Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Racing Past Book Reviews Four Million Footsteps


Pelham Books, 1970. 178pp. 

By November 1967, the 32-year-old Bruce Tulloh had reached the end of a prestigious track career. Among his many achievements were a 4:00 mile and the 1962 European 5,000 title. One day he discovered there was a running record for crossing the USA: “The thought struck me immediately that this would be a good record to go for.” Don Shepherd’s 1964 record of 73 days and 8 hours seemed beatable to him, and he started to plan. He would turn professional to fund the attempt with sponsorship and advertising. He researched thoroughly, even talking to Pete Gavuzzi, who had run in the famous 1928 race across the States. The snag with this wonderful book is that it’s hard to find. I managed to get my copy through inter-library loan; the nearest Canadian copy was 3,000 miles away. Four Million Footsteps is a well-written book full of interesting social and athletic detail. It recounts one of the greatest ultramarathon achievements by a non-specialist. Bruce Tulloh, a world-class track runner, ran across the USA from Los Angeles to New York in 64 days, 21 hours and 50 minutes. In running the 2876 miles, he averaged 44 miles per day and beat Don Shepherd’s previous record by an incredible 8 1/2 days. (See Thor Gotaas, Running: A Global History, “Race Across America” for a good account of the original race in 1928.) 

Tulloh writes well about his preparation, both logistical and athletic. Not being an ultramarathoner, he had to be practical in his preparation to run 300 miles a week. With a start date in April 1969, the already fit Tulloh didn’t start his specific training until the late summer of 1968. He built up to 80 miles a week and also tried a few long efforts over 30 miles, with breaks. He tried to build up to 150 a week by the end of the year, while running 40 to 50 miles over the weekend. In November he tried an 85-mile run over two days and in December a 122-miler over three days. The later race left him so stiff he could hardly move the next day. From this experience, he learnt that he had to run shorter stages—no more than 15 miles at a time. In February, with this approach he ran 220 miles in five days without problems. This was a welcome breakthrough as he had only six weeks before his trek began. 

Following some interesting material on his final preparation and travel to LA, Tulloh begins his fascinating account of the actual run. Adversity came soon. After 24 miles on the first day in LA, he got “the most violent cramps in both thighs.” After trying to stretch he “suffered nausea and passed out for a few seconds.” He realized he had excessive salt loss. Perhaps the high sidewalks he had to deal with at every intersection put undue stress on his thighs. Nevertheless, he recovered and logged 46 miles for the day. At the start of the third day his thighs were so tight that all he could do was “shuffle along like an old man.” But he soldiered on and felt better the next day. He had covered 187 miles in the first four days, but on the fifth trouble with his thigh cut his mileage to 30. He was starting to realize that he wasn’t going to run 9:00 miles the whole way; walking was to become as essential part of his progress. 

It became even tougher as he reached the desert: “the run became a personal battle, with the sun as my enemy…. When things got bad I would think of green and peaceful England.” Still he managed to keep up his 40+ miles schedule for the next four days, walking much of the time. And he was confident that after two to three weeks, he would “become adjusted to this continuous exertion” and be able to increase his daily mileage in the later stages. But after 10 days and 440 miles, his troublesome left thigh forced him to walk all day. And when he tried to jog the next day, he developed a compensating injury in his right ankle. Tulloh’s solution was to wear “some strong boots.” He walked on, his mileage dropping to 15 and 19 on two days. At one point he was reduced to using a walking stick as he encountered bad, cold weather as well. On day 15 he tried jogging intermittently, “five minutes walk followed by five minutes shuffle.” But just when he was having “the worst time of the whole trip,” he started to get better. 

Using a combination of walking (in boots and sometimes with a stick) and jogging, Tulloh got back on schedule covering 40+ miles a day. After five days of this regime, he began to run more than he walked. He had to fight the urge to make up for lost time as his injuries disappeared. And he got into the routine of walking the first hour in the mornings and afternoons, often reading a book if the roads were quiet. There were more setbacks and injury worries, but Tulloh was now through the worst. And almost as importantly, he had acclimatized himself to the regime of 40+ miles a day. Symbolically at this point, he felt confident enough to indulge in a cigar. 

That Tulloh was through the worst does not mean that the book becomes less interesting from this point. There were still a lot of miles to cover. At times the mental load was tough: “I hated the road; I hated the trucks and their drivers; I hated the sun and the dust,” he wrote on Day 47. But usually he enjoyed his trek. As he got nearer to the finish and his record attempt became news, he had to deal with more people and media. With just over a week to go, he wrote: “The physical side of the running has been working very well. It justified my faith in the adaptability of the human body…. My body was now a running machine, if you can imagine a machine which ran on cornflakes, salads, beans and Schweppes drinks. As long as I kept putting the fuel in, the miles kept coming.” (154) 

Tulloh’s writing is full of insights, details and anecdotes. A very literate man, he is able to convey the wide spectrum of American life in the finest travel-writing tradition. But from a runner’s point of view, the material on the athletic and psychological challenges of his trek is the most valuable. Tulloh’s record was broken two years later by Marvin Swigart, who ran from San Francisco to New York in 62.7 days. The record has been broken six more times, with the current record, set back in  1980 by Frank Giannino Jr., standing at 46 days and 8 hours. 

Very highly recommended.



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