The basic principles of the Dipsea Race are simple to understand: Run from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson Beach via any route you please. Head starts are given based on age and gender to allow the possibility that anyone might win.
But, actually accomplishing such a task over the hilly trails, stairs, and steep descents is a bit more complicated.
Local runner and writer Barry Spitz shared some of the history and details of the annual race from his book, Dipsea: The Greatest Race and longtime race director Edda Stickle talked with RootsRated about how the Dipsea maintains its unique, some say weird, personality.
The race, first run in 1905, is the oldest trail race in the country and was organized by the hiking group known as the "Dipsea Indians", which is made up of members of the Olympic Club, the oldest athletic club in the country. That founding group settled on the two defining characteristics of the race: the any route you choose course and the head starts or handicaps.
“We work very diligently at keeping it the quirky, hometown race that it is,” said Stickle, who has been the volunteer race director for 15 years and will run the race for the 27th time on June 8. The race, which is capped at 1,500 runners, is overseen by volunteers. There is no online registration yet (though it has been discussed), notes Stickle, because the organizers want to ensure that locals get first dibs. That means if you want to run the race, you have to get your application in the mail quickly. Spots for new runners are doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Writing sob stories on your form about why you should be let in is highly encouraged. Runners who are admitted can then requalify for the next year by running fast enough.
Despite all this, there have still been some changes to the race over the years.
Since the late-1970s, some shortcuts and areas have been declared off-limits for environmental and safety reasons. While the race is still technically run over an open course, there is a consensus route that most runners stick to and a few main shortcuts known to locals. (There are also a few more shortcuts known only to in-the-know locals, and hotly guarded as secrets. “Some of the runners are very protective of their shortcuts,” says Stickle. “They’ll show their friends one route and then come back and go another way”).
The course always starts in downtown Mill Valley and heads almost immediately up 676 stairs. Most runners then head through neighborhoods, across Panoramic Highway, down the steep shortcut known as Suicide – if they dare – before eventually coming out at Muir Woods. The climb out of Muir Woods is long and joins up with the Dipsea Fire Road, eventually coming out at the summit of Cardiac (1,360 feet). All that’s left then is to travel through Steep Ravine, along the ridges, and downhill into Stinson Beach. Each of these sections has names and a long history – but you don’t need to know all that to enjoy the views. Just remember to keep your eyes on the trail; more than a few runners each year end up hitting their heads on low-hanging trees or falling over protruding roots.
Back in the day, handicaps were initially awarded individually based on each runner’s perceived ability. The goal was that an “average runner” might be able to win the whole shebang. (This, obviously, could get a bit complicated for the person allocating handicaps). In 1965, handicaps became based entirely on age and, in 1969 when women began running the race, on gender as well. Today, for example, men age 6 and under or age 74 and over, and women age 7 and younger or 66 and older, get the biggest head start: 25 minutes before the fastest men go. The last men’s group (between 19 and 30 years old) is known as the “scratch runners.” They start eight minutes after the last women’s group (ages 19 to 39). The runners are divided into two sections of 750, each with the allocated handicaps by age and gender: the Invitational division, which starts first, and the Runners division, made up of those who have not yet earned the right to move up to Invitational.
In 2010, Reilly Johnson, an 8-year-old Mill Valley girl, won the race, becoming the youngest person ever to do so. In 2012, 72-year-old Hans Schmidt of nearby Greenbrae, CA became the oldest winner.
Competition can get fierce (and bloody – fast runners are often covered in dirt and cuts) for one of the top 35 spots, which earn the runners a highly-locally-coveted black t-shirt. But, it’s not easy. Even Stickle has only ever come as close as 36th.
Locally, winner predictions are hotly debated each year and any handicap changes spur hours of discussion among longtime runners. Want to complain? Jim “the Birdman” Weil, the longtime Dipsea handicapper, used to tell people who wanted more of a head start, “Run faster.”
For more information about the Dipsea, including watching, volunteering, or hoping to earn a spot to run (awarded on a first-come basis), visit www.dipsea.org.