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Old Dogs, New Tricks

Dr. Tom Miller
Author of “Programmed to Run

Nearly 40 years ago, while both stationed and Camp Smith in Hawaii, Walt Esser and I discovered trail running on the Aiea Loop Trail, high above Pearl Harbor. While still active duty Marines, we met at Stinson Beach near San Francisco to run the infamous Double Dipsea trail race from the beach, up over  Cardiac Hill and Mount Tamalpias, through Muir Woods and down the 664 steps down to Mill Valley – and back – 30 years ago.  On November 27, 2010, we again found ourselves toeing the starting line at the Dipsea – the Quad Dipsea – a double running of the course starting at Mill Valley and totally nearly 30 miles.

All during the years since we first ran together in Hawaii, we’ve kept in touch and occasionally got together. A couple years ago, I paced Walt from Big Mountain to Lambs Canyon in the Wasatch 100, where he was the oldest finisher just before his 70th birthday. He was once again in Salt Lake last summer where we did several trail runs together and had the opportunity to share our own “running wisdom” about running and life. His advice and example of how to manage both effort/energy and maintain focus in a “hundred” was instrumental in my success this year in completing the Coeur d’Alene Ironman at the age of 68. Most recently he was open to trying out my new ideas on running form: learning to run with a quicker, lighter cadence; running in less technical and more flexible shoes so you can better “feel” the ground under you; and using a stride-rite elastic harness to learn to run with a more compact armswing and balanced forward posture. We practiced the techniques, over and over again together before he returned home to North Carolina.

In September, we decided we wanted to do a “bucket list” run and settled on the Quad Dipsea. As with all ultra-distance runs, there are cut-off times. We would have to complete the first lap in four hours and the second in eight and a half hours. We figured that if things went right and we prepared properly we would have a good shot and success.

Race morning dawned accompanied by a driving rain. We started up the steps near the rear of the 200+ runners. Straight up we went with water running down the steps like snow-melt. Finally we topped out and hit the road for a brief climb until we hit a short downhill section before sliding onto the trail. It was slick and the footing treacherous. We power hiked the steeper uphills and ran smoothly on the flats. After Muir Woods, the trail deteriorated even more. In addition to the mud, rain, and puddles, add roots and rocks. The rain came and went, but mostly just hung around with water falling off leaves as the wind shook the trees. Finally we made it to the aid station at Cardiac Hill. Just 2.7 miles to Stinson Beach and the turn-around. At first the trail was beautiful, shaded by the trees and with solid footing as we began the long drop down to the ocean. Then we hit the long-forgotten spiral stairs of unevenly spaced steps that acted like mini-dams to hold the water in place. We made the first cutoff point of 2 hours in 1:53, right on schedule.

As we started back up the trail toward Cardiac, the rain and wind intensified. On the long climb up the steps, Walt got caught behind some slowing runners and I edged off the front a bit. I was so busy just managing the climb, my effort, the wind and rain, and other runners that when I turned around near the aid station, I was surprised not to see Walt right behind me.  By the time I had knelt down and adjusted my sock, Walt appeared and looked as cold and wet as I felt. The rain was relentless and we made the decision on the spot that today was a great day for a Double Dipsea and a lousy day for a Quad Dipsea. After all we had just repeated

history 30 years later – and neither of us felt the need to expose ourselves to a potential “death march” on a second loop. We both made it back to Mill Valley in front of the cutoff and pulled the plug. It was, indeed, a wonderful day for a Double Dipsea repeat. Do we have any second thoughts about our decision – not at all. These two happy grandfathers spent the rest of Saturday afternoon sitting in a bayside restaurant in Saulsalito re-living every step of the race and started scheming and conniving about our next adventure.

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