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Gotta Run: Discovering a running legend while riding Route 66

Amazing story

Andy Payne of Foyil, Oklahoma won the 1928 Great Transcontinental Footrace. He won the first time race against many experienced runners at age 20 and took home $25,000. Photo by David Freeze

Andy Payne of Foyil, Oklahoma won the 1928 Great Transcontinental Footrace. He won the first time race against many experienced runners at age 20 and took home $25,000. Photo by David Freeze

I am just back from my 2,778-mile ride from California to Chicago and beyond. One Sunday, in fact the best day of the whole journey in retrospect, I found the very small town of Foyil, Oklahoma on my right as I pedaled east early in the morning. I saw a convenience store and needed to stop for egg and cheese biscuits, so I wheeled to the door. After making my purchase, I asked the two girls working at the store if there was anything notable about the area. Besides supposedly having the biggest totem pole in the country, they couldn’t think of anything. But another customer told me how to find Andy Payne Boulevard and the statue of him.

The following is information that I picked up from several sources, including his statue. Andrew Hartley Payne was born at home on a ranch in Oklahoma in 1907. He was an Oklahoma Cherokee who learned ranching from his father, “Doc”, who in turn had acquired the trade from Will Rogers’ dad.

Andy’s parents bought their own farm near Foyil where he attended both grade school and high school. Andy was a good runner for his school track team, often winning the mile and half-mile races.

“I had a knack for being able to cover the ground on foot,” he once said. Andy usually ran to school after doing his chores.

All the kids had to work on the ranch when they were old enough, and Andy as the oldest was often in charge of them. He did not want to continue such a hard life and left Oklahoma to try to find work in California after graduation. But work was scarce in California, too, when Andy saw a flyer for the Great Trans Continental Footrace to be held for the first time in 1928.

He was confident of his ability to run but didn’t have the $125 entry fee. With the help of his father, they raised the money and Andy left for the start of the race.

The runners left Ascot, California on March 4 and covered 3,422 miles. Andy, then 20 years old, led them into the finish in New York City on May 26. His victory earned $25,000, a huge sum at the time, from which Andy paid off his family’s farm and built them a new home. He bought some land of his own and a car and pursued his future wife, Vivian, who had been a fill-in teacher at his high school. 

They were married and Andy never ran physically again. With a different kind of running, Andy was elected clerk of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He eventually served in World War ll and got a law degree, but continued to win elections for the clerk position.

Andy became interested in acquiring land himself for coal, gas and oil. Geology studies helped him pick the right land. Andy died a rich man in 1977, remembered as a legendary figure.

When once asked why he entered the race, Andy told an interviewer, “I knew I was strong and could run, and figured that I had as good of a chance as anyone.”

We don’t have any local races in August, with the next one coming when the starting horn kicks off the Sunset Run on Friday, Sept. 2. The next Beginning Runners Class is set to begin at Novant Health on Tuesday, Sept. 13. More on both of these later.

It is great to be back in Rowan and running on the local roads and streets. As I write this, I ran the last two mornings after returning home. It is quite a process for my legs to change gears and remember how to run after cycling for 10-12 hours a day for so long. But it will happen now that I am back to my favorite sport daily. See you next week!

David Freeze is a nationally certified running coach and president of the Salisbury Rowan Runners. Contact him at david.freeze@ctc.net. Learn more at www.Ulearn2run.com

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