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May 30, 2006

The Dipsea Race

OK, I've done a lot of rambling about totally random stuff lately, so for this post I'm sticking 100% to running, in an effort to equalize things a bit. Well, let's make that 99% running...have I mentioned that there's a spelling bee this week? Less than 48 hours away now. Just thought I'd remind you. Now on with the post...

Every year on the second Sunday in June, the world-famous Dipsea 7.1M trail race (see race schedule link at right) is run through the hills of Marin County, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach.

Each of the last 8 years, I’ve been there, too. And in less than two weeks, I’ll be there again.

The Dipsea is truly a legendary race, held in almost religious regard amongst Bay Area trail runners. It is the second oldest footrace in the country (behind only the Boston Marathon), and this June will mark the 96th running. The motto of the Dipsea is “The Greatest Race”, and it is definitely the most exciting event most people will ever run.

This race is not for the faint of heart. Although only slightly longer than a 10K, more than 75% of the race is on challenging single-track trail or fire roads. The course profile is simple: climb 650 feet, immediately descend 500’, climb another 1360’, then race downhill through the forest until you reach sea level at the beach.

It all starts in the picturesque town square of Mill Valley, but immediately turns nasty as runners ascend 670 stairs, the height equivalent of a fifty-story building, in order to reach the start of the trail. They cross Panoramic Highway, descend into Muir Woods National Monument, then start the second climb up and over Mount Tamalpais. The long final downhill includes railroad-tie stairs, river crossings, and jumping over an unmarked fencepost about ½ mile from the finish.

Different stretches of the course have distinctively intimidating names such as Cardiac, Steep Ravine, The Swoop, Insult Hill, and Dynamite. The most ominous name of all comes relatively early in the race. At a fork in the trail about 1.75 miles into the race, a sign is posted: one arrow on the sign points to a trail marked “Suicide”, and the other arrow says “safer”. As the race brochure will tell you, Suicide is the traditional racer’s route.

The trail becomes crowded in many places, and hot weather causes dusty conditions which limit visibility and make footing very treacherous. Passing becomes dangerous on the long narrow stretches, especially if a competitor doesn’t want to cede the trail. In these situations, the race turns into a full-contact sport, and it’s not unusual to see people knocked to the ground. A good deal of time is also spent jumping over fallen runners who have tripped on precarious roots and rocks, or slipped on the steep slopes. Some runners even start the race wearing protective equipment that may become necessary deep in the forest.

The race is unique for several reasons. Foremost is its handicap-start system, which gives head start minutes based on gender and age. Thus, the oldest women and youngest kids leave first. Each minute thereafter, the other runners leave in groups according to their assigned handicap. By the time the 20- to 30-year-old men leave, the first runners have more than a 20-minute head start.

The handicap system streamlines the amount of runners on the single-track at any one time. It also means that younger, faster runners are constantly passing all those who started ahead of them. (For a sense of what this looks like, check out this photo of me from last year's race. For this one hour each year, I feel absloutely no shame about barging past old men or young girls as I'm storming through the trail. Don't hate the player, hate the game.)

The first person to cross the finish line wins, and the only thing that matters is overall place; no age group or gender awards are given. The assigned handicap times are adjusted periodically to make the race more competitive. Typically the first five finishers include a combination of high-school runners, top 50- or 60-year-old age-groupers, or extremely fast open runners.

If you finish in the top 100 your place will be on your bib number the following year. The first 35 finishers are awarded a black shirt numbered with their overall finishing place. These shirts are coveted status symbols in Marin County, and are the most prized possession of any runner’s collection- far more valuable than any PR or age group award.

Another unique aspect of the race is the “open course” system. Basically, once you leave Mill Valley, you’re free to take any shortcuts through the forest that you know about. This provides a huge potential advantage to Marin County runners who frequently train on the Dipsea trail and explore various options to shave a few seconds wherever possible.

There are several places where the trail splits into branches, which reconnect at a later point. There is strategy involved with taking a longer, wider route instead of a more direct single-track which may be crowded.

The consensus “best route” is marked, but racers are always dashing off through the woods at unmarked areas. It’s risky to follow someone off the course, because there’s no positive way of knowing if a “shortcut” is actually a faster route, and you both may end up getting lost or injured.

The race started as a 2-person contest in 1904, then grew into an invitational event, and eventually became open to the public. Entry into the race is somewhat complicated and intentionally favors Marin County runners. In order to limit damage to the trail, the race is limited to less than 1500 runners, although about 4000 apply. However, with persistence (and a good bribe- I’m not kidding), it is possible to obtain an entry.

I love this race and fear it in almost equal amounts. Through the years, it has come to occupy a special place in my heart. The Dipsea will be on my mind a lot over the next two weeks, and I’ll write a couple more posts about it as race day approaches.

15 comments:

backofpack 5/30/06, 8:34 AM  

Tricky. I read this last night, then it vanished! I laughed at the photo - you look like you are trying to politely slide by. This race sounds a little too cutthroat for the likes of me!

Deene 5/30/06, 8:39 AM  

this sounds like an absolutely fun race. the photo made me laugh along with appropriate comment - don't hate the player..

matt 5/30/06, 8:47 AM  

thanks for the terrific description of the race, donald. i had no idea about the "open course". do you try to find alternate routes or do you stick to the tried and true?

hehehe, that picture is one of the funniest things i have ever seen. please tell me that you have that framed somewhere :)

are the double dipsea and quad dipsea races held around the same time? are they structured differently?

robtherunner 5/30/06, 9:34 AM  

Thanks for the description of the race. I have known about the dipsea race, but never actually knew it was run in this was. Sounds even more exciting now.

robtherunner 5/30/06, 9:36 AM  

Ok, so the above post should read.

I have known about the dipsea race, but never actually knew it was run in this "way".

olga 5/30/06, 9:54 AM  

Yep, I've heard all the perks of "open course" and handicap start. Sounds cool! But I'll wait till i move to the area to take advantage of knowing the shortcuts and suicide drops:) Good luck! The report ahould be amazing!

Robb 5/30/06, 11:18 AM  

At least it was not a hip-check Donald. That is a classic photo! I agree with Matt - get it framed!

susie 5/30/06, 2:14 PM  

What a great description-to love and fear it! Can't wait for the race report on this one.

Karen in Calgary 5/30/06, 4:05 PM  

THIS sounds like FUN! Challenge and special rules, bragging shirts and a great distance... who needs those dumb ol' city road marathons, anyway? I'd rather do this one :)

Cliff 5/30/06, 7:36 PM  

Donald I love your pic. Hahaha ;).

Darrell 5/31/06, 12:00 AM  

Everytime I read about this race, it just sounds like utter chaos, only slightly controlled. But on the other hand, a whole lot of fun. Do you have one of the coveted black shirts?

angie's pink fuzzy 5/31/06, 7:45 AM  

ooo, have fun! I've heard so much about this race, I can't wait for a first-hand report!!!

jeanne 6/3/06, 10:32 AM  

I can't wait to read the write up from this race. and that photo!! PRICELESS!

Anonymous,  6/16/06, 3:53 PM  

Great write up on the Dipsea. I'm not sure about the Mt. Tam part though. I first learned about the race reading the inflight SW Airlines magazine years ago. I've run the race three times now; 2003, 2005 and 2006, missing 04 because of a torn ACL. The race was more fun this year as I chose to run a little slower and truly enjoy the course. Finishing 3 minutes behind the prior year left me feeling great; in contrast to my 2005 photo: http://www.brightroom.com/view_user_photo.asp?EVENTID=8865&PWD=&ID=15240023&FROM=photos&BIB=1084
I'm hoping to see photos of the 06 race soon. Great race and lots of fun (memories).
jb
Santa Fe, NM

Bex 8/24/06, 7:39 PM  

Looved the photo! I really really want to run this race. Count me in for next year. I'll be the one with elbow pads and a helmet.

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