Thursday, February 16, 2017

Start Slow and Taper Off

This picture of drinking Coors with Walt Stack and my buddy Jeff Alexander in 1976 after the Pikes Peak Marathon will always be one of my favorite hero pictures.  I have been to a lot of races over the last fifty years, but my friendship with Walter stands above all the rest.  He was a man's man and a ladies' man, an original in a world of look-alikes.  His prowess into advanced age is still the standard that I aim for.  If credit is due for my own longevity in the sport of running, much of the weight of that lies with Walter's influence.

Before becoming the world's most famous senior-citizen distance runner, Walt Stack
(who died in 1995 at age 87) first got into shape the old fashioned way: He worked
as a hod carrier, ferrying supplies to bricklayers, stonemasons, and the like on his
broad shoulders. But in 1965, at 57, he decided that eight daily hours of hard labor
just wasn't enough. So he ran the first of what would eventually become 62,000
lifetime miles, crafting a highly visible training routine that made him a San Francisco
institution - though many a Bay Area commuter was heard to mutter that he instead
should've been committed to one. "I'm going to do this till I get planted," he'd say,
and indeed he nearly did. Every day for 27 years, until sidelined by failing health in
1993, Stack would set out on his bike and ride the six hilly miles from his Potrero Hill
home to Fisherman's Wharf. There he'd strip off his shirt - to display the tattoos of
peacocks, wild horses, and bathing beauties muraled across his broad, rawhide
chest - and run over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back, 17 miles. Next,
Walter would jump into the Bay near Alcatraz Island (sometimes accompanied by
sharks) for a one-mile swim in choppy water he called "colder than a landlord's heart."
Perhaps even more impressive than his daily routine, however - and a timeless reality
check for those who may feel compelled to boast of their fitness exploits - was the
perspective with which he viewed it. "All this work I'm doing," Stack once said in the
midst of a bridge crossing, "it don't mean shit." 


In conversations I had with his wife Marcy, she confirmed all the rumored legendary tales.  
I even keep a newspaper clipping of Walt swimming in San Francisco Bay with Alcatraz in the background and the fin of a cruising shark not too far away.  Marcy told me that every day he never failed to rise at 0300 to run his 17 miles across the Golden Gate Bridge, bicycle 40 miles, and swim two miles in the ocean - all before going to work as a hod carrier.

 In the late 1970's or early 80's, Sports Illustrated sent a writer to do a story on Walt. The writer followed him around for a week, talking to friends and getting to know his habits and routine. when the article came out, Walt hated it. But there was a great line that I remember from that article which had to do with one of Walt's physical traits, his steady gait. It seems almost regardless of the distance, Walt ran 8.5 minute miles. So the SI writer wrote: "Walt Stack's pace is so steady, if he fell out of an airplane he probably would fall at the speed of 8.5 minutes per mile."

At the Dolphin Swim Club (DSE) races, Walt was a frequent master of ceremonies and presenter of ribbons to the top finishers and you never know quite what to expect. At one of the Sunday races there was a runner named Gail Gustufson who had been training for an important marathon and was doing quite well. She mentioned that she intended to finish in a time that everyone who know her thought was unrealistic.

Well, Walt heard about the prediction and after handing out ribbons one morning, he said, "I hear Gail's going to break a record in the marathon next week. Come now Gail, if you run that fast, I'll kiss your ass at the Ferry Building at high noon and give you an hour to draw a crowd!" Laughter broke out and the gauntlet had been thrown. Now to everyone's surprise Gail ran the race in the time she had predicted. So the next week when Walt went up to present ribbons, people were calling out that Gail would be at the Ferry Building at noon, and Walt was expected to be there.  As noon rolled around a huge crowd of runners gathered along with some curious tourists and other spectators. Of course we were wondering what would happen and how would Walt handle it?

What only a few people knew, was that Gail and a friend had rented a jackass costume and were off in a hiding place. As Walt walked up, the "animal" appeared, turned, and directed its hindquarters toward Walt. In the typical Walt Stack style, he walked over and planted a big kiss on its behind. Then Gail and the friend stepped out of the costume to roaring laughter and shouts. God only knows what would have happened if she had actually dropped her shorts! Anyway, there was one heck of a party afterwards.


Blue of eye with cheek of tan,
Blessings on the DSE's First Man. 


With inspiration for all who dared
(The grubby jokes were never spared.)

Len and Buck and Ruth and Stu
And Sister Marion, they all knew

Walt, with several minor flaws
Unique-a rebel with a cause.

Those who didn't run or soar
With Walt beside the Bay missed more

Than just a legend in our time;
But also lost the chance to climb

With winged feet the heights of charm
With Walt, whose character so warm

Is with us still throughout the land,
On mountain trail, along the sand.
J.L.

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