Letters Between Legends

Russ Kiernan and Jack Kirk in 2003 before the Dipsea Demon's last race

There is a special relationship among champions of the Dipsea Race, but perhaps none more unique than the connection between the late Jack “The Dipsea Demon” Kirk and Russ Kiernan.

Let’s just call it “Letters Amid Legends.”

From 1989 to 2000, Kirk -- a two-time Dipsea winner who competed in 68 consecutive Dipseas the last at the age of 96 -- would mail hand-written letters from his secluded 400-acre property off Buckeye Road in Mariposa to Kiernan in Mill Valley where Kiernan saved and preserved them. Kirk played the role of mentor and Kiernan, a retired substitute teacher, was his pupil.

Kirk, who lived alone on his property that had no electricity nor running water or a telephone, preferred mail as his mode of communication unless a stranger wandered onto his land whereas he would use a rifle to communicate. The 5-foot-5, 135-pound “Dipsea Demon” would write from the comfort of one of his beat-up Volkswagen bugs that also served as his living room and bedroom.

In his first letter to Kiernan -- dated February 9, 1989 – Kirk offered his services which is to say his lifetime knowledge of the Dipsea race course. Kiernan had placed seventh in the Dipsea in 1988 and had two second-place finishes and two third-place finishes on his Dipsea resume, yet Kirk, a two-time winner in 1951 and 1967, saw Kiernan’s immense potential to be a champion.

“I am still of the opinion that I can show you ways to improve your performance in the Dipsea Race,” Kirk wrote. “At your pleasure I would be happy to make an attempt. If you are favorable, cite me some dates and times convenient to you. Any day except Saturday.”

Kirk was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which observes its Sabbath on Saturdays. Otherwise, he was available to talk with Kiernan and told him to bring a tape recorder to his “Dipsea Seminar” as Kirk would “divulge ALL my Dipsea secrets. (alternate routes – no shortcuts.)”

Mind you Kiernan posted an actual time of 53:57 in 1988, yet he replied to Kirk’s letter and, 19 days later, Kirk mailed another letter to confirm a tentative date of March 19, 1989 to meet in Mill Valley for their “Dipsea Seminar.” However, Kirk planned to talk about the Dipsea Race course as they walked over it, not as they ran over it.

“I have NEVER practiced run over the ‘trail’ to see how fast I could make it. THAT is for the day-of-the-race. Then it is for real,” Kirk wrote.

The next Kirk letter to Kiernan – dated April 25, 1989 – Kirk gave specific instructions on how Kiernan should train for running up the three flights of Dipsea Stairs that then totaled 671 steps. This letter included a sketch to show a short cut. Kirk suggested Kiernan’s training should include riding a bicycle to condition his legs to run the steep steps. Kirk ended the letter with a pep talk.

“There is only one race that is more important than the Dipsea Race. That is the Human Race.”

Unfortunately, Kiernan was not able to compete in the Dipsea that year, but Kirk never gave up on him, even when Kiernan placed 112th in the race in 1991. After Kiernan, then 58 years old, finished 16th overall in 1996 and almost four minutes behind the winner – 70-year-old Joe King – Kirk went into full coach mode and fired off a seven-page letter.

“My estimation is that it is now time for YOU to head the finish list. Do you feel mentally up for it? Are you yet physiologically equal? Are you yet physically capable?,” Kirk asked in a letter dated April 3, 1997. “When I discovered THE Dipsea I inquired of the other runners as to what was the most difficult section of the course and the consensus was the STAIRS. So I was determined to overwhelm and overpower the stairs.”

Then Kirk detailed how he trained for the Dipsea Stairs in 1932 while working with the Shell Oil Company in a job that required him to climb up a 30-step step ladder to measure crude oil in a tank on top of a hill. Kirk was aware of runners in San Francisco who had the convenience of training by running up to Coit Tower or running the bleachers in Kezar Stadium, so Kirk decided his training would include 10 round trips up the ladder at work, the equivalent of 600 steps, between his shift from 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“This extra training stuff (additional to regular training) paid off on conditioning,” Kirk wrote. “After a few months I tried out the Dipsea Trail – the only time ever I ever tried the trail against a clock – and my timed clock to the 671st top stairs was 4 ½ minutes. The best any other has claimed is 5 ½ minutes.”

Kirk again urged Kiernan to step up his training on the Stairs. The “Dipsea Demon” was sticking Kiernan with the proverbial pitchfork with his encouraging words.

“With your ability you can win.”

A month later, Kirk advised Kiernan in a letter to reach out to Peter Gamache, who was then the assistant attorney general in the state of Alaska and prosecuted the Exxon Valdez following its oil spill in 1989. More importantly to Kirk, Gamache was the person who inspired and challenged Kirk, then 60 years old, to run in the Dipsea in 1967 while they were both working in Yosemite National Park.

“I still cannot believe I finished 1st,” Kirk, the oldest person then to win the Dipsea, wrote.

Kirk’s message to Kiernan in 1997 was that anyone could win the Dipsea if they had the desire. Kiernan came close. His time in the 1997 Dipsea was five minutes faster than the previous year and he placed third behind the winner, Sal Vasquez, who won the Dipsea for a record seventh time.

Kirk sensed – believed! -- Kiernan was close to winning his first Dipsea when he wrote to him on March 3, 1998.

“A slogan for you: Let’s win it all in ’98 lest it forever be too late!,” Kirk began the letter and then offered Kiernan a detailed game plan from start to finish, advising him to control his breathing and lean forward more.

“Before the steep pitch `pant’ your breathing like a dog does to get more oxygen in your blood to get to your muscles. Never try to rest on an uphill. Rest on top or over the top,” Kirk wrote. “And when you fall down, do it toward Stinson Beach. You gain five feet.”

In his next letter – dated April 21, 1998 – Kirk suggested Kiernan contact John Boitano, father of Dipsea champions and Hall of Famers Mike and Mary Etta, and ride with him to Mariposa when Boitano would make his traditional trek to Kirk’s place to collect firewood.

The idea was to hitchhike a ride to Mariposa so, Kirk wrote “I can give you some first-hand (foot) instruction to help your “D.S.” performance.”

Whatever advice Kiernan took it worked. On Sunday, June 14, 1998 competing in his 27th Dipsea Kiernan finally won the race for the first time at the age of 60 – the same age that Kirk won the Dipsea for the last time in 1960, the first year Kiernan competed in it.

Kirk’s mentoring, however, didn’t stop there. On May 14, 1999, Kirk composed another letter to send to Kiernan to pump him up.

“You are still the champion,” Kirk began. “When Megan (McGowan, then 9-years-old) won the Dipsea in 1991 the next year she was wandering around the Lytton Square before the race. So I gave her a big hug and some sage advice, namely `Do not be afraid to win again.’ She did! Now you probably do not need a big hug. But never ignore `sage advice.’ Do not be afraid to win it again!”

Kiernan didn’t win the Dipsea in 1999, but he won it two more times: In 2002 and 2005. Big hugs.

The last letter that Kiernan saved from Kirk, before Kirk’s death in 2007 at the age of 100, was dated March 23, 2000. Kirk wanted to dispute his time in the 1931 Dipsea, which he claimed was faster than his rival, William Fraser, who was awarded the best time trophy by three seconds over Kirk. Kirk, in his letter to Kiernan, wanted to settle the controversy once and for all. Kirk was willing to retrace his steps in front of Dipsea officials and media to prove that there was no way Fraser was faster if Kirk, as he claims, finished the race ahead of him.

In other words, Kirk was asking to rewrite history. He wanted to proclaim `Down goes, Fraser!’

“I am planning an instant replay of the 1931 finish of the Dipsea between J. Kirk and Bill Frazer (who is still not in yet!) and anyone and all are invited,” Kirk wrote. “It will take about ½ hour. I feel it is a long overdue replay. I will have a watch. Any and all who have a reliable watch is urged to bring it. I am inviting Spitz, Jhung, Albee, Hauke, anyone else. I feel they will be will very impressed BY THE FACTS.”

The fact is Kirk won the Dipsea two times and Kiernan won it three times, compiling along the way a record 30 Dipsea Black Shirts for finishing in the Top 35 before Kiernan’s last Dipsea in 2017. The “Dipsea Demon” found a protégé and helped drive him to multiple Dipsea wins.

Their place in Dipsea history is set – they are both in the Dipsea Hall of Fame -- yet their Dipsea connection goes deeper. Their passion for the Dipsea and their purpose for competing in it was revealed through the practice of letter writing.

From one legend to another.