Plant Science merit badge. Botanically inept as I am, I welcome this development, scanning the dark green forest backdrop for flashes of red on my runs through the woods, too focused on where my feet are landing to count leaves on the fly. But just because you're warned doesn't mean you aren't still going to get it.
Coming into this year's Dipsea race, I had three goals: 1) finish with a fast enough time to qualify for next year's race; 2) manage to enjoy myself in the process; and 3) avoid the poison oak. It quickly became clear that these were incompatible goals, and one or more of them would have to go. 2 suffered an uneven fate during the course of the race; though clearly dependent to some extent on 1 and 3, it was generally more closely linked to the burning in my legs. The simplest way to measure 2 would probably be to take the elevation profile of the course:
And rotate it 180 degrees. Here you go:
The conflict, really, was between 1 and 3, qualification and avoiding poison oak. Here's why. To qualify automatically for Dipsea 2014, and avoid the vicissitudes of the application process, I would need to finish in the top 750 spots. Considering that about 1800 would line up at the start (among whom, surely, there would be some non-finishers), that didn't sound like such a difficult task. But that's where the head-start format of the race comes into play. Not only is the race handicapped for age and gender, but runners are then further separated into invitational and "open" groups, with the invitational runners going first and on the same clock. What all of this meant for me is that I would be starting the race a full 50 minutes after the first runners, and 27 minutes after the invitational runners in my age group. The last runners in the invitational group would leave 25 minutes ahead of me, meaning there would be over 700 runners with a shot at being halfway to the finish line before I even started, and nearly 1,000 more with smaller head starts. No runner in the "open" section of the race has ever finished higher than 446, in a year when there were only 934 finishers. Basically, to finish in the top 750 I would need to pass about 1,000 runners on the course. On single-track. Cue poison oak. Once I did the math, I decided to give in to poison oak, and focus instead on all of those people starting in front of me.
The start of the Dipsea is as much a celebration of the race's history and its quirkiness as it is the beginning of a race. I had planned to be there early enough to watch the first runners leave at 8:30, but my race-day nerves made sure of it, as I was out of bed and on my way from my sister's house in San Francisco (about a 25-minute drive) before 6:00. Perfect, just enough time to get there early and let my anxiety build up! Fortunately, the starting line offered plenty of entertainment including watching 8-year-old girls and boys line up alongside the likes of last year's winner, 73-year-old Hans Schmid, and then take off at a full sprint with the gun. Before I knew it, it was time to line up in the corral and let the adrenaline really start to build.
Watching your competition depart with the punctual efficiency of German trains leaving the station has a strangely calming effect. It's as if your own start is an inevitability, ineluctable as time itself, rather than something to be fretted over. Or so it seemed, anyway, until I was lining up with the rest of my heat, still about two groups (and thus two minutes) behind the starting line. That's when it hit me: I hadn't avoided pre-race anxiety, I had simply deferred its arrival, and now it was making up for lost time. I tied my shoelaces too tightly. Should I have left my shirt in the car? Too late, I don't have time to re-pin my number to my shorts. 690 steps, right? Or was it 670? Maybe I should have had a gel without caffeine. And why is this guy standing right up in my face? Maybe I know him. No, definitely not, but he must think I know him. Smile. No, don't grimace, smile. Shit, when did we start running?
The first half mile of the course takes you over paved roads, across "downtown" Mill Valley, through a small park, and then up what looks like a short, steep driveway. Just as this hill starts to take the spring out of your step, you arrive at the bottom of the stairs: 3 flights, 680 steps, equal in height to a 50-story building. That's the first part of the race that I have any recollection of, since my head was just buzzing until then. Starting races always feels a little like an out-of-body experience for me, and when left to its own devices my body apparently has a tendency to try to keep up with the fastest thing around me. Today was no exception, and I would up hitting the stairs already a little winded. No problem, though, I had put in some time training on stairs. Lots, actually. In fact, everything about my race-day preparation had been going as planned until I looked at my calendar and realized that I would be in Berlin--flat as a pancake, bicyclist's paradise Berlin--three weeks before the race. OK, I realize that "training" for a seven-mile race is pretty ridiculous, even one on as demanding a course as this. If you're not already in shape to run seven miles when you sign up, then your probably have no business taking the spot from someone else. But I didn't just want to finish, I wanted (pretty desperately) to have the chance to do it again next year, and that meant qualifying. If past years were any indication, that meant I would probably have to run about 1:14, maybe 1:12. I was aiming for 1:10, just to be safe. That meant I would need to find some hills in one of the flattest parts of the world.
During the last ice age, when glaciers and streams flowing north out of the Alps deposited Berlin atop the vast North European Plain, they set it among vast expanses of woodland and lakes, but they did not see fit to give it any mountains. History, however, completed the work that geology left unfinished; rubble left behind after the destruction of the city during WWII was collected and piled up in several locations around the perimeter of Berlin, creating makeshift mountains and turning tragedy into "natural" beauty. Today, these mountains are completely overgrown with forests, and only reveal their back-story upon close inspection. One such mountain, located within the vast network of wooded trails that make up Berlin's Grunewald, is Teufelsberg ("Devil's Mountain")--aptly named not only for its origins, but also for what it doles out to those who take too direct an approach at its admittedly modest 350 feet. The mountain is so carved up with trails and stairs that you can reach the summit at virtually any grade you like, starting from near flat and going all the way up to too steep to run. This is where I tested my legs in the peak days of my Dipsea preparation, and I was feeling pretty good. Bring on the stairs!
I settled right into a pretty good rhythm, taking the first few steps two at a time. I had just scouted the stairs two days earlier, and knew what was coming, so I planned to keep that up for about the first 200 (even, regularly-spaced, wooden stairs), then take the last few (steeper, and built from uneven, smooth stone) one at a time. Then I hit a wall of people. I don't know whether I was more frustrated that I had to walk, or relieved that I got to walk. There are sections of the stairs (the second flight) where you can scramble up the hill next to the steps, but this wasn't one of them, as the steps were penned in by tall handrails. Up to that point I had been able to steadily pass people--I wasn't counting, but I was gaining ground--but that quickly came to a halt as I was trapped in a swarm of sweaty, panting bodies. Not in a good way. That's not to say that the order wasn't changing, but just in a salmon swimming upstream way, more than a nice, orderly, cars passing in the left lane way. Elbows were flying, the chatter was getting intense, and it felt more like climbing over people than passing them, but I managed to keep pushing (politely) ahead, and soon emerged at the top of the first set. Sometimes it pays to be skinny and stubborn.
If you've made it this far, you've been plenty patient, so I won't bore you with detailed accounts of all three flights. But one more story from the stairs. Somewhere in the second flight I took advantage of the "trail" to the side of the steps, and broke ahead of the group I had been stuck in. Somewhere behind me I heard someone growl (I'm not saying that to add color, dude actually growled), "Don't let 'Memphis' out of your sight!" Now I'm not accustomed to answering to "Memphis"--I've only lived here for four years--but given the setting I was pretty sure he meant me. I was, after all, wearing a Breakaway singlet that says "Memphis" on the back, a word that he managed to pronounce with such audible sneer that I just had to 1) laugh; and 2) turn around to see who said it, in spite of the fact that I was scrambling up a steep, makeshift trail. Can you guess? Yep, it was that same guy who had been giving my the stink-eye back at the starting line! Some perspective, please. We are grown men, wearing shorts. We are running up stairs, when there's a perfectly serviceable road that goes to the same place. We both pay our taxes, and abstain from torturing puppies (I presume). We are decent people, doing something intrinsically goofy, for fun. But don't let that stop you from taking it really seriously, and getting all silverback and territorial on me. Don't let that stop you from acting like you're auditioning for a part as an extra in Point Break. Loser. For the record, he did let me out of his sight, unless he has eyes on the back of his head. Dude beat me by a full two minutes, and good for him. Yeah, I looked it up. Loser.
When you reach the top of the stairs, you hit a short stretch of paved highway, and it feels like running on a trampoline; but the emphasis here is on the word "short." Another hundred yards, and you're climbing again, steep enough that you miss the stairs. What does it feel like not to be climbing? I can't remember. All I remember is climbing, I must have been climbing for...oh, there's the one-mile marker. (OK, it's Friday afternoon and I need to go run...to be continued)