Barry Spitz

Monday, June 2, 2014

1964 Dipsea

by Barry Spitz
(first appeared in the Marin Independent Journal of June 2, 2014

The 1964 Dipsea--fifty years ago—was a watershed, in many ways both the end of the race’s historic era and the start of its modern one. The record high for number of finishers, set in 1920, was shattered by 40 percent and the Dipsea began a period of enormous popularity continuing today. After a long gap, a woman, Donna Thurlby, ran the full race. Women would run every subsequent year and be admitted as official entrants in 1971. The finish line, on Shoreline Highway in central Stinson Beach every year but one since 1907, was moved nearer the beach and has never returned. And an entry fee, 50 cents then, $75 now, was inaugurated. But, most significantly, 1964 marked the last year head starts were individually assigned, leading to what remains the biggest change ever in a race founded in 1905. 
            In the Dipsea’s first five decades, the distance running community was relatively small and tight-knit with only a few major races. So a presumably neutral official could assign, reasonably accurately, a fair head start for each entrant. Thus, every runner, save a handful who knew that even the maximum head start allowed was not enough, felt they had a chance to win, and that their chance was equal to every one else’s.
            Then, in 1963, President Kennedy issued his national fitness challenge and Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (co-founder of Nike) published “A Jogger’s Manual,” igniting the running boom. Entries for the 1964 Dipsea skyrocketed and 169 finished.
            Many of the newcomers were young, without any race record. The handicapper, underestimating the abilities of talented high schoolers unafraid of the treacherous Dipsea Trail, gave many of them oversized head starts. Teenagers swept the top nine places, all in clock times (actual time less head start) under the course record, with Tamalpais High’s Gregg Sparks winning. Bill Morgan, who would win Bay to Breakers the following year in record time, ran the then second fastest Dipsea ever, 47:29, but only got tenth place.
            Veteran Marin teacher and coach Dave Barni, who ran his first Dipsea in 1964 as a San Rafael High junior, says, “I got three head start minutes but Mark Falcone, my high school teammate who always finished one place ahead or behind me at meets, got seven minutes. Gregg Sparks, who went on to the State (track) Meet, got eleven. (Today, by contrast, Sparks, at 17, would get only two minutes.) To this day, I don’t know how or why it happened.”
            Keith Krieger, then a county mile and cross-country champion at Tam, ran the ’64 Dipsea with no head start because he signed up race morning. Entered again this year, Krieger says, “The handicapping was a joke then. It’s so much better now.”   
“The handicap system was always a puzzle to me,” says San Rafael’s Bill Ferlatte. “It was apparently based on your best Dipsea time, best mile time and which way the wind was blowing. One thing that was nearly certain though; if you won or ran one of the fastest times, you could count on starting from scratch the following year.” That happened to Ferlatte, who was second in 1963 and 44th in ’64.
            The need for change was clear. So, in 1965, head starts were assigned solely on age (and, from 1971, on gender). With the new system, no longer did everyone feel that, with a great day, they might win. Now only the very best in their age group had any chance of crossing first and picking the Dipsea winner became easier. Also, the old practice of slashing winners’ head starts meant there were no back-to-back champions ever through 1964. Under the new system, there have been six, and Sal Vasquez won four in a row.
            Jim Weil, the MIT graduate who introduced a rigorous statistical approach when he took over the handicapping job in the 1970s (he still holds it), notes another alteration. “The change in 1965,” he says, “also meant the end of sandbagging, by which good Dipsea runners intentionally ran poorly for a few years, saw their head start minutes rise to reflect their apparent decline, then ran to the best of their abilities in a one-time attempt at winning the race.” 
            Fifty years later, one thing remains constant. Everyone, except the winner, will grumble about the handicapping.