Last Saturday, I joined 330 other trail runners for the 30th running of the Double Dipsea, a rugged 13.7 mile out-and-back course along the famous Dipsea Trail north of San Francisco. This race was new for me in two ways. First, I had never tried the rugged, 676 step, 2200 vertical feet Dipsea Trail which is legend in the Bay Area (so why not do it twice?). Second, I had never tried a handicapped race, where runners start in “waves” to give older runners an equal chance to win. Knowing there are few things more humbling than having a 70-year-old kick your ass on some serious vert, I knew this race would be epic.
The Double Dipsea is one of three annual trail races along the dramatic Dipsea Trail. The original race (7.1 mile one way from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach) was a marketing event created to lure city folk out to the Dipsea Inn 100 years ago (check out these pics – nothing like trail running in a petticoat!), and they haven’t missed a year yet. Walt Stack, a local running hero, figured one way wasn’t enough, and worked with his club the Dolphin South End Runners (DSE) to create the Double Dipsea in 1970. The Double Dipsea is an out-and-back from Stinson Beach, run with same handicap style of the original Dipsea that encourages older runners to compete. If two isn’t enough, you can do the Quad Dipsea – 28.2 miles and 9200 vertical feet of quad-burning pain (just ask William Emerson, who won the Quad last year en route to his world record 17 ultra wins).
From the moment you arrive at Double Dipsea registration, the sense of tradition and camaraderie are evident. Most runners have shared this experience 8-12 times already, and know every step, root, and crag by heart. The average age is even older than most ultra races – I would guess mid-50’s, with a solid showing of men and woman over 60 (who look awesome, btw). Everyone milled around at the beach, sharing stories of Walt Stack (who passed away in 1995), and speculating if a 53-minute head start would be enough for 68-year-old single Dipsea champion Russ Kiernan to hold off local speed demon Cliff Lentz, known to decimate this course at a sub 7-minute pace; or perhaps 2004 and 2003 overall winner 63-year-old Melody-Anne Schultz could repeat if she could stay ahead of Judy Rabinowitz, last years 2nd place female (and overall). Walt had beaten the young turks many times in his heyday, so this was a fitting memorial to keep Walt’s spirit alive. I asked the medics if they expected injury….”guaranteed…we brought extra stretchers”.
As I watched the first few “waves” head out, I got some tips from the experienced runners. They warned me to be careful of the dizzying uneven steps at the turnaround in Mill Valley, taking your time on the extremely steep Cardiac and Suicide Hills, and having your Tecnu ready for the miles of poison oak. Hmmm…maybe I should have studied that map a little closer. My age/sex put me with the “scratch” group (no handicap advantage), so we got to go last.
The Dipsea Trail leaves no time for warm up, and within a quarter mile all of us were chugging up the hills that wound endlessly into the thick, cruel fog that hid any sense of how much more is to come. Three runners in the "scratch" group took off like jackrabbits, and the rest of us spread out quickly. I soon appreciated the 55-degree weather as my heart rate went through the roof, and given the sound of heart rate monitor alarms going off behind me, I wasn’t the only one. The tipsters were right about the poison oak – a few sections were like a poison oak jungle, barely cut back from the narrow trail. But given the amount of vertical ahead that remained ahead of us, poison oak was the last of our worries.
I found a good pace along Ron Gutierrez, who had challenged himself to “just try and run the whole race” this year. A bold goal for the Dub-Dip, and one I definitely wasn’t going to be able to match up the steep stairs. As we traded off the lead (Ron on uphills, me on downhills), we began catching up to the runners from previous waves. Everyone was gracious about letting us pass (and shouting words of encouragement), as long as the narrow trails permitted. I learned quickly that you take your life in your hands if you try to pass outside the trails, as evidences by some fresh blackberry bush scrapes on my left leg.
As we crested Suicide Hill about 5 miles in, Russ the 68-year-old phenom came flying down the trail. Just a few minutes behind was Melody-Anne Schulz, taking the downhills like a champ. They were hauling ass! Ron and I joked that Russ didn’t need a 53-minute head start to beat us, and given his speed, that was probably true.
We climbed another mile up a road (seeing 4-5 more runners coming the other way) and then headed down the steps that weaved through the Mill Valley suburb. Everyone was out cheering on their moms/brothers/grandpas, helping get our minds off the hypnotizing steps that quickly switched from wood to stone, short to long, steep to flat, in no apparent order (this must be what the extra stretchers are for). As a reward for getting down, we got to turn around and go back up!
I checked my watch at the turnaround (1 hour, 2 minutes), and guessed I was in about 50th place, but with the handicap it’s hard to figure out who is really in front of you. All you can really do is go as hard as you can. I walked a good portion of the stairs on the way up, leaving plenty of energy for the downhill. As I hit Suicide Hill (now understanding its name comes from the downhill section) a bee stung my left arm so I had to take a few seconds to scrape the stinger out. One woman laughed as she ran by saying “A bee sting too? You’re having a epic Dipsea!”. True, indeed.
Aside from the blood and stinging, I felt strong on the second half. I kept seeing runners on nearby trails, so I asked a woman near me if we were lost. She explained that “some small shortcuts are allowed if you know where they are” - another advantage for the locals. My quads trembled as I headed down the last two miles of fun, but my inov-8 Flyrocks and Injinji tsoks were giving me plenty of traction down the muddy trail. I finished in 2:09 (48th), and chatted with the other muddy/bloody/exhausted runners. Russ the 68-year old had done it, just narrowly beating Judy Rabinowitz. Roy Rivers, 48, came in third, clocking the fastest non-handicap time with a blazing 1:45.
I jotted down some tips for next year (bring Tecnu, hit the stairmaster as part of training, and learn the “allowed” short cuts), and looked forward to the day that my age will give me a boost in starting position. I can only hope to improve enough to match the likes of Walt, Russ, and Judy!