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Dipsea Diaries: Running the Dipsea for the First Time

How to find the trail, what to expect, and what it was like for one runner.

San Anselmo-Fairfax Patch Editor Kelly Dunleavy will be running the Dipsea for the first time on June 12. She will be documenting for Patch what it’s like to participate in this historic race.

Do you have your own Dipsea stories? Share your own experiences, stories, and tips in the comments. (Any particularly fast shortcuts should, of course, be shared just with Kelly.)

So, you’ve never run the Dipsea Trail? Who are you? Are you even a real Marin runner without having ever been on this trail?

I’m not a bad runner. In fact, I’m self-aware enough to know that in the grand scheme of all people everywhere, I’m a very good runner. Which means, for Marin, I’m pretty ok.

But, I’d never run the Dipsea. I’d never even been on the trail.

I decided if I was doing the race on June 12, it was time. So, this past Sunday, I headed out from downtown Mill Valley.

If you want to run (or walk) the Dipsea Trail, most people would advise going with someone who has already done it. That, of course, can become a chicken and the egg question: you can only find it if you’ve already been.

But, all of my friends who have run the trail were conveniently “out of town” this weekend. 

The next best choice, or some would argue the even better choice, if you don’t have friends well-versed in the ins and outs of the trail network, is to go on a group run. Tamalpa Runners regularly have groups headed out on the Dipsea Trail – especially at this time of year. Tamalpa will also host the two very popular Salmon Runs on this Thursday and next, which are just like the Dipsea race, except casual and with a potluck at Stinson Beach at the end. (Check the Tamalpa website for the details about the Salmon Runs.)

Other groups host Dipsea runs, as well, including the Dolphin South End Club, which had its practice race this past Sunday morning.

I can’t attend the Salmon runs due to previously scheduled appointments and I couldn’t attend the South End Club’s practice run due to a previously scheduled policy of sleeping in on the weekends. So, I headed out by myself at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday.

If you do decide to run the Dipsea Trail by yourself for the first time, have the foresight to print some directions before you get to  and realize you don’t even know where exactly the steps start.

I used these directions (you can print them up here) and folded them up and stuck them in a pocket. I also brought water and a gel, assuming I’d get lost and this might take longer than I hoped, but not so long that 12 oz. of water wouldn’t be enough.

Starting late morning on Sunday had the added benefit of heading out as all the South End Club practice runners were heading back. Every time I reached an intersection that seemed mildly confusing – which was pretty much every intersection for the first mile – I just headed the way all the other runners were coming from. There were countless other small groups out running the trail as well, creating a steady stream of people to point you in the right direction, especially when the right direction looked like you were heading into someone’s driveway. Even  was out training for the big day.

Of course, counting on people randomly showing up isn’t a great plan, but I would venture to guess that each of the next two weekend mornings before the Dipsea the trail will be packed with runners.

The part no one really told me while I was busy trying to find the right turns to make was that the trail is insane. So, let me tell you, if you’ve never done it before: the trail is insane.

I’m not stupid, so I knew the Dipsea was hilly, but I run in Marin. I figured I know what hilly is. Turns out, running at the watershed is a little different than running the Dipsea. 

At one point, I made the mistake of actually following the Dipsea Trail signs down a steep ravine just past Panoramic Highway and found myself sliding and slipping down the overgrown dirt path. This can’t be right, I thought, this is stupid. Which, it turns out is a thought that occurs to one frequently on the Dipsea Trail.

As I sat on my butt and looked up, I saw all those knowledgeable runners flying down the actual road, having skipped the whole steep ravine, climbing over a giant pipe part. I headed back up and ran down the road until it met up with the trail a couple minutes later. That is a shortcut I will be repeating during the race.

Yay! My first shortcut! That everyone else already knew!

I only ran three-quarters of the Dipsea Trail before turning around and heading back. If you run all the way to Stinson Beach, you are left with the choice of hitchhiking back, trying to take the Marin Transit bus or turning around and running back up everything you just ran down. Running there and back is common for many of the mountain goats in Marin, but that sounded totally crazy to me – as opposed to running three-quarters and then back.

The most pleasant way to do it is probably to convince a significant other to meet you in Stinson Beach with another set of clothes and food. Tell them it’ll be a romantic day at the beach, where you just won’t be standing very much.

Michael May 24, 2011 at 10:45 PM
The best way to train? Run from downtown MV all the way to the top of Cardiac and back. It's a little over a full Dipsea length, and by far the majority of the hard bits (and elevation change), so the actual race will seem almost mild by comparison. Well, maybe not mild, but the plentiful uphill won't be as beastly. You'll see a bunch more people out there again next weekend, running more practice laps because the best way to train for the Dipsea...is to run the Dipsea. -MS
lynda beth unkeless May 25, 2011 at 02:56 PM
And if you need a great therapeutic massage/bodywork for your sore muscles before or after the race I have been the CMT for many Dipsea runners & make house calls! Lynda Beth 415-250-0095

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