These Trail Runners Prove Age Is Just a Number

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These guys usually drink beer at the finish line, tell great stories and, you guessed it, are tough as nails.

In college, my husband and his buddy made up a term for Tough Old Men athletes. They called them “TOMs”—you know, the skinny, older, silver-haired guys kicking your butt at running races and other events.

The first TOM I got to know, in my trail racing life (which started about 20 years ago), was a guy named Jack Kirk, also known as the “Dipsea Demon.” The Dipsea has long been my favorite trail race. It’s a 7.4-mile, one-way wild, rugged and beautiful race in California from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. When the race started in 1905, the course was open. Competitors could take any route they wanted, and whoever got to the beach first won. And as the years progressed, the race adopted a unique staggered start, based on age and gender, where the very old and very young started in the first wave, and “scratch” runners, men in their prime (definitely not TOMs… yet) start last.

Jack Kirk had started running the Dipsea in 1930 and ran every single one of them until 2003. He was 92 years old when I was assigned a feature story about him, and he lived by himself on a property without water, electricity, or a phone, just outside of Yosemite, California. I wrote him a letter, addressed, “Jack Kirk, Mariposa, California,” that made it to him somehow. Not long after, I received a four-page, front-and-back, handwritten letter from the man known as the Dipsea Demon.

Jack Kirk | Photo: Drow Millar

“Tahoe, huh?” he started his letter, as that’s where he’d mailed it to find me. “I have much better things to do with my legs than to break them on skis.” Jack went on to write about how he had spent some time in the Mariposa County Jail after shooting at trespassers on his property. (There, he trained by running around in circles.) He told me how, when he worked in a factory in the East Bay, he’d run up and down the stairs on his breaks for hill training. He was one tough old man, and I loved everything about him.

I introduced myself to Jack after one of the last years he ran the race. He wore long pants and a button-down shirt, and someone running with him wore a sign on their back that read something like, “Do NOT pat the Dipsea Demon on the back,” (pats knocked him off balance). Jack was 96 when he ran his last Dipsea. And in 2007, he passed away at 100 years old.

The Dipsea is full of inspirational older guys who love the race and never, ever want to give it up. Seventy-eight-year-old Russ Kiernan has 20 top-35 finishes and ran the Dipsea this past June. He’s won it twice. Seventy-six-year-old Hans Schmidt (also a past winner) placed 14th this year, and Darryl Beardall, at 79, ran his 50th Dipsea in June.

Plenty of other races have them, too. Gordy Ainsleigh, at 69, has 22 Western States finishes and just raced the June 25th event again. It was Ainsleigh who, in 1974, decided to run the Tevis Cup Ride-and-Tie without a horse, pioneering the Western States and all 100-mile races.

John DeWalt ran the high-mountain, rugged Hardrock 100 14 times, covering its 14 passes over 12,000 feet into his 70s. He ran his last Hardrock at 74. And there are all the older guys at the Barkley Marathons, including “Lazarus Lake,” (aka Gary Cantrell), who devised the devilishly hard and nearly impossible course years ago and now serves as race director.

These TOMs are just plain inspirational. Their grit, drive, dedication over the long haul reminding all of us—young, old, male, female—just how worth it it is to show up at the starting line and give every race your all.

Russ Kiernan | Photo: Tina Humphrey