This is a story about San Francisco's Walter Stack. Call it the Secret of His Excess. On this typical morning Stack arises at 2:30. He is going for a bicycle ride and a swim. He puts on his fluorescent orange cap with the earflaps, and pedals off to his swimming club, five miles away, where he dons a scruffy old swimsuit and running shoes. He likes a little run before his swim, so he lopes off into the damp, 48° predawn with just his shoes, his swimsuit, his bare, tattooed torso. It is 4 a.m. Even in this city of joggers Stack is almost certainly the only one in the streets. He does not get back until 6:15, but he is a slow runner, and he has gone 17 miles.
At the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, a fisherman has a four-foot shark on the line, 30 feet or so from the swimming beach, and as Stack wades into the 55° water of San Francisco Bay he says, "When I'm out in the channel alone in the dark I know there might be some sharks, but I say, 'Oh, to hell with it.' " There are no other swimmers in the Bay, no lifeguards, no other movement but the fisherman on the beach, the shark, the tide and the blinking light on Alcatraz, a mile out in the Bay. Stack puts on a bathing cap because, he says, "The water's so cold I get headaches," and then, for 45 minutes, he is gone. When he reappears, the muscles of his thighs are twitching uncontrollably as he leaves the water, but 20 minutes in the club sauna does away with that, and by 7:30 Walter Stack is on his bike again, headed for...a psychiatrist? To be put on display at some medical school? Walter Stack, 67, cyclist, distance runner, swimmer and hod carrier is headed for work. For the next eight hours he will help to build San Francisco, mixing mortar and hauling bags of cement, shouldering 12-foot planks and building scaffolds with them and, finally, scaling ladders, 100-pound loads in his hod.
At the end of his day Stack is something to see. His face, caked with cement powder, is straight out of the New Guinea jungles. Cement is in his nostrils and mustache, in his eyes, in his ears and in his teeth. He grimaces as he works his way up the hills of his city on his ridiculous old three-speed bike, at least seven speeds too few for San Francisco, and he says, "I'm proud of my muscular strength."
What Stack obviously needs now, as dinnertime approaches, is a meal out of Adelle Davis by way of Bernarr Macfadden; his breakfast was coffee and doughnuts and his lunch was not much either. But what he gets is what he wants—three bourbons and Coke to start. He puts on an apron that announces LUST IS A MUST, and he prepares dinner for himself and his wife Marcie, who has not yet returned from her job as a secretary at the United Jewish Community Centers. He eats with her when she arrives—a little chicken and salad, a lot of ice cream and French bread. Later he visits friends, downing a glass of gin with orange juice and one of wine. The husband of one woman in his group arrives late, and Stack tells him, "It's a good thing you came. I was just about to seduce your wife." They all laugh uneasily. At nine Stack is in bed, 5½ hours from the start of his next typical day.
December 15, 1975
A doctor friend says, "Walt probably drinks enough to ruin his liver if he didn't run, and he does have the slow pulse of all distance runners and the enlarged heart, but I don't think his physiology fully explains his remarkable nature."
Two years ago Stack was out running the hills near his home. It should be called climbing. He was with a group of young women from his running club, the Dolphin South End Runners, when suddenly, one of them recalls, "I heard a sharp crack. I looked back, and Walt was stretched out on the sidewalk, bleeding from a cut on the head. 'Walt, what happened?' I yelled.
" 'That's what comes from being a dirty old man,' he said. I dropped back to look at your legs, and I ran into an overhanging branch.' "
In 1968 Paxton Beale, then 38, a hospital administrator, ran in his first Boston Marathon. Stack was there, too, but it was one of the hottest days in the history of the race, and both were disappointed with their times. Beale decided what he needed was another marathon right away, so he flew all night to make an 8 a.m. start at Santa Rosa, Calif. "I got to the starting line," he recalls, "and there was Walter Stack. I figured there was no way I couldn't beat him. He has no form whatsoever. He looks like a collapsible beach chair when he runs, and I kept saying to myself, 'I'm gonna get that old man.' At 24 miles I was gaining on him, and I knew he was mine. I came up behind him, and it looked like he was drinking something, so when I caught him, I looked over. It was a can of beer. He flipped it away and said, 'Guess that ends the six-pack.' And then he ran away and left me."
"They told me I was nuts to drink beer in a marathon," Stack says, "but that's a crock." That is more or less what he actually said. Stack uses a lot of obscenity, much of it of an advanced nature or, as marathoner Elaine Pedersen terms it, "Walt's hard-core stuff." One member of Stack's running club, who likes him, gave him three chances to clean up his language, then barred him from his home. "It was too much for the kids," he says. Beale calls Stack "the Lenny Bruce of the Sweat Set," and it is fair to say that Stack does have an unusually filthy mouth. But as with everything in his life, he has trained long and hard to acquire it.
His parents were separated and, at 13, when his father was killed in a bicycle accident, Stack was put in Detroit's Henry Ford Trade School for vocational training. He stayed there nine months and then, as he tells it, quit to see the country by freight car. He worked on a goat ranch and in a Texas circus. When he tried to quit, they had him arrested for throwing stones at the elephants. At 15 he joined the Army. He told them he was 18, but after nine months he went AWOL, and "grabbed a handful of boxcars." His companions were not Boy Scouts and preppies. In Florida he got 60 days in jail for trespassing, but the jail was filthy, so he and the other inmates decided to burn it down. They charged him with arson and put him in another jail. In North Carolina he was picked up as a rape suspect, in Alabama in connection with a killing and in New Orleans for vagrancy. But nothing ever stuck, and they always let him go. He was still only 16. In the next couple of years, he figures, he was in a dozen jails and was always being beaten up by some jailer or sheriff's deputy. Finally he reenlisted in the Army, using a false name, but after 30 days of rain in the Philippines he was so depressed that he confessed and was sent to San Francisco's U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks, located on what is now Alcatraz, for 18 months.
All of his troubles having been on land, he decided to go to sea. But ashore in Louisiana, he had an argument with a sheriff in a roadhouse. "I had him around the neck," Stack says, "and I was kicking the hell out of him, and his deputy came along and hit me in the mouth with a brick." Stack got 90 days for that incident, and lost all his upper front teeth. " 'My God,' people say now, 'didn't they at least give you medical attention?' For what? I didn't even think about it."
He started shipping out on coal-burning ships, though it was much harder work than the oil-burners and the pay was only $2.50 more per month, $67.50. "But it was more macho," he says. And between jobs he read as many as nine newspapers every day. Since the Russian Revolution he had been interested in politics, and the Sacco-Vanzetti case changed his life. "I was from a broken family," he says. "My dad was a worker, and I was influenced by the agitation of the left." He wanted to do something, but a 19-year-old who at the age of 67 would be rising at 2:30 a.m. to run 17 miles does not do things halfway. He does not become a socialist. He becomes a Communist. Stack did, and to this day pays his monthly dues to the party. He has never regretted it, despite the fact that in 1951, deemed a security risk, he was screened out of the shipping industry forever.
For four years after that he worked on the kill floor of San Francisco slaughterhouses, beating cattle to death with a sledgehammer, until one day his back went out. A friend, a business agent for the hod carriers' union, got him a job and he settled down to stay in San Francisco. Once, when he was in Beirut, Stack had leaped from his ship and swum half a mile to shore just to see if he could do it. From then on swimming had been his sport. He could swim all day, it seemed, though his form was so bad that he always looked as if he were drowning. In San Francisco he joined the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club. Sometimes he would get up at 4 a.m. and ride his bike 120 miles to a place called Ukiah. The state police kept kicking Stack and his three-speeder off the highway, but he persisted; he wanted more endurance for swimming. Once he entered a real bike race, against the finest 10-speed racers, ignoring comments about his fenders and his basket. "I just wanted to try it," he said. He began taking part in Dolphin Club swims across the Golden Gate and from Alcatraz to the club beach. He had a home now, his own beach, his own bay, month after month, year after year.
Someone told him that running would help his swimming even more than cycling, so he entered one of the toughest short races on the face of the earth, Marin County's Dipsea Race—up one side of 2,600-foot-high Mount Tamalpais and down the other. It begins with a flight of 675 stairs. Stack ran the course in Army boots. In 1966 he started running a mile and a half every day. A year later he was up to six, and he founded the Dolphin South End Runners' Club, a fun running club, one of the largest in the Bay Area. Its symbol is a turtle, its motto, "Start Off Slow and Taper Off." As Paxton Beale says, "There are people in this club, in good shape, who can't run five miles in 40 minutes. Elsewhere they'd be laughed off the course, but here they don't even finish last."
Sometimes they even win the big annual trophies, the Walter Stack Trophy for women and the Bill Emmerton Trophy, named for the professional distance runner, for men. Mileage counts, not speed. Stack won the men's trophy twice and then, to give others a chance, he began cutting down on his mileage toward the end of each year. This year the club has run 35 races, from 1.5 to 13.6 miles, usually on Sundays in Golden Gate Park. The turnouts average 300 of the 1,000 DSE members, with more women each year, and everyone who finishes gets a ribbon and a tongue depressor marked with the position of his finish.
The soul and inspiration of DSERC, and its permanent president, is Walter Stack. All of it was his idea: the scoring for the trophies, the ribbons and the tongue depressors, and especially the encouraging of women. They comprise only 20% of the membership, but Stack insists they be given an equal number of awards. He says, "Just getting into a pair of running shorts is a shock to most women. They've been discriminated against for so many years, and now we have to favor them to make up for it. It's important to develop their self-esteem." Last August he persuaded 25 DSE women to enter the annual Pikes Peak Marathon, more women than had entered that race in all the previous 20 years of its history put together. He even had special T shirts made for them. DSE member Marge St. James says, "Women meeting Walt think he's loud and crude, but after awhile they love him. He's like a puppy dog. He might tear your dress, jumping up on you, but he's not mean about it. And he is a feminist."
St. James calls the DSERC her "entry into the straight world." She is the chairmadam of COYOTE, an acronym for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, "a loose women's organization," as its members call it. Their concern is the decriminalization of victimless crimes, and the prevention of harassment of prostitutes by the police. Stack attends some of their meetings, and is an honorary member.
"Walt is the oldest living teen-ager," says Dr. Joan Ullyot, a pathologist, marathon runner and DSERC member. And so he is, in good ways and bad. His energy would do credit to any 15-year-old, but there is also his sense of humor, often repetitive, impossibly corny and totally lacking in restraint. He has willed his body to the University of California Medical School, and three or four times each day, while running or cycling, he will say, "Not bad for a guy with one foot in the UC pickling vat, and the other one on a banana peel."
No day passes when he does not observe, "People in this country die in alphabetical order. I see them that way in the paper."
In crowded restaurants, especially, he comes into his own. He never modifies his language, and a slight deafness in one ear causes him to speak loudly. All about him ears turn purple. He is compulsively gregarious. "Short stack," a waitress yelled at breakfast recently, and he grabbed her by the arm. "You know," he said loudly, "my name is Stack, and when I was a kid I'd hear people in restaurants yelling 'stack!' and I'd get angry. But now I don't care." By this time the waitress was edging nervously away.
But there is another Walter Stack. Dale Carnegie would have benefited from a short course with this one. Looking for a volunteer to help in a DSERC race, he'll say, "We need someone who has a sparkling personality, who everyone loves, who is a champion in her own time." A lot of hands go up.
In 1970 Slack dreamed up his alltime outrage, the Double Dipsea. People were passing out all along the trail, so the following year he organized a rescue party to run back and pick them up, in effect, a third Dipsea. No one runs a Triple Dip-sea. "No one," screams Pax Beale. "He almost killed us all." In 1969, the first of seven times Stack has run the Pikes Peak Marathon, he went to Colorado early to train, and he ran the Barr Trail course a record seven times in nine days. In addition to the Pikes Peak races he has completed 38 other marathons, most of them in times ranging from 3:30 to 4:00, the same speed up the hills as down. At the DSERC they joke that if Stack were thrown from a plane at 40,000 feet he would fall at eight minutes per mile. And they would be the worst-looking miles ever fallen. "He's the toughest, worst runner on earth." says Beale.
Stack has finished five 50-mile runs and another, a 100-miler, in 17:20. Last March, at Maryland's JFK 50-miler, run in the rain on a raw, 32° day, he fell down dozens of times, wound up all bloody and bruised, and finished 34th. Of 1,355 starters, only 211 remained at the end. But except for the 50s and the one 100, any race that Stack has run has been a respite from his workouts.
His 17-mile morning run is the flattest of them; between jobs or on weekends he sleeps a little later and runs his torture courses. One takes him across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back, almost 20 miles. More than six of the miles are on hills that all but make one's ears pop, and the whole run is a series of waves and shouts to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians who recognize him. Sometimes he will "do a Dipsea," as the DSEers put it. On Saturdays he starts on Collingwood Street in front of his house in the city's Eureka Valley section, on a hill so steep that sometimes cars cannot back out of curbside parking spaces and have to be towed. Stack runs out and helps push the cars uphill. After descending the opposite side of Collingwood he starts up Castro. A few more degrees of acclivity, and he would need ropes. And so it goes, half a mile up, really up, half a mile down, way down, up, down, up, down...to the top of Twin Peaks, with the whole city stretched away beneath, then down to Lake Merced and around, a 20-mile run before he reaches home again.
That has been Stack's life—Sausalito, Twin Peaks, the 2:30 a.m. routine while on the job—for 10 years now, 17,000 miles of running, in rain and sun and fog and pain, summer and winter. He never wears a shirt, even at 4 a.m. on February mornings when it is 38°. The Bay temperature drops to 46° then, but he never misses a day in it. He wouldn't take a vitamin pill at gunpoint, and when a friend tried to make plans with him for a race next year, he replied, without apparent concern, "Oh, don't count on it. For all I know, I might be deader'n a mackerel by then."
Walter Stack's favorite trivia question: "Has there ever been a prisoner of Alcatraz who survived a swim to shore?"
Wherever he goes in San Francisco the island is there, below and east of the bridge when he crosses it, off the hills of Sausalito, its lights blinking in his face at 4 a.m. as he runs on the municipal pier. Stack is not a contemplative man, but the sight of Alcatraz must make him think of how far he has come. The answer to the question, for him at least, is yes, in more ways than one.