Dipsea Diaries: How Fast Do I Actually Have to Run?

Trying to understand the handicap system and figuring how fast do you need to run to make it into the Invitational Division.

When the Dipsea kicks off at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, I will have 44 minutes before it’s my turn to head out from downtown Mill Valley.

In those 44 minutes, many of the top contenders will have already crested the climbs. Some of them will be headed down towards Stinson by then. Some of the fastest runners will be farther from the finish, hoping to close the gap in the last few miles.

Yet, at the start of my run, I will still have an eight-minute headstart.


The basic idea of the Dipsea isn’t hard to grasp for anyone who has ever played with a handicap in golf. Even my mother understood the gist: slower groups get to start earlier, whoever gets to the finish line first wins. But, the devil is in the details. And, for someone trying to wade into their first Dipsea, it can become more than a little complicated.

Exactly how much before whom do you get to start? Who is The Handicapper? What is the deal the Runners Division? Do they count in the overall places? And, most importantly, so how fast do I actually have to run?

The full list of handicaps and start times are available here on dipsea.org. Don’t like them, blame The Handicapper.

The first group (of boys under six-years-old, men over 74, and girls under seven and women over 66) gets a 25-minute head start over the fast young men – if you want to sound in the know you must call the fast young men the “scratch” runners: Dipsea lesson number one.

No one knows how the start times for everyone after that first group are determined. Numbers are crunched and when the final handicaps are released, message boards around the internet go wild.

That much isn’t complicated.

Dipsea lesson number two: it’s not that straight-forward.

When the winning time in 2010 was released, Reilly Johnson ran a 47:31. Does that mean an eight-year-old girl actually covered the 7.5 miles in 47 minutes?


It means with her 25-minute headstart, she ran a 1:12:31. So, if you had only a 10-minute headstart, you would have to run under a 57:31 to beat her. This year, she starts with only a 20-minute headstart plus a one-minute winner’s penalty – so, as has been much discussed, she’ll have to run six minutes faster to come close. Can she do it?

A complete list of all historical times is available here.

On average, in the last 30 years, the winning “adjusted” time was 45:27. That means a scratch runner, with no headstart, would have to run close to that to win – on average. A person with just a five-minute headstart (48-, 49- and 14-year-old males this year) would have to run, on average, 50:27 to win.

The fastest actual run in 2010 was 48:54 by Alex Varner, who came in fourth overall. 

Make sense? OK, good.

That’s just the Invitational Division. Then, two minutes after the scratch men start at 8:55 a.m., the same headstart process begins all over again with the Runners Division.

This is where I get confused.

The Runners Division is for all first-timers and those who haven’t made the Invitational cut. And that’s where, as a first-timer, I’ll be with my other 750 closest friends.

You can’t win from the Runners Division. And, you can’t get a famous “black shirt.” (Well, in theory, you could, but you’d have to run the whole thing in about 15 minutes.) Dipsea lesson number three: for some reason, 35th place is a big deal. 

But, you can make it out of the Runners Division and into that Invitational cut, which is the first step in becoming the envy of everyone you know. All I have to do is be the 750th person to cross the finish line, including all the people that started in the 44 minutes before me.

I think.

You can also use the historical table of times to figure out what time you’d have to run on average for one of those black shirts, for the 450th spot (the place you have to be in if you start in the Invitational Division to stay in the Invitational Division the next year), or for the 750th spot. Just read the adjusted times and add on your headstarts.

According to the historical table that knows all, the average 750th time is 1:10:48. With my eight-minute headstart, that means I’d have to run about 1:18. Right?

But, what about the 44 minutes that passed between that very first Invitational runner and me? Which is 19 minutes between the Invitational scratch runners and me? Does that really mean I’d have to run 26:48 or 51:48 – because I’m pretty sure I can’t do either? Do times start all over again with the second wave of runners? But not places? Am I confused? Are others confused?

Which brings us to Dipsea lesson number four (or maybe it’s just my own personal lesson): don’t let the Dipsea, drenched in all its history and lore, overwhelm you too much. Run as fast as you can and you’ll get whatever place that is.

That’s not complicated.

hope gelbach June 11, 2011 at 02:54 PM
Go Kelly Go!!
John Styles June 14, 2011 at 12:26 AM
Thank you for helping me realize that I am not crazy. The invitational runners get an advantage by running with less people and in a group of more skilled runners - in other words less people to pass and less slow people to avoid. However - why do we not take 25 minutes off of the actual running time of a AAA Runner like we do for a AAA Invitational - makes no sense to me. Is this system intentionally designed to prevent first-time runners from winning? – perhaps this is a good thing. By the way - I really enjoyed the race.
Ralph June 14, 2011 at 04:33 PM
JS - As a racer in the "Runners" section you have only one primary goal. Finish in the top 750. If you did that, we'll see you @ start line in 2012 25 mins earlier. A "Runners" section runner can't win the Dipsea. Well technically they could, but ain't never gonna happen.


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