The Dipsea Trail starts in Mill Valley and goes up and down a lot in its 7.5 miles to Stinson Beach. I ran the first five miles of the course (and back again) a few years ago while on holiday and always wanted to run in the race, the oldest trail event in the US (est. 1905). It’s a beautiful trail through Muir Woods, up Mt. Tamalpais and down to the Pacific Ocean. If you’re ever in the area, I urge you to check it out. I promise you will not regret it.
It’s very hard to get into the original Dipsea race and so your best chance is to do the Double or the Quad, (roughly but not quite) four times the regular route. As The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler had been cancelled due to the residual smoke from the devastating wildfires in Paradise, I got on the waiting list for the Quad. Despite this last-minute bid for a race, I made it onto the start list and hoped that two, nearly three in fact, weeks of inactivity meant I was well rested rather than veering into a huge loss of fitness.
Living in San Francisco automatically means regular hills on training runs so in that sense I was better prepared than ever for the rigours of the Quad course, with its 9,276 feet (2,827 metres) of both climb and descent. Having said that, my most ‘mountainy’ race thus far was the Picnic Marathon around Box Hill in England’s usually less than lump south, which has about 6,400ft of elevation. That had taken me about 6h20m, although a dodgy stomach probably accounted for at least 40 minutes more than I’d hoped for on that memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons day.
So while the distance didn’t scare me, the hills and steps (of which there are many) did, in the sense that I didn’t want to be walking too much, especially towards the end. I was lucky enough to get in touch with local coach and ultra athlete Chris Hauth who just happened to have won the Quad in 2009 and so I asked for his advice on the race. His tips boiled down to this: walk the steps and take each leg at the following efforts – easy, moderate, hard, survival.
I took my race vest with me but decided in the end to carry a water bottle in my hand and a few emergency snacks in my pockets. There didn’t seem any point in carrying any more weight than necessary, especially as you could access your drop bag at halfway. That, and there were aid stations at miles 4.5 and 7, as well as the halfway point, all stocked with the usual ultra goodies.
After gathering on the road and listening to a short announcement, the race began. Almost immediately, the first of the steps appeared and everyone around me walked up them. Maybe some of the quickies up the front run them but for the rest of us mere mortals, a steady walk is definitely the best approach. Besides, it was so packed that there was no room for overtaking at this early stage.
In the first half mile alone, there are over 700 steps up, mostly wooden, some uneven stone and all, on this cool November morning, wet, thanks to some heavy overnight rain. Treating the first mile as a warm-up, I let people pass as and when they wanted and trotted along trying to keep my heart rate as low as possible.
After the initial climb a descent towards Muir Woods begins. I was settling into my rhythm and enjoying those early ultra miles when you feel good and everything seems possible. And then I heard them. Two runners who were clearly catching up with each other after a long absence. Fair play to them for being able to talk constantly while negotiating some seriously steep hills without becoming short of breath but non-stop chatter wasn’t my idea of a relaxing and enjoyable race.
They were just behind me so I took the chance to take a photo…
… and let them pass. But they barely got away from me and so I had to suck it up. Of course, people are well within their rights to talk while they’re racing – I’ve even done it myself occasionally – but there was something incessant about this conversation that I couldn’t block out. Maybe I should have brought earphones after all.
Instead of getting any more annoyed, I focused on what I needed to do to make the day a success, and control the controllable. My first goal was to get to Stinson Beach feeling fresh and without falling over or twisting an ankle on the root-filled, rocky route. The rain of the past few days also meant there were a few streams to step through as well as the odd patch of mud. Not English cross-country level by any means though, despite warnings it was likely to be a sloppy ride.
Crossing the river at the Muir Woods car park saw the start of the second major ascent of the route. After 2.5 miles of almost constant climbing, the hill known as Cardiac peaks and with it, the aid station. About an hour had passed which was about on schedule for my pre-race goal of 6h30m. I figured 1h30m for the first leg with a slight but increasing slowdown for every successive leg.
On any ordinary course, 2.5 miles of mainly downhill would take me less than half an hour but the Dipsea Trail is anything but ordinary.
If nothing else, the uneven and steep steps down towards Stinson Beach are extremely tricky to make up any time on, whether they’re wet and muddy or not. As it was, I was happy to tiptoe down to maintain my upright status. The final mile to the beach is more undulating and runnable, at least at this stage. I passed the aid station less than half a mile before the turnaround point and reached it at 1h29 feeling fine aside from a few twinges in the quads coming down the final hill. Nothing significant, just the effect of more than 2,000 feet of ascent and descent.
On the way back, concerned that I might be going too fast to last at the pace I wanted to maintain, I decided to take a few more photos. It’s too gorgeous a course not to capture it.
And these signs made me laugh too.
And then the first really steep climb of the return leg began, up the muddy, slippery steps into the woods. It was hard work and I had a moment of gloom. If it was this hard on leg two, how would I find it on leg four? Sometimes the best thing to do is to not think at all so I just focused on the next step and then the next until the trail became a slope and the steps were behind me.
While I waited for the gradient to decrease I continued to hike and soon found myself making ground on the person in front. She was gamely running every single step, something I could not have done, but I was keeping my heart rate as low as I could and catching up so I figured it was the best approach for me.
Suddenly, there was an almighty crash on the trail ahead and a “Woah!” After some indistinct muttering it was silent again so I carried on expecting to see a tree or at least a big branch blocking the route. But nothing was visible so after a quick look for any wobbly-looking trees carried on about my business.
My business was getting back to the start feeling in reasonable shape and the occasional photo break helped me to not over exert myself. At one such moment I happened to see a timing chip that had fallen off someone’s race number (or bib as it’s known over here) so I handed it in at the Cardiac aid station. They would have missed out on a few split times but maybe it helped in some way.
Going down Cardiac is so much more pleasant than the reverse and it was good to get the legs moving again. My toes were very happy in their new home – I’d done what you’re not supposed to do and bought new shoes the day before but Hoka Challengers are good to go straight from the box – and everything was feeling fine as I dropped down the first set of steps back into Mill Valley.
“You’re looking far too fresh!” said a spectator as I passed.
“There’s a long way to go” I replied, knowing that even though I was almost halfway by distance, I was still at nothing like halfway in terms of time.
I trotted into the turnaround in 3:07 and went straight to my drop bag to replace my plasters. Wet tech t-shirts and my nipples are not good friends and it seems to be getting worse with age. Is there a scientific reason for this? Are they getting longer?!
Anyway, before I could even find them (the plasters, not the nipples), a volunteer came over to me and asked if I needed anything. I’ve volunteered at an aid station and all you want to do is help runners as much and as quickly as possible but as a runner, I still feel taken aback and overwhelmed with gratitude that these people are trying to help you however they can. It really is the most special thing about ultrarunning, where you spend that little bit longer around the volunteers than you would at a shorter race, and can appreciate them that little bit more.
While she was filling my water bottle, I was faffing around with plasters and quickly realising that cheap, non-waterproof, own brand ones were basically useless and as I didn’t have a towel, they wouldn’t properly stick to my wet body. Nevertheless, I balanced one on each nipple and set off on leg three.
The first half of the Dipsea back down to Stinson Beach felt okay but despite walking where it was sensible to and getting calories in every half hour, it was taking me longer than I wanted.
My mind was taken off the struggle briefly after I saw a face I recognised volunteering but couldn’t place. It was only after some time that I realised I’d just passed Victor Ballesteros, the runner in this excellent fly-through of the Dipsea trail.
Cardiac was especially hard going. I was still running okay on the undulating flats and downs but anything remotely ascending was suddenly like going up the down escalator.
One of the most challenging aspects of the course is that although a good chunk of it is downhill, some of it is so steeply stepped that for the unpractised (me), it’s impossible to make up any time as saying upright is the only thing that matters. And with the slippery conditions rendering some of the steps movable objects, it was simply a matter of being patient and concentrating. Which is hard when your quads are squealing at you and all your brain is doing is thinking about sitting down and having a beer.
By the time I reached the beach for the final time I was feeling pretty broken. I had about 1:40 to break 6:30 and given my slowdown rate, things were not looking good. The climb out of Stinson was long and slow and I barely got into a jog before reaching the Steps of Gloom. However, this time I felt a lot more positive, partly as I knew I didn’t have to do it again. At least not today.
The other reason was that the guy in front of me had just stopped and was holding his thigh. He had cramp so I offered him a salt tablet.
“I’ve no idea if it will help but it probably won’t do any harm,” I said, as any good dispensing pharmacist would doubtless do.
Focusing on someone else helped me to stop thinking about my own pain (and even lifting my leg up some of the steeper steps was painful by this point) so I made a conscious decision to encourage, either by words or a thumbs up or smile, everyone who passed me in either direction. This might sound sickeningly nice until I reveal that I tried to trip up those overtaking me but wasn’t quick enough. Just kidding. Or am I?
Strength work as part of training is something I always mean to do but as it’s not as fun as running, I rarely do any. Despite all the time on my hands this autumn, I still didn’t do much and this is probably as good a reason as any that my sides ached horribly on the descents in this final leg. My legs themselves weren’t too bad but my sides, oh my. There was a point where I was in such discomfort that I wondered if I’d passed out and been repeatedly kicked in the ribs at some point during the race. All of this meant that my downhill pace reduced drastically and the chances of making up any time on the descents were scuppered.
The final big climb was steeper than ever (who was tilting the earth?) and I was literally using my hands to help get me up the slope at one point. So much for a running race. Chris was right – this was now just about survival.
Eventually the drop into Mill Valley arrived and a few whooping runners whizzed past me in an all-too enthusiastic manner for my liking. With my time target gone, I trotted down the final steps (all 700-odd of them let’s not forget) and across the line in 6:41 and change.
The finish area had a festival feel to it and I felt like I’d been dancing non-stop all night and now needed a serious disco nap. (A bit like at Homelands in 1999, at which I saw Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx in a row. Amazing night albeit with a lot less elevation.) I picked up my finisher’s t-shirt, a fancy chrome drinking flask, a stubby holder (or whatever they call them here) and headed over to the Firetrail pizza tent. Great pizza but I quickly learnt that I don’t really want anything spicy immediately post-race.
Looking for something to wash it down with, I discovered that I’d timed my finish to imperfection as the Sufferfest beer stall had gone to restock. Luckily there were three huge ice chests containing water, a juice soft drink and – praise be! – chocolate milk. Which was just as well because, as usual, I’d left the one I bought beforehand at home. And then the beer crew returned, I grabbed a can and went home to do a post-race flat lay.
Naturally, Strava didn’t capture the elevation exactly but you can get the gist of the course profile from the chart above.
I finished in 6:41:33 which was good enough for 113th place out of 280 finishers. My splits were as follows:
7.1 miles: 1:29:19 (107th for the section)
14.2 miles: 1:35:54 (116th)
21.3 miles: 1:45:36 (101st)
28.4 miles: 1:50:45 (128th)
The winner finished in 4:21 (I mean, what?!) and the final finisher came in 9 hours and 29 minutes after setting off.
Although this wasn’t my goal race by any means, I’m really glad to have got in through the back door as it’s a great event and has a real community feel to it. People keep coming back and there were several people completing their 20th (or more in some cases) Quads. I’ll be back at some point although it may be too soon after next year’s North Face 50 for which I have a deferred place.
Highly recommended and yes, the ‘quad’ in the title has further significance beyond the number of Dipsea legs for several days after the race.