This fall, one of the most venerated traditions in all of Italian history will be observed right here in humble North Beach: the Statuto Race. The fourth oldest foot race in the United States, the Statuto was originally scheduled to mark its one hundredth year in 2020. Of course Covid had other plans for us, and the race had to be canceled last year. So this October 24th, the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club (SFIAC), North Beach and the city at large finally celebrate the legendary race’s centennial.

I recently had the honor of meeting the “Lion of The Statuto,” the man who has run the race more times than anyone in its history: Dominic Spinetta. A retired Battalion Chief for the San Francisco Fire Department, Dominic is one of the most remarkable people I’ve met in a long time. Last weekend we shared a sunny table on SFIAC’s spiffy new parklet, where Dominic told me everything there is to know about the Statuto. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is recounted below.

But first, a little history is in order: All the way back in 1919, the first Statuto Race was organized in North Beach by Unione Sportiva, the Italian sporting club that was a precursor to the modern-day SFIAC. The foot race quickly became a local favorite, energizing and uniting the Italian-American community in North Beach and across San Francisco. Outside of last year’s pause and one more during World War Two, the Statuto has been run every year since. But the origins of the Statuto actually go back much, much further–all the way to pre-Medieval Tuscany.

Statuto Race Joe Content SFIAC

Competitors in an early Statuto race in North Beach. Note the “US” logo on the dark shirted players, standing for Unione Sportiva. | Photo courtesy SFIAC

Two millennia ago (give or take a few centuries), the Etruscans living in what is now Northern Italy began holding festivals that revolved around various competitive games. Though generally focusing on horse and foot races, these ancient games also included more arcane contests, such as the goading of buffaloes.*

[easy-tweet tweet=”On October 24th, Dominic Spinetta will run the Statuto Race….at 84 years of age.” usehashtags=”no”]The games were well-represented in Etruscan art of the period, and proved so popular over the centuries that in 1271, exactly 750 years ago, they were literally written into the Verona legal code. The Statuto Albertino of that year (statuto being the Latin word for law) dictated that two races were to be held each year on the first Sunday of Lent: a horse race and a foot race. The runners traditionally ran naked, with a palio verde (green cloth) awarded to the winner, and a rooster given to the loser–who was expected to tour the village with his booby prize.

There was also a women’s version of the race, which was similarly mandated by law over a century later. And though it’s thought the female contestants ran clothed, the requirements were anything but strict: in fact, the rules specified the race as open to “honest women, even if only one is to participate; however, if no honest women are available, then prostitutes would run.”

These days we’re a touch more civilized; for one thing, in the Statuto, the women and men run together. (Likewise, there are no roosters, though there are some very nice trophies and medals to be had.)

The Statuto’s route has remained basically unchanged for the last century: it begins and ends at SFIAC’s headquarters at 1630 Stockton Street, taking runners to North Point Street, then south on the Embarcadero to Bryant Street and back. It’s a total of eight kilometers (or about 5 miles), with a 2k walking option that turns around at Pier 23, so there’s something for everyone’s fitness level. Traditionally run on the second Sunday of June to commemorate the Statuto Albertino’s signing, this year the race has been postponed until October due to lingering pandemic restrictions.

As someone who works hard at staying fit, I’ve got a lot of respect for runners, but I don’t run myself. There was a time that Dominic Spinetta didn’t either, but as you’ll learn, that day is long gone. On October 24th, Dominic will run the Statuto for the ?th time–at 84 years of age. And believe it or not, that’s not even the most remarkable thing.

When I sat down with Dominic for our chat, we started out talking about what everyone’s talking about: the vaccine. As we took down our masks at the table, I told him I had taken the Moderna; he said he had received the Pfizer a couple of months prior.

His next words would stop me in my tracks.


Dominic Spinetta: I had three different doctors call me to give me the vaccine. I’ve got Stage Four lung cancer. Spread to my bones; I’ve had it for almost five years.

That’s why I’m excited about the interview. I want to tell you all about cold water swimming and everything.

Joe Bonadio: Well, then we’ve got a lot to talk about. We’ll start with the Statuto. From what I understand, you’ve been running this race for a long time. How many years has it been?

DS: Oh, art least twenty-five, probably. I started running when I was 40. Started out at Stow Lake. I knew this gal Joan Ulliot who was a marathon runner, and qualified for the olympics. She was dating a friend of mine, another firefighter. One day she was doing her daily 12-mile run, and I was sitting there having a cup of coffee.

She said “Come on Dom, once around Stow Lake. Just one mile.” I said, Okay. So I ran without stopping for one mile.

I bragged about that for three weeks.

JB: (Laughs) You didn’t think you had it in you!

DS: No! I was 40 years old, and I was pushing a few weights, but no cardio really. But you had to be in shape to be in the fire department.

But anyway, from there it went to two mile, then four miles. Then we ran the Bay to Breakers, and my speed started to pick up. From there I went into half marathons, and marathons–and then Ultras.

JB: You liked it.

DS: Well, I got hooked on it. And I got pretty fast.

Dominic Spinetta (#273) runs in the 2015 Statuto Race, directly in front of the SFIAC. | Photo: Matt Spinetta

JB: Wow. How long did it take for you to get from that first miracle mile to doing marathons?

DS: I did a marathon after about two years. A pretty quick one, I did about 3:42, in my forties.

JB: That’s pretty low.

DS: It’s pretty fast. My best one was the San Francisco Marathon, when I was 48 years old. I ran a 3:15. That’s a 7-½ minute mile for 26 straight miles.

JB: (Whistles)

DS: So it took off from there. I always used to ride a bike, and I swam in the bay. And after my first couple of marathons, I joined the South End Rowing Club when I was 43, and we had what we called The Escape From Alcatraz.

For that race you swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco, then you ride your bicycle to Mill Valley–and then you run a double Dipsea. From Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, and back over Mount Tam. The Dipsea is a very famous run: the second oldest race in the United States. First is the Boston Marathon, then Dipsea, then I believe the Bay to Breakers. The Statuto is the fourth oldest.

JB: So when you say double Dipsea, that means you run it twice?

DS: You run over, then back. That’s after swimming from Alcatraz and riding your bike to Mill Valley. Doing that kind of got me inspired, so the next year I did the Ironman in Hawaii.

JB: How old were you at that point?

DS: Let’s see….about 46. That one is a 2-½ mile swim in the ocean; 112 miles on a bicycle; and then you run a marathon.

JB: Jesus.

DS: You have to do within a certain cutoff, and I beat the cutoff, no problem. So then I got really inspired.

We did what they call a Davis Double, a 208-mile bicycle ride in about 14 hours. Then in 1986, I was approached by an outfit called ADAPT–America’s Drug Abuse Prevention Team. We did a cross-country run, a relay across the United States, for drug abuse. We started with teams of 10 people for publicity, then we broke up into individual runners.

We started in San Francisco at 8:00 in the morning, and by 8:00 the next morning we were in Carson City. We averaged a 7:20 [per mile] clip, and we reached Washington DC in fifteen days. Running.

JB: Wow. How many people?

DS: We had 16 people, broken up in groups of five or six. And we’d have 6-hour relays.

I’d run 24 miles one day and 20 the next. About 140 miles in one week.

Statuto Race

The early Statuto Races were hugely popular events, drawing runners to North Beach from all over San Francisco. | Photo courtesy SFIAC

JB: Was that the toughest thing you’ve done?

DS: No. I ran the Western 100: that was from Squaw Valley to Auburn.18,000 feet of climbing, and they allow you 30 hours. That’s like running 14 Dipseas in a row, nonstop.

JB: That was the worst?

DS: It probably was, yeah. That was quite a feat. Then the Escape From Alcatraz, I did that when I turned 78. The oldest guy by far. And that has a cutoff time, so you can’t just go slow.

I originally ran that when I was 70, and I held that record until some guy broke it years later, by just a couple of months. So when I was 78, I did it again.

So if someone wants to break that record…

JB: They can have it.

DS: …they can have it.

But let’s talk about the Statuto Race. It’s such a great race, and it’s so much fun. And the job they do with this race: everyone makes coffee and donuts in the morning, and you can get a little brandy in yours if you want.

It’s a lot of fun people, and it’s a low-key race. In my age group I’ve been doing very well, because there are fewer and fewer people in that group. (Laughs)

JB: You’re dominant!

DS: This year, I’ll be 84 when I run it. I’m 83 now, I’ll be 84 in September.

JB: What is your birthday?

DS: 9/11.

JB: The same as mine.

DS: No sh*t?

JB: No sh*t. (Much laughter)

DS: That’s fantastic!

JB: That’s unbelievable. (We proceed to high five and trade driver’s licenses)

DS: Anyway, back to the Statuto.

JB: Yes! So this year will be the hundredth running of the race.

DS: That’s why I why I really want to do it. I don’t know how long I can run. With the lung cancer, and the age–but I still want to do it.

Over the past year, the SF Italian Athletic Club has blossomed into a popular, public-facing bar and restaurant. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: It’s been almost five years since you’re diagnosis. Have you been running consistently since then?

DS: Yes. Slowly, and not as far. The lifesaver for me is cold water swimming: it builds up the immune system. The more people find out about that, the more they are going to realize the benefits of it.

There are people spending hundreds of dollars to put themselves in ice tanks.

JB: No kidding.

DS: I go down sometimes for my birthday swims, and I swim with the ladies–in my birthday suit. But you don’t have to put that in there.

JB: Are you kidding me? That could be the title of the article, my friend! (Laughter)

DS: Hey, I gotta stay young!

JB: You seem to be on top of that…

DS: I try. I enjoy people, I enjoy life. I lost my wife about ten years ago. I got five great kids. I’m going to be running this race with my son and my grandson–three generations.

JB: Man! What are their names?

DS: My son is Matt Spinetta. And Danny Hagen is my grandson, he’s my daughter’s son.

They’re pretty good runners. I did the Paris Marathon when I turned 68, and my son came over to watch. And he got inspired–so now he’s a triathlete. He did an Ironman, and he runs spin classes, and he’s a weightlifter. It’s an inspiring story.

And I’m trying to train people down at the South End. Ladies of course, but I’ll work with guys if I have to. But these are people who have never run, and they might have bad knees or something else. This one gal, 45 years old, I convinced her to run a half marathon. This year, I’m going to try to get her to do a marathon.

I love to inspire people to run. You know, I’ve got an artificial hip. My doctors told me, You don’t run on an artificial hip.

So I ran on it. And after about five years, the doctors are looking at the x-rays, and they start asking me: How far do you run? How do you do it exactly?  All of a sudden, I was their poster boy.

But back to the Statuto.

JB: Yes, back to the Statuto!

DS: I’ve got the 100th medal for the Dipsea, the 100th for the Bay to Breakers–I want the 100th for the Statuto. I want to put them all together.

I’ve got the 99th for Boston, which I had to qualify to run. That’s another story: A friend of mine, he asked me to train his girlfriend. She wanted to run a marathon. Little gal, lived in the Marina.

So I trained her, got her going pretty quick. And I had plans for her, I didn’t tell her. Her sister lived in Virginia Beach, and my daughter was going to school at Old Dominion [in Norfolk]. So I said, let’s go do that marathon out there.

I ended up bringing her in at 3:34 for her first marathon. And I qualified her and myself for the Boston Marathon.

JB: That’s pretty impressive.

DS: My claim to fame.

*Though it’s not entirely clear what this practice involved, it may have been an early form of bullfighting.


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San Francisco Italian Athletic Club
1630 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 781-0165