The sight of the old man eased their suffering. Runners competing
on June 13 in the Dipsea, the 99-year-old cross-country race in
Marin County, Calif., had already huffed and cursed their way up
the storied 676 wood and stone steps awaiting them .4 of a mile
after the start. They'd climbed 1,200 feet, over root and rock,
across meadows and beneath millennia-old redwoods, to the top of
Cardiac Hill, the high point on this gorgeous, grueling
seven-mile course. Cresting Cardiac, their breathing at its most
ragged, they would catch sight of Jack Kirk, and smile.

He is 97, wheelchair-bound and cranky. Squinting at the runners
(and the walkers) from under his navy blue skullcap, the man
known as the Dipsea Demon nodded, smiled and shook the odd hand.
The truth is, he was suffering more than they were.

Until this year Kirk had started every Dipsea since 1930. That's
74 straight years of hauling his scrawny behind up the steps,
over Cardiac, down Steep Ravine, where untold numbers of ankles
and knees have blown out, and on to the ocean. He'd won the race
twice, in '51 and '67. Eleven years ago, we learn from Marin
historian Barry Spitz's definitive history, Dipsea: The Greatest
Race, Kirk--running in his trademark trousers and long-sleeved
shirt--delighted the crowd at the finish line on Stinson Beach
when the then 86-year-old "picked up his pace over the last yards
to hold off another runner."

Last June, however, Kirk was in a bad way on Cardiac. Several
times, he fell. Finally, sadly, he accepted a lift to the finish
at Stinson Beach. Last December, Kirk was caught out in a
blizzard near his 400-acre spread close to Yosemite National
Park. He fell, cracked his right hip and needed surgery. When I
leaned over to ask him how it felt to be a spectator this year,
he slowly turned his head to see who was asking such a damn-fool
question. "It bugs you," he replied, in a tone that said, How the
hell do you think it feels?

You don't want to annoy Jack. When I say he is cantankerous, I
don't mean cantankerous like Uncle Charley on My Three Sons or
your grandfather when he can't find the Metamucil. In 1995,
according to a recent profile by Dave Albee of the Marin
Independent Journal, Kirk spent 16 days in the Mariposa County
(Calif.) Jail "following a rock-throwing confrontation with a
couple of kids near his property. Incarcerated, Kirk simply ran
laps around his cell to stay in shape."

Drow Millar, a Marin County filmmaker who is wrapping up a
documentary on the old man called The Dipsea Demon, points out
that Kirk's quirks make him the perfect embodiment of this race.
Like Kirk, the Dipsea has been around almost a century, making it
the second-oldest footrace in the country, behind the
108-year-old Boston Marathon. Like Kirk, it is beyond tough.
There are few flat stretches, and 1,500 runners trying to pass
one another on narrow singletrack.

Like Kirk, the Dipsea is unique. Its handicapping system, which
awards head-start minutes according to age and gender, has
resulted in winners ranging in age from nine-year-old Megan
McGowan in 1991 to 70-year-old Joe King, who ran a minute under
his age in '96. This year's race was won by Shirley Matson, a
63-year-old wisp of a woman who'd won three previous Dipseas and
gained renown as a sandbagger. Injured in the months before this
year's race, Matson let it be known that 62-year-old Melody Anne
Shultz, a two-time winner, would be the favorite. What do you
know, Matson recovered from her injuries and drew inspiration
from Birdstone's upset of Smarty Jones at the Belmont. "Even an
old nag can come out of the bushes, surge to the lead and hang
on," said Matson, who, while running nothing like a nag, did
surge to the lead, then held off Shultz for win number 4.

The fastest time this year was turned in by Dan Nelson, 40, who
reached the beach in 50:19, a smoking performance, but not fast
enough to make up for Matson's 22 head-start minutes. (The
alltime Dipsea record of 44:49 was set by Ron Elijah in 1974.)
Nelson was also beaten to the finish line by 14-year-old
Alesandra Roger, who had earlier that week graduated from eighth
grade in Larkspur, Calif., and got over the course in a
remarkable 58:19. Will you run cross-country next year? I asked
her. "I'm a soccer player," Alesandra said.

At the awards banquet Kirk was approached by a bright-eyed woman
in a straw sun hat who knelt alongside him, thanked him for
coming and said, "See you next year."

Replied the old man, "Let's hope."

The next SI ADVENTURE will appear in the July 26 issue.

COLOR PHOTO: DROW MILLAR & KEN WILSON TRAIL BOSS The cantankerous Kirk ran every Dipsea from 1930 through 2003.

Like Kirk, the Dipsea has been around for almost a century, and