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June 7, 2006

Dipsea Syndrome

Sometimes I think of myself as a fast runner.

The Monterey Peninsula is a fairly small area, and I train with a group of the fastest local runners. In any hometown 5K or 10K race, I can often run fast enough to win an age group award. When I have a solid effort in the Big Sur Marathon, I’ll typically finish in the top 30 or 40 runners overall. With Big Sur at the end of April, after a good race I’ll sometimes spend the month of May thinking that as runners go, I’m not half bad.

Then I travel to the Dipsea Race every June, and come away completely humbled.

The Dipsea is where I go to get my annual whuppin’. It attracts the fastest runners in the Bay Area, many of whom happen to be the best masters and senior runners in America. When I pore through each year's race results, two very powerful lessons emerge:

1) There are an awful lot of very fast runners out there, and
2) I’m not one of them.

I’ve described how the Dipsea employs a handicap start, giving head start minutes to certain runners based on age and gender. I currently start near the tail end of the group. When I first ran this race – before the age of instant Internet-posted race results - I thought that my middle-of-the-pack finishes were due to the head start system. I usually left Marin County believing that from a talent standpoint, I fit right in with the crowd, and as I got older my overall place would start to climb.

But in recent years, when I took the time to look over the results, I discovered that I wasn’t nearly as accomplished as I thought I was. Here in Monterey County I’m a relatively big fish – but compared to the talent in the Bay Area, I’m just a lot of people’s bucket of chum.

There are some simply amazing runners who show up at the Dipsea each year. Even if head start minutes are factored out, my time last year was only the 203rd fastest overall. Russ Kiernan, the 67-year-old winner, ran a course time 5 minutes faster than me. The 4th place finisher was a 51-year-old woman who ran 1 minute faster than me. I can say with complete certainty that I’ve NEVER been beaten by a 51-year-old woman in Monterey. (It's not really a point of pride for me - it's just never happened.)

I also ran 6 minutes slower than a 15-year-old girl, and 1 minute slower than a 13-year-old girl. The number of adolescent boys who beat me are too many to mention. Across almost every age group, there were a large number of people who smoked me.

In my own age group, I was 57th out of 143 – a middle-of-the-pack showing if ever there was one. The top runners in my age ran more than 15 minutes faster than me – or more than two minutes per mile faster over the 7.1 miles. I can’t think of anyone where I live who can beat me by that margin.

I used to come home from the Dipsea somewhat depressed every year, because I never place as well as I think I should (more on this in another post). But I’ve come to think the annual thrashing is a good thing in some ways.

We all could use an honest lesson in humility every now and then. I always come away from this race very humbled, but also motivated to work hard and try closing the gap in the years to come.

In a twisted, Stockholm syndrome kind of way, I actually look forward to the punishment that awaits me at the annual Dipsea Race. It’s my chance to compare myself to the best runners around. And I know that if I ever do start climbing the ranks of these runners, it will be more satisfying than any age group award or top-ten finish in my small Monterey County pond.

One thing is certain: the yearly beat-down I receive there isn’t nearly enough to keep me away from the Dipsea. Because the race itself is glorious. Intense and painful and intimidating as hell, but ultimately beautiful and rewarding. It’s always one of the most vividly memorable experiences of my race year.

And there’s no way I’m going to stop entering just because I’m apprehensive about getting slapped around by some schoolchildren and old ladies.


olga 6/7/06, 9:53 AM  

Hey, now you know how I feel going for country-known ultras:) Big fish in a small pond disappears completely! But I love every minute of it. personal challenges, not placing, is what I am after.

Fe-lady 6/7/06, 10:27 AM  

I ran the Dipsea a few summers ago! We (a friend and myslef) got "in" by sending in a sob-story about how my husband and the friend ran it together years ago (in the early 80s) and did very well...(this was before it got so crowded and crazy!)
Well, hubby has had a hip repalcement since then (jumping from helicopters in the Army wasn't such a good thing) and he is unable to run anymore. He wrote a very nice story that was published in Running Times a few years back-so we sent that in along with a letter saying how I wanted to run with his old buddy Mike, in my husbands honor. We had a great time..weren't fast, so weren't invited back! (But maybe I will try to get in again some year-somehow!) It's hard when you are out of state to get a spot!
Wish I could train there all the time! Beautiful!

stronger 6/7/06, 12:58 PM  

You are brave to type "old" without the "er" at the end.

Deene 6/7/06, 2:37 PM  

i've found a trail run that keeps me humble as well and i hope to do it annually. yep, you can't underestimate old ladies, some of them kick butt.

backofpack 6/7/06, 5:39 PM  

Donald, that's a bit of what it's like here at the back of the pack. You get beat by 74 year old women and 12 year old children. I can't even claim big fish in a small pond...doesn't matter though because it's all fun and challenging!

robtherunner 6/7/06, 9:00 PM  

I agree that we all need to be slapped down now and again to bring us back to earth. I get slapped down more than I like, but hopefully it is doing me some good. I would say that I feel sorry for you, but I don't. I know what it is like to get passed by a man/woman twice my age at the end of the race. Outside I encourage them and tell them good job while inside I am giving myself a big ass whoopin.

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