The Dipsea Race is a 7.4 mile trail race from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. It was first run in 1905 and has a unique handicapping system that makes it competative for runners of all ages. 2023 was my first year participating, after almost 9 years of living in Mill Valley and 4 years of running.
I woke up early before my alarm went off. It’s near the height of summer so it was already light out before 6am. I made breakfast, found my kit (ready from the night before) and dressed, then stretched out on the yoga mat. I had very little prep left to do and was out the door by 7, leaving at jog to wind through the neighborhood to get downtown.
I was at the bag check-in by 7:15 but wasn’t ready to ditch my hoodie yet, I still had lots of time to mill around the start area and stay warm. I waited through the line for the bathroom a few times, and jogged up and down the block a few times, but stayed close to the corral. I bumped into a former co-worker from Credit Karma. We exchanged pleasantries before separating into the crowd.
I could have arrived much later, but would have needed to bring my own bag. I overheard one of the volunteers saying they had run out. I recognized a few of the runners I’ve seen around town. I saw Jeffrey, one of the owners of the art gallery that carries Amy’s ceramics, in a yellow volunteer’s vest. He offered to take my photo under the start gate. He took good photos! I thanked him and continued pacing the town square waiting for my group.
The race start is divided into two groups. The “invitational” group finished in the top half of the field of last year’s race, and their heats start first. The “runners” group, which I am in, comprises the back half of the field, and positions are given by lottery (but they do accept bribes and sob stories. I gave both and was accepted. Pity works.) The heats are handicapped by age and gender: children and the elderly starting first, priority going to the very oldest and very youngest. The first heat in each group is larger than you assume it would be. I started 50 minutes behind the first group with 140 other mostly-fit runners in their 30s. I only saw 1 woman in the group.
I didn’t race anyone out of the gate. The 1/4 mile to the stairs sets your place in line for the queue. I passed a good number of people but the whole mess was crowded and there wasn’t much rooms to move much quicker than the average pace of the pack. I jogged away from the top step, power hiked strategically passing the first mile marker, and was greeted by dense fog at the top of the hill. I was already starting to pass people from the very first waves of runners. Those kids didn’t know what hit ‘em. I had saved enough that I could push a bit on the road down to Muir Woods. I opted to not take the suicide route, and bypassing it seemed to only get me down a few places, some of which I recovered.
The Muir Woods parking lot flew by. The climb up to the fire road through “the forest” was humid and grueling, a single-file line on the right with only the strongest making passes on the left. I am convinced that you cannot run this section. I was needing to recover some from the sprint downhill so I was glad to not attempt to run. Some mild nausea kicked up when my heartrate was in the mid 180s, so I backed off the throttle and hiked with my hands on my waist until I felt my body calm down.
When we hit the fire road the trail widened some and the slope lessened, forking to a graded fire road on the left and the continuation of the single-track to the right. The single-track looked very crowded, so I broke left up the fire road where I could finally jog again, trading a bit more distance for a minor break from climbing. I was passing people again on this section, but I don’t know if the trade was worth it. Probably evened out in the end.
The fire road climb continued and at the next fork I merged back onto the trail. Again, I power hiked as needed to keep my heart rate in check. Though I was mostly past the nausea, I definitely felt more tapped than I expected. The climbing you do on the stairs and in the forest are no joke. With a bit more running I could have made up a few minutes here, but without it I didn’t get to the top of Cardiac Hill until 55 minutes had gone by, so finishing sub-1:20 was going to be a stretch. I stopped and choked down 2 sips of water down before continuing on to the descent.
I was moving well in this section. When the trail forked for another shortcut after a particularly muddy slope, I decided to tempt fate and take it. I wasn’t happy with this decision in the end. The shortcut was aggressively narrow and jammed single file with people, including a kid directly in front of me who couldn’t have been more than 10. This section meandered a bit, despite being the straighter path, I would have been better off going around the long way where I could have run. Across the bridge and then up the last climb, I power hiked past a few people who had muscled there way around me in the shortcut and prepared myself to give the last mile everything I could throw at it.
I ran a 7 minute split for the last 1.3 miles. My training shined through. When compared to the same section I ran last November in the half marathon I did here last November, going more than 30 seconds a mile faster. At a cadence of 180 and strides that are about a yard means that I would have cleared my previous performance by nearly a football field. Given that I arrived in the same spot on the map with similar amounts of climbing in my legs in both races, I am quite pleased to drop my past-self that conclusively.
Only the final mile felt like a true race. I was attempting to pass as many people as I could and provoked a good little footrace at the end with another runner. We passed each other back and forth, crossing the line together for a photo finish. The final push was very taxing and my heartrate peaked here at 194, which is thoroughly in “holy shit” territory and my body did not like much of that. I pulled off to the left just after the line and stood with my head between my legs for a good 20 seconds trying to get myself together and not puke. A volunteer asked if I was ok, so it must have looked bad, but I choked out an “I’m ok,” followed by a zombie-like shuffle to the t-shirt and medal hand out.
I found the end of a table to put my stuff on, and by the time I was collecting myself enough to text Amy, she was standing next to me.
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