this first great race across the American continent. However only a handful of the entrants had even run fifty miles.
The 1928 Race
At 3:46pm on the 4th of March 1928 from the Ascot Speedway, Los Angeles, 199 runners lined up in front of the starter’s podium where the tall Pyle, swathed in a double breasted overcoat with fur collar surveyed the field. Red Grange, his football superstar, fired the starter’s pistol and the runners set off on their proposed 3100 mile journey.
The first 17 mile stage was won by the 40 year old Kolehmainen, but he had had to run hard to win. The second stage of 35 miles told the same story. The Finn looked invincible, but the following day he ground to a halt with a leg problem. Nick Quomawahu, the small graceful, silent Hopi runner held the lead briefly but by the end of the fifth day the 44 year old Arthur Newton, had taken the lead. Over the following days the lean Rhodesian runner moved inexorably away, usually winning the longer stages. Newton was an economical, flat footfooted runner, who ran with little arm movement, just his hands flapping.
Behind Newton, other younger, less experienced runners were developing their own styles and tactics. Some like the 23 year old Pete Gavuzzi, an Anglo-Italian former waiter on the liner SS Majestic, choose to run fast for two days and then have an easy day to recover. Others, among them Andy Payne, an Oklahoma farm boy, and later in the race. Johnny Salo, a 35 year Finnish-American shipyard worker, chose to run more economically, ensuring they invariably finished in the top five or six each day.
Reaching Flagstaff, Arizona, after fourteen days, Newton had a eight hour lead over Andy Payne in second. But the Rhodesian was in trouble. He had started the race with a problem with his left leg, and had strained his right leg in attempting to compensate for that problem. Sunburn made massage impossible and on the sixteenth day he was forced to retire. The twenty year old Andy Payne from Oklahoma was now in the lead.
Payne had perhaps inherited his running ability from a distant Cherokee ancestor. Although he had poor basic speed, he could churn out mile after mile without problem. However his lead was not to last long. A sudden illness on the 17th stage reduced him to a walk and Arne Suominen, another of the Finns, took the lead. That day’s race had been won by Lin Dilks, Pennsylvanian ultrarunner, whose exploit had perhaps helped convince Pyle there were American runners capable of competing successfully in such a race.
Souminen was a Detroit doctor who had given up his medical practice to compete in the race. Having taken the lead, he was to continue in that position for ninteen days, running fluently and relaxed, but behind him Payne had thrown off the infection, and he and Gavuzzi kept Souminen’s lead pegged to around three hours. The three leaders were now close to twenty hours ahead of the rest of the field.
Running from east to west was to mark many Pyle runners for life. One side of their necks and faces were constantly exposed to the beating sun and blistered badly. When the blisters burst, they became sores which were to leave permanent scars.
As the race left New Mexico and entered Texas the runners were faced with gale force winds and driving snow. The shifting surface caused Suominen to tear his achilles tendon and forced him to retire. It now looked to be a race between Payne and Gavuzzi with perhaps Johnny Salo, as the major threat to the leading pair. Gavuzzi was a faster runner than Payne, with a very long stride for someone of his size. Like Payne he had run intelligently, avoiding the rashness of the early leaders, and had adopted a hard/easy approach to the event. Some days he would cut loose and build up a big lead, and then the next day run with the pack and recover. The third contender, Salo, was a muscular, very strong runner who came into his own in difficult conditions, or on the longer stages.
Payne entered his home state in the lead, some two and half hours ahead of Gavuzzi, but the British runner began to cut loose and soon took great chunks out of the lead. Payne lead through his home town of Foyil but Gavuzzi was closing. On the 53rd stage Gavuzzi took the lead and by the 59th day had a lead of five and a half hours. But Gavuzzi too had started the race with a problem.
Before the race he had had tooth ache and had been advised to have all his teeth removed. Since that would have made eating impossible and made the race a non-starter, Gavuzzi had chosen to start the race without oral surgery. On the 59th stage his dental problem re-emerged and for the next ten days or so he was unable to take any solid food. Despite this he continued to draw away, and by the 68th stage had a 6 hours 9 minute lead, but his health was in decline.
Pyle now upped the stakes, increasing the length of each stage to bring the finish sooner and to reduce the size of the field, in order to cut down on his costs. The runners who were no longer in contention for prize money began to support and encourage each other to finish the considerable distance each day. Newton, now a member of the race staff, spent long hours on the road encouraging exhausted runners to continue. His efforts were greatly appreciated. At the finish in New York, the finishers clubbed together and presented him with a silver cup.
Seventeen days from New York Gavuzzi found that two weeks without solid food was just two much. Rather than risk his health further he decided to retire despite his six hour lead. Only 56 runners were left out of the 199 starters.
Andy Payne was now twenty-four hours ahead of Johnny Salo. Despite that, the latter launched a sustained attack that went on for day after day. He took five and three quarter hours out of Payne’s lead before blisters caused him to drop back. Payne then took back over an hour from the strong Finnish-American runner. On reaching Salo’s hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, the Finnish-American was awarded the honour of being made a member of the town’s police force. In the long term, this was an honour he would have been better off without.
On May 26th the race arrived in New York, and finished with a twenty mile run on the track at Madison Square Gardens. The winner was Andy Payne with 573:04:34, from Johnny Salo 588:40:13, with Phillip Granville third 613:42:30. Mike Joyce was fourth and Guisto Umek fifth.
Pyle was reckoned to be $50,000 dollars down on the race before he paid out any prize money, but due partly to the millionaire father of one of the competitors, all the prize money was paid. Payne received $25,000, Salo $10,000 and Granville £5,000.
After the race had finished one trans-continental runner was seen regularly covering distance in New York. His comment was that it was `dangerous to stop the agony all at once…A lot of the boys are feeling terrible and they don’t know what is a matter. The thing they are suffering from is lack of pain.’
However other trans-continental runners were able to make use of their new found endurance. Tex Rickard promoted a 26 hour two man team event in the Madison Square Gardens, recruiting some forty runners, mainly from the Pyle runners. The race was won by the pairing of Phillip Granville and Frank Van Flute, from Newton and Gavuzzi. Following a prolonged bout of sickness, Gavuzzi had spent several hours off the track. He and his partner sprinted alternate laps in the last hour or so to make up the leeway, but the deficit was too great.
The success of this event persuaded Rickard, owner of the Madison Square Gardens, to promote another such race. Selected trans-continental runners were chosen to compete against the Olympic marathon champion, Boughera El Ouafi of France, who had been persuaded to turn professional. Two such races helped establish a livelihood for professional runners, while the possibility of another trans-America race in 1929 was worked out.
Another Pyle runner resorted to long solo runs to keep in condition. Lin Dilks made an attempt on the American 100 mile road best in November. He had set out to run from Newcastle to Erie, covering 63 miles in 9:57, and reached 82 miles in 13:14 before being forced to retire from the attempt.
The 1929 race was to be organised differently from the earlier event. Competitors had to provide their cars for their support crews. This was to reduce the field considerably. On the whole the entrants were to be experienced competitors from the 1928 race. As Pete Gavuzzi later put it,”The 1928 race was an amateur race, the 1929 was professional.” To Gavuzzi, being professional meant being well prepared and properly trained for the event. The 1929 Race
The 1929 Trans-Continental race was started from Columbus Circle, New York at 3.00pm precisely on the 31st of March. The early stages were dominated by those who thought the initial positions were important, including surprisingly some of the veterans from 1928. By the ninth day however the experienced runners were in front. Ed Gardner, a fluent 29 year old coloured runner from Seattle, was 35 minutes ahead of Salo, who was two and a half hour ahead of Gavuzzi with Newton in fourth.
Pyle expected the race to attract large crowds of people at which ever town it finished each day. He had brought together an elaborate assemble of music hall acts to entertain paying customers to nightly performances. These performers were bused along the race route ahead of the runners. Poor weather and an over-estimation of the potential audiences meant that the salaries of the music hall acts were to be a major drain on the race budget. This and other unforeseen problems meant Pyle was to spend most of the race talking his way out of debt.
The heavy rain, the Allegany Mountains and stages sometimes reaching 63 miles in length showed just how tough the Pyle runners were. The food available at the camp at the end of each day was to be another hazard; Pete Gavuzzi and Ed Gardner’s iron stomaches soon proved a major advantage as their main competitors were forced to spent time on urgent `pitstops’
The arrival of Salo’s wife and her cooking soon caused a swift recovery in the Finnish-American’s fortunes, and soon Gavuzzi, Gardner and Salo were locked in combat at the front.
By the 21st stage the field had been reduced to just 31 runners. That stage had marked the retirement of Arthur Newton. Newton had already been having problems with blisters and was lying ninth at that stage. He was forced to retire when a car hit him, dislocating his shoulder. To the rest of the field this meant the race was sure to go to one of the three current leaders.
By the 22nd stage Salo had moved into second place, but Gardner remained a threat. The three leaders watched each other carefully. Any move to strike out and gain a decisive advantage had to be matched. Any sign of weakness had to be hidden, injuries minimised, opponent’s victory margins reduced to tolerable levels. Often the three men would jog in together, content to postpone the decisive moment for another day. Sometimes a backmarker would push hard for their moment of glory, particularly when approaching their home town. Such extravagance could be ignored by the leaders, secure in their comfortable leads.
For twenty-five days the three leaders were locked together. Then Gardner over-stretched himself, and developed a leg strain. He fell back to over seven hours behind Salo, before eventually deciding to quit. The race was now between Gavuzzi and Salo.
However a third figure now decided to make a bid for glory. Guisto Umek was a tempermental Italian, who had originally entered the 1928 race as a walker. Realising he was unable to compete effectively, he had persuaded the amiable Italian-British runner Gavuzzi, to teach him to run. With the demise of Gardner, Umek now moved into third place. Aided by Pyle’s determination to cross the sparsely populated area as quickly as possible, the stages began to lengthen, which suited the Italian. Stages 54 miles, 74 miles, 44 miles, 60 miles, 54 miles and 50 miles brought out the best in Umek. He ran the 74 mile stage in 9:42:20, arguably the best performance of the entire race.
Salo and Gavuzzi, who were good friends, decided to respond to this threat to their professional pride. They took turns to extend themselves and put this upstart in his place. Within three daily stages they had made it clear to Umek they were the top trans-continental runners in the field. However the fierce rivalry between the two men did not ease one jot.
As the stages edged towards the 50th day on the road Gavuzzi sat on his lead, content to match Salo’s moves, and to thus provoke the strong Finnish-American runner into over-stretching himself in his drive for the lead. On the 47th day Salo had reduced the lead to thirty-five minutes;the following day,in a 43 mile stage,running with Umek for much of the distance along a railway line he took the lead, consolidating this lead the day after.
For the next six days Salo and Gavuzzi were locked together.Then Salo managed to extended his lead further, only for Gavuzzi to reduced it to the previous level the following day. Finally running like a man possessed, Gavuzzi retook the lead as the race entered the Rockies.
Over the next few stages,the lead was to swop between Gavuzzi and Salo. However British runner was confident that his superior speed would prove the trump card in the end, provide he steered clear of injury or illness.When he saw Salo was in trouble on the 72nd stage Gavuzzi struck. Finishing an hour and thirty-five minutes ahead of the courageous Salo, he now had a forty-five minute lead, with only six days left.In the days ahead across the Mohave Desert and over the Coast Range the indomitable Salo worked hard, gradually whittling away Gavuzzi’s lead. On the 76th stage Salo charged again to try and seize the lead and Gavuzzi was unable to respond. His lead was reduced to just under ten minutes.
The final stage was to consist of a four mile run to Wrigley Field, and there the race would end with a marathon. Salo went off with the leaders from the start to get an inside draw in the race at Wrigley Field to give himself the best possible chance. Gavuzzi, confident of his superiority over Salo at the marathon, saw no reason to hurry, and was also held up for some minutes by a long freight train which crossed the course. Gavuzzi was not perturbed because he believed the marathon race at Wrigley Field would not start until all the runners arrived.
When Salo arrived amongst the leaders at the Field, he was waved straight on to the track, and he assumed that each men’s time for the marathon would be taken individually. He set off at 10.5 miles an hour, intent on reducing Gavuzzi’s lead. When Gavuzzi arrived at the Field he initially was thrown by the sudden change in plans. Much of his lead had gone. Salo continued to run like a man possessed, and Gavuzzi, ever-calculating, upped his pace but did not really push until he saw the Finnish American begin to slow. Slowly he cut back on Salo’s lead, but his powerful opponent fought back with all his considerable courage. Gavuzzi was eventually to finish nine laps behind Salo, but confusion reigned at the finish. Who had won the 1929 Trans-continental race?
The official result was given after a delay of half an hour. Salo had won by 2 minutes 47 seconds.
Newton stated in his book “Running on Three Continents” that the official notice prior to the last day had said that the Wrigley Field marathon race would start when all the competitors had reached the Field. However despite that,Newton,a typical stiff upper lip Englishman of the period,advised Gavuzzi not to contest the result. Following this advice Gavuzzi raised no protest.
Harry Berry in his definitive book on the Pyle races “From L.A. to New York, From New York to L.A.” estimates that Gavuzzi lost about 5.5 to 6.5 minutes to Salo on the track. Thus if the race had started at Wrigley Field the margin of victory would have been reversed in favour of Gavuzzi. So what happened? I suspect that the officials got confused or misunderstood their instructions, and once the mistake had happened were too embarassed to, or unable to unscramble the whole result. As it was it took them half an hour to work out the results, surprising when all that was necessary was to add on the elapsed time for Salo and Gavuzzi.
The official finishing times were: Johnny Salo 525:57:20, Peter Gavuzzi 526:00:07, Guisto Umek 538:46:52.Sammy Richman 571:29:29. Paul Simpson 586:30:53, Phillip Granville 618:54:23, Mike McNamara 627:45:28.
The story does not finished there. Pyle was faced by creditors. Virtually all the way from New York he had suffered from a severe cash flow problem. When Pete Gavuzzi went to meet Pyle to receive his $10,000 prize money, he met Johnny Salo on the way out. Salo told him, “It’s no good Pete. There’s no money.”
Following a lawyer’s advice that documentary evidence was needed to back the runners’ claims against Pyle, Sammy Richman, who lived in New York, volunteered to run back along the course collecting evidence and statements. It took him 162 days and 19 pounds in weight. After all that trouble he still didn’t get any prize money from Pyle.
I got to know Pete Gavuzzi well during his last years. He showed me the promissory note that had been given him some fifty years earlier by C.C. Pyle. Pyle had never paid up.
5. After the Trans-Continentals
The Pyle races had created a large group of experienced professional ultra runners, many of whom were now without work or money. With no likelihood of another trans-continental race forthcoming after Pyle’s financial disaster in 1929, the `Bunioneers’, as they had been called, had to seek other avenues of endeavour. They quickly formed a information network, primarily in North America, keeping each other advised of potential races in which they might make some money. In the meantime most of them drifted back to their old occupations.
In July 1929 a two man team 6 Day race was arranged at the Ascot Speedway Stadium, Los Angeles. The aim was to surpass the mark made by the French team of Orphee and Cabot set in 1909 at the Madison Square Gardens. Johnny Salo and Sammy Richman emerged as the winners, with 749.5 miles, ahead of George Rehayn and Niels Nielson with 642.5 miles. The runners each received $5, less than a cent a mile.
Later that year two man teams were pitted against teams of horses in another 6 Day race, this time indoors in Philadephia. The runners were to run alternately four hours a piece, as were the horses. The runners set off at seven miles an hour, the horses, who were on a track outside the runners, were some fifteen miles ahead at the end of the first day.
By the close of the second day, the runners and the horses were on level pegging, but the horses were beginning to get restive, going around and round the small indoor track. The jockeys were finding that despite their best efforts the horses would drop into a walk for a few laps. Eventually the horses refused even to trot, and just walked around listlessly.
Unknown to the spectators, new horses were then substituted, but soon they too ended up in exactly the same state, and once again had to be replaced, this time by the original horses. By this time the runners were firmly in the lead.
The winners were Salo with a new partner Joie Ray, (who had run in the indoor marathon against El Ouafi.) Their final distance was 523.3 miles, ahead of Newton and Gavuzzi on 521,25 miles, with the horses Redwing and Fleetwood third with 510.5 miles. The first two teams of runners were to receive $500 per man, but the failure of the horses had meant a greatly reduced attendance on the last two nights, and thus a reduction in the runners’ fees of 25 per cent was negotiated.
This was not the only occasion when Pyle runners raced horses. Some years later in the 1930s one of the foremost of the runners, Paul Simpson, who had finished fifth in 1929, undertook to race a Texas pony over a 144 mile course in his home town of Burlington, North Carolina. Simpson, a very tough minded individual, who had been a physical training instructor before the Pyle races, won by 25 miles when the pony collapsed.
In the United States professional ultrarunning was dying. However in Canada, there was an opportunity for trained ultra performers to make money – snow shoe racing. The first snowshoe races in Canada had been promoted in 1926, the first from Montreal to Swinton over 300 miles, and won by a 47 year old Eugene Cloucette. This proved so popular that in 1930 the Peter Dawson Marathon was held over 500 miles. This was a team event, and Newton and Gavuzzi entered, as did Ray and Salo, along with Dilks, Souminen, Granville and Mike McNamara, an Australian. Much to the disappointment of the local snowshoe enthusiasts, the winners were Newton and Gvuzzi, from Ray and Salo.
Also in 1930 the Distillers Corporation in Montreal decided to sponsor the 200 mile Usher Green Stripe snowshoe Marathon. Edouard Fabre, an Olympic marathon runner in 1912, and winner of the Boston in 1915, was the first winner, with Pyle runner Phillip Granville in second place. The second year, Frank Hoey won, but Newton was second, and Gavuzzi fourth.
In April 1931 Newton decided to promote his own event. This decision was probably motivated by professional pride. When he had competed at the Madison Square Gardens in 1928 undoubtedly the performance of the Pyle runners had been unflatteringly compared with that of the 6 day runners who had raced at the same venue forty years earlier. The Pyle runners, and Newton in particular, did not have the experience or funds to tackle Littlewood’s formidable 6 day mark. However the former `World’s Wonder’ 6 day performer, Charles Rowell, had set the current 24 Hour professional best in 1882 that was within reach. Newton undoubtedly felt his 100 mile experience gave him a good chance to prove his superiority over the likes of Charles Rowell.
With the help of one of the handlers from the Trans-continental, Tom Crompton, an indoor 24 Hour race was arranged at Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. A square track was designed and built to try and prevent the giddiness that Guvuzzi and others had suffered in the 6 Day team races.
To drum up interest in the forthcoming 24 Hour event Newton and Gavuzzi set up a `50 mile’ race from Toronto to Hamilton on March 24th. Their aim was to improve upon a mark set by George Begley in October 1909 of just under seven hours. Running easily the two professional runners eventually finished together in 5:52:20 for the 49.5 mile journey, breaking the record by an hour.
Newton contacted a number of the Pyle runners whom he thought would be interested in taking part in the 24 Hour event. Lin Dilks and Paul Simpson came up from the United States; Dilks reportedly had recently set a new professional American 100 mile road best of 18:02 in difficult conditions. Phillip Granville and Thomas Ellis were on home soil, and Mike McNamara from Australia made up the field along with Newton and Gavuzzi. So the second, fifth, sixth and seventh runners from the 1929 race were in the race.
It was arranged that Gavuzzi would go for the world indoor 40 mile record, and that to ensure success at that distance, McNamara would shadow him initially, ready to take over in case of problems. The precaution was sound, for after 20 miles Gavuzzi had to pull out with a leg injury.
Mike McNamara was a big boned, very strong runner, a former farmer from Queensland, Australia. He had not been really fit for the 1928 race, and perhaps not even fully fit in the 1929 event.Newton later wrote that McNamara had used the 1929 race to get in good condition, and after the race had worked to keep that fitnees. The big Australian accelerated hard after Gavuzzi’s retirement, so effectively that he clipped the world 30 mile indoor record, before collecting the targetted 40 mile mark too, in 4:31:31. This on a square, banked track of twelve laps to the mile.
At this point Newton was lying second, with Dilks third, with Granville just ahead of Simpson. McNamara reached 100 miles in 14:09:45 and then came off for a bath, but on his return he was struck by cramp which eventually forced him to retire. After Newton also had taken a bath, he returned to continue to circle the track in the most “perfect rhythm” he was capable of achieving.
Meanwhile Dilks and Granville were matched in a tense duel that was to last for most of the race. If one stopped for a drink, the other would aim to get a lead. In the end if one stopped, they both stopped, then moved on together.
Newton finished with a new world 24 hour best of 152 miles 540 yards, surpassing Rowell’s mark set nearly fifty years before. The shout of “TIME” after the 24 Hours had elapsed did not stop the tough Pennsylvanian railwayman. All Dilks knew was that he had to keep moving. Officials had to go after him and stop him. He had finished in second place with 117 miles to Granville’s 116, the same gap that had separated them twenty hours earlier.
All the runners got from the race were expenses and $10. Newton lost about $1000 on the race which had been a financial flop. Newton’s North American allcomers record for 24 hours was to stand for forty seven years until Park Barner finally surpassed it at Glassboro, New Jersey in 1978. Newton’s 24 Hour distance has yet to be beaten in Canada.
On October 6th that year came what could be described as the first major casualty of the Pyle races. With no prize money to fall back on, Johnny Salo had taken up the offered post in his local police force the Passaic community had awarded their hero in 1928. On duty at a baseball game, a hard struck ball flew into the crowd and hit him on the head. He was die from the subsequent brain injuries.
Perhaps at this point it is appropriate to assess the capabilities of the tough Finnish-American runner. As far as is known, Salo entered the Trans-America race without any previous history as a runner. He was a quiet man, well liked by his fellow competitors, including Peter Gavuzzi, his arch rival. He was older than his main competitors, Payne and Gavuzzi, and was a veteran of the First World War. Aged 35 in 1928, he was probably at his physical peak in 1928/9.
The blond, muscular former shipyard worker from New Jersey apparently looked more like a wrestler than a runner. It was to be determination and strength, rather than running talent that was make Salo a formidable competitor who never admitted defeat. The rest of the Pyle runners soon realised that whenever the weather was bad and/or the terrain was difficult and demanding, Salo would be at his best. His indomitable nature was best shown by his enormous efforts in the 1928 race to close Andy Payne’s 24 hour lead when there were only eleven days to go.
Johnny Salo’s competitive ultra career was short, and we have details of less than ten races in which he competed. He seems to have made his ultra debut in the 1928 Pyle race.
Like many muscular ultrarunners, Salo seems to have needed a heavy training workload to get into shape. He was to use the first month of the 1928 race to reach racing fitness. For the first 30 days he did not appear among the leading runners; from then on he was invariably in the top five or six. By the 41st stage he was in third place overall. His first stage win came in the 58th stage. Despite his slow start, Salo was to finish second, fifteen hours behind Andy Payne. If he had been race fit at the start, perhaps the story would have been different.
Salo’s second ultra race was a 26 hour indoor team race in 1928. He was paired with Roy McMurtry and finished fourth. McMurtry had finished 12th in the 1928 race, but had not been one of the major stars of the event.
Salo had obviously kept in shape for the 1929 race, and led the race as early as the end of the 6th stage. He stayed strong throughout, apart from his bout of stomach trouble, and his refusal to be beaten was to be finally rewarded.
As the winner of the 1929 race, he was able to choose his partners for subsequent team events. Together with Sammy Richman, he easily won the 6 day team race at the Ascot speedway in July 1929. However his lack of basic speed was exposed when Newton and Gavuzzi subsequently finished ahead of him in a 15 mile race in his home town.
A few weeks later, when he paired up with Joie Ray, he had his revenge when he showed a clean pair of heels to Gavuzzi and Newton. Teams of Pyle runners were matched against each other, and teams of horses, indoors over 6 days at Philadelphia. Salo and Ray totalled 523.3 miles to Gavuzzi and Newton’s 521.25 miles. The Salo/Ray team also ran in the Peter Dawson Snowshoe marathon in Quebec in 1930 and finished second to Newton and Gavuzzi.
Salo by then had entered the police force, seeking a reliable, regular wage for his wife and family. I suspect he subsequently found it difficult to maintain the heavy levels of training his body needed to keep in top shape. The partial information I have of races he ran later show he was no longer the force he had been in 1929.
Johnny Salo was arguably the outstanding American ultrarunner of the first half of the twentieth century. When fit he was a match for any of the top ultrarunners in the world. The 1928 and 29 races were probably the most sustained tests of ultra endurance yet devised. No other runner in the world could match his record in those events. His 50 mile time of 6:34:55 [actually a stage win over 51 miles] in the later sections of the 1929 race was not to be equalled by an American for a quarter of a century. Yet for Salo that was the 67th stage of the 3665 mile race! His performances in team events when fully fit and allied with a top performer are further confirmation of his ability.
For most of the Pyle runners, returning home and taking up the former occupations was not a huge problem. But Newton and Gavuzzi had been literally marooned in North America by the virtual collapse of professional ultrarunning. It was to be they who maintained the network of Pyle runners, keeping in touch with the leading performers and seeking to find promoters willing to put on events. In the early ’30s they kept themselves employed by taking a film of Peter Dawson race around to movie theatres in Quebec, and then giving a running exhibition on an electric running platform that moved at eight miles an hour. However eventually the snowshow races, and other odd ultra events died out and Newton decided to return to Britain, his country of birth.
Newton had always said that he was a better 100 mile runner than he was at 50 miles, and almost certainly his professional pride had been affronted by the fact that Mike McNamara had run a faster time for the distance than he had, 14:09 as compared with 14:22. In 1934 he attempted to rectify that, running the Bath Road 100 miles in England. His final time for the full course was 14:11:30, but fortunately for Newton, the course was found to be 100.5 miles, and a 100 mile split of 14:06:00 was given.
Gavuzzi stayed on in Canada. He heard of Newton’s 100 mile run, and showing the fierce competition between the former Pyle men, he too decided to have a crack at setting a new professional road best. In August 1935 he made what was to be his competitive swan song. He ran the 105 miles from Buffalo to Toronto. Gavuzzi started at midnight, probably to avoid the heat of the day, but still hit unfavourable weather. It was to be too cold for comfortable running and he faced a headwind for 50 miles, which made it tough for the slight Gavuzzi. Despite heavy traffic he reached 50 miles in 6:38:21, and the 100 miles in 15:25:34, a time which surpassing the previous North American allcomers best held by Sydney Hatch, set twenty-six years earlier. Gavuzzi finished the 105 mile trip in 16:23:00. His 100 mile road time was not to be surpassed in North America until 197I.
Meanwhile the native Canadians had not been idle. Almost certainly the Dawson and Green Stripe films and running machine shown in Quebec cinemas by Newton and Gavuzzi, and the publicity given to such races as the Snowshoe marathons, prompted others to try ultrarunning. In May 1934 a middle age French Canadian, Felix Forget, who had been coached by Newton, set a Canadian 100 mile road record of 17:56:24 in Montreal. Then later that year, in October, Le Marathon du Quebec over 50 miles was held from Quebec City to Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre. The race was won by Almanzor Hardy by some three seconds, from his brother Lucien, in a time of 7:33:07. J-B Collin was third in 7:57:26.
In 1935 Pete Gavuzzi had begun to coach a promising young French Canadian distance runner called Gerard Cote. Cote had been previously persuaded by the veteran runner, Edouard Fabre not to run in professional snowshoe races, and to keep his amateur status. But perhaps prompted by his new coach’s training for the Buffalo-Toronto 100 miler [see above], in early August 1935 the 22nd year old Cote ran the 50 miles from Montreal, where Gavuzzi was then living, to his own hometown of St. Hyacinthe, in a Canadian 50 mile best of 6:59:00. The conditions for the run were difficult, with temperatures of 850F. However such a distance was not a great novelty to Cote, as Gavuzzi would sometimes take him on 35 miles, even forty mile training runs.
Cote was to run his first marathon at Yonkers in November that year. Interestingly Gavuzzi and Cote’s strategy of running a 50 miler as part of the preparation for a marathon, was to be emulated many years later in Japan by the famous marathon runner Toshihiko Seko. Gerard Cote was to go on to greatness as a marathon runner, winning the Boston four times, and representing Canada in the Olympics.
This considerable interest in Ultrarunning in Canada probably also prompted two of Canada’s top marathon runners to tackle the London to Brighton race to be organised in 1937.
The two Canadians were from Hamilton, Ontario,[where the indoor 24 hour had been held six years earlier.] Hamilton was the centre of distance running in Canada at that time. Norman Dack, who had represented Canada in the 1930 British Empire Games marathon, had been living in Britain since 1936. The other Canadian, James Phillips, had apparently beaten top marathon runners like Johnny Miles and Clarence DeMar, and also Dack.
The London to Brighton race was held in May, but the vagaries of the British weather meant that for much of the race the runners were faced by strong headwind, with rain making conditions very difficult. The two Canadian runners were faced by the most formidable 50 mile performer in the world in the 1930s, Hardy Ballington of South Africa, who had already won the Comrades Marathon three times. There were a number of British competitors, including D.E. Morgan, the Welsh marathon champion. Despite the conditions, Ballington ran 5:53:42 to break Newton’s course record, with Dack finishing second with 6:57:56, and Phillips third with 7:18:54 for the 51.75 mile course.
We can get some idea of Norman Dack’s character from the fact he chose to run in the famous Polytechnic marathon the following week. What is even more revealing, is that under brutal conditions with broiling heat that reduced the starting field of 92 to just 7 finishers, Dack finished 6th in 3:12:12. He must have been a very tough competitor to complete two such extreme races a week apart. [Dack's personal best for the marathon was 2:41:52]
The Pyle races had been held during a period of economic optimism. Unfortunately afterwards the impoverished Pyle runners tried to make a living from ultrarunning just as the Depression began to hit America. Faced with hardship people spent what little money they had to spare on the escapism of the movies; they did not want to watch the trials and tribulations of an ultra race. As the Depression got worse so the few race opportunities for the Pyle runners disappeared. I suspect then that for many of the former Pyle runners the welfare of their families came before their running careers. Ultrarunning was a luxury they could no longer afford. I have found no mention of ultra races in the late thirties in America. In 1940 came the Second World War, and for most people their entire lives were to be placed on hold for five years.