June has been a busy running month for me and it finally took it toll at The Double Dipsea. On Saturday, June 29th I found out that there wasn't as much endurance left in the tank as I had hoped.
The Dipsea is a Bay Area legendary trail run. It is the second oldest organized run in the US, second only to the Boston Marathon. It runs from Stinson Beach, up through the Marin Headlands and down into Mill Valley where it descends an insane set of very vertical staircases. The Double Dipsea runs the same course from Stinson Beach to Mill Valley, then back. It's only 13.7 miles but has some very challenging hills and is rarely flat. And after 3 marathons in the past eight weeks it kicked my butt.
The morning started off very promising. It was going to be a very hot weekend in the Bay Area. Friday reached 92 degrees on Friday and in Marin it was going to be topping 85 by the afternoon. But at the start of the race it was in the low 60s. The skies were clear which meant a lot of sun and it was already out. The Double, like the original Dipsea, is a handicapped race, which means that the start is broken into waves based on your age and gender, with the oldest participants getting a generous head start. My wave, 45-49 year old men was third from last and we started 8 minutes before 9am. I'm used to earlier starts and on a hot day that would have definitely been preferred, but as I said it was in the mid-60s by start time, so the temps were promising.
The start is uphill right away from Stinson Beach into the headlands. The initial climb includes some stairs which made for easier footing but a slow take off. I was feeling good and it was only a half marathon long, so I went ahead and ran as much of the climb as I could. This was probably not smart in hindsight but seemed necessary at the time as the course was a bit crowded, and it was easy to get caught behind someone going really slow if you didn't. Plus you kind of always felt like you were holding up others if you walked too much, as there were younger, more fit runners coming up from behind. Passing was a bit challenging though, as the trails were narrow and there was poison oak along the trail nearly the whole way.
Having been bitten badly by poison oak earlier this year, I had taken extra precautions for this race. I ran in tights and a long sleeve but very breathable shirt, and did my best to ensure all my skin other than hands and face were covered. And I had a bottle of Tecnu at the finish, just in case. The plan worked. Although the black running tights were maybe not a great choice. They were breathable but black and sun don't go well together.
Back on the trail and after the first major climb we were above the trees and in an open field with great views of the coast line. The trail was still narrow so I spent most of my time (here and throughout this race) looking down at my feet. It was a good thing because nearly every time I looked up or out at the view, I tripped over a root or rut in the trail. Thankfully I never went down (but saw a few folks who did).
In this clearing there were a few Dipsea short cuts. I didn't know where they would be but followed the faster, more experienced Dipsea-ers as they cut off the main course. I felt a little bad taking shortcuts but I don't think they saved that much time or distance. Mostly they just paralleled the main trail so they were less crowded. We were in direct sun most of this section but it still wasn't much above 70 degrees...yet.
After the clearing it was back into the shadowed woods and again, a climb. This time up to the summit of Cardiac Hill, which tops out at 1350 feet. The climb was mostly pretty gradual which made it runnable but you really had to watch your step as large roots popped as much as half a foot up creating natural but very uneven steps.
At the top we were greeted by a team of very enthusiastic volunteers handing out water, Ultima and a buffet of runner-friendly foods. I was feeling good and had my nutrition on me, so I waved them thanks and pressed on.
The backside of Cardiac was a steady and often steep decline, again filled with roots and the occasional set of man-made steps. On a couple occasions I stepped way up onto a root and literally leaped off and I couldn't see the landing site on the other side. A lot of 20-somethings were now caught up to me and passing rapidly. I stayed as far right as possible to let them pass and so we didn't collide and tumble down together. But there were times they felt the need to pass when there really wasn't enough room. I got into the habit of announcing myself before passing anyone with a friendly, "passing on your left," then a "great job."
After Cardiac it was more down as we approached the Mill Valley stairs. I was definitely feeling good and feeling fast. Shortly before the stairs there was another uphill this time on the road to Stinson, not on the Dipsea Trail. This made for easy footing and a chance to see the first place runners coming back from the stairs. They looked strong and ready for the rise up Cardiac.
The stairs in Mill Valley are legendary. They aren't a single long set of stairs but a collection of stairways between the windy hillside roads. There are 671 stairs in all, if you count down and back up. When I got to the rest stop at the bottom of the staircase, I ran into my buddy John who was getting a quick drink. He had started 10 minutes ahead of me. It was good to see him. I gave him an encouraging shout out, ran under the makeshift shower a volunteer was providing from a garden hose and headed back to the stairs. No running now, everyone was walking back up. A few hearty folks were taking the stairs two at a time but I knew I had a long climb ahead of me so I needed to conserve energy. I double-stepped only when I needed to pass a slower participant.
As I got about half way up the stairs I started to realize just how much harder the double would be compared to the original Dipsea, where you only go down the stairs. Going back up and then facing down Cardiac Hill was going to be a serious challenge. Why did I want to do this, again?
I made it through the stairs and was seriously winded. I was beginning to regret having run the first hill. After a short level section between the stairs and the beginning of the Dipsea trail that ran into Muir Woods, I got a welcome breather as I mentally prepared for Cardiac Hill. I needed it because the constant down we had on the way out would be a grueling up this direction. And it took me down.
I smartly chose to walk all the hills and run if flattened out. But there was a lot of climbing on this hill. About three quarters of the way up, I was getting exhausted. I could no longer run the flat sections, I needed them to recover for the next climb. Everyone was passing me at this point. As I got about 400 yards from the top, my buddy John caught up to me looking way too fresh for this point of the race. John clearly had been doing more hill training than I had and definitely had legs that hadn't been on three straight 26.2s. He was greeting everyone he passed and sharing cheery statements of encouragement. He asked me how I felt and sadly I didn't have the optimism we shared at the start of the race.
He went on his merry way and I continued to struggle. With about 200 yards to go my legs were super heavy and each step was a push. I dropped to a very slow walk at this point and was beginning to wonder if I would make it to the finish. But I plodded along. About 100 yards from the top I was passed by an 80-year old who was gasping as well but clearly had fresher legs than I. That didn't help my mental state.
When I got to the top of Cardiac Hill, it clearly had earned its name and I was out of gas because of it. I hit the aid station to add water to my Amphipod bottle. On the way up the high concentration of electrolytes in my bottle was starting to upset my stomach a bit - this often happens to me on hot runs. So the water thinned them out. I drank about half the bottle and contemplated another hose shower but noticed that I was actually very cool. The dri-fit shirt and tights I was wearing had wicked the sweat away from my body but stuck around on the fabric creating a cooling moisture barrier around my skin. Plus most of Cardiac Hill on this side was shadowed so the water from the first hose shower was still with me.
Having chose to pass on the second hose shower I stumbled over to the food table and grabbed a few watermelon slices. After this it was my intention to start the long decline from the Cardiac Hill ICU but I was now a bit dizzy. I slowly walked over to the medical tent and initially just stood there hoping the feeling would pass but then an aid worker asked me how I was feeling and I felt obliged to tell the truth. He quickly created an opening to the tent and ushered me inside and to a seat. It felt good to sit for a while but I was hunched over and this started to upset my stomach. I had a bout of stomach upset Friday night from too much Greek Yogurt, which I thought had passed by early morning but it was back now with a vengeance.
I leaned way back in the chair and that helped a ton but the dizziness was still there so I settled in for a while. I think I was laying this way for about 10 minutes before the bad feelings subsided. While resting I saw my buddy Kent at the aid station, getting a hose shower and some water. I wanted to call out to him and cheer him on but didn't have the strength.
A few minutes later, an aid worker checked in on me and I said I felt better and started to get up. He looked down at me, not very encouraged and said, "Are you bored and pissed off yet?" I said no and he replied, "Then you better sit back down. We don't let people leave here until they are fully ready and you know they are when they're bored and tired."
His order was easy to follow. I wasn't bored or pissed off but nor was a really up for the 1.7 miles I had left. Had it all been downhill, maybe, but I still had Swoop Hollow, Steep Ravine and Insult Hill ahead of me, which all had significant climbing this direction. So down I went for another 5-10 minutes.
I was finally getting bored and didn't want to get pissed so I got up, refilled my water bottle, ate some more watermelon and took a deep breath. It was time to go. John and Kent now had at least 20 minutes on me and I knew I could do 1.7 from here now.
Cardiac Hill has a gradual down from here in mostly direct sun, so I walked/ran until I felt able to run/run. That lasted until Swoop Hollow, then it was back to walking up the hill. I had recovered a bit at the top of Cardiac but definitely wasn't more than 60% from here. I definitely walked more than I ran the rest of the way. After Swoop, I hit Steep Ravine and was back to walk/run - or really walk, walk, run a little, more walking. After this was the wide open flat stretch from the start that had a few short cuts. I definitely took the shortest route I could, running slowly and getting far to the right for those who weren't hurting like I was.
Then came the last up that definitely earned its name - Insult Hill. This isn't a steep climb but comes with just about a half mile to go and was very much not wanted at this stage of the race. John told me after the race that he was definitely insulted by its presence but wouldn't tolerate the insult and ran up it in spite. I had the spite but not the spirit, so I walked.
Thankfully the rest of the course was downhill and mostly in the shade. I passed up the 80 year old who had passed me earlier but he caught back up to me at the very end and crossed the line before me. At this point I simply applauded him and crossed few moments later. I've never been so glad to finish a race.
If the Double Dipsea taught me anything it was that there is a limit to my endurance and need for recovery one race to the next. I probably didn't do enough hill training for this either. And that's the last time I scoff at a 13 mile race.
Big congrats to John and Kent who finished strong. I'll be back for the Big Sur Trail Marathon in September - guaranteed.