The starting area was a brisk 38 degrees at 7:30 am, as the sun futilely tried to sneak through the towering redwoods of Old Mill Park. But Race Director John Medinger let us know that beyond the redwood canopy (which would we reach in about 230 stair steps) was a crystal clear day, so no need to pack too much. I selected a long sleeve shirt, wool gloves, and a visor, then packed the rest in a drop bag just in case. I fired up my new toy (yes, ANOTHER new toy…I can’t help myself), the Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch, and made my way to the starting line.
The crowd at the start was one of the most diverse I had ever seen at an ultra. Mill Valley locals were everywhere, sharing stories of Darrell Schlee, for whom this race was dedicated (he had done 17 Quad Dipseas before passing from cancer in October, 2006). There were teenagers, Ironman triathletes, hikers, road runners, and more. A few of them were doing the Dipsea trifecta – the legendary Dipsea (one way), the Double Dipsea (out and back), and the Quad. Many elite runners were also present, including a half dozen racers from the Vasque Ultra Team, former winners Roy Rivers and Kim Holak, 3-time Helen Klein 50m champ Michael Buchanan, Tahoe Ultra winner Sean Messiner, Fuel Belt Ultrarunner.net Champion Mark Tanaka, and 2:30-marathoner Jean Pommier. Pacific Coast Trail Run RD’s Wendell and Sarah were also here to run, as were The Zombies, the ever-smiling Catra Corbett, Rick Gaston, and more. Everyone was ready to hit the hills and have some fun, and most of them were concluding a long ultra season. I didn’t have enough time to wish everyone luck, but I knew I would see them all out there.
As the gun went off, the Vasque Team jumped up front and set the pace up the stairs. There isn’t much of a warm up on this course – you go about 200 feet before you climb, climb, climb up the insanely small and odd-shaped Dipsea stairs. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the front runners set a moderate pace, allowing everyone to get on the stairs without injury. The stairs were interspersed with sections of road that allowed faster people to get around when needed. Locals with coffee cups and bathrobes cheered us on as they took out the trash and got the paper. I guess when you live on the Dipsea Trail, you get used to races in your backyard!
We peaked the first hill around mile 2, navigated a few hundred yards of single track, then spread out on a road section to sprint down. The sky was clear, and I saw the front runners about ¼ mile ahead. Roy Rivers was up front showing everyone why he is the master of the Dipsea (even at age 49), effortlessly leaping off the road onto stairs like a gazelle at full speed. The sun warmed the few parts left of me that hadn’t been warmed by the steep stairs, and I was feeling great. Judging by the ear-to-ear smiles around me, I wasn’t the only one.
As we started up Cardiac Hill, I slowed down to a fast walk. I remembered from the Double Dipsea that this hill goes on for a while, plus I wanted to suck in the Narnia-like lush forest. I paced with Jamie Berns, who was holding second place for the Women's division, as we hopped and skipped up the roots and rocks. 55-year old Jamie was running with determination and setting a fast pace. No surprise - women have been running fast on this course since 1915, long before women competed in the Olympics. Jamie dropped me with her steady pace as soon as we broke out of the forest, inspiring me to pick up the pace and run the remaining way to Cardiac Hill.
The Cardiac Hill aid station was a party in progress, as volunteers, friends, and family members cheered on runners while enjoying the sunny day. I refilled my water bottle, ate a PB&J square, and dropped my gloves. The Garmin Forerunner 305 was tracking well so far, which was a pleasant surprise. I had received the Forerunner 201 as a holiday gift last year, and had so much trouble with it tracking a GPS signal in the trees and hills, that I was lucky to get one mile recorded on a 15 mile run. Peter Lubbers was right – this new unit with a new chip is much better. I sprinted down a section of trail to see how fast I could get the pace monitor up (4:45 min/mile!), then got back to the nature.
Four miles in, the trail led us back into the woods. The stairs were narrow and slippery, which slowed down all but the Dipsea regulars (magically taking the stairs 2-3 at a time). Just after I crossed the bridge, the front pack was heading back. Jasper Helekas and Roy Rivers were leading, with Greg Nacco, Jean Pommier, and Michael Buchanan all within 20 seconds. Another four runners, including Sean Messiner, were within two minutes. Only one minute separated the women’s division as well, with Kim Holak and Jamie Berns trading off the lead well ahead of the pack. So far, a very close race.
I refilled at the turnaround at Stinson Beach and ate some m&m’s while drawing in the salty sea air (I wonder, does breathing salty air help keep my electrolytes in balance? ;-) ). I had done the first leg in 1:10. As I headed back up the hill, I paced with Chris Stephenson from Seattle, WA. He had just relocated to Seattle, WA, but had come down to “do the Quad” just like old times. Despite his worries that his training was suffering from a new job/city, he was doing great.
As we ran/walked up the steep steps on our first pass back, we got to see all the other runners pacing right behind us. I typically prefer point-to-point races, but I must say, it is very cool to see so many smiling faces on each passing. It sounds crazy, but a double out-and-back is even more fun than an out-and-back! I even got to give Kate Morejohn a hug, which gave me an energy boost to drop Chris and charge the hill. This section of stairs is the toughest on the course (I think), so I’ll take any boost I can get. Let’s not forget we have one more lap too!
I found my way up to Cardiac Hill again, and had another PB&J square with some flat Coke. The volunteers asked how my feet were holding up, and they were ready with tape just in case. I could see how this course could be a toe-masher for the unprepared, but my Injinji tsoks and Inov-8 RocLite 315’s love this terrain, so I was good to go. I sprinted down the hill in a Coke-fueled frenzy, catching a few runners along the way.
I saw the front-runners again as I was coming up the last hill to head down into Mill Valley (~mile 11.5). Roy Rivers had put about 30 seconds on Jasper Halekas (most likely on the stairs), and about 90 seconds on Michael Buchanan, Jean Pommier, and Greg Nacco. However, they all looked pretty fresh. I lost a few positions as I took the stairs slowly, but got to see the crab-like sidestepping that the locals were doing to get down the stairs. It’s a definitely a practiced skill that gives an advantage; I wonder if it’s enough for Roy to hold off the other elites?
I filled up again at the turnaround, had more m&m’s, and decided to continue with my existing attire. The temperature was a perfect 54 degrees, so as long as I kept moving I would be plenty warm. My Forerunner said I did the way back in 1:14. I headed back up the mountain of stairs, still having enough energy to take them two at a time.
I popped some Clif Shots at the bottom of Cardiac Hill and prepared to climb. This was the first point in the whole race where I couldn’t see anyone in front of me or behind me, but it didn’t last long. Two women came flying down the hill screaming “Bees! Bees!”, which instinctively triggered my sprint reflex. Alas, I wasn’t fast enough and one of them got me square on the back. These little devils have it out for me this year!
I did my best to run/walk the course the same way I had the first lap, and found myself at Cardiac Hill just 4 minutes slower than the first time, largely from walking the very last section. The volunteers had some tougher cases this time around, and every seat was full with runners. I took another shot of flat Coke and pranced down the trail, letting gravity pull me as much as possible. I was running alone again, but was bound to meet somebody soon. It turned out to be Redwood Trails RD Eric Gould, out taking pictures of runners and giving encouragement.
I saw the front-runners one last time, and the top five players remained close. Jasper Halekas had taken the lead from Roy Rivers, with Jean Pommier, Michael Buchanan, and Victor Ballesteros each running solo less than a minute behind. Jasper was going harder this time, and Roy was heads down to keep up. Michael Buchanan actually yawned as he went by me – I suspect this 5:45 50-mile runner hasn’t played his final cards yet! The women’s division continued to be a race of two, with Jamie Berns right on the tail of Kim Holak.
The wind picked up a bit as I made my way down to Stinson Beach one more time. Cross-town traffic on the stairs was heavier this time, and I lost a few minutes waiting for runners and hikers (then again, if I’m taking pictures I probably shouldn’t worry about a few minutes here and there). I hit the turnaround, finishing the section in 1:19, nine minutes slower than the first pass. Was that good? I had no idea, but I felt good. I ate one more PB&J square, and headed back up.
This time, there was not going to be any “two stairs at once”. Each step was methodical, burning up my hamstrings, yet still pushing my heart rate to the high 160’s. I guess this is where the rubber meets the trail, so to speak. I kept moving forward, focusing on breathing in as much oxygen-rich air as I could. I had to keep it to a fast walking pace until we broke out of trees at mile 23. One last stop at Cardiac Hill for flat Coke and Jelly Belly’s, and I could cruise the last two hills to the finish.
Similar to the first lap, I lost a few more positions as the stair-friendly locals whizzed by. But I finished in 5:10, good enough for 33rd. Jean Pommier caught me up on front pack racing as I polished off some chili and beer. Apparently Victor Ballesteros and Michael Buchanan kicked into overdrive after Cardiac Hill and flew by the leaders like they were standing still. Michael Buchanan held on to win in 4:14, with Ballesteros in 2nd (4:16), Roy Rivers in 3rd (4:19), and Jasper Helekas and Jean Pommier sprinting neck-and-neck down the stairs to finish 4th and 5th (4:20). In the Women’s division, Jamie Berns pulled ahead of Kim Holak on the final climb to take the win in 4:48, becoming the oldest overall Women champion ever to have won the Quad. Get this - it was Jamie's first ultra! We all shared stories of the race as we cheered the remaining finishers.
My thanks to John and the Tamalpais Runners for putting on a great race. Darrell Schlee most certainly would have been proud. I feel tremendous gratitude to all the RD’s, runners, and volunteers for a fabulous year of running, and can’t think of a better way to cap the season. Now I’ll head home and polish off those leftovers. ;-)