Friday, June 17, 2016

Tribute to An Angel at the 106th Dipsea Race

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure of (finally) joining 1,500 trail runners for the 106th running of The Dipsea Race, the oldest trail race in the USA. This perennial local favorite race has been in my relative backyard for over a century, but it took an angel to finally get me to the starting line. I am thankful for the divine intervention - it was an amazing experience, and I am now seriously swept up by the lore of this iconic race. I shall return!

Honoring Ray Morris, the 17-time Dipsea Finisher

The angel in question is my late great uncle, Ray Morris. I had reconnected with Ray last summer after a 40 year hiatus, only to find he was more of a trail running nut than I am. Plus he was doing it back in the 70's and 80's right here in Silicon Valley...a true pioneer in the shortest of shorts. Unfortunately, Ray was also in the terminal stages of pancreatic cancer, and it was this reason he had reached out to reconnect about our shared passion. I happily made a few personal visits, swapping stories of trail adventures that magically cut through his dementia and struggle, always lighting up his sunken face with a big smile. He passed just a few weeks later.

(Ray Morris, complete with Dipsea singlet)
For Ray, there was no race bigger than "The Dipsea". It was the event that anchored his training year-round, and connected him to fellow trail enthusiasts from all over the world. He was a 17-time finisher, and even had two of the coveted "black shirts" given to the top 35 runners, so he was no slouch. More importantly, Dipsea runners were "his people", and he loved everything about the race  - the handicap system that evened the odds for all runners, the ability to choose a trail less traveled if it fit your strategy, and the roots of the race stemming from a dare among Bay Area athletes. Every chat about The Dipsea would raise him out of his chair, animating each story with wild gestures that inevitably exhausted him. I got the sense it gave him great comfort knowing this race was here long before he was, and would be there long after he was gone.

When I told Ray I had unsuccessfully tried to bribe my way into the race for years (settling for the Double Dipsea and Quad Dipsea, naturally), he just smiled. He had an Ace to slip up my sleeve - a letter from his death bed, asking if I could do the race in his honor. The Dipsea Committee happily obliged, and it was clear from their emails that honoring past runners was a big part of the spirit of the race. And just like that, I found myself at the starting line for 2016, grateful and humble.

The 106th Dipsea Race

I had plenty of time to kill on race morning, given my "Runner - Group W" starting slot. The Dipsea has a double handicap system - one handicap for your age (so 7 year olds and 70 year olds start first), and one handicap for first-time runners ("Invitational" runners start 27 minutes ahead of "Runners"). That put me in about 1,400th place at the start line (42 minutes behind!), so there was zero chance of placing. The best I could hope for was finishing in the top 750 so I could get "Invitational" the following year. But that meant passing ~700 people in 7.4 miles of trails...that just seems rude, doesn't it? Well, Ray would go for it, so I figured I should.

(The Dipsea course)
As I pulled into Mill Valley, I ran into Julie Nye and her friends suiting up, and they did the math and said I should have no problem getting Invitational if I'm under 1 hr and 10 minutes. But how to factor for the 700 runners in the way? Julie just laughed..."you'll see, you'll see". Hmmm....

(Meeting Julie at the start)
The start area felt like a local 10k, as announcer Bob Cullinan sent off wave after wave. Kids as young as five would toe the line right next to their parents and grandparents. Very cool! And as the waves got down to the "scratch" runners, speedsters such as Rickey Gates (fastest actual time last year, 49:11), Galen Burrell (back from Colorado!), and Alex Varner (fastest actual time of 47:59 in '13) would have to go sub-50 minutes to catch the likes of defending champion Brian Pilcher and his age 59 head start, or the many wicked fast 50+ athletes such as Roy and Jamie Rivers, 2-time winner Diana Fitzpatrick, or the incredible 76-year-old Hans Schmid who is known to clock an hour and change here. Every second would count!

(And they're off!)

(Rickey Gates and Galen Burrell sport the awesome Pelican Inn Track Club shirts)
Bob sent off my wave, and only one other runner came with me to catch the previous wave on the 671 Dipsea steps. It was nearly impossible to pass people, but I counted them off...5,10,15,20 runners passed...680 to go! But once it opened up on the road sections, I could pass dozens at a time and the math became too challenging. Julie was right...this might be doable!

(Here come those steps!)
(Jason Reed among the younger competition)
I heard lots of "Go Dunlap!" shouts as I took the Suicide route (mile 2) and charged up Dynamite (mile 2.25), and there were a few runners passing me as well. Ray had recommended some shortcuts to me, but I secretly feared taking a left and ending up in a ditch that wasn't there 30 years ago. I did take the fire roads to get around a bunch of runners on Cardiac, who seemed to get younger and smaller as I found my way to the top. Then suddenly, at the top of Cardiac, there were almost no runners ahead of me. What is this? Maybe the gap between Invitational and Runners? I needed people to pass, darn it! But it was nice to open up the stride and kick up the pace.

(Alex Varner taking on Cardiac, photo by Steve Disenhof)
A spectator said "you're can take it easy now", but we all know better than to trust the math of strangers. I charged down the glorious canopy of "The Swoop" and into Steep Ravine (mile 6), laughing that I was somehow finding sections of trail I had never run up here in decades of racing. The red glistening poison oak leaves on both sides were a tad scary, but my inov-8 X-Talon 212's made sure I didn't get too out of control.

(Coming down the hill, photo courtesy of Chris Blagg)

(It can get a little crazy out there)

I cruised the last section of road, and picked off a few more runners in the chute as long-time announcer and Hall of Fame inductee Barry Spitz called out my name. My watch said 1:02:53, which was going to slot me in 610th and 20th in the Runner section. Made it! Next year, I guess I'll have to get serious and find 5-6 more minutes to cut.

(Awards galore, and the coveted black jerseys)
(2016 winner Brian Pilcher shares some tips)
(Good stuff!)
(Hanging with Nakia Baird, Eduardo Vasquez, and Chris Jones)
(Video of top finishers)

(Samir Shah grabbed an iced tea and ran back to the start!)
(The fastest of the fast!)
The warm weather was perfect for hanging out, where I saw Willem van Dam (thanks for the beer!), Chris Jones (did the San Diego 100m last weekend, crazy bastard), Samir Shah (who ran back to the start), Jason Reed (best bloodied injury), Victor Ballesteros, Bill Dodson, Rickey Gates (5th!), Galen Burrell (6th!), Erika Kikuchi, and dozens more watched the award ceremony. It was clear this was so much bigger than a race, and a defining part of this community. I was already eager to do it again!

I know Ray would have loved every second of it. The familiarity, the adventure, the celebration of endurance and longevity. I can see why, in his last few days, it was memories of The Dipsea that remained as clear as spring water while the world faded to black. Perhaps it will be the same for all of us, and we secretly know it, so we toe the line again and again.

Thank you, Ray Morris, race directors, volunteers, fellow runners, and the great people of Mill Valley. I will see you again next year!


  1. Great story. No more needs to be said.

  2. Thanks for sharing the beautiful story of how you got to the Dipsea and for the blog in general. Mount Tamalpais is such a magical place and it's fitting that this race with all its unique character happens there. Hope to see you there again next year!

  3. Wow - between this and Western States you are nailing the classic races this year! That's amazing how you got in - how cool that you had a trail running uncle like that, and didn't know it! Way to get it done - thanks for writing this.

  4. Awesome! It is very fun when reading your story! I am also a runner, and i really feel interesting in your sharing. Thanks!

  5. You did your uncle, yourself, and your family great honor with this race. So proud of you.

    1. Thanks, Mom! I am so glad you connected us when you heard he was sick. It will always be "Ray's Race" to me.

  6. Lovely and heart-warming story about your late uncle! Two black shirts and that photo - he was quite a runner! My husband is also one of those people who "lights" up when the word Dipsea is spoken: look him up, Mark Helmus, 4 black shirts out of 6 Invitationals. I have a strong love/hate with the Dipsea - my very large patches of poison oak are a tribute to taking some shortcuts this year, against my better judgement, and getting passed by so many faster runners (because I'm so old) is really difficult, too. Mark and I also love the Double (just did yesterday), but it was not a good year for me. And I've also survived the Quad (once). Anyway, just wanted to congratulate you and welcome you to the Dipsea fellowship. Now stop talking about it so much since I can't make the Invitational with all of you ridiculously fast runners that keep showing up at the start line! Just have to let you know there were two inaccuracies in your report (that I found): Brian Pilcher is 59 yrs old, and Dynamite is at Mile 2.25. Mark and I enjoy your posts!

    1. Pretty impressive for both of you! Thanks for the corrections. Good luck with the poison oak!

  7. Nice writeup. You and I started in the same group, but I was quite a bit behind you. The Dipsea is an addiction though... you are going to start having dreams about the race in the weeks leading up to June.

    This year was my 18th consecutive race... only 50 more for the record!

  8. Dang those STEPS! Great race recap, I loved reading it!

  9. Excellent story. Love to read your adventures. Mount Tamalpais is such a wonderful place.


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