Photos courtesy of Belk Library Archives and Special Collections, Elon University
Paul “Hardrock” Simpson was tough as nails and hard as a rock. When blisters and shin splints slowed him in Arizona, the other transcontinental foot racers took to calling him “Hard Luck.” But the North Carolinian never gave up. He finished the race and went on to a life of
competitive running and running for the pure joy of it.
“Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not” reported that Hardrock beat a horse in a 400-mile race, but that’s not true. He dropped out after 145 miles on the advice of his doctor. The horse was five miles ahead at the time. Three more times Hardrock tried to outrun a horse-and-rider, the last time at the age of fifty-three in Utah. Final record: horse 4, Hardrock 0.
Hardrock dropped out of college to run in the Transcontinental Foot Race. After the race, he married his sweetheart, Ruby Braxton, and took a job as postal carrier. He blazed through his 12-mile delivery route too fast, so his boss insisted he walk it. (He went on a ten- or fifteen-mile run after work, instead.) In 1931 he returned to Elon University, coached the track team, and finished his degree.
He never lost his desire to compete. He returned to the 1929 Transcontinental Foot Race and finished in fifth place. In the 1930s, he set records in a 45-mile and a 90-mile run. He won a 475-mile race in Canada–averaging under eight minutes per mile for over sixty hours!
As he aged he continued to challenge himself on the road and the trail. He started a “birthday run” tradition, running a mile for every year of his life. In 1960 he ran 56 miles on his birthday in eight hours, forty minutes. In another tradition, he ran around local baseball fields during games, covering twenty-to-thirty miles before the last out was recorded.
Hardrock lived his entire life in his hometown, becoming known as “Burlington’s Running Mailman.” In many ways, he was an ordinary guy–if a man who has run across the country twice can be called “ordinary”–yet a part of him must have craved fame and fortune. He never stopped pulling endurance running stunts. In 1960 the local legend finally gained national recognition when Sports Illustrated ran a full page
photo-article about him. It was titled “What makes Hardrock run?” His final answer: “I guess I just like it.”