Walt Stack


Marathon & Beyond

September/October 2002

One of running’s most colorful characters made the sport an all-inclusive celebration of life.

Walter Stack stood at the edge of a pier looking out toward the ruffled waves of the San Francisco Bay. The pier was worn from the constant pawing of the rough water against its underpinnings and the frequent assault of wind against its flanks, and Stack’s tattooed skin had the texture and appearance of the wind-worn wood: dark and harsh.

Stack was wearing only a pair of blue swimming trunks and his tattoos. The trunks proclaimed the Dolphin Swim Club; the tattoos chronicled his association with the sea. The cold, choppy bay, which he swims every morning as part of his routine, made sucking and moaning sounds under the pier, making conversation difficult. He shaded his eyes from the sun while he used his other hand to point out the 17-mile course he runs every morning before his swim. It starts at the swim club, runs up to the Golden Gate Bridge, across it and down into Sausalito, then back.

On his runs, Stack wears no more than when he swims, just a pair of trunks. Stack’s chest is huge, as though he spent 30 years blowing up balloons. His legs are slim and knotty with cordlike muscles, as though they have carried great weights. His feet are more like those of a jungle native than the feet of a civilized man and the nails look as though they never receive the courtesy of being allowed to grow back healthy.

Walter Stack’s pointing finger has swung in an arc toward Alcatraz, the crumbling fortress on the bare rock in the middle of the Bay that is now deserted except for tourist cruises. Stack was incarcerated in Alcatraz for four and one-half months and he has swum from The Rock to the piers of San Francisco many times.

One of the legends of the American penal system is that it was impossible to swim from The Rock because of shifting tides, strong currents, extremely cold water, and the presence of sharks. “Of course there’s a strong current there and the water is cold,” Stack said into the strong wind. “There were cases where inmates spent a lot of time in ice-cold showers and even worked out some way to get ice cubes in the tub to try to acclimate themselves.

“So far as is known, there’s nobody that actually escaped. But it isn’t that tough a swim. We swim it once a year and some of our outstanding swimmers swim it on New Year’s Day when it’s ultracold. I’ve swum it several times. We have 15 to 20 people every year, men and women, who swim it. Some of our champions swim it both ways. That’s rare. Jack LaLanne swam over there with his hands tied behind him, handcuffed, underwater (using a snorkel) pulling a boat with two people and about 800 pounds behind him. He’s one of our members. He’s over 60, so he’s no growing boy.”

At the Swim Club

Done speaking into the wind, Stack walks back along the pier, toward the blue-painted Dolphin Swim Club, where members lie about in midafternoon somnolence, sheltered from the persistent wind by wooden walls, the sun beating down on them; their weathered skin resembles Stack’s. At the end of the pier two seagulls, looking as though they had been mugged, move slowly out of Stack’s path.

Stack walks to the side of the club’s weight room, sits down on a piece of beach, and closes his eyes as the sun luxuriously browns his 70-year-old body. He still works about six months each year as a hod carrier on construction sites. A hod carrier balances a V-shaped wooden receptacle on his shoulder. The receptacle is filled with 100 to 160 pounds of mortar or plaster that Stack walks up a ladder, balancing himself with his free hand, delivering the mortar to the bricklayers.

When he isn’t working, he gets up with the sun, rides his old three-speed bicycle 5 miles to the swim club, runs 17 miles, swims in the 50-degree bay for a half hour, rewards his ancient body by spending a half hour in a sauna and then spends the next few hours as unofficial host at the club before riding home for supper. During the six months he is working, he wakes at 2:30 in the morning so he can get his training routine in before he is scheduled to report for work at seven.

Stack has been working in the building trades for the past couple of decades after spending 25 years at sea. He started taking swimming seriously when a great deal of free time between jobs gave him the opportunity to train. “I went to all the different pools in San Francisco taking turns at all of them, passing the time away. It was pleasant and recreational. I used to swim the Fleishacker Pool every day. It’s 1,000 feet long and 10 laps is two miles and I’d swim one hour deals.”

He slides down the wall a little bit, pushing his legs out in front of him, crossing them casually at the ankles, and squints his alarmingly blue eyes against the sun. “I was swimming there for a while and Tom Tronin, an 80-year-old man who was only a young boy of 70 at that time, was the lifeguard,” Stack continued. “He said to me, ’Stack, you seem to be very interested in swimming. Would you like to swim the Golden Gate?’ I said, ’I would love that.’ He said, ’Why don’t you join the Dolphin Club? I’ll sponsor you.’

“From then on, all of my orientation was to try to make the minimum qualification requirements to swim the Gate and Alcatraz and some of these rough-water swims. That’s how I got involved in swimming. I’ve swum in South Africa, the Indian Ocean, South America, Singapore, and all over the world. It’s just a fun thing. I never swim competitively, I’m strictly a slob. I don’t have any technique or anything. All I’ve got is stamina.”

Although there is no resentment toward Stack, he is an aberration from the norm. An occasional member glances at him out of the corner of an eye as though he is a cinder that has blown in. Stack’s notoriety, his bluster, his colorful language, his background in prison, and his having been a card-carrying Communist for decades does not ingratiate him to all club members.For most of the people who know (and love) Stack, to take any of his color away would be to rob San Francisco of one of its great natural resources.

Worthy of a Book

Since a book is being written by Bob Bishop about Stack [The Ancient Marathoner], I asked him: “How do people react to you and your life?”

“It’s just like my personality. I may appear abrasive to some and may appear shocking to others,” he says, “but on the other hand, a great many people are pleased by me, identify with me and think I’m colorful. But my general attitude is if anybody doesn’t like my personality, it’s too late for me to change it. That doesn’t mean I’m insensitive. If I see someone who frowns or looks like they’re about to frown when I’m talking, especially a woman, and I’m using any of those seven words that were up for litigation before the Supreme Court, I’ll restrain myself.”

“Have you ever thought how interesting your life is compared to the quiet lives some people lead?”

“No, I haven’t. I don’t really feel that way, but the more I’ve been thinking about it based on some of the stuff that’s been written, I guess there’s a lot of colorful aspects.” He leaned his head back onto the blue boards, closed his eyes for a brief moment and whether he was once again enjoying the sun or sorting through memories was uncertain.

“I was in the army at 15, then Alcatraz at 17, and worked in a slaughterhouse on the kill floor for years and I’ve been a bum. But it seems to me this has happened to a lot of other youngsters. You remember the Trilogy about Chicago?” he asked.

Stack makes innumerable references to “The Trilogy,” as though, for him, it is the Bible. The trio of novels he refers to is the story of Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. Lonigan was a poor Irish kid in the slums of Chicago around the time of the Depression who led a down-and-out life.

“Maybe it isn’t so common now,” Stack said, “but a life like mine was common then. I got screened out during the war on the basis of being a so-called subversive. Of course, nine out of the 10 people who were screened-out didn’t know communism from rheumatism, but I’ve been a card-carrying Communist for going on 50 years. So they didn’t make any mistake about me except that it was a lot of bullshit screening me out. Of course, they were more concerned with my being a top trade official in the waterfront union. They tried everything trying to get me out of there.”

Seemingly, every discussion leads back to his politics, a topic Walter is still vitally interested in although he’s not nearly as active as he was in his younger days. His politics are, of course, pre-dated by a stormy childhood:

Born and raised in Detroit, Walter’s parents were, in his words, “feuding off and on and separated off and on.” He spent a good deal of his time in orphan homes. His father, an autoworker, was killed by an automobile while riding his bicycle when Walt was 13. He was placed in the Henry Ford Trade School, where he was expected to learn a vocation. Instead, he skipped out after a year and became a vagabond while trying to find little jobs so he could eat.

The Life to Which Lies Lead

At 15, Walt lied his way into the army, but nine months later decided it wasn’t for him and he went AWOL. Stack began to drift and, as with most drifters, spent a lot of time in small-town jails, including one in North Carolina where he was taken because he was the spittin’ image of a local rapist (Stack was released after three days when his beard did not grow in as coarse as the rapist’s was supposed to be). When Walt was 18 he used a false identity to join the army again, having found that life as a bum was not what it was cracked up to be.

The army sent him to the Philippines, where the constant monsoon rains depressed him. After weighing the consequences, he admitted to his earlier AWOL charge, preferring prison in the United States to rain in the Philippines. He was sent to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz.

When Walt was released, he escaped to sea, where he labored on coal-burning freighters. While there he took up two avocations: he began reading voraciously and he joined the Marine Firemen’s Union. Five years after going to sea, Stack joined the Communist Party, a vastly different political organization than it is now. He was banned from ships, found it increasingly difficult to find jobs, and, with the 1951 passage of the Magnuson Act (one more step toward McCarthyism), seaman’s certificates became harder to secure, squeezing Stack out of the shipping industry. For four years, he worked on a slaughterhouse floor looking cattle in the eye before killing them with a precise sledgehammer blow to the forehead. When an opportunity came along to become a hod carrier in 1955, Stack was only too happy to switch from the slaughterhouse floor to the ladders on construction sites. Almost immediately he became active in the union and he still is active as a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council and the Building Trades Council.

While there are those who resent Stack’s fame by way of infamy, some find it charming and very much in keeping with San Francisco’s image as a haven for the colorful and eccentrics, while others, like Stack himself, think it may be exaggerated.

If Stack has a private self that is different from his public image as a “character,” few people know it. We do have a private evening scheduled with Walter Stack a few days hence, though. Maybe there are two Walter Stacks.

The Way to Walt’s House

There is no way to get to Walt Stack’s home without going uphill. It is situated halfway up a block that is one of the highest hills in San Francisco, in what is paradoxically called the Eureka Valley section of town. Cars park against the curb with their wheels turned toward the sidewalks so that they don’t roll toward the bay should the emergency brake fail. The neighborhood is old, quaint, and well maintained. The Stacks live in one of three apartments in a modest building clinging tenaciously to the side of the hill. There is a rose bush beside the entrance.

At the appointed hour Walt and his wife Marcie come to the door. To complement the public image of Walt Stack, one expects to find a wife who is a cross between Annie Oakley, Tugboat Annie, and Typhoid Mary; instead, Marcie Stack is a quick-moving, petite, very cordial woman. She is on her way to their Volkswagen Rabbit parked in the small driveway; she’s taking an evening class in women’s studies. “Nice to meet you,” she says on the run. “I’ll leave you two to yourselves tonight so you can talk about anything you want.” Marcie is Walt’s third wife. Each of his first two marriages lasted 10 years; this one is in its 18th year.

The apartment is functional, somewhat old-fashioned, and speaks of a different Walter Stack than the one most people meet on the outside. When asked what he would like to have changed in his life, Stack’s answer was: “I would have liked to have lived a more comfortable life, but I’ve really never thought about it much.

“When younger people come here,” he said, gathering up the day’s garbage in a shopping bag so he could take it downstairs, “they all comment on how much of an antique our stove is. It’s old, sure, but it works a mite better than some of the fancy new stoves.” He laughs and grabs a brew from the refrigerator, the garbage bag tucked under his arm. “Here,” he says, “have a beer, I’ll be right back.”

Upon his return he gives a tour of the apartment, pointing out the view of San Francisco from the bedroom window. He shows the visitor the flat roof where he and Marcie sunbathe when they wish, taking a lungful of the air outside the window. A copy of Walden is on the table beside the bed.

In the next room are Walter’s button collection (everything from presidential election buttons to political statement buttons from the mid-1960s) and his trophies. He points out a small trophy with a runner atop it. On the base are the words “Champeen Runner”; it was presented to him by the men who maintain the Golden Gate Bridge, who see him run by every day as regularly as they see the sun rise. There are age-group trophies from major races and there are a few loving cups.

The dining room and the parlor have prints of French Impressionist paintings on the walls, paintings by Walt’s 30-year-old daughter, Mary, and there are several book cases.

In the Stack Library

His favorite writers reflect his interest in politics and sociology. “I enjoyed a lot of stuff like Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair,” he said. “Of course, Upton Sinclair was a socialist author and all of his books are much more exciting. I like books relating to socialist consciousness. Then, of course, there are books like Exodus and stuff by Michener. I like historical novels. Then there are books by Simone de Beauvoir, who has written some very socialist books. Then there have been some anthropological books by Margaret Meade, not to mention left-wing classics by Lenin, Marx, Engels.”

Although he has a degree of political consciousness, Stack has never actually been involved in politics. “I’m still going strong and the same ideas I had 50 years ago are just as important to me and just as valid except I’ve reached the age now where I’m not an altruist or a philanthropist. I figure that if there’s going to be basic social change made, it’s going to be somebody else besides me. I had 40 years of this kind of stuff. I don’t begrudge it. It was great experience. I feel the same but I’m not willing to give it the same time.

“For example,” he continued, sipping the highball he brought with him to the conversation, “the Esmarelda came in from Chile, this yacht, and all the local citizenry who are socially conscious are going to be picketing because of Chile’s attitude toward free expression. Well, I’m sitting on my butt and not busting to get out there. I’m as strongly concerned with my beliefs as ever, but there is a hiatus in my political activities at the present time. I’m very involved in what could possibly be my ’lost laps’ in running at this time of my life.”

The always-present phone rings and Walter excuses himself to answer it. This time it is an AAU official who is trying to locate one of the women in Walt’s club who won the women’s division of the Bay-to-Breakers race; they have a trophy for her and they would like to deliver it.

A Man Who Loves Women

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Walter Stack is higher on the popularity list with more women runners than Robert Redford. A runner since 1965, Walter pushed a proposal through the Dolphin Swim Club that year to create a running department. At first the new department had only 20 to 25 people. He got the health club next door, the South End Club, to join forces in the running effort. They later also absorbed the runners from the San Francisco Rowing Club, and their joint organizations became the San Francisco Dolphin South End Runners. Still, there were only 60 to 70 members, but they began going out to hustle runners in Golden Gate Park, on Marina Green, or Lake Merced. There are now several thousand members in the club, which puts out its own newsletter, holds Sunday races with hundreds of participants, and is second in size only to the New York City Roadrunners Club. Stack’s proudest accomplishment is in the statistic that 35 percent of the members are women, a figure that is considerably higher than any other club in the country.

“The women in our club got together and set up a perpetual trophy which named the outstanding woman of the year. They named it the Walter Stack Trophy,” he explained. “I was deeply touched because I didn’t know anything about it. I throw so much bullshit around about women that I was really overwhelmed because I figured the last thing they’d do was to pick me.”

Another call comes in, this one from a woman wanting some information about the club. Three out of five calls about the club come from women. Walt uses the excuse to mix himself another drink. When he comes back and settles himself back into his chair he seems almost less than Walter Stack; he is becoming, almost by degrees, a normal, regular person sitting in a comfortable chair as the room darkens and as the cool air ruffles the curtains.

Stack started running at the suggestion of one of the members of the Dolphin Swim Club. “One of our fellows decided that my stamina could be enhanced if I took up a little running,” Walter said from out of the shadows. “I eased into it. I started off with running out to the end of the municipal pier, which is about a mile and a half. I did that for a few months and then doubled it. Then I sort of doubled it every six months or so. I was doing it mainly as an adjunct to my involvement in other sports. It took a little while for me to find out that running was becoming fun to me, something beyond a health thing.

“The club we formed set up races almost immediately. Three, four, or five miles. I didn’t get into marathons for about a year and a half.” Stack now runs about a dozen marathons a year, usually right around four hours. His constant banter and his fame have made it a popular practice for novice marathoners to run with him during a marathon, where they can be sure of constant encouragement and equally constant entertainment. Stack has run more than 70 marathons and schedules them regularly, although he doesn’t train any special way for them. (He has also run eight 50-milers and has done a 100-mile run.)

An Infamous Ultra

His most memorable race was the famous (or infamous) JFK 50-miler in Maryland. “They had interservice rivalry between West Point, Annapolis, and Quantico,” he explained. “They’re all within pissing distance of each other. The army even sent a man from Mill Valley, George Stewart, who came in second. This is a hike-run sort of thing, so the only reason it had such a big turnout is because many people regard it as a hike. There were nearly 2000 people who signed up for it. But it rained for three days in a row and it was real, real cold. Seventeen of the 50 miles were up in the Appalachian Mountains and it was around 30 degrees there. All of the bushes were full of icicles. Every time you went by one you got switched. In the 36 miles or so of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal there were big holes. I must have fallen 40 times, not counting the times on the mountain.

“Up to the time I was within 100 yards of the finish, I didn’t know if I was going to make it. Usually after 10 miles of a marathon, I figure it’s in the bag. That was my most memorable race, though. Of all the people that ran, 190 finished and they were all these gung-ho young Marines. I came in 34th and broke the record for my age division. I was real proud of myself because of all these young fellows, which proves again that it’s not the best man that wins, it’s the best trained man.”

Walt had become animated talking about the 50-miler. Now he leaned back into his chair again, lost in the shadows, a disembodied voice.

“Can we get together for a run tomorrow morning so I can talk some more about running?” I asked, feeling reluctant to push Walt too far into the shadows.

“I’d love to,” the voice said, “as long as you follow my one rule.”

“What’s that?”

“You run my pace.”

A few minutes of aimless political talk followed and turned into an hour with the tape recorder turned off. It had become dark by the time we walked down to the street. My wife had met Walter Stack at the Runners’ Night Banquet of National Running Week. He had been wearing a three-piece suit and, as he always is when around women, was exceptionally charming. “He reminds me of an older version of Robert Shaw [see the film “Jaws”], the actor,” my wife had said. I was beginning to feel that Walter Stack was a poet trapped in the rough skin of a pirate.

On the Road With Walt

The morning was typical of what Walt Stack likes about San Francisco: it was perfect for running. The sun was bright, the sky was clear and there was a cooling breeze off the ocean. Traffic was thinning down on the Golden Gate Bridge from the morning rush. There were several tourists in the vista park on the San Francisco side of the bridge taking pictures of each other with the bridge, the bay, and the city in the background.

From the direction of the Presidio, a military reservation between the city and the bridge, Stack came, three minutes ahead of schedule on his daily run. It was 9:02. He usually hits the water fountain in the vista park at 9:05. Working his way through the parking lot at his normal 8:30-per-mile shuffle, perspiration glistening on his naked chest and back, he greeted tourists as he passed.

“Sure is another good day for a run,” Stack said, grinning as he bent over the water fountain for a sip. His ice-blue eyes glistened as though his perspiration had reached even into their depths. “Come on,” he waves, moving off in his shuffling style up the slight grade of the two-mile-long bridge.

A bus went past us heading for Marin County and the bus driver blew his horn and Walt waved back. Far ahead on the bridge a runner approached. “Years ago no one ran on the bridge,” Stack explained, “now it’s always got runners on it. Where could you find a more scenic place to run? How could you get tired of running up here?”

The talk turned to goals in running. “The important thing is to set a goal,” Stack started. “You’ve got to be motivated. Once you’ve got a goal, you know where you’re going. My goal, aside from continuing to run, is to run the London-to-Brighton 52-miler and I would like to run the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. I’ve run Boston twice and I’ve run Pikes Peak nine times. This, in itself, is like bathing in the Ganges, going to Mecca or Jerusalem for a Moslem or a Christian, or Wimbledon for a tennis player.

“There was a time,” he continued, talking easily as he shuffled along, “when I figured I’d like to run around the world in terms of miles, but I passed that 24,000-mile mark some years back, so that’s nothing now. I’d just like to keep in fair shape and do it as long as I can without strain. If it gets to the point that it’s getting too hard for me, I’m just going to quit altogether. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve come to this conclusion about running. In amateur sports, there’s no financial remuneration for the participants so it’s got to be based on something else. There is the idea of keeping in shape, removing tension, reducing weight, things like that, but that only applies to people who are doing a minimum of running. The man that’s running ultramarathons and marathons over and above one or two or three of them a year, it’s got to be something else. Why is he doing it? It’s a matter of one’s self-esteem or one’s ego.

“We don’t usually talk about that too much because the word ’ego’ has a negative connotation. But really, when you come down to it, it’s man’s pride in developing self-esteem. Any number of people can do what we’re doing, but they’re not doing it.”

We had passed the huge upright on the San Francisco side of the bridge and some workers on the suspension cable waved to Walt. He waved back and smiled a smile they were too far away to see. “I think more older people should get into running. It’s not going to hurt them and in most cases it’ll help them a lot. I remember when I first ran Boston in 1968. Two days later we had a marathon out here, the Santa Rosa Marathon, and I decided I’d run that. It was such a shock in those days that an old man of 60 was going to run a marathon. Now nobody would think a thing about it.

“A few years later I ran a 100-mile run where we did it in three days, which is equal to four marathons in three days. It was a big thing for an old man to do it, but nowadays you’re getting more and more people in ultramarathoning. In other words, what was big 10 to 15 years ago is not so big now. When I run these things [marathons], I’m strictly a recreational runner. I couldn’t be anything else if I wanted to be. I’m not too concerned with the time. I try to make a respectable showing, but I realize that I’m not going to do anything sensational other than what I can do. The longer I can do it, the more credit to me as a human being.”

Down Below 8:30

Despite the contention of many people who know Walter that his 8:30 pace is engraved into his genes, there is a perceptible increase in speed as we move down the far side of the bridge. The pace approaches 7:30. A young woman is running toward us with her dog on a leash. “He won’t bite us, will he?” Walter asked as she came within hearing distance. “He’ll get poisoned if he bites me.”

Approaching the vista park on the Marin County side, Walter talks about mileage and training. “I run over 5000 miles a year, 17 miles a day. Then I ran 14 marathons last year and I’ve run 7 so far this year. I run at least a marathon a month, sometimes 2 or 3 depending on what the situation is.

“As far as special training goes, I don’t do a thing. I just maintain the same routine year in and year out. I figure if I can’t make it on what I’m doing, it’s just too bad. The only difference is that for a 100-miler I’ll jack up my mileage for a few weeks before. When I ran my first 50 and 100, I did an over-distance run. In other words, I ran 100 in practice and I ran 50 in practice. I ran 10 laps around Lake Merced to be sure I could do it. When the run came, I could say, ’Look, you did the thing on your own. Now do it again!’ I figure if you get into a marathon or an ultramarathon and you haven’t psyched yourself you might as well stay out of it because that’s the essence.”

The descent into Sausalito was slow and steady. An occasional car chugging up the hill blew its horn at Stack in recognition. Walter talked about injuries he has had from running at three and four in the morning down dark streets where city workers had failed to mark excavations, and he talked about some stress injuries he’s had that proved he isn’t the iron man everyone thinks he is. A hot spot was developing on the sole of his Tiger Montreals; it was the third day in a row he had worn the shoes and he was going to stop wearing them if the hot spot continued.

He passed more runners in Sausalito and he offered a Stackism to each of them. He smiled at and waved to tourists as though he were a representative of the Chamber of Commerce. He made his daily pit stop in the restrooms behind the bus terminal and then he headed back. Working our way slowly up the hill out of Sausalito, Walter said:

“I’m sort of a sun freak, so I got in the habit of keeping my shirt off for the sunshine. Then swimming every day in this cold water, my metabolism became somewhat modified. So I can sit around like this all day and my wife will be shivering. So I got kind of used to it. Then it becomes sort of a source of pride after a while. I don’t get goose pimples, so I know I’m not cold. It’s a kind of showing-off thing in a way, but it’s not a 100 percent showoff because I’m comfortable.

“I went to Boston this year and it was 43 degrees. I said to myself, ’Jesus Christ. This is pretty cold. Should I wear a shirt? Should I break the tradition? I don’t want to be a horse’s ass.’ If it had been 40 degrees or under, I would have put on a shirt because I would have figured, why get sick? The 43 degrees wasn’t too cold. I got up a sweat. When I got to the finish line, I was standing there very comfortably. Everybody was looking at me like I was some freak. So it’s not a big macho thing.” He worked his way slowly through the parking lot at Vista Point, took a drink of water at the fountain, and limped down to a stone bench, favoring his right foot. Taking off his shoe, he massaged the toes and the ball of his foot. “Hot spot’s getting worse,” he said. He paused a moment to soak up some of the sun that was striking the bench.

At the toll booths we parted. Stack continued on back to the Dolphin Swim Club where he would take his morning dip in the bay followed by his sauna and some sunshine. “We’ll see you Sunday,” he called over his shoulder. “Ocean Beach at 10:00 a.m.”

On the Ocean Beach

The Dolphin South End Runners had been making every attempt to cooperate with other races in the Bay Area. The annual Bay-to-Breakers had been shifted by a week and the DSE’s beach run (two miles south on the beach, turn around, and two miles back) had been postponed for a week on account of it. The Bay-to-Breakers had drawn 16,000 runners, many of whom run no other race all year, while the DSE’s beach run drew 300 runners who run every Sunday morning.

The DSE’s run was blessed with a typical morning along the Pacific: chilly winds rolled in off the ocean as they had for a millennium, so much so that the trees across the road have grown bent away from the sea. There was a gray overcast. One intrepid sailboat was out beyond the breakers tacking against the wind.

A huge cluster of runners ran down the beach. Walter Stack was among them, barechested as usual. A mile down the beach a huge, concrete structure ran out toward the ocean. The runners, who had begun to string out, passed the massive structure and continued on down the beach, heading for the turnaround point. Two of the women were running with Walter. Occasionally he would spot someone along the beach, bundled up in warm clothes and he would wave.

The last of the runners had passed the concrete structure when the leaders came back, working their way back up the beach. The race was being held a week later than planned, so no one had studied a new tide schedule and the tide had begun coming in. The waves were beginning to lap at the edge of the concrete structure, herding the runners farther up the sand, into the soft stuff, and some of the runners were running through the salt water, ignoring the effect it would have on their expensive running shoes. The leaders pounded through the low surf at the jutting concrete structure, but the tide was moving in relentlessly, claiming that route for itself.

The runners took alternate routes, like cross-country runners, climbing over the concrete, jumping off into the sand on the other side, continuing to run. Some had removed their shoes and were splashing through the surf. Finally, Walt Stack appeared in the distance, still running with and talking to one of the women he had begun the race with.

Finally—a Finish

By the time Stack reached the finish, the bedraggled runners were clustered around tables, getting their times and confirming their places. There is a nominal fee (usually 50 cents) to enter each DSE race; the money is used to purchase ribbons, which are given to all finishers, while the top three men and women get special ribbons. Some people who hadn’t gotten their ribbons came by to see Walt to make sure that they could get one. Two men standing on the edge of the crowd snidely commented on how jealously Stack protected the ribbons. “With running growing like it is,” Walter would say later, “there are some people getting into it who are less desirable than the people who used to be in it two years ago. If I left the ribbons out on the table, some people would take a handful of them and then people who’d worked hard to run the four miles wouldn’t get anything. This sport has to be fair to everybody. And as president of the DSE, I intend to see that it’s fair to everybody in my club.”

While the times and places were figured out, runners continued to mill about, waiting patiently for the final results. Although straight competition isn’t stressed in the DSE, each Sunday event is a race and is treated like one.

Following the cleaning up, Stack stood in the sand watching the ocean crashing in and talked about the Bay-to-Breakers race, the country’s largest, and about the importance of the DSE club.

“I discussed the size of the Bay-to-Breakers and the problems it’s presented for the last 10 years. There are all kinds of theories and ideas. The latest one is they might decide that it’s too congested through the city and it’s very likely that next year they’ll go around the town some way, a perimeter sort of run.”

The sky was brightening behind the low clouds but there was no warmth coming as Stack sat down on the abutment from which he had just made the day’s awards. “The crowds don’t bother me at all,” he said. “I love people and I love this whole business. The psychiatrists say that when you get some nut that’s real active, it’s a minority in every culture. The religious people call it toiling in the Lord’s vineyard. I’m one of the toilers. What we say at sea when you work without overtime is you’re working for Jesus. I’m one of these fellows who’s working for Jesus. I get a bang out of it. I don’t give a shit if I get a hundred calls a day. I’ll respond to them in a friendly, lovable manner and identify with the people who are asking the questions. I don’t give a shit how big the run gets. If it gets to the point where it becomes too much for me, I’ll tell them to stick it.”

Somehow, with the endlessly rolling sea crashing its way to the shore, the conversation turned to longevity. “You’re in great health for a man of your age, Walt. How long do you think you’ll be around on this earth?”

“I’ve thought of that a number of times. I decided to donate my cadaver to the University of California Medical School back in 1959. I don’t give a shit what they do. The kids will work with it and when they get through, they’ll just throw it in the lime pit and dispose of it, so I won’t be maggot shit, not that it’s important.

“I’ve seen so many people get hit in the ass with the Big C [cancer] that were in top shape that I figure I could be gone three months from now deader than a damned mackerel. And everybody who was sitting on their ass and not doing anything will say, ’Look at that. There’s that damned Stack. He was busting his ass for years. Deader than a mackerel.’

“I’ve come to the conclusion that since most people in old age are dying of a heart attack or cancer and since I figure that I’ve developed a good healthy immunity to heart attacks, then it’s going to be cancer. When that happens, how soon, or whether I’ll survive is a question of time.

“People tell me, ’Hey, Walt, you’re going to live to be 100 years old.’ I say, ’Look, I’m liable to be dead before the year’s out!’ I don’t have any feeling that I’m going to be around for a long time. I feel that all this juggling around of this old cadaver and stimulating the circulation might help me a little bit based on whatever genes I’ve got that are doing me some good.

“Nobody lives forever. Not even a runner. We’re not supposed to live forever. We have enough trouble living right [at] the distances we go now.”