Monday, June 17, 2013

Dipsea: Part 1

This is what I remember: this winding, rutted, root-addled, miserable excuse for a trail, hugging the fall-line through a dark-as-night wood. This, and feeling slightly terrified for my old man.

I don’t remember where I saw it—must have been an old race pamphlet from the pre-internet days—but I still vividly remember looking at pictures like this as my dad explained that he had managed to get a spot in some race called the Dipsea; still remember that surge of horror and excitement as I pictured him staggering to the top of a mountain ominously called “Cardiac,” and then plunging headlong into the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. It didn’t help matters that I was only seven, maybe eight, and I’d never heard of trail running before. Running was supposed to happen on tracks and on the traffic-controlled courses of neighborhood fun runs. Still, I was nervous, amazed, and more than a little confused. Why would anyone do that, let alone my dad? What’s wrong with my dad? And what else don’t I know about him?

I ran my first Dipsea last Sunday, but I’ve put off writing about it until today—Father’s Day—because I realized that my desire to run it has at least something to do with my relationship with my own father. Don’t worry, I’m not going into that in any detail, but I will say that one of the pleasures of getting into running in the last year has been the opportunity to share something with him that was an enormous part of his life for almost 40 years, but that he’s recently had to give up.As unfortunate as that timing has worked out to be, it's been great for us both to have running in common, and great for me to have a handy and experienced reference for what I can reasonably expect out of the body that I've inherited. I should also mention that he apparently has extraordinary powers of persuasion/luck, since not only did he work his way into Dipsea twice during the early 80s, just as the popularity of running was making the race notoriously difficult to get into, but he also managed to get me into this year’s race. I’m going to give a report on my run in a later post, but first a little background, since Dipsea is something of an unusual race. Here are some of the basics.

What: A 7.4-mile trail race that starts in downtown Mill Valley (Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco) and finishes at the ocean in Stinson Beach. The Dipsea trail is renowned for its ability to take your breath away with punishing climbs and stunning views alike; torture yourself up nearly 700 steps, followed quickly by another 2-plus miles of steady climbing, and you’ll be rewarded with redwood groves, million-dollar vistas of San Francisco’s shore, and a cool ocean breeze blowing through mountain meadows. All of this, however, makes the competition fierce before the race even begins. Because the race is mostly on trails that can only generously be called “single-track,” the number of entrants has to be kept low. Getting in is hard, and staying in is harder; run a fast enough race and you can qualify automatically for the following year, but you won’t be the only one on the course with that plan in mind.


When: The second Sunday of June, every year since 1905 (with the exception of a couple of years during the Depression; this makes Dipsea the second-oldest footrace of any kind in the US, behind only the Boston Marathon), at precisely 8:30am. And then at 8:31. And 8:32. And every minute until 9:22, when the last group of runners leaves the starting line and dashes off towards the infamous stairs. That’s because the race is handicapped by age and gender, with everyone but the "scratch" runners--men between 19 and 30--getting a head start of anywhere as much as 25 minutes. The system is incredibly complicated, but the result is tremendous: the race has been won by 70-year-old men, 8-year-old girls, and just about everyone in between. And because the handicap is built into the start of the race, two other nice things are accomplished: traffic on the course is staggered, helping to alleviate bottlenecking; and the race for the finish line becomes a real-time contest for first place.

How: Any way you can.OK, you have to get yourself from start to finish on foot, but the race is on an open course, meaning you're allowed to get there by any route you see fit, with a few exceptions of areas designated as off-limits. Often this has resulted in disastrous wrong turns or disqualifications, but mostly it just means that there are several shortcut options, with names like Suicide and Swoop, that are available to runners who know where to find them (some are unnamed and unmarked) and feel confident enough to negotiate them.

Who: Locals, mostly. In addition to the fact that it's a tremendous advantage to be well familiar with the course, the race committee gives a homefield advantage to local entrants by requiring that applications be sent via USPS, and then allotting slots on a first-come, first-served basis. This is also a race that is steeped in tradition, with many famous runners having participated every year for decades, and many families with several generations of Dipsea regulars in their ranks. At the start of each heat past winners are introduced, and standing at the start provides a humbling lesson in the history of this truly unique race.

Why: Well, there are nearly as many answers to that question as there are people who have run Dipsea. And since one of the ways that the committee allots the small number of coveted spots each year is by inviting letters describing inspirational or hard-luck stories, many of those answers are much better than mine. For just one example, see this story of a guy who lined up in the heat right before me. For me, though, it was simple: this was where I fell in love with trail running. One year ago, I was at Stinson Beach to celebrate my sister's wedding. I had started running a few months earlier, and had definitely settled into the habit, but at that point is was mostly something I did grudgingly, out of necessity. Heading out for a walk one afternoon, I noticed the Dipsea trailhead and got an idea in my head. I tried to ignore, but the next morning I was up at sunrise, lacing up my shoes, and--before I could stop to consider whether I had any business being out there--panting my way up the winding trail, watching the ocean spread out beneath my feet. I ran eleven miles that morning, from Stinson to Muir Woods--easily my longest run to that point, and on the toughest terrain I'd ever tried. But I never noticed how hard I was working until I got back and felt it in my legs, and in my lungs. I'd never done anything as physically strenuous in my life, but I didn't notice because I was right where I wanted to be, floating up fern-lined steps, weaving through redwoods, and gliding down poppy-filled meadows. That's why I ran Dipsea: to be right where I wanted to be. That, and to figure out what's up with my dad.

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