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A Profile of Wally Hesseltine – iRunFar

Wally Hesseltine was 37 years old in 1981 when he picked up running in order to improve his heath. A few months later, he finished a 10-kilometer race. The month after that, he finished a marathon. And while he didn’t initially set out on a racing streak, to this date he’s completed a race every month for the past 42 years.

Today, we’re not sure what’s more impressive: the many running accolades he’s accumulated throughout his running career or that he’s maintained a meticulous run record for the past 40-plus years. Either way, the now 80-year-old is an inspiration to other runners, on the roads and trails alike, and perhaps especially an icon for those who are entering athletics later in adulthood.

Wally Hesseltine - Western States 100

Wally Hesseltine has finished the Western States 100 six times. All photos courtesy of Wally Hesseltine.

The Start of Running

Hesseltine was born and raised in California, where he also raised his own two kids and now five grandchildren. His father was a minister, and their family moved around the state as he was growing up, living in places including Ukiah, Redding, and Oakland. The oldest child with a brother and two sisters, he didn’t participate in sports as a youth.

He attended church school and graduated from the University of Southern California with a business degree before continuing to law school at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. After graduating, he started his career as a deputy district attorney, which led to his role as a defense attorney.

It was only once Hesseltine was well-established as an attorney that he picked up running.

“I had a young associate, and he’s still a law partner of mine, Tim Walker. He was an accomplished football player. He was 26, and I was 37, and I told him, ‘We have got to get in better shape.’ We started running on June 8, 1981,” recalls Hesseltine.

That September, he finished his first 10k, which he followed up with a marathon the next month. Through reading and study, Hesseltine taught himself how to train for running.

“From the beginning, I kept very careful records. It took two weeks, and I considered myself a runner. Then, it wasn’t long before I considered myself a marathoner. And it wasn’t long before I did more runs and saw that, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing one race or more a month.’”

That was the start of a 42-year racing streak that is still ongoing. “I’ve done 616 races, and I just did another 100 miler,” says Hesseltine, who started doing ultramarathons in 1991, a decade after he first started running.

During that initial running chapter, Hesseltine qualified for the Boston Marathon and other major marathons, reaching a PR of 2:57. After 10 years of focusing on pavement, Hesseltine decided to try running on dirt.

“My first dirt run was in Nevada on Mount Charleston outside of Las Vegas. Then I did a race in the Grand Canyon [in Arizona]. My first actual ultramarathon was in Fremont, California, in 1991: the Ohlone 50k — I’ve now done it eight times,” says Hesseltine. “It was a hard wilderness trail run, and that gave me confidence to do a 50 miler, because it felt like a 50 miler.”

Running and Record-Setting in His 70s and 80s

Hesseltine has received “UltraRunning Magazine’s” Age Group Performance of the Year award three times when he was 70, 74, and 80 years old. He’s perhaps best known for attempting to become the oldest person, at age 72, to finish the Western States 100 in 2016. After finishing the race six times prior, he missed the 30-hour cutoff by a two heartbreaking minutes.

In the past four months of late 2023 and early 2024, Hesseltine ran two 100 milers: the Tunnel Hill 100 Mile in November 2023 and the USATF 100-Mile Road National Championships at the Jackpot Ultras 100 Mile on February 16, 2024.

At the Jackpot Ultras, which took place in Nevada, he won his age group and had “a lot of fun,” meeting seven other male athletes racing in their 80s. Six of them grabbed dinner the night beforehand. “They are hard-chargers, real experienced fellows, and I really got a kick out of them.”

During the desert race, one of the biggest obstacles for Hesseltine was the temperature swing from warm, bright 70-degree Fahrenheit days to the cold night. “During the day I was looking forward to the night and during the night I was looking forward to the next day. I also haven’t done very many loops that tight, which works on you psychologically a little bit.” Hesseltine completed 85 loops and said that one of the highlights of the experience was in helping other runners get going again, encouraging them to drink broth, eat, sit out a lap, and to rejoin him.

Four months prior to the Jackpot Ultras 100 Mile, Hesseltine ran the Tunnel Hill 100 Mile. “The Jackpot 100 Mile was mostly hardscape, and that was hard. The Tunnel Hill 100 Mile was a dirt run, but it’s not the hilliest run you ever saw. It’s a great run, and it’s on a rails-to-trails setup, with maybe 1,000 feet of climbing. Of course, that has its own obstacles, because you’re running in the same motion most of the time. I’ve done mountain 100 milers too — a lot of them, but a flatter one has its own challenges,” says Hesseltine.

He finished the Tunnel Hill 100 Mile in 26 hours, 22 minutes, which is quite a solid 100-mile finishing time for a runner of any age. Now an octogenarian, Hesseltine’s performance set a new USATF men’s 80-84 age group record by a remarkable two and a half hours.

Wally Hesseltine - 2024 Jackpot Ultras 100 Mile

After 42 years of running a race a month, Wally Hesseltine has no intention of leaving the sport. Here, Hesseltine races the 2024 Jackpot Ultras 100 Mile.

A Nationwide Ultra Goal

Hesseltine started in on a new goal of racing an ultramarathon in every state in 2020 and is nearing the end of his list. He just raced the 2024 Mississippi Trail 50k on March 2, and the Marquette Trail 50k is on August 17 this year, leaving only three states to go after that pair of races.

During our interview ahead of the Mississippi Trail 50k, Hesseltine commented on the challenge, “I want to be sure I get it done. It has a pretty liberal time cutoff. We’ll have to see how arduous it is. I test myself with the cutoff limits and then I practice picking it up.”

Hesseltine is meticulous with his planning and preparation. About his planning for the Mississippi Trail 50k, he says, “If I could do a 15-minute mile pace, I’d be very happy, but I can do 16- or 17-minute miles. It has a 12-hour cutoff, so you could get over 20-minute miles. We’ll see what happens.”

Turns out, Hesseltine did great. He crossed the finish line in 9:16, in 51st place of 61 finishers.

In training, Hesseltine aims to clock 60 miles per week, two to three weeks per month. Most of those miles are solo, and he typically stacks two back-to-back long runs of 15 to 20 miles and around 3,500 feet of climbing each week. He always takes one day off per week, and nutrition, recovery, strength training, and therapy, such as massages, have all been aspects he “sparsely” focuses on.

“I maintain my weight, so I focus some on nutrition. I consider myself genetically blessed to get away with this. I’ve slowed some, so I have to deal with that, but I know how to get these things done, so I like to do them,” he says.

While not finishing a race hasn’t happened often — he has seven total DNFs including getting off course and not being able to finish — he pays close attention to the cutoff times these days. Often, he’ll also run a 5k at the beginning of a month when he has an ultra planned, just in case he isn’t able to finish the ultra and so that he can maintain his racing streak.

Family Support

While his family is not involved with ultrarunning, they enjoy supporting his passion. “On my 80th birthday, my wife, both of my children, their spouses, and their children all ran the 2023 Bad Bass 5k trail race in Oakland, California. That was good. That was fun,” says Hesseltine.

Wally Hesseltine and family - 2023 Bad Bass 5k

Wally Hesseltine’s family joined him for the Bad Bass 5k in 2023.

Lynn [Hesseltine’s wife] travels with me and supports and watches. She doesn’t stay up all night at the 100 milers. I don’t bother her too much in runs that are shorter than 100 miles. We stay in the state when we go to these things, and we have fun afterward. We see the sites and go out to dinner and it’s a very fun thing. After the work of running is done, that’s when the fun starts.”

After he wraps up his goal to run an ultra in every state, his next focus will be to return to the places he’s most enjoyed. Hesseltine says, “I do like running a lot, needless to say, and I want to do it as long as I can. I don’t have any intention to quit at all.”

Call for Comments

  • Have you ever partaken in a running or racing streak?
  • As we all age as runners, how do your racing and running goals change?



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