(more than you wanted to know
about how I trained for and ran
the second oldest footrace in the country)
by Peter Holleran
"The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare."
After making every mistake in the book that a beginner can make in his first year of running (despite reading all I could find, impatience still got the best of me), I vowed for Dipsea 2000 to become more intelligent in my approach. The most glaring error I had made was to run too hard - at too high of a heart rate - “to strain, not train” - wherein my weekly training logs looked something like this: run 15, run 20, run 40, run 5, run 0 bike 50, run 5 bike 75, run 15, run 20, etc. Muscle injuries were high, yet still, I reduced my Dipsea time from 88:00 in August 1998 to 74:55 on race day 1999, and my Double Dipsea from “nearly impossible”, i.e., 3:55, to 2:30 (with a 71/79 split). Still, I knew I could do better. So I determined this year to simply log alot of steady, easy miles to gradually, safely build up my aerobic base and muscle/tendon strength, with less all-out efforts. Pretty basic training theory. A key I felt to my sanity was to avoid the Saturday morning Mt. Home runs on Mt. Tam hosted by the Tamalpa runners. I felt I needed to step back from the competition as well as the more or less immediate oxygen debt I always felt on the initial steep trek up Hogback when I tried to keep up with the “regular guys”. I decided to rejoin that crowd in a year. (Later I think I came upon the secret to negotiating the Saturday runs successfully: run up from Mill Valley or elsewhere FIRST to adequately warm up, then take them as your weekly tempo run or speed trial, while keeping all other runs easy and aerobic). Instead, for company I opted for Tamalpa’s monthly “fun runs” (generally led by the “slower” old guys) and used them for recovery. I also decided not to race during the year in order to avoid slowdowns in training. I could have “trained through” races, but I was too embarrassed and slow to do that, so I opted to continue my solitary, mostly low-stress woodland runs. Rather than regularly testing myself with time trials or races I simply noticed how my daily runs, both easy runs and hill runs, were gradually becoming both less effortful at the same speed and speedier at the same level of effort. In short, I knew I was improving, and I was sore less often, crucial for training success, obviously, since I could train more often. Most useful was my decision to lengthen my runs but lessen their intensity for several months in order to allow an increase in mileage. I tried to keep my heart rate in the 130’s as much as I could, and that really made me feel stronger. I did a 60 mile week every so often, while steadying at 40-50, which, in retrospect, I think was still too much, as some injuries creep up on you slowly, but, nevertheless, feeling better all the time. My basic working premise was to aim for longevity in training and progress and not shoot for the stars in one year as I had previously done.
As the Dipsea approached, I swore this time I would do a decent taper, as opposed to last year, when I decided on the Monday before the race to run the steep hill above Cardiac three times hard to test my maximum heart rate (because I read about it in a book, and felt I had plenty of time to recover), and then did a 14-mile hilly run on Wednesday (feeling I wasn’t in good enough shape yet!). Needless to say, during the race I bonked and my legs gave out when I reached Dynamite, the nasty uphill in Muir Woods. No, this year would be different. I did end up doing a taper, but, still, not the way I planned. Turns out I was injured and HAD to taper, and I didn’t even know how it happened. Maybe it was that 25 mile run down Bolinas Ridge to Olema and back one month before the race, when I knew I felt a little sore at the start, not having recovered from that week’s hilly runs. Maybe it was the extra 8 miles up and down Eldridge Grade I did on that Thursday after saying goodbye to my running partner after our easy 5-miler, and following it up with a fast Saturday morning hilly Tam run with the “regular guys”, and then having the gall to attempt a “relaxed double dipsea” in the heat on Monday, when even 90 minutes each way with a generous break at Stinson Beach became an unexpected grind. The net result was that I woke up one morning the next week with my legs having problems all over: quads, hamstrings, groin, calves (and feet, too). So in the two weeks before the Dipsea I rested (mostly), running only 2 or 3 easy short runs, and (with arguable intelligence) throwing in a 45 mile ride on a mountain bike to Pt. Reyes for cross-training. It didn’t feel like it hurt me, but I probably would have been better off just resting (except mentally I couldn’t stand it, so I didn’t). By Dipsea day the forced rest made my legs feel peppy, but psychologically the break from running made me insecure. I hoped no matter how bad I felt race morning that I’d be able to crank out a decent run just based on my improved aerobics, but I had panic attacks at the thought of pressing harder. But you never know what will happen. I had many fine training runs but could never predict when I would have a bad day, or a good one, and when you are looking forward to just one race it’s somewhat of a crap shoot.
My strategy was to tuck in next to someone in my age-group who I knew would run between 65-70 minutes and stay with him as long as I could. I also planned to guage my progress by noticing those I knew would be in that speed range from groups starting behind me as they passed me by. I settled on watching Jim Myers as we ran up Throckmorten towards Old Mill Park. Jim has run a long time and I expected would be better than me, but didn’t think he was running particularly fast, and when I saw him stop for water on Walsh Drive I figured he was having a bad day. I was wrong, because he ended up 6 minutes ahead of me (!), but for the time being I passed him and proceeded to bolt down to Muir Woods, reaching it , even with an ugly mounting fatigue, and runner congestion on Suicide Hill, in just over 20, a 2-minute PR (personal record). The fatigue, however, had started as early as the first flight of the infamous Dipsea stairs, not a good sign at all, and so I knew it was going to be a rough day. I later decided that old Jim was smart and knew when to bring his heart rate down, even if it looked wimpy in the moment. Perhaps I, too, should have stopped for water, and then loped, instead of sprinted, down to Muir Woods; then I might have had a chance of running up Dynamite. As it was, after two steps of uphill I crashed into a weak and unimpressive walk. I hadn’t walked a step all the way to the top of Cardiac, the high point of the course, in over a year! But practise runs always found me in control after easy running before I began the ascent, and not in oxygen debt from two miles of intense racing. However, knowing that I could walk Dynamite in 6 minutes, and not run it that much faster, I was not yet totally demoralized. But the fatigue didn’t improve after reaching the Deer Park fire road, and in my spaced and stressed-out condition, I made a huge tactical error: I followed some straggling runners left onto the fire road instead of taking the Dipsea trail diagonally up to the right. Now, further on where the road and the trail crisscross several times it doesn’t make that much difference which you take, but at the first junction I discovered it means 30-60 seconds of delay. The fire road swings way out to the left, and I watched with dismay as runners emerged from the forest 100 yards to my right. Not only was I feeling exhausted far sooner than I should be, but I had further diminished my chances for a good time by going out of the way! I had run the trail perhaps ten times during the year and never even considered taking that route; how could this happen?! Nevertheless, quitting was not an option, so I buckled down to grunt my way to the top, knowing that no matter how bad it felt at that point the downhill would pretty much take care of itself. I had even worn my fast running shoes instead of trail lugs in preparation for the occasion.
On a good day I thought I would be able to run 67-68, but when Hans Lothander passed me I knew that was out of the question. Hans runs like a metronome, and has clocked 68-69 every year since I’d been watching the race, and I knew he had started 2 minutes behind me, so even to hit 70-71 meant I would have to keep up with him, and I was losing steam fast. But I managed to find a tolerable creeping pace, and reached the top of Cardiac a whopping 31 minutes out of Muir Woods. I felt so wiped out that a small, empty, disposable water bottle someone had dropped that I picked up on the final approach to Cardiac seemed so heavy that I put up no resistance when a woman runner offered to carry it for me. Mind-numbed and probably glassy-eyed I handed it over, glad someone was taking charge. This practically weightless bottle seemed too heavy, can you imagine? But soon the agony was over and the fun part was about to begin. All those training runs had some effect, after all, for while once in oxygen debt it’s difficult to recover when running uphill, after Cardiac I recovered relatively quickly. My challenge at this point was to maintain my recently won Invitational status (requiring one to place in the top 420 runners (note: more recently extended to the top 450), as I heard with panic the announcement, “377, 378, 379, 380” when I crested the top. Oh God, only 40 places behind me to disaster! That served as ample motivation to get me going.
With two large sponges to the head and back to cool down, and a quick gulp of water, I shuffled off through Fallon’s Rest, a flat half-mile where runners recharge after the rigors of Cardiac . By the first downhill stretch I had regained some composure and threw myself into the fray. You see, I had practised downhill running, but not the Russ Kiernan way. Russ, the local champion, advises lots of downhill running to strengthen the legs to avoid post-race soreness. I figured that the Dipsea comes but once a year, and I wasn’t worried about whether my quads would burn the next day, and I knew I could run crazy downhill, so I didn’t spend alot of time toughening myself by running full bore all the way down to Stinson Beach very often, but rather, settled for gradual conditioning by long runs up and down Railroad Grade, Blithedale Ridge, and the Headlands, at a moderate pace with random fast spurts, enough speedwork to train my legs to go fast, but not so much as to prevent my training without break and without muscle strain, and I also wasn’t concerned about my legs recovering from the Dipsea fast enough to race the Woodminster in the East Bay hills one week later. I wanted to spend my limited time in getting up to speed aerobically since I started running so late in the game (age 49), and while I knew I would be sore for a week after the Dipsea, that was acceptable to me, so I generally ran easy to moderate whenever I ran downhill, whether to Stinson Beach or elsewhere. But by the second downhill on the fire road I was plummeting full speed with abandon, shouting “left”, “left”, “on your left”, non-stop, taking the “bansei” approach, as multi-year best-time champion Mike McManus termed it, since my legs felt fresh even though my chest hurt. Prior to the race I had visualized, intended and looked forward to making a fast, hair-raising and dangerous-but-easier-on the-legs type of descent, and it began to happen. The nearly vertical and extremely narrow section called Swoop was a little jammed, but I passed runner after runner, for the first time even taking the Steep Ravine stairs the legendary 3-4 at a time without much in the way of intervening thought processes. Awesome! I passed one runner on the left during a sharp bend RIGHT in the trail and almost pitched into a ravine, but what the heck. The last uphill, Insult, wasn’t bad, alot easier than Dynamite or Cardiac had been, and after sprinting down Panoramic Highway, passing a few more runners (knowing the pain doesn’t get much worse, nor does it get much better by slowing, and with the scent of the ocean in the air, there’s no choice but to go for bear), I whipped down the first cut-off, hurdling over a two foot bush just before plunging down the main gully to pass a woman runner who shrieked in surprise (and unknowingly gave me an extra surge of adrenaline). I felt a slight advantage since I had spent five days in April weed-wacking the overgrowth in preparation for the annual Salmon runs (so-named because of a well-deserved barbecue at the beach) and even though there had been substantial re-growth due to unexpected late rains I was confident of the undersurface and knew every bump in the terrain from there to the final stile near Highway 1 and so felt safe in letting go.
At the end of the second cut-off, just before the stairs in the last wooded section, a volunteer called out “350, 351, 352” and I knew I was making real headway. Continuing on a roll I ran down the pavement ignoring a last wave of fatigue and the urge to stop and rounded the corner of the final straightaway at Stinson Beach, letting my legs go as fast as they could since remarkably they still had spring , and if your legs can keep moving fast I figure you have a running obligation to ignore whatever else hurts and keep going. I set my sights on one final runner just before the tape because for all I knew it would mean #349 instead of #350 and that sounded alot better to me. Turns out I actually finished #335, having passed 15 people in the final quarter mile and 45 total from Cardiac, getting down in 21 minutes and salvaging a near disaster into a 2 1/2 minute PR (72:24), even with a major tactical error, race-day panic and poor pacing!
I promise to keep on trying, and in the presence of the Dipsea gods" I vow to do better next year.
For those wishing to hike the Dipsea Trail, the best detailed descripton is found in Tamalpais Trails, by Barry Spitz. This comprehensive book is indispensible for hiking or running on Mt. Tam and contains a handy pocket map. There are also free guided weekend hikes by The Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association that are a good introduction to the mountain. Get out and hit the trails soon. You'll be glad you did. Your heart will thank you, your body will thank you, and your spirit will thank you.