By Doug Steedman
The Dipsea is the second oldest running race in the US, after the Boston Marathon. It was first run in 1905. It is a tough and quirky 7+ mile trail race in Marin County, CA. The course starts in Mill Valley, climbs up and over the shoulder of Mt Tamalpais, and finishes in Stinson Beach. One of its traditions is that of the "headstarts", wherein runners are set off in groups, one per minute, according to age and gender. The oldest (66 year-old women and 74 year-old men) and the youngest (6 year-old boys and 7 year-old girls) start first, with the 19-30 year-old men going last (25 minutes later). Since the awards are mainly based on order of finish, the winners can (and often do) come from the early starting groups. Thus, unlike most races, the winner almost never comes from the ranks of the 19-30 year old men, although there is a separate award for the fastest runner over the course.
This year was my 13th (consecutive) Dipsea. I ran my first when I turned 50, and thought of it as a one-off. But the race has gotten under my skin, and I seem to keep coming back. One reason is that the handicapped start means that my chances of a top finish have actually been increasing with my age, as I am slowing down less quickly than I am gaining headstart minutes. This year I was to start 14 minutes ahead of the young bucks. And when I say "a top finish", I am referring to another Dipsea tradition - the "black shirt" for each of the first 35 finishers. Each shirt is numbered with finishing place writ large on the back. Some of the top Dipsea exponents have amassed a large collection of these shirts over the years, with (I think) the record being almost 30. Although the Dipsea has never been a big race for the Aggies, a few have their collections of shirts from back in the day: Hank Lawson, Gordon Abbott, and Rosemarie Lagunas each have a few, Tim Minor also.
The last couple of years I have come into the race thinking a black shirt was a definite possibility for me. I even warned the family that I might be late back from the race in case I had to stay for the awards ceremony! But it didn't happen, and each time I took the first post-race shuttle back to the start and got home early. My best place was 46th, from 2013. In 2016, I did a lot of training on hills (did I mention the race is kind of hilly?) and was confident. Then I got sick with a bad cold a couple days before the race, and it was all I could do to finish the race on rubber legs with a 10-minute personal worst, doing just enough to re-qualify for 2017.
This year, I doubled down on the hill work, and even found myself doing strength work in the gym (first time in my life). I also did some practice trail races and felt good on the uphills. Then again, frustratingly, I got sick in the week prior to the race. This time it was a 24-hour fever thing with some indigestion issues. But by race day I felt OK, albeit not 100%.
The highest point on the course is "Cardiac Hill", about two-thirds of the way through the race, with the tough climbing past and mostly downhill to follow. To that point, I was just a little off my goal pace, and had been passing a lot of folks who started ahead of me. I could sense the younger, faster runners closing in on me from behind (although only one person - the eventual winner Chris Lundy - had actually passed me to that point). Imagine my surprise and pleasure when the spectators at Cardiac told me I was in 8th place! This was unknown territory for me. The second person to pass me was my training partner Clay (who is a couple of years younger and started 2 minutes behind me). He maintained pace and place all the way to the finish and ended up in a superb 8th place in his first real Dipsea.
I am not great at the downhills and got passed by quite a few of the younger runners, including a group of six that all came past at once in the last quarter mile. But I still ended up 25th, got to take part in the awards ceremony, and finally got home late, proudly wearing my first black shirt. With one minute more headstart minute next year, I'll be hoping to improve my spot and add to my new black shirt collection! And who knows... perhaps some of my HOKA ONE ONE Aggies teammates will make their way to Mill Valley on an early June day, and join me for "a little run over the hill to the beach."