Trail running’s holy grail celebrates 100 years
Just go ahead and park anywhere,” said a stranger in bright orange shorts. “Anything goes today.” So I did. Although it made me a little nervous, I parked illegally in the usually hyper-vigilant town of Mill Valley, California, and followed the crowd—followed everyone, since all normal activities were suspended—to the center of town, where 1500 people were finding their places for the start of the 100th anniversary of the Dipsea race. Spectators and race volunteers shared the excitement by providing last-minute coffee, hugs and encouragement, as race officials and media personalities shared stories of Dipseas past over a loudspeaker.
Many of the people who raced on that 12th day of June 2005 had been running the Dipsea faithfully for decades and training hard all year. To a journalist who scored one of the coveted entry spots just by virtue of a writing contract, the course was jaw-droppingly grueling, and still, the stunning scenery, the constant changes and challenges and—especially—the spirit of the participants and fans made it one of the most exhilarating races I’ve ever done.
It’s been called the hardest seven-mile race in the world. And when runners are struggling up the steep, hot, rugged trail, suffering from aching quads and twisted ankles, they sometimes call the race a few other things as well. The course, which begins in Mill Valley (about five miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge), starts by heading straight up 676 uneven wooden stairs. Not accustomed to beginning my mornings this way, I stared at my feet to avoid tripping, and ended up dizzy from the heat and the jostling of other runners who wanted to break out of the crowd before things really got difficult.
The Dipsea consists of hills upon hills with almost no time spent on flat ground. By the time you cross the finish line on the Pacific Ocean’s Stinson Beach, you have gone up over 2200 feet and down about the same. You’ve jockeyed for foot-space on singletrack trails, risked heat exhaustion on exposed cliffs in the blazing sun, descended suddenly into forests so dark you have to whip off your sunglasses to avoid slamming into redwoods, and hopped over downed competitors who tripped on slippery rocks or collapsed from dehydration. Yet the Dipsea is host to some of the most loyal runners in the history of the sport.
Like all great names, “Dipsea” has multiple myths of origin. Some say finishers have traditionally taken a dip in the sea. The official explanation in this year’s program is that the event was named after the nearby Dipsea Inn, which opened in 1904, and was in turn named after a Rudyard Kipling poem about a “Deepsea chantey.” Most runners don’t care where the race got the name. They just want to be there every year and keep collecting finisher shirts bearing the strange word.
The second-oldest running race in the country (after the Boston Marathon), the legendary Dipsea is the hands-down favorite of many dedicated trail runners. For example, Jack Kirk, the “Dipsea Demon,” who started running the race in 1930, won in twice and didn’t stop until 2003, when he was 96. (During the Depression and World War II, there were five years when the race was not run.) Kirk, who ran it every time it happened, holds the world record for consecutive participation in an annual sporting event.
Or take Russ Kiernan, who won the 2005 race and started training for 2006 the next day. The 67-year-old Mill Valley resident has run the Dipsea 34 times now, with three victories.
Race Director Edda Stickle points out that the Dipsea organizers always receive double or triple the number of applications they can accept, which, because of environmental concerns and crowding on the trails, is firmly capped at 1500. “Everybody who’s ever run the Dipsea wants to keep doing it,” says the 63-year-old Stickle, who has run the Dipsea 19 of the last 20 years. “And then new people hear about it and want to run it, too.” One of the ways people hear about it is through the gritty but heartwarming 1985 film On the Edge, which starred Bruce Dern as a middle-aged runner who was unfairly banned from competition 20 years earlier and tries to exorcise his past by making a comeback in a slightly fictionalized version of the race (called the “Cielo-Sea” in the movie; Dern himself ran the Dipsea in 1974).
“You think ‘Dipsea’ from one year to the next,” says Melody-Anne Schultz, a three-time winner who placed third this year. The 63-year-old grandmother, who has won her age group in the Boston, New York and Melbourne marathons, and set a world record for her marathons class in the London Flora Marathon (3:15:03), says, “It’s the toughest course I’ve run so far.” But she also plans to keep doing the Dipsea as long as her knees hold out. “I prefer trail running,” she says, as one explanation for why she’s so passionate about this race. “It’s easier on the legs, and you’ve got your ups and downs and undulating land.”
“Undulating” is one way to describe the trail, which essentially consists of a large hill (760 feet) followed by a larger hill (1360 feet), both of which have a lot of smaller rises and falls resting on top of them. Although it’s often referred to as a seven-mile race, that’s an approximation. The trail is an “open course,” which means there are options for your actual route. Originally—when the race was first run in 1905 as a challenge among friends from the local Olympic Club—the rule was just that you had to begin at the start line and finish at the beach and how you got there was your business.
Oliver Millard winning the 1913 Dipsea.
Since then, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Mt. Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods National Monument, through which the race meanders, have declared some areas off limits. Still, enough choices abound to make strategy count. Volunteers hold up large signs at around the two-mile mark: one says “Suicide,” and the other says “Safer.” The “Suicide” route, naturally, is shorter and steeper. All the contenders take it, hoping to cut seconds off their time. Runners with nothing to prove take the “Safer” route, in part to avoid being trampled by the speedsters. A later sign announces “Swoop in Extreme Disrepair,” and volunteers encourage runners to try the more woodsy and gradual Gail Scott Trail. Most—even those of us who don’t have a prayer of winning—opt for the Swoop anyway. It’s a sharp, eroded, exhilarating descent—a long slippery skid in rainy times and dusty and gravel-riddled in this year’s dry weather.
“No running!” ordered one of the dozen or so yellow-suited paramedics who came into view as I rounded a bend on the Swoop. “Slow down and pass to the side!” he yelled, trying to protect a bloody racer who had tripped and was nursing his wounds at the side of the trail. Slowing down at that point was almost as difficult as speeding up on the way to the peak, but I applied my quadriceps brakes and hopped onto some rocks as I careened past.
“There are no secrets left,” says Kiernan. “I’ve told everybody my shortcuts by now.” Still, he does have his strategies. As he neared the finish line, he kept looking over his shoulder to locate the runners-up. As he passed race officials, he asked them whether anyone was in sight. “I didn’t want a really big margin,” he explains. “If I won by more than a minute, they might reconsider the handicapping.” His 49-second lead over second-place Roy Rivers was designed to minimize attention, so that Kiernan wouldn’t jeopardize his head start next year. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is.
Runners suffering up the Cardiac section, 2005 Dipsea.
The unique and complex handicapping of this race is one thing that keeps runners of all ages coming back year after year. The 1500 runners have 40 different starting times to help adjust for differences in age and gender. The original racers, back in 1905, all knew each other and assigned individual handicaps to try to even out the competition. Now, with the help of M.I.T.-trained engineer and runner James Weil, the system is a little more scientific, although the board of directors re-examines and tweaks it every year.
First, participants are divided into two groups: “Invitational” for racers who placed well in the previous year’s event (that is, the first 450 finishers from the previous year’s “Invitational” runners, plus anyone else who finished in the top 750); and “Runners” for everyone else who got in by virtue of lottery, auction or a convincing sob story. Then, each group is sub-divided and assigned head starts in accord with the average performances of people like themselves in previous Dipseas. At 8:30 a.m., for example, “Invitational” boys six and under or men 72 and over get to start, along with Invitational girls eight and under or women 63 and over. (Some of these age categories are theoretical, of course. The youngest starter this year was seven-year-old Zachary Kopstein of Tiburon, California, and the oldest was Mill Valley’s 79-year-old Roy Harvey.) At 8:31 a.m., 71-year-old men and 62-year-old women take off. This continues steadily until 9:18 a.m., when men from 19 to 30, in the “Runners” group, finally get to start.
The beginning is complicated; the ending is simple. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins. There is no need at that point to give “age-group awards.”
“I love handicapped races,” says Kiernan. “I can win ’em!” Regarding the Dipsea system, he explains, “At this age, I gain a minute a year. So the trick is to lose only 10 or 15 seconds of speed each year. If I keep that up, eventually it’ll be like a time zone—I’ll be at Stinson Beach before I ever leave the start line.”
Christopher Phipps was actually the fastest man in the race (at 51:24) but came in 8th place because, at the age of 35, he had a head start of only one minute. “The handicapping is kind of a bummer right now,” says Phipps, who has been the fastest finisher three of the seven times he’s done the Dipsea, “but I hope it stays in place until I’m Russ’s age. I plan to do the race every year for the rest of my life, so I know I’ll appreciate it later.”
The years Melody-Anne Schultz won—1999 and 2003—her margins of victory were 5:14 and 5:33, respectively. Those were so dramatic that the race officials changed the handicapping. In the past, the winner was penalized one minute when he or she came back the following year; now it’s three minutes.
There are no prizes other than black T-shirts for the first 35 finishers (everyone else gets blue), a few trophies and a carved bear for first place, but participants and fans gush more about those strange items than most people ever talk about the prize money in the big marathons. Kiernan, for example, likes to claim he’s cool about the whole thing, that he’s in it just for fun, but he knows the exact number of black shirts—24—that he has earned in his 34 finishes, and relishes wearing them around town.
“People see me and they go, ‘Oh you’re the Dipsea guy!’” he says. “I love everything about this race—all the history and the hype. It’s our Super Bowl and Indy 500 all rolled into one.”
THE DOPE ON DIPSEA
First Running: November 19, 1905
Most Recent (100th Anniversary): June 12, 2005
Race Day: Second Sunday in June
Next Running: June 11, 2006
Distance: About 7.1 miles
Elevation Gain: About 2200 feet
Number of participants annually: 1500
Number of Starting Times: 40
DIPSEA ON FILM
On the Edge, 1985, starring Bruce Dern, and written and directed by Rob Nilsson.
The Dipsea Demon, 2004, a documen- tary by Drow Millar about Jack Kirk (www.dipseademon.com).
The Dipsea Race, a video documentary 1989, (www.dipsea.org).
Russ Kiernan’s Secrets to Running the Dipsea Race, 2004 (www.dipsea.org).
DOUBLE YOUR FUN
The Double Dipsea, an out-and-back version of the course, run 13 days after the Dipsea (also won by Russ Kiernan in 2005).
The Quadruple Dipsea, two repeats of the above, for a total of 28.4 miles, run in November.
Heather Liston is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who will have to depend on a well-crafted application to get into the 2006 Dipsea.
This article originally appeared in our November 2005 issue.