Anatomy Of A Course Record: Alex Varner And The Quad Dipsea
One of the true gems on the Northern California ultrarunning circuit is the classic 28.4-mile Quad Dipsea. Run every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, this race is an annual homecoming of sorts as it traverses the classic Dipsea Trail in the Marin Headlands from Old Mill Park in Mill Valley to Stinson Beach and back, twice.
A decade ago when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I ran the Quad five consecutive times and fell in love with the course, its history, and the unique challenge of running those four laps.
For the first decade of the race or so, the gold standard for many runners was breaking four hours as the simple elegance of four one-hour laps had a certain allure. Once Carl Andersen broke the four-hour barrier about 15 years ago, the course record was slowly lowered bit by bit until this year when local boy Alex Varner bettered Dave Mackey’s previous course record by a whopping seven minutes.
Earlier this week I caught up with Alex to talk about the race. Turns out, as a Bay Area native, Alex first learned about the original Dipsea Race, run every June and covering just the 7.1 miles from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, from his high-school cross-country coach at Branson School. After being convinced by that coach to run the Dipsea in his senior year, he became hooked on the race, the trail, and the tradition. In 2009, Alex ran the Double Dipsea for the first time and has recently become obsessed with the Quad. As he now lives in Mill Valley, Alex says, “The fact that it’s in my backyard is hugely motivating. I view it as kind of my home course, so it is always fun to ‘defend my turf’ so to speak.”
With the format as it is, managing the course is a key component to success in the Dipsea and Alex has that part dialed, “I broke the trail down into three sections: start to Muir Woods creek, creek to Cardiac, and Cardiac to Stinson. I used the same sections for the return trip to Mill Valley, just in reverse order. I had splits I wanted to hit for each of those sections, on both doubles (I basically broke the race down into two double Dipseas) and my plan was simply to get as close to the splits as I could.”
In addition to impeccable course management, Alex also was able to spend considerable time on the course in an almost Matt Carpenter-like way. “I was on the course at least once, usually twice a week in the two to three months leading up to race day. I ran several double Dipseas as well as various workouts on different parts of the trail. There’s nothing like specificity. I made an effort to run intervals up and down all parts of the course so that nothing would be new on race day. I worked on running the hardest sections after workouts to get used to running them on tired legs.” With this focus and specificity it is not surprising that he had such a great day on the Quad. However, taking seven minutes off the course record was, in my view, extraordinary. So, I asked him how he did it.
“My main goal was to get to the halfway point with two hours to go to break the course record, which would mean running 54-minute splits for the first two legs and then hanging on to run the last two laps in two hours.”
Alex told me that this was easily one of the best running performances of his career. And, his recipe was pretty simple, “I trained hard for months, with a singular goal, and was fortunate enough to be able to execute on race day. It was one of those days where everything just clicked. The first three laps felt almost effortless and while the fourth one was quite rough, I was able to keep pushing. I’m really proud of winning Lake Sonoma and finishing seventh at Western States, but in terms of training with one thing in mind and executing on the one day that counts, this might be my best performance.”
Finally, given that he ran so fast, I was curious to know if Alex thought the course record could go even lower. “I think it could. I faded eight-plus minutes in the final lap and am a little disappointed with that. I had thought I’d run an hour at worst, but it was a lot tougher than anticipated. I think, armed with that experience and knowledge, someone could take it lower.”
Performances such as these, on iconic courses such as the Dipsea, provide inspiration to me. Seeing a young man push the boundaries of his abilities and execute well on race day gives me true hope for the future of this sport I love. So, Alex Varner…
Alex Varner’s Beer of the Week
Alex chose this week’s Beer of the Week from Fort Point Beer Company in San Francisco, California. Says Alex, “My choice is the Fort Point Villager IPA. It is not as hoppy as many IPAs seem to be nowadays, which is a nice change. It goes down easily and is especially nice after a hard run.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Have you run the Dipsea Trail or any of the versions of races which take place on it? If so, what are your thoughts on the various pieces of the route? The stairs? The climbing? The descents?