While head starts may be a common practice for grade schoolers racing across playgrounds, they are not the sort of thing you’d generally associate with an august, century-old race like the Dipsea. The idea of a head start is not complex, obviously, but it can be rather controversial. After all, depending on how you look at it, a head start is either a reasonable way to level the playing field or a complete corruption of the concept of a race. If you think the only point of a race is to see who can get from one point to another fastest, then you may well fall in the latter camp. That is a reasonable point of view, of course, and certainly captures a lot of truth about why we race.
Many would argue, though, that there’s more to it than that. Some runners are simply more talented than others, younger runners are generally faster than older runners and men tend to be faster than women. Within a specific community or club (or grade school), where you have the same group of people racing each other over and over, straight up racing can get pretty boring. How much fun is it if only a few people have any chance of winning? If the goal of racing is actually to enjoy running and to elicit the best performance from everyone, then a head start system makes a lot of sense.
When it comes to the Dipsea, the head starts also solve a major logistical problem. The trails that the race covers are mostly quite narrow and often very technical. There is simply not enough room for a big pack of runners to pass through most points on the course. By staggering the start, as the race does, it is possible to accommodate a much larger number of runners on the course. Indeed, as the race website explains, there are 52 separate categories of runners, so understanding the breakdown is key to understanding the race.
The categories are divided between two sections: Invitational and Runner. The Invitational section is composed of runners who are returning to the race, having earned their entry the previous year. The Invitational section is the focus of the race for most and where nearly all of the prizes are available, so it is no surprise that they start first. Leading the way for everyone else is the AAA group, for men younger than 7 or older than 73 and women younger than 8 or older than 65. Those runners start at 8:30 and, for the next 25 minutes, one new group sets off to chase them every minute. At the back are so-called scratch runners (men ages 19 to 30, like our friend Jeff), who are awarded no head start.
At 8:55 the scratch runners in the Invitational section tear off through Mill Valley, knowing they must work their way through hundreds of other runners if they want to run fast. After a two minute pause, the process starts again, with the AAA group from the Runner’s section making their way onto the course. Finally, at 9:22, the scratch group of the Runner’s section is allowed on course. With Tyler starting in the Z group at 9:21, you get an idea of just how many runners he will have to pass if he is going to make Jeff’s prediction come true and win the Runner’s section. For Tyler’s sake, we just have to hope that there are no really fast 7 year old girls racing for the first time this year.
Indeed, according to the Tamalpa Runners, a 10 year old girl won the race just 2 years after the current head start system was put in place in 1971. Since then, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, winners have included an 8-year-old girl, a 64-year-old woman and a 72 year-old man. All in all, the results would seem to indicate that the head start system works quite well in achieving its stated purpose of making it possible for nearly anyone to win the race. By neatly undoing the benefits of being young and fast, the Dipsea encourages each runner to summons his or her own best performance on the day and rewards them with the knowledge that their best just may be good enough to win. Some may still feel that it’s a corruption of racing, but it is surely a pure expression of the essence of running.
For young runners, like our friends Jeff and Tyler, the head start system pretty much boils down to one thing: the need for aggressive racing. With scores of slower runners clogging up the trails ahead of you, to be timid is to be slow. Being young and strong means that both guys will naturally climb faster than most other runners, so it is on the downhills where they must work particularly hard to press their advantage. This is something Jeff has learned from experience and something he practices nearly every time he runs—it’s part of what he calls “refining your Dipsea instincts.”
With passing on their mind, the guys took to the trails of Elings Park for this sunrise workout. With its steep climbs and abundant single-track, Elings is a perfect place to hone Dipsea skills. Just like on the stairs, Jeff kept pushing the pace on the downhills. Somewhere in his mind Jeff probably knows that Tyler is faster than he is, but he sure doesn’t seem to let on when they are training together. With three weeks to go, both runners are feeling good and getting excited for race day. Be sure to check back in next week, when we’ll take a close look at the course.