Race Report: Dispea 2017

On June 11, 2017 I ran the 107th running of the legendary Dipsea race. I finished in a time of 1:02:04.

Goals

  1. Finish/Survive – ACCOMPLISHED
  2. Qualify for 2018 – ~150 spots – ACCOMPLISHED – with 136 to spare
  3. Average heart rate 170+ – ACCOMPLISHED – averaged 177 BPM
    • 160+ on the Downhills – ACCOMPLISHED – 175+
    • 175+ on the Uphills – ACCOMPLISHED – 180+
  4. Sub 1:05 – ACCOMPLISHED – 1:02:04
  5. Top 25 Open Section – ACCOMPLISHED – 21st out of 796 runners
  6. Do not walk or speed hike – Not Accomplished – 3 sections of speed hiking, 2 forced
  7. Sub 1 hour – Not Accomplished
  8. Top 1% Course time – Not Accomplished
  9. 55:00 – Not Accomplished

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Completed my first trail race
  • Really strong effort, dug deep & kept pushing
  • Managed to stay upright the whole time
  • Maxed my heart rate at 192 – haven’t seen 185+ since college
  • Really let go on the paved downhills – max of 3:37/mile pace
  • Busted a heel grab over the photo-op hurdle near the end
  • Played it safe through the Swoop to avoid injury
  • Brought a frozen water bottle to drip on head & keep cool

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Had too much left in the tank at the end
  • Did not push hard enough for the final stretch of the cardiac hill
  • Got lots of poison oak on my arms & legs

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • My amazing wife for signing me up and letting me disappear for the weekend
  • The race director for accepting our bribe
  • Other runners I drafted behind during various sections
  • 107 years of history that make this a great race
  • Volunteers that cleared the trail, handed out water, blocked dangerous parts & cheered

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Bottlenecks, especially through the Sun Trail & Dynamite sections

Race Recap

The following is a detailed account of my race day. It is long. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes & documenting it so I can remember later on.

Pre Race Day

After a number of years of failed attempts to get into the Dipsea, I had given up. My wife, however, had a different idea. Towards the end of last year she got a hold of my friend Chris to figure out a race we’d want to run & they agreed this one would be a good race and nice chance for a weekend away. So for Christmas last year, this was her present to me. (We’re minimalists, so gifts that aren’t ‘stuff’ are our favorites).

I found out I was accepted about six weeks before the race and realized I had zero specificity for a short (7 mile as opposed to 26.2 mile) trail (as opposed to flat asphalt) run with 2k ft of climbing (as opposed to pancake flat).

I scrambled to turn a few of my interval days into hill-interval days, got one practice run on the course and fortuitously got lost during a long run which allowed me to log a few trail miles to prep my stability muscles.

That would have to do.

I wasn’t sure how I would do, not having raced in nearly a year, so I set a range of goals. I had checkpoints lined up for a ~1:00-1:05 finish but knew I could be anywhere from 0:55-1:10 based on comps to other runners.

The Starts

The Dipsea has one of the most unique race starts I’ve ever heard of. There are ~50 groups that start one minute apart and runners are seeded based on a handicap system that accounts for age and gender. The first group to start includes men 74+, women 66+, 7 year old boys and 6 year old girls. It then works it way back until the last group – men age 19-30. More info here.

Not only that, but there are two sections – the invitational, for runners that previously ran & qualified goes first and then the open ‘runner’ section for everyone else goes second.

I started in the very back group of the runner section. The last group to cross the starting line that day.

The benefit is I got to enjoy watching all of the other groups start. It is pretty cool to see the groups and get to hear the announcer praise the accomplishments of various runners – including winners from recent years and those running the race for the 50th+ time.

My Start

After a short warm up I lined up with the young guns. I debated starting in the very back, just so I could pass everyone, but remembered my lesson from last year’s NYC about getting fancy on race day and decided instead to toe the line – literally.

The pack took off fast, I noticed we were at 5:10 and backed off to my planned 6:00 pace for the relatively flat half mile until the dreaded stairs. There were probably 15 guys ahead of my from that group – only one would remain ahead of me until the end.

The Stairs

The Dipsea race has many reasons to be famous, but the stairs tend to be one of the more dreaded and well known. At 688 stairs in total, runners climb the equivalent of over one third the Empire State Building.

My goal was to use heart rate as my guide – take the first set at 160 BMP, the second at 165 & third at 170. The top of the third set was a checkpoint, I planned to cross is at 8 minutes.

I started up the first set, staying to the left to pass people and was logging 175. By the second set I had gotten bottlenecked, both lanes were moving slow, so I hopped off the steps and sprinted up the dirt to the side, I was now crossing 180 BPM. I got past the bottleneck, sprinkled in a few steps of speed walking up the steps but generally held to 180 through the third set. I crossed at 7:10 – 50 seconds faster than planned. I was worried I’d gone too hard.

Cresting The First Hill

After hitting the top of the stairs I had my first moment of digging deep. Most runners were backing off the effort a bit as they reached the road and continued to climb to the top of the first hill. I held my resolve, eager to make the most of the section of wide road which was perfect for passing people. I averaged 167 BPM and was holding to under 9:00 pace despite the 10%+ grade.

Down To the Bridge

We hit the peak, around the 1.2 mile mark, the course hopped onto the Sun Trail, a single track dirt trail with some ruts from the rain over the previous winter. I tucked in behind two runners that were trying to pass the crowd but we got really blocked up. Despite going downhill we were moving at 12:00 pace and my heart rate had dropped to 163.

I finally stepped into the brush and jumped over a bush to get around a slow pack and got onto the asphalt. We were looking at about a half mile of paved, wide open road at a 10% downhill. I decided to test my mettle and open the throttle. I clocked that section at at 4:50 mile pace, averaging 180.

My goal was to get to the bridge by 18:00 – I hit the next trail section at 15:45 and wasn’t quite sure how far it was. I knew I had lost some time on the Sun Trail bottleneck though.

I tucked in behind a runner that was hollering people out of the way and followed him down the ‘Suicide’ shortcut – which is basically a steep dirt embankment you try and fall gracefully down. I darn near nocked over a 13 year old boy who was stalled at the top.

I picked up some speed and ran through the Muir Woods parking lot at 5:15 pace, clearing the 5 steps in one stride as I tried to pass people before the trail got bottlenecked again. I hit the bridge in 18:05 – just a hair behind pace. I’d lost my edge but was still doing well.

Then came the pain.

Up To Cardiac

The next hill is the biggest. Remember those 40 stories of stairs at the beginning? That was half of the first hill’s climbing. This hill was twice as long and steep as the first hill. In total it was two miles that climbed 1,200 ft.

It starts off with Dynamite – a steep section of switchbacks on muddy trail through a lush green forest. The trail was completely bottlenecked, I tried tucking behind people but there was just no room to pass. I then tried getting around people by running off trail but was burning myself out. I hit 189 BMP – a rate I hadn’t seen on my watch since college. I couldn’t maintain that so I backed off, resigned to move with the pack and save myself for the fire road that was coming up.

We averaged 16-18:00 per mile through Dynamite and when I hit the road I picked it up to 10:00 pace. My goal was to do the two miles in 11 minute pace and get to the top by 40:00.

There are a number of path choices up the hill and I opted for the wider, though often slightly longer trails to avoid bottlenecks. I ended up averaging 10:00 pace and 180 BPM through the main part of the trail and passed a good number of runners.

When I hit 4 miles on my watch I wasn’t sure how much climbing I had left and was getting a bit discouraged. That final steep section really knocked me out – 0.2 miles at 19%. I speed hikes a few really steep sections where tree roots made the footing hard, averaging 13:45. In retrospect, this is one section I could have pushed harder through if I had confidence where the top was and what the other side looked like. I averaged 178 and should have pushed through the top bit around 183-185.

I crested the top at 42:00 which was 2:00 behind plan. That would put my finish in the 1:02-1:05 range depending on how fast I went downhill.

Starting Down

The downhill starts off a fairly mellow rolling trail at around 5%. The views of the Ocean are beautiful but between the wind making my eyes tear up and rocky footing, I was 100% focused on not tripping. I averaged 6:40 and 176 through that feeling pretty strong but getting noticeably less sharp mentally.

I had no idea where I was going at this point, but thankfully had people in front of me continually so I just ran towards the next runner as I overtook each one.

I eventually hit a split in the road and had to stop to figure out where I was going. It took me a second to figure out which way the short one was – my mind was going. I got going pretty quick down the steep stairs for a bit before catching a runner in a blue shirt – he waved me past but I made the wise decision to stay behind him. Drafting meant I wouldn’t get lost, would have someone helping clear the path and would likely be going at a slower (and safer pace).

I only averaged 170 through that section, but am ok with it. A wet, steep, winding path I’ve never been on before is not the place to push myself as I hit exhaustion.

Even with that safe approach I hit a rough patch and rolled my left ankle a bit. I took at easy for a few steps and decided I would keep going. I was pretty sure it would swell up later, but it seemed good enough to finish on.

The Final Bump

The last climb is a short but steep climb that taunts runners who are exhausted. It is aptly named ‘Insult Hill’. As we approached it a young kid I had just passed kicked it into gear and went flying up the hill. I was a impressed.

100 feet later he was walking. I passed him and made a quip to which he defeatedly admitted that was a horrible idea.

I hit 186 by the end of that minute and that kicked me into gear for the final 1.25 miles.

The Last Downhill

The final mile alternated between paved roads and trails that cut between curves in the road. The trails were not very worn, most sections looked freshly trimmed back and teeming with poison oak. I was letting loose on the roads, hitting around 5:15 and doing the best I could on the trails to keep moving without flying into the bushes.

As we popped into the bushes for the second time I overtook a runner and realized that for the first time that day I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. I was running around 7:00 pace on a deer trail with no idea where I was going. Thankfully I stayed on the right course and made it out.

The Finish

Before getting on the road for the last quarter mile, the trail drops you off at a wooden railing you have to jump over. I was having enough fun at this point that I busted a heel grab and got a laugh from the onlookers.

I ran the final quarter mile drops 120 feet. I ran it in 4:21 pace averaging 185 BPM. I hit the finish at 192 and nearly passed out – I don’t think I’ve hit that level of exertion in a decade. I even looked back at hard workouts over the last few years and the highest I see is 185. I found a gear I forgot about for the past decade and it feels really good to know I still have it.

Post Race

Into the ocean to try and get the poison oak oil off of me. A light cool down so I might be able to walk the next day. Then three hours of chilling on a picnic blanket in the sun recapping the race and watching the award ceremony.

Because of the crazy handicapping & starting system, depending on how you count it, I either got 2nd, 9th, 21st, 22nd, 71st or 614th. (2nd in my start wave, 9th fastest time in the runner section, 21st place in the runners section, 22nd in my age group, 71st fastest time of everyone and 614 was the number I crossed the finish line in)

Since I started in the very back, I went from 1,400th to 614th over the course of the race, passing around 750 runners over 7 miles, which works out to about 1 every 50ft.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

This is the distribution of race times for everyone in the runner section – those that didn’t qualify the previous year. I’m pretty close to the front, only a few people had faster course times, only one from the group I started with.

When I add in the runners that qualified last year I move towards the peak of the bell. The interesting thing about the way qualification works is that 600 people qualify one year but of those 600 only 450 will be able to qualify again and the other 150 come from the fastest among the other runners. You would think this would make the qualifying harder every year but it actually looks like it stays quite stable.

Looking just at my age group, I’m much closer to the middle. That speaks in part to the caliber of the race and in part to my newness to trail running. 

Looking at my Strava data – a few things pop out. First the pace varies widely – par for the course. Second, my heart rate is relatively steady except for the places I got bottlenecked and pushes at Insult Hill + the finish. Third, my cadence is a great way to show where I fought bottlenecks and wasn’t dictating my own stride – the tremors in the pink line highlight the difficult spots, the most obvious and long lasting being the start of the second uphill.

Looking at just heart rate I notice a slight downward trend from mile 2 through 5. Part of that is from exhaustion going uphill & the rest because once I started heading downhill my limiter was footing and not my heart, part of it was exhaustion. I clearly found a second wind though as I hit the final climb.

I love isolating the pace, look at that range – 3:20 per mile all the way to 22:20. I have never experienced so much variance in a single race. This was one of my favorite aspects of it and a big reason I’m looking more towards trail races in the future. Road races have become predictable – set your pace and hold it, then hope your energy systems don’t fail. There was a lot more to think about in this race including footing, passing strategy, optimal-though-not-even energy output, etc.

The zoom in on cadence reveals a few more things. The spike before mile 2 is the suicide shortcut. I hit 230 steps per minute through there because you’re basically just trying to control a fall down a dirt embankment. I later had a few other sections of quick foot movement on the downhills. I believe those helped get my legs into a gear that allowed me to finish well – look at that increase during the final quarter mile – I crossed the line at 212 steps per minute – very high turnover for me.

The Strava course record is held by the runner who has logged the fastest time each of the past few years. I compared my time to his to see if there were any sections I was weak at.

From the looks of it, he took the start slowly, relatively so, as his time really doesn’t separate from mine until the stairs. In this chart, the pink line indicates how far ahead of me he is at any point in the race – higher means farther ahead.

There is a spike where I got bottlenecked on Sun Trail & things stay flat on the downhill section I raced. Most of the big climb looks fairly steady until the final hill – I knew I hadn’t pushed hard enough there and the comparison shows it.

The only section I gained anything was at Insult Hill, and it was only briefly. Perhaps he stopped to help someone. The finish section is actually relatively flat – I was really moving through there so it isn’t a surprise.

The good news with the mostly steady progression is I don’t have a glaring flaw (or I share the same flaw he has). The bad news is I don’t see any low hanging fruit to improve – I’ll just have to do it the old fashioned way.

What is Next?

The top ~150 people from the open section get invited back next year to run in the invitational section – I got 21st. That means if I come next year I’ll get to start earlier, with faster runners. I might even train for this as my ‘A’ race for the year – I would love to attempt to break one hour.

I really enjoyed the trail aspect of this as well as the varying hills. On a track or road race I mostly check out and just hit my paces. Here I had to focus to switch gears between sections of sprinting on the road, quick turnover climbing stairs, long slogs on the dirt uphill and careful maneuvering through tight trails. That variance feels like a breath of fresh air to my running life and is something I’m interested in. In addition, running on trails lets you spend more of your time in beautiful places.

Plus, most of the really long races are on trails – so I’ve got to get good at them if I ever want to compete at the 50 or 100 mile distances.