In the following account, sports historian Charles Kastner describes the remarkable athletic career of Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner of Seattle, Washington. Gardner was arguably the greatest ultramarathoner in Pacific Northwest history. For a detailed discussion of Gardner’s participation in the second and last of the two trans-America footraces held in the late 1920s, see Kastner’s recently published The 1929 Bunion Derby, Johnny Salo and the Great Footrace Across America (2014).
Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner was a rare and mighty force in the sport of long-distance foot racing. He combined a seemingly effortless style with an iron will and unbounded courage to become an ultra-racing legend and a symbol of hope and pride to black America in the 1920s.
Eddie Gardner was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1898. Shortly after his birth, his family left Birmingham and headed west, first to Pueblo, Colorado, then to Seattle, Washington where Eddie’s family prospered in the city’s more tolerant racial climate until his mother died of tuberculosis in 1911.
In 1914, Eddie returned to Alabama to attend Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), then a technical school for blacks founded by Booker T. Washington. At Tuskegee, Gardner learned to repair steam boilers. He also joined the school’s track team, becoming a standout performer.
After graduation, Gardner returned to Seattle in 1921 where he found work maintaining steam boilers at the Puget Sound Power and Light Company. Soon afterwards he entered the Washington State Ten-Mile Championship held annually in Seattle.
As he trained, Gardner adopted his trademark outfit, a white towel tied around his head, a white sleeveless shirt, and white shorts. To his Seattle fans, he looked like the desert sheik made famous by matinee idol Rudolph Valentino. They cried out “oh you sheik!” The name stuck, and Eddie Gardner became known as the “the Sheik” to his legions of fans. By 1927, Gardner had won the ten-mile championship three times, set the state record for that