Sunday, June 22, 2014

DNF at Double Dipsea Reboot

Back in 1905, a group of runners decided it would be a great idea to put on a trail race from Old Mill Park in Mill Valley to Stinson Beach using the Dipsea trail. It's not far, about 7.5 miles, but it's also not flat. WAY not flat. The Dipsea race is the oldest cross-country trail running event in the country, and is extremely popular and tough to get into.

In 1970, a local running legend named Walt Stack decided that if the Dipsea race was fun, what could be more fun than running it twice! (In 1983, the answer to that question was the Quad Dipsea, where the course is run four times.)

A big advantage of the Double Dipsea race over the Dipsea race is that, since it ends where it starts, the logistics of moving runners around is much easier (a grumpy old guy would say that the logistics were made easier by making the runners deal with it themselves).

The Dolphin South End Running Club is an amazing group in San Francisco that puts on absurdly cheap and fun races nearly every Sunday morning in a variety of area locations. For years they have managed the Double Dipsea race, and managed to grow it to a very popular event. At the end of 2013, the longtime race director for the event retired, and DSE decided to seek out a partner to help put on the logistically challenging event.

And so it was a huge surprise to see Brazen Racing step up to manage the race. Brazen has never held a race in the Marin Headlands, so this was a new challenge for them.

I have wanted to run the race for the last three years, but it was always on the same weekend as the Western States Endurance Run, where I volunteer at the Last Chance aid station. But this year the Double Dipsea was the week before WSER, so I was in!

Above is a simplified course map. One thing that you might notice is that there are a LOT of aid stations for a trail race - seven - with the longest stretch between aid being two miles. For this reason, a lot of runners choose to run without carrying water. An awful lot of those runners end up regretting that decision though - two miles of this course feels like about five miles of a road race.

Part of what makes this so hard is shown in the elevation chart.

There is a lot of climbing in this course (about 4500 feet). The above chart also shows the cutoff times for the last aid stations. These would play a big part in my day.

Last year, Mrs Notthat talked Yllehs (not her real name) into running this race. An important thing to note is that Yllehs had never run a trail race before. They managed to finish and Yllehs said she was ready to retire from the trail running scene.


When the race came around again, she was hugely excited to run it again and try to improve her time.

The women's 55-59 wave starting.
A unique thing about this race, inherited from the Dipsea race, is the use of waves to start the runners. The waves are based on age and sex; older runners get to start before the younger runners with the intent of leveling the field a bit. The idea is to increase the chance of mortal runners being able to beat the elite runners.

This means that, as a runner, you have to pay attention to when your wave is ready to go. It also means that, even though Mrs Notthat and I are in the same age group, because she's a she, she got a 12 minute head start on me.

"Pucker up baby!"
I was a bit worried that she was going to miss her wave since I had lost track of her. But there she was bringing up the rear. And heading over to me for our traditional pre-race kiss. A little late, but still very effective.

Yllehs's wave was a few minutes later since she's a punk kid. These wave starts were actually a lot of fun to watch, and for the first batch of them, there were a lot of people watching and cheering.

Note: Just in case you were wondering, you cannot start with a wave that leaves before your scheduled wave. Doing that will earn you a DQ. You can, however, leave with any wave after yours, however, your finish time will be based on when your wave started. Math and trail running make strange partners.

Eventually it was time for my wave to leave. I stopped to take a couple of pictures early on, so I was already behind.

After you cross Highway 1, you start up some steps. Steps play a huge role in this race.

Shortly after crossing that first, highway, you cross the Panoramic Highway. Here are couple of pictures taken of us crossing this road.

Picture by Brazen volunteer.
Picture by Brazen volunteer.
There's something kind of cool about cars being forced to stop while I waddle across the road. I try hard to make it look like I'm winning, but I suspect none of them are fooled, and most are probably wondering if I will actually make it all the way across without needing a rest break.

Nej, not her real name, passing me. That beach in the background is near where we started.
An artifact of the wave starts is that I spent the first third of the race getting passed by all the faster runners that started after me. On a lot of the trail, this wasn't too much of a problem, but on some stretches, it was definitely crowded.

The first aid station, at about mile one, is name Insult, after the small hill that you have to climb on the way back, that's a bit of an insult to the runners after the real hills they have dealt with.

After Insult, you go into the woods and do a LOT of climbing for a bit.

Once you break out of the trees, you get a much milder climb and some sunshine. And the next aid station.

The Cardiac aid station (trust me - when you get up here you know why it's called Cardiac Hill) is at about mile three.

If you look at the elevation chart, you see a nice long downhill stretch out of Cardiac. The first part of that downhill though is absurdly steep and technical - I made up little time stumbling down this.

And if that wasn't enough, we had a tree to hurdle.

After that short stretch of treacherous trail, most of the downhill into Muir Woods is pretty runnable. Then you get to cross this bridge, which isn't much of a problem, unless you have runners going both directions. Nahtanoj (not his real name) was on the other side of this bridge taking pictures.

Picture by Nahtanoj, Brazen volunteer.
Picture by Nahtanoj, Brazen volunteer.
I love how he managed to make me look like a real runner in the picture.

The Muir Woods aid station, about mile five, marked the end of the downhill and the start of the next serious uphill stretch.

The trail from here to the top of the hill was often like this - very narrow with no place to go to get out of the other runner's way. Several times I ended up finding a small pullout and just standing there while hard charging downhill runners went past. It's really easy to imagine someone getting knocked over that edge, and I have to believe it happens once in a while. (And I'm not going to mention that the sides of the trail were often lined with poison oak.)

Eventually you reach the top of that hill and get to start down into the town of Mill Valley, where most of the Dipsea stairs hide out. I was about a half mile from the turnaround when I met Mrs Notthat coming back up the hill. I was closer to her than I thought I would be, but I was also fading pretty fast.

Lots and lots of steps.

Eventually I made it to the Old Mill aid station, mile 6.8 and the halfway point of the race. It's also the first cutoff. My primary goal for this race had been to make this cutoff, and I managed to make it by about 10 minutes.

There was a tiny part of me that was sad that I had to keep going though. In fact, after the first set of stairs I stopped and considered heading back down and giving up. But then I knew this hill, while tough, was not all that huge and that I really should at least make it to Muir Woods.

There was a lot of chalk writing left over from the Dipsea race that happened two weeks earlier.

It took a bit, but I managed to get to the Muir Woods aid station. The cutoff here was 11:30 and I got there about 11:40 and figured my day was done.

But no. Brazen had decided to extend the cutoffs by 30 minutes, which meant I had to keep going. Again, once I left here and got to the base of the hill that goes back up to Cardiac, I stopped, and actually started back down.

But then I stopped again and sat for a minute. I was really tired and feeling a bit rough, but after looking at the chart and seeing that it was less than two miles now to Cardiac, I decided keep on going.

As it turns out, most of the climb up to Cardiac is not all that steep going this direction. It's a bit exposed in bits, so it was warm, but I found myself with new energy, and ended up passing a number of people on this stretch.

And then there it is - the Cardiac aid station at about mile 10.7 and the end of the climbing. That last steep stretch really taxed me, but I made it. And was about 5 minutes after the extended cutoff (35 minutes after the original cutoff).

I was hugely tired at this point, so I had no problem being stopped here. Others didn't take it so well, and I'll do a separate post about that.

There were a BUNCH of volunteers at this aid station - medical, radio, and these favorites! There was no way I could defy Ekim and Aluap (not their real names) and keep going; especially when they called in the Brazen Rabbit for backup.

The green line shows how far I got, and shows that the reward for all that climbing was at hand. It was a bit rough to stop here.

I missed the conversation, but several of the runners that came in after me were allowed to keep going, although (theoretically) they would not get counted in the official results. By this time I was pretty rested and was tempted go with them, but chose to honor the cutoff and get a ride back.

Well, no stopping unless Aluap is giving you THAT look.

So I got a DNF at Double Dipsea. I covered all the hard bits of the course - from Cardiac to the finish is mostly downhill (albeit with some treachery thrown in) - but I did not get to finish. If I hadn't stopped twice to consider dropping and I hadn't stopped for what turned out to be an unnecessary toilet break, I would have made the extended cutoff and finished. Even with a DNF, the Brazen Way is to still get the finisher medal, and as a surprise, a fun Double Dipsea patch.

The back of the shirt is one of my all time favorites.

This is an interesting race that draws a slightly different crowd than I'm used to. The vast majority of the runners were typical fun-loving trail runners, but mixed in were some absurdly focussed, win at all costs runners that added a bit of an edge to the event. There are places on these trails where two-way running is just not safe, and being the slower runner, I felt compelled to constantly give way, whether it was possible to or not. The wave structure of the race ironically guarantees congestion since the faster runner have to pass the slower ones twice (once heading out and once heading back).

I found most of the faster runners were polite and grateful when I let them go, although a few seemed to feel it was their birthright. One woman slammed into my shoulder for no particularly good reason - if I had been even slightly off balance I could have easily ended up over the edge.

One answer to this is the 7 AM early start; cutoffs are no longer a problem and you will likely only have to deal with faster runners once. The problem is that the 7 AM start is at 7 AM, but that's likely what I'll do if I choose to run this again next year.

Mrs Notthat and Yllehs were amazing and did WAY better than last year - both were nearly 30 minutes faster!

The race was well organized (I loved the timing mat at the halfway point) and it was great to see so many DSE people out there helping out - there were an amazing number of volunteers working to keep us all going!

This is a really tough race - the toughest non-50K that Brazen puts on - and it has the other distinction of not having any shorter distance options. But the trails are pretty with great views, and the frequent aid stations make it possible to just focus on going from station to station.

At least until the clock stops you.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Berry Creek Falls actually had water!

The weekend before Coastal's Berry Creek Falls race, Mrs Notthat and I did a tough training run in Sierra Azul (Norwegian for "You Will Wish You Were Home").

About four miles in - I was still standing.
This was a nearly 14 mile course with little shade and many hills. I had grossly underestimated how hot it was going to be, and started fading badly about halfway through.

There were no shortcuts, so I stuck it out and when it was over, my confidence was shot.

Signing up for Berry Creek Falls was challenging. There are two loops: 10K and 15K. You can sign up for the 10K, 15K or 25K distances, and I had planned on the 25K distance. After the Sierra Azul failure though, I chose to downgrade. The thing is I knew the 15K course was a LOT better than the 10K course, but it was also harder.

In the end I picked the 15K while Mrs Notthat stuck with the 25K - I figured I could take it easy and still finish before her.

Mr Coastal: "Barrel rides down the falls are optional."
This race is held in redwood tree infested Big Basin State Park. The trails in this park are nothing short of stunning, although they can trip you up if you aren't really careful. (I saw several runners limping back shortly after the start.)

It was a really nice day, although it was threatening to warm up quite a bit.

"You have to be THIS skinny to run this race."
Llib (not his real name) had decided at the last minute to run this race, and had also signed up for the 15K. This turned out to be perfect - Llib and I ended up power-walking the course and having a great time together.

Trees seem to have a hard time standing along this trail - it felt like we were constantly leaping over or crawling under some tree or other.

The trail crosses several creeks (or the same one several times - it gets a bit confusing in the woods). The creeks were running, but barely. I had little hope that Berry Creek Falls would be very enthusiastic.

But it turned out to be fairly nice - much smaller than normal, but worth the hike.

Small side note: The next day was the Big Basin 50K, which is the original Skyline to the Sea course. This is an amazing race, and we spent time on some of the same trails. Unfortunately, the 50K does not get this close to the falls - you can see them fairly well, but from a greater distance. The thing I love about this 15K loop is that you get very close, plus you get to see several others.

From the base of the waterfall you climb up to its top. It's really kind of cool and weird to see a waterfall born like this!

Another waterfall a bit further up the hill.

You keep climbing and following the creek. Eventually you hit a point where there are cables to help you up the rock "steps." Things are pretty damp in this area. And drop dead gorgeous.

More creek beauty. This area should have had a LOT more water.
This ranger was amazing - he carried out a jug of water for those that didn't pay attention to the pre-race instructions and thought they wouldn't need water.
Eventually you hit the top and turn away from the creek. At about the halfway point there is an informal aid station (there really is no way to have a proper aid station out here).

Even though there were no more waterfalls, we still had some awesome trails to wander around on. There were a few trees too.

25K runners do the 15K loop first, then do the 10K loop. There is a short bit of trail overlap between the 15K and 10K courses - the chance of running into Mrs Notthat there was extremely small. So naturally that's what we did!

Llib and I had been moving pretty good for walking, but I knew Mrs Notthat would be flying and I actually feared she might finish her 25K before I finished my 15K. (She didn't, but I didn't beat her by much.)

Llib and I finally finished and got to go under the new Coastal Arch!

Anoda and Yrag (not their real names) are proper runners and have both long since finished their 25K races, and both won first in their age groups.

Meanwhile Llib's name was picked in the random drawing and chose to get a stylish green Coastal hat like mine (not quite as "broken in" as mine though).

I was feeling really good, so I headed out the 10K course to try to find Mrs Notthat. I didn't have to go far.

Hugging one of these trees is pretty challenging.

And then she was done! The 25K is a really tough course, and that last 10K loop is challenging; there are no waterfalls to distract you and a lot more sun exposure as you struggle with the hills. And yet she was still smiling.

To make it better, she won an age group award!

Once we left, we gave Htenaj (not her real name) a ride up to the start of the next day's 50K so that she could mark the first 10 miles of trail. (It was really warm out by this point, and was even warmer on 50K race day. You are in the trees a lot, which helps, but hot is still hot.)

The Berry Creek Falls race is a lot of fun - the trails are some of the best around and who doesn't like getting up close and personal with a waterfall? The only issue is that the 50K on the next day is also one of the best around, and trying to run both races is probably out of the question.

I was surprised at how good I felt at the end of the 15K. I could have easily done the 10K as well (although we were far too late to do that). I've got a bit of confidence back, which is a good thing since Double Dipsea is next, and that's going to take a LOT of confidence (along with other stuff) to get done.

That's it - move along.

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.