Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 08 Mar 2012 06:04:45 -0500

Everybody's Buddy


(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from March 1995. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

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 in January 1995 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 (Celestial Arts, 1978). 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: In the spirit of Walt Stack, the Dolphin South End Running Club’s weekly low-key and low-cost races continue today in San Francisco.

[I’ve published nine books on and for reading on e-reader devices, smart phones, tablets and personal computers. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Those same books are available, with added illustrations, as printable and shareable PDFs from – also for $2.99 apiece. The titles: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Starting Lines, Going Far, Home Runs and Joe’s Journal, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe. The Run Right Now Training Log is PDF only, from]

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