The Death Valley hustle

Bobby Riggs, con man, and Bill Emmerton, distance runner, each did his thing. Result: poor Bill
January 05, 1976

Out in the stunning silence of Death Valley, the only sound one could hear was the agonized intake of breath. Bill Emmerton, 56, the Tasmanian long-distance runner, sat on the trunk of a powder-blue Lincoln, his wife Norma rubbing his legs with Ben-Gay while Emmerton massaged his own heart area. "How much does he have left to go?" he managed to gasp. Emmerton was asking about his opponent, the perennial darling of the Vegas oddsmakers and favorite of the golf and tennis bettors, Bobby Riggs, 57. The improbable idea, as loony as Death Valley itself, was a challenge run through the valley, Riggs going 25 miles, Emmerton 50.

What were these two men doing last week, running 75 miles near places with names like Bad water and Devils Golf Course, 100 feet and more below sea level? Emmerton himself must have wondered as he painfully slid off the car and wobbled on in a half-jog, half-walk up one of the long inclines on his route. An indifferent raven hung in the still air above his head.' 'This is agony," Emmerton wheezed.

The answer to Emmerton's question about Riggs' location was in living yellow, exactly five miles from the finish line, where the Hustler King and a court of young tennis pros, publicity men, reporters and photographers walked, jogged and shuffled along in Sugar Daddy outfits. Riggs dispensed a winning grin and candy from his pockets each time a camera lens flashed in the sun, and he pointed a finger up at a big Coca-Cola advertisement on his house-trailer headquarters which proclaimed him to be "Santa's Helper."

The idea for this "event" sprang from Emmerton's brow more than six months before, when he challenged Riggs to race him across Death Valley. This was no big deal for Emmerton, who had run and walked the valley three times before. In 1968 he crawled, ran and was blown by wind and dust 130 miles through it in temperatures up to 130°. Deciding that maybe he hadn't pushed himself hard enough, he repeated the feat six months later, covering 211 miles.

Until he began training for Emmerton, the most running Bobby Riggs had done was "from the tennis court to the phone," he said in Las Vegas three days before the race, "from one hustle to the next, as is my nature." But Riggs forgot to mention one little race in which he had emerged victorious. Two years ago in Fort Lauderdale in another hokey match race, Jim Ryun had spotted Riggs half the distance in the mile, and though Ryun ran a 4:03, Riggs won.

"Hey, Bobby!" yelled a florid man in a leisure suit in the lobby of the Dunes Hotel, "I make towels. I'll send you a dozen." As the elevator door began to close, Riggs shot back in his laryngitic voice, "That's the way, baby, make 'em blue. Blue's what I need." The man shook his head. "That's Bobby," he said. "I've got a lot of blue left this year."

Up in his room at the Dunes, Bill Emmerton drank tea from a plastic cup and nibbled at fruitcake and apples for which he and his wife had shopped in the local supermarket. On the bed lay his understated "Battle Creek Equipment" T shirt. The contrast between these two men—one of them so famous among businessmen that his possible endorsement of towels was worth the price, and the other, forced to skimp, brown-bagging it in Vegas, advertising the name of a company that not one of the robots hitting the slots had ever heard of—was symptomatic of the Great Race and maybe of the greater world of sport. We form our conclusions about the outcomes of contests from the slimmest of details: a competitor becomes our favorite because of one graceful act or his neatly combed hair, and another becomes our opponent for a single affront to our senses. And so it was easy to align one's affections with either Riggs or Emmerton—Emmerton with so little money behind him that Riggs persuaded the Dunes to pick up the tab for his stay in Las Vegas, and Riggs, having his tab picked up by the hotel, Sugar Daddy, Coca-Cola and only the IRS knows who else.

One could see the chasm between their styles in the way the two men prepared for the race. Riggs ran laps on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas quarter-mile track, accompanied by girls, young tennis pros and an entourage of apprentice hustlers under the age of 21. He'd jog steadily for 16 laps, talking, gibing, making side bets, dispatching his kids on presumably money-making errands. "Do you think I can make it?" he'd ask, and then appear incredulous when anyone agreed he might. Then off he'd go for a few hours on the tennis court. "Got to make the daily expenses," he'd say, pocketing $500.

Emmerton ran 12 to 15 miles each day around the quiet loveliness of the Dunes golf course, huffing and snorting, with a stride that made the distance seem easy; a professional lope, flat-footed and loose-armed. Tourists would stop to ask caddies, "Is that the guy who's going to race Bobby?" Few knew his name. But Emmerton is used to this, in America, at least. He is as famous as Riggs in Australia, and he's used to the hard work. "I grew up as a pioneer," he twangs in an Outback accent, looking trim and perfectly healthy at 56. "I started running when I was 17 and haven't quit since."

The weather was frigid for Death Valley on the day of the race, the air temperature rising only to 69° in the early afternoon, and the ground temperature to 95°. The starting line was at Furnace Creek and the course, which Emmerton would have to run twice, was 25 miles out and back. Off went Emmerton, his long jaw set, alone against the gray landscape. And off went Riggs and an entourage of eager Sugar Daddies, followed by a house trailer outfitted like a South American playboy's in walnut and orange shag carpeting, its exterior hung with the banners of his endorsements.

Emmerton set a blazing pace, which he had to do in order to stay even with Riggs, relatively speaking, averaging 7.5 minutes per mile for the first 16. When he met Riggs, who was on his eighth mile, the two men were dead even. Riggs had been tiring, but when he heard that Emmerton was approaching from the opposite direction, he set up an easy jog, turning on a smile that must have been seen by the pilots circling miles away over a small airport. The entourage shouted encouragement, soft drinks were passed and drunk, and the two men shook hands, Emmerton game and smiling, breathing easily for a man who'd just run 16 miles in two hours.

"I figured that I'd walk this thing from the beginning," confided Riggs. "If I walk three miles an hour, I'm done in eight hours, right? Emmerton has to move to do 50 in eight hours."

Emmerton did move, completing his first 25-mile lap in 3:30. "Too fast," he panted, "too fast. I'll burn up."

As Riggs made the turn and headed home, he said, "Bill told me not to let these kids run with me because they'd make me go too fast, but I need the company. If I did it alone I'd go crackers."

Some 35 miles along, Emmerton was in an ecstasy of torture, legs going quickly, one toenail black. Fighting for oxygen 100 feet below sea level and still 2½ miles from his turning point, he contemplated the long, low climbs of half a mile or more on the return that are the special bane of the distance runner. "I run alone," he said. "When I'm doing something, I mean business."

But the victory was not to be either Emmerton's or Death Valley's. It went to Vegas' Riggs. With a time of 8:10 for the 25, in he came, outfitted for the finish line like an ad agency's idea room—happy, throwing candy, hosing down onlookers with champagne, the perfect hustler. But there is a gentleness in Riggs, perhaps in any man who has just run, or walked, 25 miles.

"Is Bill all right?" he asked. "That guy is amazing! Maybe he shouldn't have given me 25 miles. I never did anything in my life that hurt more. Playing Billie Jean was a cakewalk compared to this."

Emmerton came in, game and good at 8:51. As he collapsed, he said, "I always wanted to have a go at the Wimbledon champ, and I bloody well almost beat him."

Later, one was not quite sure what had taken place. Bobby had won a lucrative hustle. "Sugar Daddy, Nabisco, is paying $1,000 a mile," he said, "and I told them to hold the check until the first of the year. Get it started right!"

Emmerton was claiming four Guinness Book of World Records marks—best times for 25 miles (3:30), 40 miles (6:37) and 50 miles (8:51) in Death Valley, and an age record as well. Both men talked about rematches in Iran, Australia and China next year.

Perhaps we won more than they, being able to witness two examples of style, sport and downright craziness—and without waking next morning with swollen feet and throbbing legs.

PHOTOEMMERTON RAN THE COURSE IN SOLITUDE
PHOTORIGGS HAD HIS OWN THOUGHTS ABOUT THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)