(This piece is for my book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from November 1994.)
KIRK AT WORK. They don’t make runners like him anymore. Jack Kirk is a singular figure in a sport whose participants mostly conform to the current fashions.
Befitting his 88 years, more than 70 of them spent running, Kirk is a throwback to a much earlier era when distance runners often were eccentric characters. He shuns modern running outfits in favor of long, baggy dress pants and long-sleeved shirts with collars and buttons.
The first time I met him, Kirk was already one of the oldest runners I’d yet seen. He was 56 when I followed him through the 1963 Dipsea race.
This seven-mile (more or less) trail race is one of the country’s oldest. Begun in 1905, it crosses the mountains between Mill Valley and Stinson Beach, California.
The Dipsea remains so appealing that it fills up the first day its 1500 applications come out. The race never needs to advertise.
Running Times writer Barry Spitz’s finely crafted book, Dipsea, carries the subtitle The Greatest Race. He acknowledges that the Boston Marathon is “the nation’s most influential and prestigious race, but I love the Dipsea even more. So I propose a tie: the Boston Marathon is the greatest road race, and the Dipsea is the greatest cross-country race.”
Jack Kirk stars in Spitz’s book. He has run every Dipsea since 1930, won twice in this event with handicapped starts, and had the fastest times two other years. He’s still the oldest winner, at 60 in 1967.
No has ever run the same race over a longer period of time than Kirk, not even Johnny Kelley at the Boston Marathon. Kelley is a year younger than Kirk and started his collection of Boston finishes three years after Kirk’s first Dipsea.
Kirk already was a colorful figure when we met in the 1960s. Even then he carried the nickname “Dipsea Demon,” both for the event he never missed and for the way he ran it.
He earned the title for his intensity as well as his loyalty. In his youth and well into his middle years he ran with a wild-eyed look that warned: clear the trail, or I’ll run up your back! In old age he runs with a determined shuffle that says: I’ll run this thing until I drop!
He once said, in reference to the 671 steps at the start of this trail, “Old Dipsea runners never die. They just reach the 672nd step.”
He lives as he runs, in his own unique way. He trains entirely on a path he carved around a lake in the country near Yosemite National Park. Living alone, he goes without running water or electricity.
Barry Spitz, the longtime Dipsea race announcer, writes in his book, “After a dispute with a [utility] repairman, Kirk has been without electricity or telephone for years. He usually sleeps in one of his aging Volkswagen Bugs scattered about.”
The biggest threat to Kirk’s Dipsea streak, says Spitz, isn’t that his own body will betray him anytime soon. “We worry that some year none of his old cars will be able to make the trip to Mill Valley.”
Jack Kirk knows he has lived right when he runs longer than his automobiles.
UPDATE. Kirk ran Dipseas for another eight years after this column appeared, saying his farewell to that race at age 96. He reached his 100th birthday shortly before taking the “672nd step” in January 2007.
The race continues to fill for each of its June runnings. Barry Spitz’s book remains available at DipseaBook.com.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]