(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 March 1995.)
EVERYBODY’S BUDDY. Walter Stack and San Francisco were made for each other. He might not have become a civic treasure anywhere but here, in a city that not only tolerates quirky behavior but celebrates it.
Walt was a character, even by San Francisco standards. When he died at age 87, the city’s two newspapers gave this avowed Communist and lifelong hard-laborer a sendoff befitting a statesman.
The Chronicle’s headline called him an “S.F. Legend.” The obituary began by saying his daily run across the Golden Gate Bridge and swim in the Bay “were familiar, inspiring sights on the waterfront.”
Walt’s training routine was legendary, and perhaps mildly exaggerated. He was said to rise at three or four o’clock, run for two or three hours, swim a mile or two – then bike to work at a construction site.
This routine began in his late 50s. The training continued after he retired as a masonry laborer, on into his 80s.
Walt was called “Iron Man” long before the triathlon adopted that name. He of course would complete that race, along with the Western States 100, and scores of other ultras and marathons.
I remember him less for his performances than his personality. He was loud and profane, but had the charm to pull it off. He once said, “You can get by with saying almost anything if you say it with a smile.”
His printed words might have sounded coarse. But he never spoke them without a smile – a slightly off-center smile from a Popeye-like jaw that looked like it had stopped fists in his youthful battles.
He did his fighting as a union organizer. He came to running to play, and he never took these efforts too seriously.
“All this work I’m doing, it don’t mean shit,” he liked to say. “I’m going to croak, just like the rest of you.”
Walt was a prime mover in the Dolphin-South End Runners Club, which chose a turtle as its symbol. Its motto: “Start slow and then taper off.”
He liked to poke fun at his own slowness. I still quote his old line about being stuck at one pace: “If they dropped me out of an airplane, I would fall at 8½ minutes a mile.”
After one laborious race he voiced a classic description of hitting the wall: “I’m going to sue the city for building the road too close to my ass.”
At the start of weekly DSE races in San Francisco, he liked to remind the frontrunners, “Remember, it’s us turkeys in the back who make you hotshots look so good.” He was a special friend of the old, the slow and – most of all – the women.
Joan Ullyot wrote the foreword to his biography, The Running Saga of Walt Stack. She said, “Underneath the rough, tattooed exterior, the corny jokes, the boisterous manner, there is a dedicated and serious idealist. Women laugh at his sometimes off-color remarks and enjoy his frank admiration, because they realize that Walt is the greatest feminist among us.”
Communist. Feminist. Labels quit counting once you got to know and like the person behind them.
Walt, who refused to discuss politics on the run, said, “You can be a real Bircher, I can be a Communist, and I can still love you because I figure you’re a runner. You’re a good Joe, and you’ll feel the same way about me.
“You’ll say, `Geez, he’s a dirty Red, but he’s Walt Stack. He’s a runner. He’s my buddy.”
Walt was a buddy to every runner who ever met him. I’m proud to have been one among those thousands.
UPDATE. We tend to live and work among people like ourselves – same educational and income status, same ethnic background. Running is, in theory at least, equally accepting of all – slow and fast, female and male, old and young.
The sport can let us meet people we wouldn’t otherwise get to know. Walt Stack was one of the most special runners I’ve known. In his spirit, the Dolphin South End Running Club’s weekly low-key and low-cost races continue today in San Francisco.
[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.]