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Forgotten Transcontinental Runners



Rob Hardy


Chances are you have never heard of Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi, even if you are fond of sports and even if you specialize in an interest in running sports. They were two of the most amazing runners ever, and because they did long distance running, and not ordinary marathons or track and field (to say nothing of football or tennis), they are forgotten. Mark Whitaker, a teacher, broadcaster for the BBC, and historian, has brought them back in Running for Their Lives: The Extraordinary Story of Britain's Greatest Ever Distance Runners (Yellow Jersey Press), a dual biography of a sports partnership that is worth remembering. The pair accomplished astounding and grueling feats documented here, but this is also a story that takes place largely in America, and reflects upon our nation in the twenties, as well as on the divide between professional and amateur athletics. I can testify that it is a sports book you don't have to like sports to enjoy. 




Newton was a bespectacled bachelor, a fellow who liked serious reading in philosophy and playing Beethoven sonatas. He had an aimless early life and emigrated to South Africa before World War I to run a cotton farm. The bizarre colonial politics at the time, Newton felt, had robbed him of a willing workforce, and he tried to get compensation from the government for his losses. The government refused. He felt that his plight needed publicity, and he realized that sports figures got publicity, so he became a long distance runner. He said, "There were two things I could do, either crime or athletics. I was no Al Capone, so I chose athletics." The odd thing is that he was no athlete, either, or had not been until his decision to begin running, a decision he made in his forties. He won his first race, one of 54 miles, and soon held all the amateur records of distances up to 100 miles. He liked winning races, and though he would have enjoyed any political leverage they gave him, he didn't like being the center of attention or being fussed over when he won. 




Peter Gavuzzi was from London, and he was half Newton's age. Of course he did not go into running for politics, but for relief of boredom. He was a ship's steward on the transatlantic liners of the White Star Line, and discovered he was not bored running around and around the decks. His bosses encouraged him to do so, and there was running competition with the Cunard line. When he heard of a prize race across America, he was in it for the money, but said, "I thought it was a good way of seeing the country."  




Both Newton and Gavuzzi loved the solitude of long distance running, and both found the 26 miles of a marathon too short for applications of their particular talents. Because of Olympic history, there were only official runs of marathon distance, and no further. If the men were to compete, they would have to go into professional sport. It was a time when there was acrimony between professional and amateur sports in Britain, and also in the US. Whitaker reminds us of the disgraceful confiscation of the 1912 Olympic medals from Jim Thorpe, who was found to have played baseball as a schoolboy for a couple of dollars a game. American professional football was starting up, but it was looked down upon not only by elite amateurs and the public, but also by sports writers, one of whom called it "a dirty little business run by rogues and bargain-basement entrepreneurs." Once tennis players had signed professionally, they were no longer welcome at, say, Wimbledon.  




Unfortunately, distance running events were often at the level of stunts, like dance marathons or six-day bicycle races. It was the American C. C. Pyle, an untrustworthy sports entrepreneur, who came up with the idea of a race across America. "Pyle wanted runners who had the same hardness as the six-day cyclists, the same lack of shame or embarrassment at showing themselves in public as marathon dancers did when they were reduced by exhaustion to dirty, sweaty, hobbling wrecks." Pyle was interested in making money off spectators who were also voyeurs. (Perhaps it says something for the tastes of the American public that he was unable to make a living off his grandiose sports schemes.) 




Newton and Gavuzzi met for the first time in Los Angeles for Pyle's first extravaganza, the 1928 race of 3,500 miles to New York. Pyle arranged for there to be public recognition of the runners in cities along the way, although many cities declined, or accepted and then forgot to pay his fees. He also was in touch with the Route 66 Association, in charge of the famous highway that was not yet fully paved; publicity for the highway was also publicity for his race upon it. Newton and Gavuzzi were among the best of the runners, and they formed a mutually supportive partnership. Behind them came a pack of men who realized they had not a chance of winning a cent, but who had made the race a way of life, and perhaps a break from unemployment or from distressing home lives. They just kept going, some because they knew Pyle wanted them to drop out so he could stop feeding them and putting them up in his tents. When the troop ran across Texas, Pyle was forced to obey state law and install a "blacks only" tent for black runners. There were all the varieties of distressing weather the continent could offer, as well as treacherous terrain. The runners would put in from forty to seventy miles a day. It sounds like torture, but it presented the distances and the solitude that Newton and Gavuzzi enjoyed. 




Neither completed the 1928 race, because of illness or injury, but that didn't stop them from trying a repeat the next year, this time run from east to west. Newton was knocked out when he was hit by an automobile, but Gavuzzi maintained the lead to the end. Pyle, however, had manipulated an exciting finish, resulting in Gavuzzi's being robbed of victory by a margin of less than two minutes, possibly because Pyle wanted an American to win. Newton seems to have argued his partner out of protesting, and it would not have made any difference, as the improvident or crooked Pyle didn't have the money for prizes. Though they made no money from it, their joint participation in the cross-country runs was the highlight of their running careers. They went on to do exhibition runs, and ran in snowshoes in Canada, and coached, and both of them barely got by. In 1931, Newton went on the stage to give talks and to demonstrate a machine that he and Gavuzzi had commissioned, a conveyor belt platform for runners, powered by an electric motor. It was quite possibly the first treadmill, and part of the show was to see Newton demonstrate it and then to allow members of the audience to try, resulting in falls off the front and the back of the machine, so that onlookers "were kept in a constant state of laughter." 




They had a bit of fame in their time, but it vanished, and any riches they might have gained were ephemeral if not illusory. As Whitaker tells the story, it amounts to a tragedy. "Their genius linked them, and it isolated them, because their genius was for a sort of running that the 'official' world of athletics did not recognize... Gavuzzi and Newton lived the frustration of having a rare and extraordinary skill for which there was no longer a market." If they are forgotten by even historians of sport, at least their affecting story has this colorful retelling.



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