Thursday, June 22, 2017

The 107th Dipsea Race - Lessons Learned

"Oh, you're fast just didn't want it enough."

Such was the feedback given to me by a 24-time Dipsea runner at the finish line, soon after I gasped to a personally disappointing 126th place (1:00:51). This was just after he scolded me (loudly) for NOT pushing him to the side when careening down the crooked stairs of Steep Ravine, an act that would be considered an assault charge on any other day of the year. But on Dipsea day, you have to give everything for every place, and my new friend was correctly pointing out that I had not. This was a day of lessons learned.

I had high hopes for the 107th running of this 7.2 mile classic cross country race, even though it was only my second time running it. Last year I was in the "runner" section, and had finished fast enough to get an "invitational" entry this year where I assumed the pace would be faster. I was old enough to get a six minute head start (the race is handicapped by age), so if I just took a few minutes off my raw time from the previous year, I had a shot at one of the coveted "black shirts" given to the top 35 finishers. My fitness was good (more tuned for marathons or longer, but still) and the weather was felt like the stars were aligning.

(I'm coming for you!!!)
My inspiration was on full stoke as well. I started running the Dipsea in honor of my great uncle, Ray Morris, whom on his death bed two years ago made me promise I would honor his 17 finishes and 3 black shirts by "giving it a go" (thus gifting me the right "sob story" to actually be accepted to run the race). I had a fancy new Rabbit singlet covered with inspiring women ultrarunners that was worth at least a 45-second boost, and the brand new inov-8 TRAILROC 285 shoes that had quickly become my favorite downhill running shoe. One of my running heroes, Amby Burfoot (winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and editor of Runner's World), was going to be running along with us, and a one week sit-on-a-boat-and-drink-beer vacation was lined up the day after the finish. What more could I need?!?

(Hanging with Amby Burfoot!)
(My Uncle Ray, running the Bay to Breakers with my Dad in the early 70's)
(Time to do this!)
(The famous Dipsea stairs, photo courtesy of
(If you've got road, PASS!!! Photo courtesy of
(77-year-old Hans Schmidt en route to 35th place, photo courtesy of
Well, as it turns out, I needed more race experience, ferocity, and training specificity. Here are a few things I figured out:
  • For a fast runner, the "invitational" section is actually more crowded than the "runner" section. Last year as a "runner", I was able to enjoy a few miles by myself in the second half, but it was butts 2-3 wide the whole way this year. 
  • Unlike the "runners", most "invitational" runners don't step aside for faster runners, even if you ask. I got caught up behind 10-year-olds on Suicide, and 70-year-olds on the Swoop, and easily lost four minutes waiting for places to pass. The runners who got by them (and me) didn't wait at all, even if it meant a few elbows and some bushwhacking in the poison oak. 
  • It's not enough to be familiar with the Dipsea Trail, you need to know it cold. Particularly the left eight inches of the Dipsea Trail where you will be passing people. 
  • The climbs are everything. In comparing my splits with black shirt finishers, they were taking the steeper climbs like Dynamite and Cardiac 1-3 minutes faster than me. That means they were full red line and had the leg cannons to back it up. 
  • There really are some undocumented shortcuts out there. I kept seeing the same runners popping up in front of me like a glitch in The Matrix. Time to train with some locals! 
  • You get your "old person" extra minutes because you need them. Even Galen Burrell, a many-time Dipsea top finisher (5th here today) commented "I thought with one extra minute I was going to crush it...turns out I needed every one of those 60 seconds to hold the same place I got last year". 
  • You have to pass while running down stairs. You HAVE to. Just make that decision before you start. 
So, plenty of lessons learned. My Uncle Ray had tried to tell me this, saying I shouldn't expect to do well in my first 3-4 runnings. I guess I'll have to come back again and "give it another go". 

(Chris Lundy lines up with previous winners)
(Chris gets the champagne shower)
(Runners of all ages!)
(50 finishes!)
(The top finishers)
Personal setbacks aside, the Dipsea Race was a great experience, and once again a tremendous source of inspiration. I got to run with Amby for a few steps, climbed Hogsback with some wicked-fast 12-year-olds, watched Chris Lundy become the first women to win the Dipsea in decades, see Alex Varner pick up 2nd place (his best yet!) and his 7th fastest time award, and talk to former winner Hans Schmidt, who at age 77 took the coveted 35th place black shirt. In the grand scheme of things, 126th place isn't bad (and it is auto-entry for "invitational" next year) and much like all of these superstars, I am grateful for health, adventure, and perspective.

This is one of those races that seems to allow fitness to defy time, both young and old. I will certainly be back, hopefully in black!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Stealing Fire, Ultrarunning, and the Pursuit of Ecstatis

Fellow Prometheans...if you are reading this, then YOU ARE A RECEIVER. 

Have you ever reached a transcendent state by engrossing yourself in a passion? Immersing yourself so deeply that time and effort just slips away? Perhaps you know the feeling by another name -

achieving flow
getting in the zone
the runners high
being in the pocket
creative immersion
finding your groove
a oneness with the universe/your God

It seems we all have a way to get there. My jam is the runners high (trail running, preferably 90 minutes or longer), but I find it uncanny that nearly every person I know has a way to achieve a similar state, and does so regularly through music, code, art, meditation, writing, church, racing cars, cooking, travel, you name it. It's to the point I wonder if this pursuit of transcendental joy is a fundamental need of the human condition.

This is exactly what authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore in Stealing Fire, a fascinating new book that resonated with my favorite passions. The authors go in depth on the human desire (need?) to seek altered states of consciousness, and how this journey connects high performance athletes, Burning Man participants, Navy SEALS, psychedelic tripsters, EDM concert goers, artists, monks, and Silicon Valley elites alike. It's a fascinating read, and I found a lot of parallels to the joy and mindfulness state found in distance running.

Their framework for explaining flow is called STER, based on the four characteristics of Selflessness (loss of the sense of self), Timelessness (loss of the sense of time), Effortlessness (little or no perceived effort), and Richness (boosted creativity and connection making). As they apply it to people deep in the pursuit of flow, it sounds a lot like why and how we like to run. Their in-depth explanations of the neurochemistry also helps explain why we like to run together - when serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and oxytocin all get triggered, it increases our feelings of trust, openness, and intimacy, and promotes tighter bonds and heightened cooperation. Yup, that sounds like an ultramarathon! We may call it the runners high or “long run revelations”, but the foundation of the experience is strikingly similar.

The “exploration of ecstatis” (ecstasy-like states) is far more universal than one would think, with a history that goes back thousands of years. No matter how each generation or culture pursues ecstatis, it delivers incredible ramifications to creativity, teamwork, global empathy, and shaping humanity. Cutler and Wheal propose that those who partake and share it’s secrets are the modern day rebels, stealing fire for the masses like Prometheus stole fire from the gods (thus the title). It's not just a fringe thing either - today, the altered states economy is north of $4 trillion annually.

For those looking for a new read outside the normal running texts (although those are also good), I think you might like Stealing Fire. The book is full of so many anecdotes, stories, and studies, it’s hard to put down once you get started. For example, did you know:
  • Some people with depression can get instant relief from taking botox in their frown lines because if your face can’t be sad, you can’t be sad? 
  • A deciding factor for Larry Page and Sergei Brin (founders of Google) to hire CEO Eric Schmidt was he was the only candidate that attending Burning Man? 
  • Only four days of meditation can produce significant improvement in attention, memory, vigilance, creativity, and cognitive flexibility? 
  • You can boost dopamine 400 percent by teasing about sex before the act? 
  • Flow, in its extreme, can achieve “transient hypofrontality”, a complete shut down of the self more akin to taking extreme psychedelics?
Yeah, it gets a bit crazy in a few parts, but it’s a page turner. If you like it, there's plenty more in Kotler’s previous book, The Rise of Superman, or at the Flow Genome Project where you can get guided tours (particularly attractive if you like the opening line of this post - there's a lot of engrossing language like that).

The spiritual journey of trail running, and sharing its extremes with fellow warriors, continues to be a limitless source of joy and perspective for me. It’s nice to know there are many others walking a similar path, that it has positive outcomes for our world in general, and that we all continue a journey that has been going on for thousands of years. Looking forward to sharing more about this with you on the trails!

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