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The Amazing Foot Race of 1921: Halifax to Vancouver in 134 Days

By Shirley Jean Roll Tucker

Review By PearlAnn Reichwein

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 184-185

Three teams left Halifax in a 3,645-mile pedestrian race to Vancouver in 1921. Amateur sportsman Charles Burkman was first to head west on 17 January, followed a few days later by Jack and Clifford Behan, a father-and-son team. Two weeks afterward, Frank and Jenny Dill joined the race. This book unabashedly frames the race as “a made-in-Canada adventure story with genuine Canuck heroes,” yet boastful promotion from the transcontinental marathoners holds much in common with trash-talking athletes. Colin Howell has highlighted interwar sports in Nova Scotia’s Atlantic borderlands with New England, such as the Bluenose’s races for the Halifax Herald’s International Fishermen’s Trophy in competitions initiated in 1920. The Trophy Races and the transcontinental hike flourished together as media events in postwar Canadian sports nationalism, yet this background related to the foot race sponsored by the Herald is overlooked. The hike also positioned British Columbia as a distal Pacific border.

Hikers traversed Canada westbound along railway lines, while their reports to newspapers, fueled by the Halifax Herald, circulated nationally. Raging winter storms, cougar attacks, wolves, and near misses with locomotives were published as staples of epic travel, along with generous home-cooked meals, footsore nights, and hockey games. Their stories were retold to listeners — in telegraph shacks, churches, YMCAs, Kiwanis clubs, and even on Parliament Hill — as the currency of travel. Mayors, sportsmen, MPs, veterans, and ladies’ aid societies embraced the racers who “described minutely and vividly every feature of the hike” (202).

Racers hoped to best Beresford Greatland’s 1895 record. Adding sizzle to newspapers sales, sports writers praised Burkman for his handsome physique and Jenny Dill as “plucky” young heroine. Pace, strategy, and health were key factors in the marathon. The Dills gradually gained from the back of the pack driven by the resolute Jenny, who dared to race with her husband.

British Columbia’s role as a national terminus emerges throughout the story. It first appears as an impossible marathon goal, then, in a push to the Pacific, it becomes the finish line of a coast-to-coast sports narrative. Racers stopped at CPR stations at Hector on the Great Divide and, at Walhachin on the Thompson River, were welcomed by local railway agents who were Maritimers. On the stretch west from the Rockies, fatigued hikers found fewer free meals and less hospitality among interior British Columbians who were, presumably, like their rural francophone Quebecois counterparts, often operating outside a national sports media mill fed by the Halifax Herald.

Vancouver was the scene of the big finish in June 1921. The Behans were first crossing the line, but the Dills placed an unbelievable first for the shortest number of days to reach the Pacific. All records were smashed. Athletic Burkman was beaten, but rose to a surprise new challenge at the end of the race — a rematch walk from Montreal to Halifax. Along with public acclaim, the hikers faced financial hardships on return home. More epilogue and citation would extend research use of this readable book that recaptures the news archives and drama of an amazing race.

The Amazing Foot Race of 1921: Halifax to Vancouver in 134 Days
By Shirley Jean Roll Tucker 
Victoria: Heritage House, 2011. 224 pp. $19.95 paper