Pretty nice, right? This is the view if you're facing more or less in the direction of the finish. Behind you are views back down the stairs and into Mill Valley, and beyond that countless Marin County homes clinging to the sides of golden, sunlit hills that plunge into the misty waters of San Francisco Bay. But there was no time to look at that now. Those dark, gently sloping woods ahead were too inviting, and I had too much ground to make up. My plan had been to survive the stairs and make up ground on the downhill; that meant there would be no time to enjoy the view. And besides, this wasn't really what I saw. See, this picture was taken two days before the race, on a hot (at least by Northern California standards) and sunny day, but race day was cool and drizzly, with low cloud cover, and fog blowing off the ocean and through the meadows of Mt. Tam. The view I saw was more like this:
Probably a good thing, since I had no business looking anywhere but the trail under my feet. Crossing Panoramic Highway, the course gets right back onto single-track. There's really only about a quarter-mile of downhill trail here, but it's decently steep--about half stairs--and fairly wide, which made for easy passing. Just as soon as I was getting settled into as decent a pace as I could maintain on some hard-packed, rolling downhill, it was right back onto the road, this time for almost half a mile. With a gentle downhill slope and two lanes of pavement, this was another great section for moving up in the pack. I felt pretty good about the progress I was making at this point, but knew I had a lot more people to catch, and was eager to get back on the trail. More than that, though, I was eager to through the next section of the course, and the harrowing decision that lay ahead.
Until recently, I had never seen the entirety of the Dipsea course, only the section between Stinson and Muir Woods. Granted this is about 5.5 of the roughly 7.4-miles, but it leaves out a couple of infamous portions of the trail: the stairs, and a marked shortcut forbiddingly named "Suicide." Knowing that I would arrive in California three days ahead of the (Sunday) race, I had originally meant to run the course on the Thursday before. That would give me a chance to see the full course, to check out some of the shortcuts, and to establish a rough sense of how I'd need to pace myself to meet my goal of 1:10. But when a delayed flight out of Memphis led to a missed connection in Minneapolis, I arrived a day late and had to cancel my Thursday run. Not wanting to race on only a day's rest (normally this wouldn't be a problem, but it's a pretty tough course), I decided just to go walk the sections I hadn't seen before on Friday. I even wore jeans and left my running shoes at home, knowing that once I was on the trail the urge to run would be close to irresistible.
One thing I've learned in my short time running trails is that people love to get each other (and themselves) worked up about certain notorious sections of trail. The first time I ran the "red" loop in Memphis's Shelby Forest, I half expected to find that it was so named for all of the blood it had claimed from unsuspecting runners; and when I was getting ready to run the Sylamore 25K in Arkansas's Ozark Mountains last February, I spent more time worrying about the much-discussed river crossing than the rest of the course. Things are usually not half as bad as they're made to sound, and you can pretty much be sure that's true when you're told that a section of trail is "suicide." Nonetheless, I wanted to see for myself, if only to compare the shortcut to the other portion of trail, and decide which I'd opt for on race day. Once I've seen it, I thought, I'll know which way to go.
Starting down the shortcut means pushing aside some brush, as this section of trail probably doesn't see a lot of use outside of race day. Not being able to see what's ahead certainly heightens the drama, but there doesn't seem to be much risk of bodily harm, apart from some possible minor scratches, after about 100 feet, though, the trail widens and becomes noticeably steeper. Hard-packed and covered in gravelly dust, it begins to feel less like a trail and more like a small section of hillside too steep for roots to take hold. Walking down this in my street clothes, I began to feel a bit of apprehension, but decided to scramble my way down anyway; it was only about 30 feet or so until the trail flattened out and...WHOOOOSH...POP! I couldn't tell what was causing the rush of sensation coursing through my veins, the pain in my knee or the embarrassment of having been stupid enough to injure myself two days before the race. Faster than I could see it happening, I slipped awkwardly on the loose dirt, and felt a sharp pain in my knee. I'm not really sure how it happened, as I was back up on my feet before I even felt anything, but my knee was sore in a way that I'd never experienced before. For a few minutes, I thought I was done.
Fortunately my knee was feeling fine on Sunday morning, but my anxiety about Suicide was at an all-time high. Sure, I could take the main trail and play it safe, but as I'd seen on my way back up the trail two days earlier, it was also less direct. As I turned off the road and headed to the fork on race day, I still hadn't made up my mind which way I'd go. Maybe it was the fact that the light drizzle had added a little bit of traction to the otherwise dusty trail, maybe it was the voice in my head that kept repeating something I'd read--"all the fastest runners take Suicide"--but either way I quickly found myself pushing aside the brush and falling in line with a train of runners who, like I had two days earlier, wondered aloud why this rather timid section of trail was given such a daunting name. "It gets worse farther down," I yelled, and watched as they slowed down, leaving me room to slide uneventfully by, joining back up with the main trail, and scrambling down the hill into Muir Woods.
Muir Woods is a magical place, home to massive redwoods and to equally over-sized banana slugs, and if you ever find yourself there you absolutely must drop whatever you're doing and go for a leisurely hike on its shaded trails. Unless, of course, what you're doing is running a race. dashing through the parking lot, we dropped down to the course's lone creek crossing--about 40 feet wide and spanned by a narrow wooden plank. I paused for a split second in disbelief as a crowd of people lined up to shuffle single-file across the bridge, then shot straight through the creek, whose water didn't even reach my ankles. Pro tip: running shoes dry out.
At this point I was feeling pretty good. I had passed people, as needed, at every reasonable opportunity, had put the most nerve-wracking obstacle (the stairs) behind me, and knew I had some beautiful trail ahead. Plus, I felt like I'd gone pretty far and still had plenty left in the tank. Then I did some quick math, and remembered I'd only gone two miles! Maybe it's because the terrain varies so quickly, that you get the impression of having traveled more distance than you have; whatever it was, that feeling was about to change. Ahead of me were just over two miles of steady uphill, with over 1000 vertical feet to climb. Now don't get me wrong, that's exactly what I was here for. On most weekends, that's my idea of a good time. If doing it once doesn't run me into the ground, I'll turn around and do it again, and again, until it stops being fun. At race pace, though, the thought was mildly nauseating. I decided to put the thought out of my head, focus on the lush, ferny switchbacks of the hill called Dynamite, and keep my head down.
One of the keys to running steep hills, I've found, is to simply keep moving, the more smoothly the better. Small, quick, even steps are preferable to longer, lurching strides. The idea is simply to keep whatever modest measure of momentum you have, and let your body glide up the hill. No such grace was granted to me this day. This was a slog. Every time I did manage to get some rhythm going, the trail got too steep, or turned too hard, or I simply succumbed to the log-jam of runners all suffering the same fate. Yes, I was keeping my head down, but that just meant the sweat pouring off my head was all ending up in my eyes. Still, I kept my head down. This too shall pass. I kept my head down, watching my feet, for what felt like hours, until I heard a gasp on the trail ahead of me. Then another. I looked up and saw sheet of bright red looming ahead of me: poison oak, my oxygen-depleted brain registered. Except it was full of pale, whitish patches, and it was moving, coming straight down the hill toward me. Blinking the sweat out of my eyes, I took another look and saw a runner, tall and slender, working has way against the stream of runners, with streaks of blood running from the top of his head right into his shoes, covering the majority of the front half of his body. "I'm fine!" You could tell he was getting as tired of having to convince horrified onlookers of that fact as he was bummed that his race was over. All that looking down mixed with low-hanging branches is a dangerous combination, and cuts on the head always bleed profusely. I heard he ended up being fine, but I also know he wasn't the only runner to leave more than a little blood on the course. That said, my at goes off to the excellent first aid workers who were actually out on the course helping injured runners, as well as the rest of the volunteer workers who kept an event that had every right to turn into total chaos working like a smooth, efficient machine.
After the woodsy switchbacks of Dynamite, you emerge into a clearing; the trail straightens out, but continues steadily uphill through a section called Hogsback. It is here, on the left side of the trail as you pass under the power lines, that you'll find Halfway Rock, so named not because it's actually halfway in distance, but because it marks the halfway point on the clock for many runners. At least that's the idea. I dared to look down at my watch and got my first real sense of how realistic my goal of 1:10 had been--31:30! Much as I fought them off, visions of a 1:05 finish danced into my head. That probably doesn't sound like much of a difference, but it felt like the difference between near certain qualification and having to bite my nails for a few days while they sorted out the final results. Still, I told myself, "halfway" is obviously an approximation. Nobody dragged this rock up here years ago so that it could one day mark the halfway point in your race that nobody but you cares about. Head down, keep climbing.
I wasn't so much sick of climbing at this point as I was eager to get to even some modest downhill. I know that sounds like the same thing, but I actually like climbing--just not for so long. One problem with training in Memphis is that we just don't have any sustained hills. Steep hills we have, if you know where to find them, and with enough reps you can pack plenty of climbing into a workout, but you're always going to get plenty of downhill "rest" mixed in. I longed for a little dip in the trail, just enough to build some momentum that I could carry into the next climb. I found myself walking a couple of times, to keep from getting on the wrong side of exhaustion--not a problem on a longer race, but definitely not in the game plan for a seven-miler. In any case, my fitness level was obviously not where I had thought it was, and I felt tremendous relief when I spotted the top of Cardiac Hill, the highest point in the course. From here, it would be (almost) all downhill.
The three-mile descent to the sea begins gently, sloping through wooded sections of trail that, for the first time on the course, are exposed to the soggy Pacific breezes. If you're familiar with the micro-climates of the Bay Area, you know what a profound difference a few crucial feet can make, and things were decidedly more muddy here. Watching people tiptoe through and dance around the sloppier portions, I realized that whatever Memphis (or my own want of training) had cost me on the long climb, it was helping me gain back in the mud! When your entire city lies within 100 vertical feet of the Mississippi River, you get used to running through mud or you don't run trails. You also get used to charging downhill with slippery footing, sliding if you have to, so long as you stay on your feet and keep moving. The confidence that that builds definitely cam in handy as the trail fell away to the coastline, dipping down the wet, mossy steps of Steep Ravine. Before you get there, though, you reach another optional shortcut, known as the Swoop. I didn't know where it was, but somehow I ended up on it, and found it to be aptly named. I hesitate to call what I did here running. It felt more like being a runaway mine car--not like being in one, but being one. The trail was so narrow, so overgrown, that you had no choice to make about where to direct each step. Invariably, the answer was "right there," straight down the trail, and hopefully not long enough to feel the ground, or your momentum will take you right over the handlebars and deposit you in the brush.
And that's about all I remember, until I popped out onto the highway yet again, shot down some more steps through the woods, and popped out over the turnstile that sits a few feet above Highway 1, just a stone's throw from the finish line. At least if you're, you know, someone who's really good at throwing stones. Heading into Stinson with the ocean on your left side, you make a sharp left turn near the fire station and head straight to the finish line. I knew because, despite never having done the race before, I'd studied the turn-by-turn description of the course, with photos, on the Dipsea website, and because I could see the crowd of people waiting there, about 300 yards in front of me. I kicked it into the closest thing I had left that resembled top speed, and even managed to catch a couple more runners in front of me, just in case. I would finish strong, feeling good, and having left it all on the course. And then I heard a voice in my head: "take the second left turn, immediately after the first, onto Arenal Avenue, to reach the beach...on the private road, you'll turn left right after the gate." NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! That was not the finish. one more left turn, and another 300 yards were still ahead of me, and I was done. Done. I am not a good sprinter, and I had already been sprinting for longer than I could maintain. I rounded the bend and saw the expectant crowd in front of me, kindly cheering just as loud as if we were the first runners coming in, and it was then that I knew I would need to walk. Across. The. Finish. Line.
One of the runners I had just passed, a third of my age, passed me right back. Ouch. But I didn't walk. I made ghastly sounds and hideous, contorted faces, to be sure, but I struggled my way across the line in a fashion that would have disqualified me from a speedwalking competition, a minor victory in itself. I tried to give myself a moment to bask in the feeling of accomplishment, the joy of the pure run, the spectacle of natural beauty all around me, but I couldn't resist the temptation to compromise all of that by turning it back into a race and looking at my watch. 1:04. Six minutes better than I had hoped for, one minute better than I had thought possible for me, and good enough to earn me my very own finisher's medal!
It was also good enough for 617th place, which means I qualify to run again next year. Post-race, it was back to Mill Valley to meet up with my dad, sister, and brother-in-law for lunch, the perfect end to a perfect race. Big thanks to everyone who makes this event possible, to all those who have contributed to its storied history, to my dad for helping me secure a spot, and to Ellie and Jon for putting up with my neurotic behavior in the final days before the race!
Run this race if you get a chance. If you don't, there's also a Double Dipsea and a Quad Dipsea. Or just go run the course. If you're doing to see the whole course without going to California, and have a high tolerance for unsteady-cam, you can check out this video made by one of this year's runners. Next up for me is the Full Moon 50K, a moonlight trail run in Arkansas in July. It promises to be hot, and dark. Duh. I'll keep you posted.