Dipsea Race Legend Now Connected To Star Wars

Bill Kimberlin with a photo of his great cousin, Dipsea legend Mason Hartwell

In the process of doing extensive research for his book Inside The Star Wars Empire: A Memoir, Bill Kimberlin was amazed to discover that there was a Jedi-like running superstar in his own family who was quite a force in a galaxy not so far away.

In the Annual Dipsea race from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, a grueling cross country race that looks as daunting as the Death Star.

Bill’s great cousin, it turned out, happens to be John Mason Hartwell, one of the greatest competitors in Dipsea history, which spans back to 1905 making it the oldest trail race in the country. Better known as Mason Hartwell, the legendary runner won the Dipsea best time award seven times between 1910-1926, a record that stood for 74 years until Mike McNamus broke the record in 2000. Alex Varner, in 2019, passed McManus with his ninth Dipsea Best Time Award.

Few Dipsea runners, however, arrived with such fanfare. Kimberlin learned that Mason ran a 4:35 mile in high school in 1907 and, in 1910, Mason won his first best time award with a time of 52:43. Sixteen years later he won his last best time award, which was only 11 seconds slower than his first.

In 1912 – as the lone scratch runner in a starting field of 81 men -- Mason set the Dipsea course record of 47:56, a record that stood for 25 years until broken by Norman Bright.

Kimberlin had an idea about the Dipsea, but never had an inkling he had a relative so steep in Dipsea lore.

“It was just something that we knew about, says Kimberlin, who grew up in Marin County and worked at Lucas Films for 20 years. “We went to Mill Valley. We sometimes watched the Dipsea, especially since my uncle (DeWitt Mason) ran in it many years ago. I didn’t really get into it. I knew about Mason Hartwell, but I didn’t have the time to really look into it.”

Kimberlin found the time after retiring from Lucas Films. He had worked on post production, sound, and film editing in San Francisco before going to Lucas Films where he worked on movies such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Gangs of New York, Star Trek III, all three Back To The Future films, and perhaps, most famously, Return Of The Jedi, the third in the original Star Wars trilogy.

As a visual effects editor for Return of the Jedi, Kimberlin helped create the space battle sequence. He eventually ran the effects editorial department at Industrial Lights & Magic for almost a decade. The image on the cover of his book is his shot from the Jedi space battle sequence, known as “SB 19” or the 19th shot in the space battle.

With his Inside The Star Wars Empire book, Kimberlin wanted to research, share, and honor his family’s history. It was a revelation

Kimberlin’s great grandfather, John Mason, came to San Francisco in 1849. While others were looking for gold, he was selling them beer.

“This turned out to be a very good idea,” Kimberlin quips.

His great grandfather established Mason’s Malt Liquor brewery in North Beach but, with the city growing so fast, getting clean water became an obstacle.

So John Mason moved across San Francisco Bay to Sausalito where he built a brewery and distillery called “Mason's Malt Whiskey Distilling Company” on 14 acres, which had a famous spring. Today, that property is a condominium complex that the new owners named, “Whiskey Springs” because of its history.

During his research, Kimberlin stumbled upon the legend of Mason Hartwell. Kimberlin’s grandfather, Clint Mason, had a sister (Mary Mason) who married Thomas Hartwell. They had three boys – George, William, and Mason.

Mason followed their footsteps into the Dipsea race. Kimberlin in his youth had heard tales about the running Hartwells and the race they craved.

“I didn’t know Mason was considered among the greatest all-time runners,” Kimberlin says. “I didn’t understand that at all. That wasn’t really a family story. I just knew of him as a Dipsea runner.”

Kimberlin’s research led him to Barry Spitz’s book Dipsea: The Greatest Race. It includes a detailed newspaper account of Mason’s 1926 race when, at the age of 37, he won his seventh best time award. San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Howard Smith noted Mason’s effort in a November’s Olympian magazine.

“Their faces tell the story of the hard Dipsea Trail as the runners come down the road between the double bank of spectators at the Stinson Beach finish. Their tied-up leg muscles show the effects of unaccustomed strain. But there comes one coasting along like a miler on a good track. There's a half smile on his face as he comes down the stretch. His legs work with an easy loose-muscled action. It's Mason Hartwell ... greatest of Dipsea runners. No trainer reaches to catch Hartwell as he crosses the finish line. Leave the cots and the rubbing for the youngsters. The veteran fresh as a daisy and, without resting, goes to join his family for he has another race on his day's schedule. He has promised to swim out beyond the breakers with his 11-year-old daughter.”

In other words, Mason ran back to the starting line in Mill Valley, in essence doing the “Double Dipsea” before there was such a thing.

Kimberlin was so impressed – and so proud – that he decided to write a story about Mason that he framed with a photo of Mason and gave it to the Dipsea Café. It was hung behind the cash register.

“It was just nice to be able to say something about him that history may have forgotten,” Kimberlin says, “I just like for the guy to get some recognition.”

Given this year’s 110th Dipsea Race will mark the 95th anniversary of Mason Hartwell’s last Dipsea, Kimberlin took to Facebook recently to boast about his distant cousin.

“It’s not everybody who can look up their relatives in books and libraries and I can. There are a handful who did wonderful things and he is one of them,” Kimberlin says. “They made an impact on this area and when I got into motion pictures I found there were a lot of other people – not only in my family – involved with famous events.”

Like the Dipsea, famous for making runners such as Mason Hartwell infamous.