By Sal Citarella
Every part of the country has its legends: Rip Van Winkle in Sleepy Hollow, Paul Bunyan in the north woods, Aunt Jemima in the kitchen flipping hotcakes, but none of these folks were runners. There was one runner, however, whose story would seem to be just as much a fable – except it’s all true and well documented. East coast runners may not be familiar with the legend of Walt Stack, so here’s a quick summary and several links for more information, or maybe just to prove I ain’t lying.
Walt was born in 1908 and died in 1995. He had a rough childhood, faked his age to join the Army, was jailed several times, including Alcatraz, went to sea, slaughtered cattle, and finally settled down to a life of swimming, biking, and running each morning before going off to work construction in San Francisco. Only he never really settled down. Everything he did was bigger than life. He was always without a shirt, a bit too heavy, garrulous, outspoken, tattooed, and a card-carrying member of the Communist party.
I didn’t know Walt personally, but I had seen him at several races and he looked and sounded just as the stories presented him. Upon my return to the Bay Area after several years’ absence, I did a little online searching to see if Walt was still running. I made contact with a member of his club who told me that towards the end, Walt was losing his mind, but no one could tell.
One time Queen Elizabeth visited the area. According to the SF newspaper, the police closed the Golden Gate bridge to traffic when the Queen’s yacht, Britannia, passed underneath. Walt, however, insisted on running across the bridge; it was part of his routine. All the police knew him. He commented, “What are they going to do, shoot me?”
In 1975, Sports Illustrated, not known as a big supporter of running, did a feature on Walt and I’m sure they checked it out thoroughly before going to print. You can access it here: https://vault.si.com/vault/1975/12/15/the-old-man-and-the-bay
Walt founded one of the largest running clubs in the Bay Area, the Dolphin South End Runners. The website still showcases him and his eccentricities. He also inaugurated the Double Dipsea. http://dserunners.com/about-us/history/walt-stack/
He did commercials for both Nike and Timex and was featured on a watch by Sharper Image.
In the movie On The Edge, probably the only movie ever made by and for runners, Walt is being interviewed by a newswoman; she asks him how he’s feeling before the fictionalized Dipsea Race. Walt responds that he’s suffering from “Irish lumbago.” Then he elaborates, “Every joint in my body is stiff but one.”
Wikipedia mentions Walt participating in the Hawaiian Ironman on his three-speed bike. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Stack
Amazon lists books by two different authors, one at $987 (new) and another at only $49 for a used paperback. Walt was as much a fixture in the SF running community as the Hoyts were in Boston. Spend a few minutes clicking around; you won’t be disappointed.
Editor’s Note: Walt is also well known for his admonition to runners: “Start slow… and taper off.” The message conveyed both his wisdom and a sense of enthusiasm for middle and back of the pack fun runners, and the slogan has been emblazoned on all the club’s jerseys ever since. (The bay area’s Dolphin South End Running Club)