Bobby Troup's song, "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," immortalized Flagstaff's association with the legendary highway. While many sections of Route 66 are buried beneath the pavement of I-40, original ones are still in use today as business or frontage roads. Many more lie abandoned within just a few hundred feet from its modern day descendant, I-40. On the Kaibab National Forest, several of these alignments have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the Kaibab has preserved them as recreation trails, and thus creating a perfect venue for a new Saturday morning Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association (NATRA) group run. However, as I recently learned, I was far from the first to think this way.
In 1928, the infamous event promoter Charles C. Pyle schemed up a money making venture where he would recruit the world's top marathoners to race 3400 miles from Los Angeles to New York City in 84 days for a top prize of $25,000. The first 2000 miles would follow Route 66 to Chicago. The only runner from Arizona was one of the favorites, Nicholas Quamawahu, a Hopi Indian from Oraibi. (Nicholas dropped out near Ash Fork due to an injury,) Known as the Footrace Aross America, it became simply nicknamed the "Bunion Derby." On March 4, 1928, 199 "bunioneers" started in Los Angeles with only 55 finishing at Madison Square Garden on May 26. Twenty-year-old Andy Payne from Oklahoma, who steadily paced himself at 10 minutes a mile, won the race in 573 hours.
To fully appreciate the Bunion Derby, nine NATRA runners recently revisited one of the most challenging and steep sections on Ash Fork Hill just west of Williams. Bunioneers faced this same route on March 16, 1928, the 13th day of the race when they covered 43 miles from Seligman to Williams, climbing 1700 feet. We started near the Welch exit looping counter clockwise so that we retraced a few miles of the bunioneers' exact path. Running westward on the broken pavement of the 1931 Route 66 alignment, we flew downhill enjoying the stunning vistas on the horizon. We discovered a recently stenciled Route 66 marker in the old pavement. As we reached the halfway point near the Monte Carlo exit, we took a breather dreading the rough return.
It seemed appropriate that the eastward climb would be on the 1922 graded dirt road, originally created as the Old Trails Highway. This section proved every bit as challenging for runners (and for one mountain biker) as it was for the truckers overheating their engines climbing I-40 just a stone's throw to the south of us.
After the torturous three mile climb, (most walked), we chuckled that indeed, we got our butts kicked on Route 66! No one complained, as unlike the bunioneers, we did not have another 3000 miles to run. Furthermore we were able to hop on I-40 for a smooth, fast drive back to Flagstaff, hanging a right at exit 191 and returning home on you guessed it, Route 66!
Neil Weintraub is the Director of Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association. To learn more about the history of the Bunion Derby, find a listing of references/documentaries and to get your own kicks on abandoned Route 66, visit http://www.natra.org. (Historic details above are from Charles B. Kastner's Bunion Derby. University of New Mexico Press, 2007.)
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