by David Albee
There is no easy way, Google search or app to explain the Dipsea.
On the surface it is the oldest footrace in America, a 7.5 mile cross country romp following the scenic and historic Dipsea Trail from downtown Mill Valley over hill, dale and the south flank of Mt. Tamalpais through Muir Woods and Golden Gate National Recreation Area ending at Stinson Beach. Sounds simple enough, right?
To get from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach one must first walk/run/endure three steep knee-and-calf ache inducing flights of stairs (`Huff,’ `Puff’and `Enough Already’) totaling a whopping 688 steps, cross Panoramic Highway to descend down a bald patch of parcel dubbed Suicide Hill that may require you to scoot on your butt, ascend a series of switchbacks and fire roads through a stretch called “Dynamite” to reach the peak aptly named Cardiac Hill at 1,360 feet above sea level – roughly a rise in elevation equivalent to a 50-story building from the starting line. Whew. It’s mostly all downhill from there, yet one must maneuver through Steep Ravine where the path consists of roots and rocks and poison oak to ultimately lead to an exhausting last leap of faith over a stile down onto Highway 1 where far too many runners have face-planted. If upright, runners begin their finishing kick to Stinson Beach which is no ordinary day at the beach because at the finish line some competitors detour right into a Red Cross tent to address cuts, scratches, strains, sprains and fractures while the lucky ones cool off in the Pacific Ocean, hence “dip” in “sea.”
Oh, you get a T-shirt at the end. A Dipsea Survivor T-shirt. Take a selfie while you are still standing.
Let me put it into terms better understood by Dominican students: The quirky Dipsea would be like running to class on the top floor of Guzman Hall – except taking 638 more steps – then sliding down the fire escape to run from campus to the tower at the top of Gold Hill Grade on a trail as crowded and narrow as the line for ice cream at noon at Caleruega, getting frustratingly stuck behind some professor who can’t decide between sprinkles or whipped cream. Then, if you have time to sip some water and take in the view from the tower, run recklessly and aimlessly down the hillsides and meadows below all the way to Conlan Center where you either dive into the pool or dial 911.
That’s the Dipsea course, which is unique in itself. But what makes the race even more unique is theoretically anyone in the limited field of 1,500 can win it. Virtually every competitor is granted a head start based on age and gender determined by a race time handicapper nicknamed Birdman.
For example, the two-time defending Dipsea champion is a 57-year-old female NYU School Law graduate who works for a self-help publisher. She qualified for a 16-minute head start last year. Prior to her, the three previous winners of the Dipsea were a 72-year-old retired natural foods importer and distributer; a 60-year-old nurse at the University of California San Francisco hospital, and a nine-year-old, 52-inch, 62-pound pigtailed fourth grade student.
Alex Varner of San Rafael is perhaps the greatest runner in Dipsea history to never win the Dipsea. He completes the race in, incredibly, about 45 minutes and has won the “Fastest Time Award” a Dipsea record six consecutive years. Yet his best finish is third place. Because of his age and sex, he qualifies as a “scratch” runner, meaning he has to start in the back of the “Invitational Section” of runners with no head start and then pass about 450 people on a tight and treacherous course just to have a chance at winning.
The race has been the inspiration for a movie (1986’s “On The Edge” starring Bruce Dern) and has even featured an Academy Award-winning actor. The late, great Robin Williams, who competed in cross country at Redwood High School, ran in the Dipsea twice, the last time in 1984.
“Besides the hills, the stairs and the downhill, it wasn’t bad,” Williams quipped afterwards.
However, the most famous and legendary competitor in the Dipsea is the late, great Jack Kirk. He won the Dipsea twice and earned the nickname “The Dipsea Demon” then morphed into the most beloved cartoonish-like character/inspiration in Dipsea history. He lived alone on a secluded 400-acre ranch outside Mariposa with no running water or electricity. He literally slept in the back seat of one of a dozen or so beat-up Volkswagen cars on his property. He so fiercely protected his homestead that he was arrested once for aggravated assault after being caught with a rock in his hand after engaging some youths in a rock-throwing incident. The Demon was jailed, but continued to train for the Dipsea by running around his cell.
I am not making this up.
So obsessed and devoted to the Dipsea, Kirk, a 5-foot-5 vegetarian who competed with girls tennis shoes because he couldn’t afford expensive running shoes, started and finished a record 67 consecutive Dipsea races, the last one at the age of 95. Yes, 95! He couldn’t finish the race when he was 96 while being filmed for a documentary. The Demon died at the age of 100, but his lore lives on.
As does the Dipsea. Only the Boston Marathon has been contested longer, but the Dipsea has one distinct advantage over it. The Boston Marathon is longer. The Dipsea is harder.