Eddie Gardner: Seattle's First and Best Ultra Runner?
I've mentioned that Born to Run helped me to realize that Western Washington has an amazing running history, but it isn't what inspired me to start compiling some of the stories into one place - that was this article that I came across, probably on Facebook, about Eddie Gardner - a Seattle runner who had his best year in 1928. (The article features a quote from Fleet Feet's Phil Kochik - another super nice guy and amazing runner in the Seattle community.)
Before getting into his story, I should note that this is a personal blog, so it's probably inevitable that these posts will skew primarily towards people and events that I find personally interesting (read - a lot of trail and ultrarunning). I'm no historian, so I probably also won't be very objective. The bulk of my training in fact, at least from a writing perspective, was in theology - a field in which I have a masters degree. Studying theology in an academic setting basically just means studying some aspect of religion, but I think that in practice it could justifiably be defined as "the study of stories that people find meaningful". In that vein, what you'll probably find that I compile here is a series of stories from the history of Seattle's running community that I think are meaningful, and communicate something important about what the community is all about. Gardner's story is the oldest one I've found, as well as one of the most chock-full-o-meaning.
First things first, I'll get a few of the cursory, but not unimportant, points about Gardner out of the way quickly:
- He was African-American - the grandson of slaves.
- He grew up mostly in Seattle, but ran in college at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he learned to be a steam engineer.
- He came back to Seattle after college and won the Washington state 10 mile championship multiple times between '21 and '27, which gained him a bit of a public following.
- He was nicknamed 'The Sheik' because he ran with a white towel wrapped around his head. Seems like there must be multiple racist elements in that nickname.
- He set a national record at the 50 mile distance in 1928 at a still ridiculous pace of 6:25:28 (That's basically two Boston Marathon qualifications back to back), and also set the record for the fastest walk around Lake Washington.
- He spent his life working as a repairman, steelworker, and janitor, and passed away in 1966.
- Nobody's ever heard of him.
Now that we have that out of the way, the most interesting thing about Gardner, in my opinion, was his participation in the kind of crazy event that only seemed to happen in the '20s - a race from Los Angeles to New York in 1928, which was called The Bunion Derby (great name for a race), and in which he finished 8/55 in a close finish. The Seattle PI article linked above (and redundantly in this sentence) gives some good details on that experience, but I'll summarize by stating hyperbolically that he spent 84 straight days running 50 - 85 miles per day while being chased and threatened by rednecks with shotguns, eating beans, absorbing racial slurs, and wearing whatever shoes he could find. As a reward he won $2500 that he had to split with a couple of promoters, and ended up keeping $1000 for his troubles. The winner (a 19 year old (!) Cherokee (!) named Andy Payne) said Gardner would have won easily if he hadn't have had to deal with all of the crap along the way (There was actually a stage in Oklahoma where a farmer rode behind him on a mule and threatened to shoot him if he passed a white runner).
There are a lot of amazing things about this story - not least of which is that 55 people ran across the country in 1928. People do that still (Dean Karnazes did it last year), but I can't imagine that a larger group has ever done it at once. And a 19 year old Cherokee won?! There seriously needs to be a Disney movie about this.
But I think Gardner himself makes for such an iconic figure. Among ultrarunners, who pride themselves on testicular/ovarian fortitude, you're not going to find someone with more huevos than this guy. And he did this way before it was normal or reasonable to train for ultra distances, with almost no money (he left Seattle for the start in LA with $175 to his name), and no high tech diet or support. He was a genuine amateur and way more of a badass then even Gordy Ainsleigh. Jurek was an amazing runner, but it would be hard to argue that anything he's done is more impressive then Gardner's 84 day life-or-death, no money, dodge the racists obstacle ultra-ultramarathon. And the guy died a janitor? That's a real tragedy, but in some ways makes him more appealing as a historical figure and representative of the ultra-running community, which has generally seen itself as a group of amateurs and a fringe community separated from the establishment by niche interests and an unreasonable amount of dedication to their sport. As an African-American in not-that-far-post-slavery America, he was a consummate underdog, and overcame an amazing amount of adversity in the Bunion Derby to establish himself as one of the best athletes alive in his era. Western Washington has been one of the key international centers in the development of ultrarunning, and it's amazing to have Gardner as a great-grandfather of the sport in our area who could've outdone all of us in his day. Here's to hoping that his legend will grow, and that he'll gain more notoriety not just as a great Seattle runner, but as one of the most amazing individuals that Seattle has produced in any field.