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The Dipsea Race

Are you looking for an awesome trail race? The Dipsea Race might be your next race! Set in the stunning Bay Area of Northern California, the Dipsea Race is a unique trail race. Although priority tends to be given to locals, it is a race that is open to anyone and everyone. Dipsea is a pretty much a rite of passage among Bay Area trail runners. 

The difference between road and trail races 

But first…are there really that many differences between road running and trail running? At first glance, it might just be the location but dig a little deeper, and you'll soon see that there are many more differences. 

Road running tends to attract Type A people who are very competitive and numbers-driven. While trail running attracts a very different crowd, these are the people who love the outdoors and run to connect with nature and the world around them. They often think of themselves as adventurous, in need of variety and excitement — the same kind of people who will surf and rock-climb. So, if you are a runner, you should know almost immediately which camp you fall into. 

That's not to say you can't cross-over. You most certainly can, and some would say that's good to do so. It can enhance your running technique to try out different styles and may even improve your race times. 

The Dipsea Race is a trail race, though, so read on to learn more about the Dipsea Race, one of America's premier trail running events. 

What is The Dipsea Race?

 The Dipsea Race is a trail running event in Northern California. It happens to be the oldest cross-country trail running event in the United States. It even has the distinction of being one of the oldest foot races of any kind in the USA. It's only the second after the Boston Marathon! It's a 7.5-mile race that has taken place annually since 1905. The course runs through Mill Valley until Stinson Beach. The competition is held on the second Sunday in June every year, dating back 109 years! That's a lot of years of running! The name Dipsea is somewhat unique, and it's because it comes from the Dipsea Inn, which opened the same year as the very first race. 

The Dipsea is trail running at its hardest. It is a race that is known for its beautiful scenic course but incredibly challenging trails. So, how did it all begin? 

Back in 1904, a group of young men from San Francisco's Olympic Club made a bet with one another. They were betting on what the quickest route from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach was. Instead of just mapping it out, they decided to try it out for themselves, and each run the course they felt was shortest. The winner would be the first one who got to Stinson Beach, no matter what route they had taken. These various routes are now part of the short cuts open to runners during the race. More on these shortcuts to come! 

Since that time in 1904, the Dipsea Race tradition has become one of the most famous races in the Bay Area and the trail running community at large. However, this is no ordinary run through the woods. Dipsea is a one-of-a-kind race that makes up its own rules. 

Basic Dipsea Trail/Course Outline

Like every race, knowing the route helps a lot. It can make or break your race. During training, it's important to simulate the course as much as possible. So, if you live in the Bay Area or can come into the city before the race and try it out, you will be much better off on race day. However, if this impossible, then you absolutely must train in areas that have hills, steep ascents, and descents and…unlike any other trail race, you must train using stairs.  

Not only is this is a very hilly area, and unlike any other trail race, it includes stairs. The race begins on Throckmorton Avenue in Mill Valley. After a few blocks in Mill Valley's downtown, runners must then climb 700 stairs! Initially, this was 680, and later it became 688, but after the most recent renovation, it was increased to 700. That's an increase of twenty stairs from the original! Just imagine all these stairs in an office building. You're probably looking at many floors of running up and down. 

What areas does the Dipsea race cover?

The Dipsea Trail is the most direct route to connect the town of Mill Valley with the village of Stinson Beach. Stinson Beach is a popular tourist destination and is located about a 30-minute drive north of San Francisco.

The ascent is another tough area of the trail. The southern shoulder of the hill reaches its apex around the top of Cardiac Hill. This is only about 4.5 miles into the race, so pacing and experience with hills are crucial.

Other challenges that runners will encounter in this race is the uneven footing and single-track footpaths. Not to mention steep terrain and lots of elevation losses and gains. Part of the unique appeal of the Dipsea Race though is that runners can choose from several alternate routes that diverge and converge on the trails in order to get to the finish line. This brings in elements of strategy, as runners must have a plan and have familiarity with the course.

With trail names like Dynamite and Cardiac, runners know in advance that this is no easy race. At the top of Cardiac, the course levels out before it plunging through an area called the Swoop. Next comes traversing over the rocks in the Steep Ravine and the brutally steep climb up Insult Hill. They didn't call it these names for no reason!

Towards the end, the course slopes down easily in an area called The Moors, where the views of the ocean are inspiring. Then the runners have the option to either sprint to the finish line at Stinson Beach or use a few trail short cuts in an attempt to push ahead of the other competitors.

Again, the Dipsea Race is a unique trail race. Many random little things make it so. Let's have a look at what those are.

Other random things that make Dipsea different than any other trail race is the following:

  • Registration is by snail mail only. No online registration. A strange stipulation in this technology runs day and age.
  • There are only 1500 spots in the race. Want one? Solid finishing time in the previous year's competition will get you an invite. First-timers must compete for the remaining 900 spots based on a first-come, first-serve basis. The rest-approximately 300 places are based on a lottery.
  • Handicapping system based on age. The oldest and youngest runners start first, then each age and gender wave follows a minute after. Males between the ages of 19 and 29 are called "scratch" runners. They need to pass every runner on the course to earn a top finish. This system is actually pretty ingenious because it means that women and older runners have a decent shot at winning.
  • The first 35 finishers receive the coveted Dipsea black t-shirt
  • The Double Dipsea -this is exactly what you think it is! A different race where runners complete the entire race in a loop.

 What else should you know about the Dipsea race? 

  • Sob stories and bribery are a real thing

A big part of the Dipsea race culture is that race organizers encourage applicants to send in a personal story with their entry fee. The race director and committee members read every single letter and collectively decide which ones deserve preference. They are open to hearing about runner's life stories, challenges they have overcome, why this race is important to them, etc…A heart-wrenching story about overcoming adversity will get you noticed when applying. Note taken.

As well, gifts such as wine, chocolate, and monetary donations (which are used to enhance the race and not line pockets) are encouraged and help get your application to the top of the list. In this case, bribery gets you everywhere. The organizers see bribery with the negative connotation that it usually comes with. Instead, they see this as determining a runner's dedication to the sport. What are you willing to do, to get noticed? How do you want to stand out in the crowd?

  • Put your best foot forward

Just like writing a CV, you'll want to show your achievements and commitment to the running community. Have you been a top finisher at other races? Have you dedicated or volunteered your time as a pacer, organizer, or another contributor to the racing community? Share loud and proud because the organizers of Dipsea will be listening. 

  • Hill train often

Yes, everyone thinks about the stairs, but there is a lot more than just the stairs in Dipsea Race. This is a trail run that has a wild and rugged course. It is not for nothing that it is one of the most infamous in the trail running community. So, get in that hill work during training so that you can keep your suffering on race day to a manageable minimum.  

  • Accept that you will probably fall down

Falls are very common in the Dipsea Race. Almost a quarter of the runners show up at the finish line with cuts, bruises, blood and dirt on them. This rarely happens in other races. 

This happens for two reasons. The first is the obvious treacherous course. The second factor is handicapping aspect of the race. Because the faster runners start at the back, they spend their entire race trying to push past everyone else…on a course that is a tight single track trail run. So this inevitably leads to pile-ups and traffic jams. Not to mention a lot of pushing and shoving around.

  • Short cuts are not always shorter

There are three race approved shortcuts in the Dipsea Race. Although there are many other turn offs, they may not be approved shortcuts, and you could find yourself running solo. The following are the three approved short cuts.

  • The Suicide
  • The Swoop
  • The Moors 

Like any race, it's crucial to have a solid training plan in place and start early. Training with someone who has run this race before is also a good idea. There are plenty of running groups, and many local Bay Area trail runners are Dipsea veterans. So, seek them out! It will make your race day much easier and much more enjoyable. 


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