Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Dipsea Race Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 10th Edition 
132.3 miles run in 2015 races
Race: The Dipsea Race
Place: Mill Valley, CA
Miles from home: 640
Weather: 50s; overcast

As my continual research for my next book continues, there are some races I know that will be included in it before I even run them. Or more accurately, they will REALLY have to mess up for me to not include them.  Suffice it to say the Dipsea Race did not mess up. In fact, it more than delivered.

I recall once writing a race recap that said something akin to how I did not have the race I was hoping to have. In fact, my experience with the race was hardly an enjoyable one. Nevertheless, I felt the race itself was top notch, did everything right, and is one everyone should run. The same can be said about Dipsea.

That may seem confusing so allow me to clarify.  I do not like to, nor am I any good at, running uphills. In fact, I would venture to guess that for anyone who has run under 2:50 in a marathon, I might be the worst uphill runner alive. The Dipsea Race has some serious uphill. I knew this going into the race. It was not a surprise. I do not fault the race for it. But that is why I did not "enjoy" myself, per se, at least when I was running it.  However, I am 100% glad I ran this race and can see myself returning. It is definitely a course where repeated runnings, or at least repeated specific training on the course, will help you excel.

For those who are unaware of the Dispea Race, let me provide you with a brief background. First held in 1905 with a group of men challenging each other to see who’d be first to Stinson Beach from downtown Mill Valley, California, taking whatever route they chose, the Dipsea race still maintains its one-way course and continues to favor those who know shortcuts (though the course has been greatly restricted over the years.) The race has a unique handicapping system, in which the oldest and youngest runners start first, with each age/gender wave following each minute after. This handicapping system was something I had major reservations about.  I feel "age-grading" or other manufacturings are just not something I usually like to deal with. But for some reason, this didn't bother me at the Dipsea.

The race definitely has a small-town feel even though there were roughly 1500 registered runners for the 100th running. Now, I know runners brought up in the age of monster-races with bands every mile think 1500 participants sounds quaint, but that is a lot of people. Throw in the fact this is one challenging course, and getting that many people to push themselves that hard is no small feat. Kudos to the Dipsea people for getting that done.

Why some races take off, gain a foothold, and never slip is a mystery. Others are flashes in the pan.  Even many others barely make a dent before fading away. Dipsea has that certain feel, however. There are plenty of reason or theories why that is so. But what matters most is that it does.

The course itself is a study in contrast. A quarter of a mile road leads to 688 stairs that runners traverse in three flights with a smidgen of road between each flight. For reference that is like climbing as a fifty-story building. But with uneven slippery steps. From there runners go down the other side of Mount Tamalpais into the Muir Woods. After a brief respite, a monstrous climb of 1200 feet or so takes runners to the top of the trail, but not before a trail of uneven footing, single-track footpaths, through an incredibly steep terrain, not to mention a rainforest. Your reward for getting through this is being allowed to nearly break you neck through the narrowest of trails before finally jumping out onto 1/3 of a mile of downhill road to the finish. Suffice it to say, I liked 1/3 of a mile of this race.

Race Morning:

I mistakenly thought the race started earlier than it did. This mistake however allowed me to find a parking space at the start. Without a doubt the logistics of this race would make it difficult for a single runner to navigate it smoothly, unless they did copious research.  Given I showed up at the wrong time, one can see how copious my research was. I am unsure exactly why I planned so poorly for this race but I just did. Fortunately, it worked out for me. Parking spot in hand, I settled in for a small rest.

There was one section which was forbidden for runners to enter. When I inquired why, one of the codgerly old volunteers said, without fear of reprisal: "So runners don't piss and shit in front of the City Hall." Makes perfect sense to me. Apparently this had been a problem in the past and the city had threatened to close the race down. Well, we can't have that. Stay in the portapotties, people!

The race officials lined people up according to their wave. Then they lined up the next group "in the hole" and the rest of us milled around sorta in the groups where were assigned. As dozens and dozens of people would line up and run up the street, all I could imagine was how bad it was going to be to pass people. That's if I had the strength in my legs to do so.

Finally it was time for the "Y" group to go. A few smatterings of banter was given to us by the announcer and then a 3...2...1... Go!

Up the Stairs

As we ran the short road to the stairs, I tried to assess how serious my fellow runners were. I was in no way not racing but as I was here as part of the "media" I wanted to take in as much of the race as possible from  that perspective. I don't care what anyone says about scenery: if you are racing hard, especially on a trail, you aren't paying attention to it.  Or if you are, you are doing so at great personal risk to your health and well-being. But if you take off the throttle just a bit, you can look around. You can see the sites. You can be part of the course. That was my goal for the day.  Push, but not too hard. and see why Dipsea is Dipsea.

When, not even a minute into the race, we ran through a park and more or less hurdled a swing set and slide in a playground, I knew this was going to be a much different kind of day than I usually encounter.

As we climbed the stairs, the runners almost came to a walking stop. Those going slower (including me) immediately moved to the right. Here there was enough room for two bodies to go abreast. For extremely ambitious there was enough room to the left of the stairs for runners to run on the dirt. I didn't like "walking" here but I knew this was not where I was going to make up any time on people. Huffing and puffing, I conquered one set of stairs.

There were plenty of people on the sides of the stairs cheering on the runners. It appeared from my peripherals that a few houses had backyards which abutted the stairs. Their owners, or trespassing fans, rang cowbells and cheered us on from those backyards. I was mostly focused on the shoes and butt in front of me and tried to say thank you here and there though gasps for breath.

The vast majority of these steps were a blur for me. What stands out most, however, was between the 2nd and 3rd staircases, where we popped out onto Hazel Ave. To my right there was an SUV idling. I hesitated at the top of every hill and staircase to catch a deep breath and then attack. This hesitation must have given this person who just HAD to be somewhere the gumption to gun it. Apparently this person did not know about the race and that it would be crossing this very narrow winding street. That's understandable. It is only the 100th running of the race. *eye roll* Of course, they only went about 15 feet before they had to stop again. The previous group of runners had not yet finished running on the road and were clamoring up the stairs. I and the guy right behind me basically ran into the back of the SUV as it lurched to a stop. We squeezed between it and the wall of the hill before slipping by and taking on the third set of stairs. A spectator said : "That SUV has made the most aggressive move of anyone yet today."  I actually smiled at the comment.

On this set of stairs I felt my achilles and calf aching a bit.  Having had some issues with them both in the past, I am always mindful of their whining. I was glad this was the last set of stairs but also a little worried. I perhaps needed to step off the throttle just a tad more. At the top, a volunteer said; "Straight up the hill and down the trail!" I replied: "I thought we were already running straight up the hill!"

Down Through Shortcuts

One of the idiosyncrasies about this race is how, even though the chances have grown slimmer, runners are allowed to take shortcuts. This is a very European style of racing which can sometimes cause controversy here in the US. As I raced down the hills here I was unsure what I would do when presented with the shortcuts. For the most part, while shorter, they were more difficult to run. The first I saw was marked with two signs. To the left it said "Suicide". To the right it said "Safer". One of my main goals was to get through this race without any injuries.  I am enjoying my most niggle-free year of running in quite sometime and a twisted ankle like I had on Thanksgiving would not make my day. I decided that since absolutely no one seemed to be taking the longer route it might be the better choice. So right I went.

During this longcut, I looked ahead and saw not a single runner. I was surprised that no one else went this way. I used this as a little bit of a breather as I did not have to worry about someone crazily bombarding past me and scaring the bejesus out of me. They didn't frighten me as much as I was feeling all mother hen about watching someone bite it and break a femur. When I popped out of the longcut I looked around at the other runners around me. I did not recognize a shirt or shoe. While I am not 100% sure of the distance, it appears I added a good quarter of a mile to my run. That explains why no one else was taking the route! Oh well.

Skipping across Muir Woods Road and a parking lot we were at 139 feet above sea level. The next 2 miles would take us up to 1,356 feet and the top of the trail. If it was just 600 feet per mile that would be bad enough. But the trail ahead would be filled with roots, rocks and, for those over 5'4'', branches to knock you unconscious.

An Ocean View:

I have long since learned to employ a walking method for uphill running. It usually what seems like 1/10th the effort for 85% of the speed. While I may lose a race to a few runners doing this, I feel I arrive in much better shape and ahead of many more than if I tried to "run" a hill. Suffice it to say there are large sections of this hill that absolutely no one on Earth is running. They may be trying to make the effort but it is comical at best.

Deer Park Fire Road is its official name but for the next 2 miles this road was hell for me.  I did, however, pass more than a few runners with just one or two runners passing me. Also, suddenly, around mile four, I felt like a new man. This is not surprising given it often takes me about 6 miles in a marathon to wake up and time-wise these four miles here took that long. In fact, in spite of the rugged footing and steep climb, I did find myself bounding through a few spots.

One of my biggest trepidations about this race was the supposedly narrow paths and how hard it would be to pass people when necessary. While this was more or a less a truism on the small amount of downhill we had (I will get to that in a bit) for the most part, counter-intuitively, the uphill section were rather wide. If you had the energy and the gumption, it wasn't too hard to pass a runner. That's a big "if" however.

I did not know at the time that the top 450 runners get an automatic invitation to return to the race. If so, perhaps I would have run a few more sections. Then again, because of the wave starts, I had no idea what place I was in. I did know that I was passing not only people I had never seen but one or two here and there who had gone out in my group. I also knew I was dripping with sweat. My hands on my knees to help me push up the hill would just slip off my drenched quads. Bent nearly in half, I would almost facebutt my leg before catching myself when they did.

Running through an area called "Rainforest" did not help this whatsoever as seemingly out of nowhere a light rain fell from the tree. In spite of the slippery nature, it was actually rather neat. I expected a T-Rex to pop its head out of the jungle any moment. Whether it ate my competitors to help me, or ate me to put me out of my misery, either would be fine.

Up ahead I could hear the clanging of cowbells and loud cheers. I could tell we were about to crest the hill and I was excited not only for the ability to run but for what had to be a wonderful view. So I readied myself, got to the top, took a big breath - and fog covered the entire ocean area. Reminiscent of my first trip to the Grand Canyon which I recounted in my Rim2Rim run, it was almost a joke. I couldn't see anything! No matter, really. I had a downhill to run as fast as possible.

To The Finish:

During the first descent earlier in the race, I had on occasion gotten behind someone who was running a bit slower than me. For the most part I let it go without trying to kill myself going around them. I wanted to stay upright and aside from one tiny slip, I had been a balancing act fool. I credit my Karhu Trail shoes for giving me not only some serious traction but also for keep my feet feeling good throughout.

Following a brief section that could be characterized as flat or even back uphill for a minute, I was ready to head downhill. I used this section to pass more than a few runners as, even though I did not know the course, I did know it was virtually downhill barring "Insult"- a small but steep hill right near the end.  Unfortunately, as noted before, the trail became much thinner here. A plethora of roots appeared. High, thick grass barely divulged where the trail was or where it was turning until you already had a foot planted on the ground. Passing here was not only impossible but would have been destructive to runner and foliage if tried. All my legs wanted to do was go and they were locked in prance mode.

Finally, at the Whitegate Ranch trail head we popped out onto a road. I had no concept of time or distance and assumed this might be the final stretch to the finish. Unfortunately, about 100 yards up the road I could see runners heading back onto the trail. I remembered this from the excellent UltraSportsLive course preview and it was not the end. But if I hustled I could pass some runners. So hustle I did.

While I passed roughly 15 runners in this short section it put me smack dab into another group. I was a bit exasperated as I had just spent the previous mile stuck behind a solidly running, yet slower-than-me woman. I was, however, impressed, as she was running the whole race in a pair of Vibrams.  Right on cue, when I noticed that was her footwear of choice, I step on a really sharp rock. How anyone can run in those is beyond me. Unfortunately, given the narrow trail and her just fast enough-I-couldn't-pass speed, I was behind her far longer than I wanted to be. In addition, I almost knocked myself unconscious a tree branch which anyone 5'4'' or under might not have noticed. It was here that I decided with no sun and completely cloud cover with dense trees overhead, I should remove my Julbo sunglasses for just a bit.

Up and over Insult, I had one last group of about 5 people I had to contend with. I knew the road was coming soon so rather than push by them now I waited another 200 yards or so. That would come to bite me in the ass.

Finally, after what was far too long, I erupted onto US 1. I could hear the finish line bells and cheers about 1/3 of a mile away. I turned on the jets and flew passed 5 runners. A group of 10 more or so was ahead. I gave it all I had and quickly had them beside and then behind me. My watch shows I ran, albeit briefly, a nice 4:15 mile pace. It has been a long time since I have wanted, or needed, to kick a race finish this hard.  But with people in front of me to catch, I did just that.

In the final stretch of 100 yards or so I had to make one last decision: was it worth the hard effort to knock out a few other runners? If I knew what I knew now, I would probably say no it was not.  But then I wanted to dig deep and pass everyone I could see. And pass them I did.

I finished in a running time of 1:10:18. My goal had been around 1:05. I was, however, basing that solely on a guess as I had no idea how long it should take me. This finish (with the two minute handicap giving me a 1:08:18) put me in 458th place. Or in other words, 8 places out of a guaranteed spot for next year. Bollocks.

I looked at the results for the race and tried to figure out how many people passed me. It looks like around 90 or so did from the groups in my own group and the two behind me. Now, I may be wrong about that as I don't think there were that many people total behind me but who knows. All I do know is that a mere 16 seconds separated me from my guaranteed entry. Until I found that out, I was fairly certain I would not be repeating this race anytime soon. Now, the competitive runner in me wants to come back, knock 10 minutes off my time and retired having run a sub-60 Dipsea. Time will tell if that happens.

As it stands, I am more than pleased with not only the race, but my effort and the results. I broke nothing, ran a solid time, enjoyed how well-run the race was (I can appreciate a finely-tuned machine even while it is making me suffer) and got plenty of thoughts for a chapter in my next book.

If you can get in, you should run the Dispea Race. Your time may not be great, and you may not fully enjoy the pain while you are doing it, but you will be happy that you have experienced this interesting and wonderful event.

No comments: