Jack Kirk, The Dipsea Demon

By Sal Citarella

I’ve been lucky enough to live and run all over the US, and have called Maryland home on two separate occasions. I’m not ashamed that I’ve retired to California and aside from the lack of humidity and skeeters, it’s not a bad place. Reading Runners Gazette keeps me in touch with races back east and I’ve tried to introduce you to a few colorful events and individuals from out here, such as The Dipsea and Walt Stack.

The Dipsea is run on the Pacific side of the bay on Mt. Tam, elevation 2,571′. On the east side of the bay, Mt. Diablo dominates at 3,849′. I once met a famous woman pioneer ultrarunner there whom I had never heard of at the time, but who’s name I’ve never forgotten: Bjorg Austrheim-Smith. She went on to race Western States at least 10 times. I was wearing white cotton gloves that day in anticipation of falling down a lot. She said, “You look like Mickey Mouse.” Thanks, Bjorg. You probably beat me, too.

However, to get back to my subject, Jack Kirk was a recluse who conducted a race known locally as Kirk’s Revenge, in an apparent effort to stick it to the more famous and popular Dipsea. According to my notes it was limited to males only, who had run at least three Dipseas. Whatever the “rules” might have been, I never ran three Dipseas. Since the Dipsea has traditionally been handicapped by age and sex, winning takes more than just flying feet. Now that “sex” has been found to be fake news, not sure how the handicapping is done.

When I ran Kirk’s Revenge in 1978 there were 28 starters. Unlike the Dipsea, which undulates constantly, The Revenge was quite simple: run straight up Mt. Diablo until someone yelled, “Turn around!” and then scramble like hell down again. I think the distance was about seven miles and the handicaps may have been based on Dipsea times; they spanned from zip to 39 minutes. Actual running times that year ranged from 42 minutes 57 seconds with a 39 minute handicap to 91 min. 13 seconds in last place with an eight minute handicap. This useless info is provided only to illustrate that everything associated with Jack Kirk was unique. He was a vegetarian who lived alone in rural Mariposa, CA, just to the left of Yosemite National Park.

Jack on the Dipsea steps

“You don’t stop running because you get old. You get old because you stop running.”–The man himself, Jack Kirk

The simplest way to be introduced to Jack might be to watch the short documentary video available here:  www.dipseademon.com

More of Jack’s philosophy:

  • “Everybody thinks I’m finished because I’m 94 years old and still running the Dipsea. That don’t mean anything. Even if it takes me three hours to do it. I already gotta saying that says, “Old runners never die; they reach the 676th step.” (Referring to the 675 steps that kick off the challenging part of the Dipsea race)
  • “Hard work never killed anybody, but worrying about how to get out of hard work will lay you in your grave before your time.”
  • “I like to run. I don’t push myself. Nobody says I have to run fast. All I have to do is I have to run.” (Talking about doing the Dipsea at the age of 94)
  • “I kept a record of all the miles I’ve run, all the miles I’ve run since I got out of high school.  And where I ran it, and a lot of the times I ran.  And I figured out…this was about 20 years ago, I figured out that it’s about 75,000 miles and that’s nothing.”

Quick Exchange with a reporter: “How old are you Jack?”

Jack: “94”

Reporter: “How old do you feel?”

Jack: “94…and a half”

According to Jack’s obituary in the SF Chronicle of February 1, 2007, he had always lived alone, often without running water, electricity, or a phone. Hence, the rundown shacks and old cars evident in the video. Born in 1906, he ran his first Dipsea in 1930, winning twice. In 1997, at age 90, Kirk broke the record for competing in consecutive foot races held by Boston Marathon legend Johnny Kelley. When the streak ended in 2003, Dipsea organizers arranged for him to walk across the finish line one last time.

And who said runners are boring?  

Categories: Features

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