When I put together my running bucket list in April, I included completing the Dipsea trail. But this wasn’t my first attempt. Back in 2012 (on July 6, 2012, to be precise), I tried to run the trail, armed with an online guide I found and some kind of idea about what the trail held. Boy, did I not know what I was in for. I turned around about three miles in. I got lost a few times. While I got a great workout, I didn’t get to enjoy the water. Anyway, I felt like last time was both a major win and a major fail. Last year if I’d been smart, I would have brought a credit card or cash and kept going to the end of the route. I would have hailed a cab from Stinson Beach to return to my car parked in Mill Valley.
This year when Michael and I traveled to the West Coast, I told him we had to run the full Dipsea course. I would count ending up on Stinson Beach as a victory. He, of course, was excited to run it because he loves trails. He’s a stronger trail runner than I am because he’s basically fearless. I’m a wimp who would rather run on roads.
So armed with an iPhone in a plastic baggie with the same course guide and GPS enabled, we started our run up the steps at 6:45 a.m. Oh, and also, I had a swig of the elusive Limon Pepino Gatorade we picked up at 7-Eleven before we started.
The first two sets of steps are a doozy. They aren’t all spaced evenly, so you can’t get in a rhythm to start. Getting to the top of the second step kind of sets the tone for the rest of the run. This thing is probably going to hurt. We wound our way through the neighborhoods at the top of Edgewood Ave. We got lost at around the same point I got lost last year. Oh well. It made for a nice downhill. By the time we reached the one-mile marker on the trail itself, we’d actually gone almost two miles. We were 30 minutes in.
The next portion of the course where we hit a sharp downhill toward Muir Woods is where the pretty portion starts. This is what I remembered about the trail and why I wanted to come back. Lots of steps and lots of views of big, sweeping meadows. We got to the Muir Woods water fountain without incident. Things were going well. Last year I saw two deer at this point and got a little freaked out because on the narrow part of the trail there wasn’t anywhere to go.
After the water fountain, I started to remember why I turned around here last time. The forest is beautiful — peaceful and it smells like Christmas — but the climbing is intense. The course is muddy in parts, and you start to realize you might have made a mistake, especially if you take a bad step. Mostly, though, it’s beautiful and calm and perfect. We saw just five other people when we were out there: a couple hiking and three runners.
The portion of the course called Steep Ravine in the course guide was particularly challenging on the way down. The stairs were slick and not at all well-spaced. The scenery was beautiful, but we both were watching our footing so closely it was hard to take it in.
I caught myself saying, “Wow,” and “Aww,” aloud when I came to certain parts of the course. The part where the course dips in to the sea is as beautiful as you think it is. No, it’s more beautiful. This photo does not do it justice. I started to get teary eyed, but I had to focus to keep running. I can’t even explain it, but I want to do it again.
We emerged a little after the seven-mile marker on to Highway 1 on Stinson Beach. We stopped at Stinson Beach Market to grab a banana and Vitamin Water and eat Salted Caramel GU (me) and some trail mix, Gatorade and Salted Caramel GU (Michael). I was pretty sure I was going to head back to the car in a cab because I had done what I’d set out to do. I would have been fine with going home right there. “OK, time to call a cab,” I said. “I thought we were running back,” Michael said. Oh shit. I did a quick calculation of the cab fare and how long a cab ride would take. Running back made a little more sense in my giddy, altered state.
So we started running back. We agreed we could walk the whole way if we needed to, but we didn’t think we’d have to. At that point, it was about 8:45, and we had nowhere to be until lunch. This seemed really doable when we’d been running/scurrying down hills for about two hours. What was two more hours, we thought.
If you look at the elevation chart at the end of this post, you’ll notice there’s a big hill at the beginning of the route. We had to climb that same hill on the way back. Wikipedia tells me there is a 2,200-foot elevation gain and loss on the course. We decided to do that again.
It started off just fine. We were going through the same hills and fields we’d run through before — the ones with breathtaking views. We made it to the top of the hill and past the jaggedy stairs just fine.
Around four miles in, I was a little ahead of Michael (this doesn’t happen often, so I mention it here), completely cruising along, and I saw rustling up ahead of me. A deer was in the path. As a hardcore deer hater, I kind of froze up and waited for Michael to catch up. “Deer deeeeer,” I said. “What?” “In the path there’s deer.” Actually there was just one deer. This whole thing was very dramatic in my mind, anyway.
At around the four and a half mile mark, Michael started to surge ahead on a downhill. He went ahead, and I lost sight of him. When I came to a fork in the road to go right or left, I went left because that looked like the more traveled trail. I ran pretty fast to try to catch up to make sure I was on the right track. No luck. After a little bit of yelling to try to find each other, we figured out where I went wrong and were back on track.
The pain started about a mile from the finish, maybe just because I knew the 688 stairs were coming. We staggered down the sets of steps toward our car parked in Mill Valley in an anticlimactic finish. I think if we’d parked a little farther down the road we might have felt more triumphant. As it was, we both just kind of groaned.
Lunch was at Bar Bocce in Sausalito where the beer and wine were certainly well earned. My legs are still a little shaky almost a week later. And it was worth every step.