Race Report: 101st Annual Dipsea

June 2011

**Time: 1:06:03
Place: 625th/196th/69th ** (see below)

On Sunday I ran the 101st annual Dipsea, the oldest trail race in America. The 7.4 mile course starts in Mill Valley (30 minutes north of San Francisco) and finishes at the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach. In between is about 2,200 feet of climbing and descending over some very rugged terrain.

I got to the start well ahead of time, especially given that I was slotted to start in the very last wave of runners, 52 minutes behind the first wave. The Dipsea is unique in that it is a handicapped race. Runners are given up to a 25 minute head start on the field based on age and gender, and each wave goes off at one-minute intervals, starting with the largest head-start group: men ages 74+ and under 7; women 66+ and under 8. “Scratch” runners, males between 19 and 30, start all the way in the back of the pack.

In addition, there are two sections of the Dipsea, each of which follow this handicapping system - the Invitational section (which starts first) and the Runner section. To qualify for the Invitational, you have to run well in the previous year - if you start in the Runner section, this means the top 750 overall, including the Invitational runners who started well ahead of you.

As the Scratch wave of the Runner section was finally preparing to start, someone remarked that the “SCR” abbreviation on our racing bibs stood for “screwed.”

We all knew it was going to be a tall order to move from our starting position

  • 1328th place - up to 750th or better by the end of the race. It wasn’t until afterwards that I did the math - you need to pass one person every six seconds to make up that many spots.

Faced with that challenge, we were off. The first quarter mile of the race is really just a prelude to the famous Dipsea steps, and I took a fairly easy pace in light of that. We hit the first of the three flights of stairs (671 in all) and I realized that the major challenge was not the stairs themselves but rather the herd of people who were trying to make their way up at various speeds.

I don’t have the actual experience to back this up, but heading through that pack felt like trying to navigate rush hour on a major freeway on a motorcycle. Throw in the added variable of a constantly changing number of available lanes, a lot of other motorcycles darting in and out of traffic, and a shoulder filled with hazards. Bay area residents will no doubt recognize this as 101 on a good day.

The two breaks in between the three flights of stairs were therefore a free for all of runners finally liberated from the death march, trying to pick up as many spots as possible before the next flight. After the 671st step, the course actually opened up for the first time, but not for very long and with a decent uphill grade to still contend with. I was able to pick up some places here, dodging both runners and water cups through the first aid station.

The first technical downhill section began, and we were back to rush hour traffic. As perennial fastest-time winner Alex Varner has noted, this is possibly the most frustrating section of the course. It’s near enough to the start that you’re still dealing with a lot of traffic. Because it’s downhill, though, everyone thinks they’re going pretty fast, which results in a lot of people jumping into the passing “lane” (if you can call it a lane) on the left and causing pileups behind them. The section was thankfully short and we were unceremoniously deposited onto Panoramic Highway after a very steep final drop.

At this point we had given back about half of the elevation that you gained from the steps. The other half evaporated with the descent into Muir Woods - the infamous “Suicide” section. The organizers actually had the sign that’s been used for many years to let runners know what they’re getting into:

Naturally, I went left. The challenge here is that even though the terrain is just as steep as many other sections, there are no stairs or even much structure to speak of. Just lots of loose dirt and dust. The pack was still bunched up pretty tightly here and it was a challenge to keep a precise handle on your speed to avoid collisions.

We bottomed out in Muir Woods and began the second big climb of the race, this one up to 1,300 feet. For the first several minutes the trail was decidedly single track, which meant that we were once again in very close quarters and looking for any opportunity available to pass. This often meant a judiciously timed scramble up the more uneven sections of trail.

By this point I had realized that this is perhaps the most important skill to master in the early miles - the art of knowing when to pass, and executing the pass with minimal extra effort. You have to be very mentally engaged with your surroundings and make a thousand small but instant decisions about which energy expenditures will be worth it.

Luckily the trail soon split, offering some relief from the congestion but not from the uphill. It took a lot longer than I thought before the final incline, “Cardiac,” came into view. At the highest point in the race awaited a water station and another round of “dodge the water cups” - I have a vivid image of one of them exploding over my head as I ducked underneath someone’s outstretched arm to avoid being clotheslined.

At this point the Bay Area fog machine was in full effect and in fact made for ideal racing conditions - slightly overcast with a bit of mist in some places. You could look ahead and see a trail of runners fading off into the clouds. Very Scottish-moor-esque.

The only flat section of the race followed - it was here (or slightly earlier) that I really got into the rhythm of saying “on your left… thanks” as I passed people. In the first miles there really isn’t much point and you would just hear people yelling blanket statements about keeping to the right. By the “Swoop,” though, the pack was thinned out enough that it seemed like the polite thing to do. The Swoop is very similar to Suicide - very steep, and not a lot of structure. You find yourself weaving back and forth, cutting your own mini-switchbacks in an effort to not just skid down the whole thing on your butt.

We rejoined the main course after being unceremoniously dumped down a very steep final drop (for a second time). This marked the start of the Steep Ravine section, known for its stairs that are anything but regular in their reliability, incline, and direction. About halfway through this section I spotted someone on the ground up ahead - I thought that someone had misjudged their footing and taken a dive. But no - this was a photographer who had chosen to set up camp along one of the nastiest stretches of trail. Not exactly something I would have volunteered for but I bet he got some good shots. Here’s one - I’m in the back trying to decide if the stairs are wide enough for two people.

We hit the last real uphill on the course, “Insult Hill,” meaning there was a little over a mile left to run. I had absolutely no idea what place I might be in, but I figured it was a good time to start running as if I was outside the top 750, so I powered up the hill, onto Panoramic Highway and down into a very overgrown shortcut, pushing a lot of undergrowth out of the way. As we popped back onto the highway I caught up with a woman as she also passed a kid who turned out to be all of 13; he put on a pretty strong, if temporary, surge after she asked how old he was.

As I approached the final shortcut I sensed that someone was coming up from behind me, and I turned my head slightly to check and asked if he wanted to take the lead on the upcoming single track. He declined though, and that turned out for the best - I went flying through the narrow gap in the guardrail and didn’t see him again.

The race’s most famous spot, the stile before the final unceremonious dumping onto Panoramic, is famous for a reason. In addition to being easily accessible to spectators, it’s also been the site of some of the most spectacular wipeouts. The woman running immediately in front of me took a nasty dive onto the pavement, but was fully recovered by the time I leapt over the stile, down the hill, and proceeded to very nearly do the exact same thing.

The cowbells were in full effect by then, and certainly helped to supercharge the final sprint to the finish. Afterwards I contemplated taking a jump into the ocean but instead opted for a post-race burger and beer with Laura & co., who had arrived at the finish just in time to see me take the final turn into Stinson Beach.

Even after the race I had no idea whether I had made the top 750. I asked someone nearby and found out that my time was about 1:06. It was slower than I had been hoping for but I had also massively underestimated how much of a factor the congestion on the course would be. I found out later that the fastest time from my section was a 58:40, and I felt a bit better that I was only about 8 minutes off that pace.

As it turned out, I didn’t have too much to worry about - I finished 625th overall, including the 562 Invitational runners who all had between 27 - 52 minutes of a head start on my group. Based on time, I was #196 of the 1,327 finishers. The main goal was to qualify for the invitational next year. I’m hoping that being in the Invitational section will help make things a little less congested, and that having one under my belt will help in knocking some time off of this year’s result. I’ll still be starting in the back of the pack with the Scratch group, though - in approximately 625th place. It’s a two year race.

Right now that race is the only one on my calendar - dipsea.org has already begun the countdown to June 10, 2012. Between the marathon in April and this race it’s been about two months that I’ve had some event upcoming on the race calendar, so I’ll most likely be calling that a wrap for the season and taking some recovery time.