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Looking Back: George Liebergall - True Grit


John Kinnear

Mar 15, 2023

The Great Depression led to many desperate money-making measures and people would do just about anything to try and survive.

In the late 1920’s grueling dance marathons with big prize money were all the rage and the history of this tortuous and sometimes deadly competition is a story unto itself. There is however another depression-era story of going for the gold that involves a marathon of a different type and this one has an amazing Crowsnest Pass connection. 

It is the story of the unprecedented 1928 transcontinental race across the United States that was known as the First Annual Trans American Foot Race.  It was organized by the very first sports agent to surface in the United States, a P.T. Barnum & Bailey type showman by the name of Charles C. Pyle.  C.C. Pyle operated a movie theater and amongst his early promotional sports efforts was the running of the very first professional U.S. tennis tour.  

In 1928 Pyle hatched the idea to create a never before done foot race across the United States from California to New York City , one which offered 10 prizes, the top being $25,000. It was to be awarded to the runner who crossed the finish line in New York at Madison Square Garden with the best overall elapsed time through a mind-numbing 80 legs of the race. 

That first prize is the equivalent to $437,000 in today’s monies and this first of its type contest drew entrants from all over the world. Men renowned for their running abilities in their country or the Olympics signed up. The logistics of a race of this magnitude is rather onerous but on reviewing Pyle’s 20-page promotional brochure he appeared to have planned it all out thoroughly.  Each contestant was required to pay a $125 entry fee and to deposit $100 in a Los Angeles bank to be held in trust until such time as they finished the race. The hundred dollars was there to guarantee they would have funds for a way home should they not finish the race.   

 Those 80 stopover points were designed for resting each evening and the distance between them ranged from 40 to 75 miles. At each of the rest stops a commissary and diet kitchen was to be set up for evening and morning meals, run by expert dieticians.  Medical and training headquarters were also established with doctors, nurses, trainers, rubbers and handlers, all of whom travelled in a huge caravan ahead of the runners. That caravan was a collection of busses, trucks and official cars loaded with people like shoe repairmen, doctors, newspaper reporters and photographers.  This was to be quite the show, almost circus-like.

 All contestants were required to report to the official training grounds in Los Angeles by February 12.  A nationally known physical trainer named Hugo Quist was hired to make sure each contestant was up to the task of this test of endurance. The next three weeks were spent conditioning the 200-plus entrants by running between 25 to 50 miles either at the track, where their army-like camp was set up, or across country. At the camp each runner was assigned numbered blankets, an iron cot and a pillow and other necessary supplies. They were housed by nationality and runners came from countries like England, Finland, Germany, Estonia, Siberia, Ireland, South Africa and all across the United States and Canada. 

 Contestant #12, as listed on the program, was none other than George Liebergall from Bellevue, Alberta.  George had been born in Sumtum, West Salen, Germany in 1903 and immigrated to the Pass with his mother and father, Jacob and Anna when he was just over two years old. George was well known as a runner growing up in the Pass and had won many races in Southern Alberta. So it was that George Liebergall, at age 25, decided to pay the entry fee and show up at the training camp at the famous Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles, to enter into and prepare, for this epic run.

He was there, in tip-top shape and side by side with several other determined Canadians, when they started the first leg of the marathon on March 4th. The road used for the majority of the marathon was U.S. Highway 66, once known as the famous Route 66; the shortest distance highway-wise between L. A. and Chicago. It had check points in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri before passing through Illinois to Chicago.   From there the race went directly east through Ohio, Pennsylvania and the north end of New Jersey before wrapping up in New York 3424 miles later. 

By my count there were at least seven Canadians from all parts of the country entered including Harold McNutt, a long distance hiker from British Columbia who decided to hike from Vancouver to Los Angeles just to enter the race. What the hell aye! Why not?

At the end of the twelfth lap George was in 15th place and was the fastest Canadian in the race at that point. At the 2,000 mile mark he was still in 17th place and running strong. George was in good stead placement-wise by Chicago and felt he had a good chance for prize money. 

The April 19th, 1928 issue of the Blairmore Enterprise paper carried a story on George’s progress stating, “George is still in the race and in grinding out from 40 to 75 miles every day is at the same time wearing out shoes and giving world-wide publicity to the Crow’s Nest Pass.” Below the article was a list of 16 contributors to his cause including $25 from the Blairmore Town Council. 

 For an untrained distance runner George showed a level of determination and endurance that was outstanding. It takes great heart and spirit to push oneself that hard for so long. George was a warrior, of that there can be no doubt. 

In an interview years later he revealed that all was not as C.C. Pyle painted it in his brochure. The tents were paper thin, the food inadequate to maintain the racers stamina and Pyle lost control of the race around Springfield, Missouri. 

F.F. Gunn of the Union Pacific Railroad took over the race management but there was not much improvement meal and accommodation-wise. Arrangements, according to George, were made in advance for competitors to use old garages, barns, chicken coops and where ever for sleeping. He recalls that in one place they were aroused at 3 a.m. by a rooster and according to him, “That was his last crow on earth.”

 George noted that some of the racers were “splendid specimens of manhood” and that for most the early part of the race, which ranged around 41 or so miles, it was almost a matter of routine. He said that when it was boosted to 70 miles in one day and in one case 200 miles in three days that it “reduced some of the contestants to physical wrecks with some eventually dropping out. 

George himself stood up well despite losing 25 pounds through the desert section of the race, the deadly Mojave. Many years later his daughter Georgina travelled through the Arizona area and recalled her father mentioning some unusual trees along his race route. As she passed by the Joshua Trees on the highway she wondered to herself then if she was seeing the same trees that her beloved father had mentioned decades earlier. 

About 120 miles or so out of New York George dislocated his knee and it was then that a remarkable doctor, from Passiac New Jersey named Kronman, stepped into the picture. Kronman treated his injured limb for a week, literally shutting down his medical practice and staying with George, treating and supporting him all the way to Madison Square Garden. There a triumphant Liebergall finally crossed the finish line with an elapsed time that put him at 21st place. 

 George Liebergall eventually left Bellevue and moved to Barriere, BC, where he worked and later retired at the age of 70. It was a painful irony to learn from his daughter Georgina, who was named after him, that three years later George was killed in September of 1976 by a suspended drunk driver. He had just taken his beloved dog Polly for an ice cream and was crossing the highway. This larger than life soul, who had run down 3,424 miles of American highways, was lost on the highway in his very own town. I felt compelled to share this man’s story; the remarkable legacy of a quiet gentle man, originally from the Pass, who showed us all what true grit is.

Author’s Note. There have been two fascinating books written about this race, Bunion Derby by Charles Kastner and another by Geoff Williams- C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race, both out of print. I find it interesting that we as a community are now embracing the great race concept with such events as Sinister Seven. Methinks a commemorative leg of one of these events deserves to be branded Liebergall in memory of this remarkable runner. 

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