John DeWalt, 1936-2013

AJWs TaproomI’ll never forget standing outside the Silverton High School gym shortly before 6 a.m. on the finishing day of Hardrock in 2009. I was there with my son, Carson, when around the corner came this old guy in a blue VHTRC t-shirt lilting to the side and holding himself up with a stick.

“Carson, see that guy?” I said to my 12-year old son. “I want to be like him someday.”

“Dad, you can’t. He’s a total bad ass.” Carson replied, as only a 12-year-old can.

John DeWalt - 2009 Hardrock 100 - finishing

Badass DeWalt finishing Hardrock in 2009. Photo: Blake Wood

A few hours later in the Silverton gym as we were awaiting the start of the awards ceremony, I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with that guy, John DeWalt, and I was impressed and awed by his entire persona.

First, there were the eyes. Deep blue, intense, yet whimsical. Set back in a hardscrabble face that seemed to be carved from the bedrock of central Pennsylvania where it had been shaped, his visage had an intensity and calmness. Then, the smile, that knowing grin that seemed to emerge from within and irrepressibly told a story of hope and aspiration. The shoulders and trunk were solid rock and the legs, well, John’s legs were like those of many ultrarunners, shaped from years on the trail yet surprisingly unimpressive looking when compared to the rest of him. In short, John DeWalt was a truly impressive figure and a brief chat with him on that July morning in 2009 told me I was in the presence of a great man.

It turned out that John’s 2009 Hardrock finish would be his 14th and last in a wonderfully appropriate time of 47:47. A few months earlier, the 73-year-old had finished a loop at the Barkley Marathons in just over 12 hours, proving once again that the tougher the event, the more successful John was in tackling it.

John grabbing a page of book 1 at Barkley 2009. Video courtesy of Mike Bur

There are many, many John DeWalt stories that others could tell much better than I. Stories of adventure runs across Pennsylvania that ended with police actions and frustrated Shoney’s waitresses, stories of long days on the Barkley course with the likes of Dennis Herr and David Horton, stories of epic, 28-hour, 50k runs. And, of course, stories from the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado where John’s legend will forever reside.

John DeWalt - Dennis Herr - David Horton

John (left) stands forever with the Giants of Ultrarunning (with Dennis Herr (center) and David Horton (right)). Photo: Keith Knipling

Kyle Skaggs - John DeWalt - Hardrock 100

Kyle Skaggs representing Team DeWalt after his record-setting Hardrock win. Photo: Blake Wood

John DeWalt passed away last Saturday at the age of 77. John leaves a legacy for us all to

admire and attempt to emulate. Who can forget the awards ceremony at the 2008 Hardrock 100 when James Varner and friends, including newly minted course record holder Kyle Skaggs, donned bright yellow DeWalt Tools t-shirts to honor their septugenarian hero? If ever there was a man who embodied the old-school grit and fortitude that is so much a part of ultrarunning, John DeWalt is that man.

Rising out of hardscrabble roots in Pennsylvania and coming of age in the 1950s, John DeWalt knew hardship and embraced it. John found joy in the suffering of clamoring up a remote powerline cut or gasping for air over a 14,000-foot peak. John knew how to have a good time and loved to be part of the fun. Most of all, without ever really trying, John DeWalt inspired thousands. For that and all the memories he has left behind, he will be sorely missed.

To John DeWalt,

Bottoms up!

John DeWalt - Barkley Marathons - Frozenhead

DeWalt relaxing in Frozenhead State Park, home of the Barkley Marathons. Photo: Rich Limacher

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Troegs Brewing Perpetual IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from John’s home state of Pennsylvania. Tröegs Brewing Company’s Perpetual IPA is a surprisingly sweet IPA that has a kick to it but is not cloying. It’s a great summer beer and is best on draft and really cold.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Do you have a fond memory of John DeWalt? Feel welcome to share it in the comments section below so that we can all continue to be inspired by the man who helped make our sport what it is today.

John DeWalt - Barkley Marathon - yellow gate

DeWalt at Barkley’s famed yellow gate. Photo: Mike Bur

There are 17 comments

  1. Mic

    There is a very difficult ultra run out there, it's very low key with lots of miles, climbing and rocks. I learned that John and others finished the run which was partly my inspiration to do the same. It 'only' took me more than a day's time – with one very low point – to finish the ultra but it was worth it. Thanks for the inspiration John.

  2. Spope

    DeWalt used to run Yut-c 50k, A Bob Combs race. One year his arm so bloody he had to stop to get cleaned up and possibly stitched, Won best blood for sure!

    RIP John

  3. Steve Pero

    Andy, thanks for this fitting memorial for John.

    John was a very good friend of mine and Deb's and I'll share a short story.

    Back in 2000, my first time at Hardrock, my friend Greg Loomis and I were walking along Blair Street in front of the Avalanche coffee shop when we heard "Now there are two Hardrockers!" I look over and see two grizzled old men sitting at a table on the front porch. We go over and meet John and his good friend Rollin Perry. I hadn't met John yet, but had heard of his awesomeness through other friends. I was honored to meet him and Rollin.

    Flash forward to this Summer and I am sitting on that same front porch at that same table with Billy Simpson and we decide to give John a call and incredibly, he answered. I had tried calling him a few days before with no answer or call back. Billy and I talked what must have been 30 minutes with a weak and sad sounding John. He asked for Deb, but she wasn't with me at that time…he said he wished he could be with us and will work hard to get better so he could be there next year. I worked hard to get a finish for him, now wishing I had worn a DeWalt shirt.

    John, we'll miss you a lot…RIP.

  4. Randy

    Very good description of John,AJW.Still recall the frowns(even when he frowned at you,it still seemed like he was smiling?,twinkle in his eyes maybe?),while eating a drumstick in front of him.John was around 60 when he walked up to me one day,and started asking me all these questions about what i had in my drop bags,what i carried,ate at aid stations,etc,he had an irrepressible appetite for learning.Years later we had some light-hearted banter about Spanish phrases,he was learning Spanish,and since my Mom is Hispanic,i knew some words,but John set me straight on several words.John destroyed the myth of,"you can't teach an old dog new trick's". Thank's for being a friend John.

    1. Randy

      and when John was telling us his famous restaurant "episode",with a straight face,i said,"man John,i can't imagine why they would think you were drunk',he gave me that sideways look only John could give,but he did manage to finish that classic story.

  5. Billy

    Kyle and James and I had the idea of the Dewalt shirts in 2008 at Hardrock. When someone told us a week before the run that DeWalt Tools slogan was "Guaranteed Tough", we knew we had to do it. We ordered some shirts and had them FedEx'd to Silverton in time for the pre-race meeting where we surprised him in front of an admiring crowd. Not many people that were in the gym that day will ever forget that. And for Kyle to wear the shirt to accept his award made it even more special. He truly was a hero to so many of us. So many of the great ultra runners of our day knew how special he was. Karl Mletzer always knew it and always deferred to John when we would talk about toughness. He embodied the essence of what we believed ultra running to be. He was tuff, no nonsense, old school to the core. I've kept up with him these past few tears and he never ever let on to just how sick he was. He was always quick to point out that the "good lord" had a plan and he was taking good care of him. His faith was at the very core of his being.

    John was also a character and prankster and that's what made him so endearing. He will be missed greatly.

    Thanks for sharing this AJW. Too many of these pioneers are forgotten and we need to pay tribute to the ones who showed us the way.

    Billy Simpson

    1. AJW

      Thanks for the comment, Billy. I look forward to the 2014 tribute at Hardrock. Perhaps somewhere out on that course a memorial will emerge:)

  6. james varner

    john was one special guy that is for sure. i've attempted hardrock 5 times and i've only finished twice. i'm in my mid 30s, john was in his 60s and 70s when he finished hardrock all those times. if he can do that race at that age then i should be able to do it everytime, right? it take a special person(like john, or kirk apt or blake wood or betsy nye) to finish that race so many times– maybe they were special before they started getting all those finishes but i like to think that maybe just a little bit of what makes them so great has come from each of those finishes.

    back in my early years of going to hardrock, i didn't have a successful job like i do now, i didn't have much money. in fact just the gas money to get to and from silverton from washington state and the time off from work would leave me completely broke. i'd barely have money for groceries(actually one year i had to borrow $40 just to buy groceries and food for my drop bags) and so therefore i couldn't go out for dinner and beers with all other runners but some of the runners knew that and knew i wanted to so sometimes they would pay for my dinner. john i guess also knew i didn't have much money and one day he bought me breakfast at the grand imperial. it was just us in there in this big old hotel. we hardly talked about running at all. we talked a lot about health and food and our lives outside of running. and john told a few jokes. i felt so lucky to have that much one on one time with him.

    side note: billy simpson deserves credit for the dewalt shirts, i think it was me who first mentioned that dewalt tools' catch phrase is "Guaranteed Tough" but it was definitely billy who made it happen and i'm pretty certain he paid for all 5 shirts because i know kyle and i didn't have any money back then. and i am so glad we presented john with his shirt in front of everyone at the silverton gym, he was so proud of being so tough!

    1. Billy

      James,

      The pics Blake took of that day, especially the one of us with our backs turned to the crowd and John with his arms raised as in triumph, are so special to me. You and me and Kyle looking at each other laughing knowing we pulled off the surprise, and Louis standing there probably wondering what she got herself into. So honored to be a part of that moment.

      HR has given us allot in the way of friendships. It's really what this thing all boils down to for me. I'm grateful for yours.

  7. jenn

    Thanks for sharing! I so appreciate the inspiration that folks like John provide. I never met him, but there's a similarly-inspiring 70-some year old, Hans, who has made a number of finishes at the Cascade Crest 100 – it might even be 10? I've watched him finish several years now … grit and determination. Gives me hope as to what's possible!

    My condolences to John's friends and family.

  8. Greg Goodson

    I was lucky enough to have spent a week as a crew member during Karl Meltzer's AT speed record attempt in 2008 w/ John DeWalt, Billy Simpson and Karl's family.

    John would keep a little notebook in his back pocket where he would collect quotes and various notes of the learned during the day. During the crew's downtime throughout the week, John would spend time in his makeshift RV van and teach himself how to play the keyboard. He was also teaching himself spanish w/ some instructional audio he had with him. Then sometimes he would disappear, only to reappear several hours later with a description of the trail conditions of the next 5 mile uphill section. He would entertain us w/ stories from bagging 14ers and his cow Bessie that lived on his farm from time's past.

    John was one of those folks that after only spending a little time with him, you know you were in the presence of someone very special. I've never come across someone else like John that has had a greater impact on my life for the short amount of time I was able to know him. Truly humbled to have known him.

  9. Morgan Williams

    Certainly a legendary figure for those of us in the UK who keep in touch with ultras beyond our own shores.

    Rest easy John DeWalt.

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