Tuesday, January 24, 2017
by Barry Spitz
Carl Jensen, the last runner, 50 years ago, to win Marin’s fabled Dipsea Race without a head start, died on Tuesday (January 17). The cause was a fast moving lung infection. The Kentfield resident was 72 and is survived by daughter Karissa Moreno and longtime friend Kathy Swiston.
Jensen, born in Pennsylvania, came to Novato as an infant with parents Milt and Marge. He attended local schools, including Marion (where he first met Kathy) and Olive. He was a member of the first full four-year class at new Novato High School, where he ran track and cross-country. He ran his first Dipsea in 1962, finishing 18th (one spot ahead of the legendary Jack Kirk). In 1963, Jensen ran fifty-three minutes, 28 seconds and, with five head start minutes, placed sixth.
In 1964, running for the Marin Athletic Club, of which he would later become president, Jensen improved his Dipsea time to 50:45. But without any head start, he wound up 38th.
In 1965, the Dipsea Race adopted likely its biggest change ever. Since the first Dipsea in 1905, head starts had been assigned individually, based on a (hopefully) impartial assessment of each runner’s ability. But the race was suddenly drawing too many entrants, from an expanding running community, to keep that system practical. So head starts became based solely on age, with the youngest and oldest runners starting first. (In 1971, when women were officially admitted, gender also became a factor.) Handicapping was crude in the inaugural year; the first three finishers each had 15 head start minutes and the next 17 were all “scratch” (no head start).
Jensen, then running for the College of Marin (he would be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2015) was in peak form in 1966. He logged 150 hilly miles a week, many on summer nights over the Dipsea Trail from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. He won the Ocean to Bay Marathon, finished second in the national 50-kilometer championship and would be named the Pacific Association’s 1966 Runner of the Year. Winning the Dipsea was his focus.
“Carl trained like a mad-man," says Kentfield’s Bob Bunnell, a friend who would finish second from scratch in 1967. "Workouts at 5:45 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. One of his favorite training runs was a 15-mile loop in Novato in which he would run 5 miles barefoot on railroad tracks in the middle of the run. This was typical of Carl's thought patterns - the tougher the better."
Jensen found himself in a race-long duel in ’66 with high school star Will Stephens and Ray Hughes, who had run the fastest actual time in the ’65 Dipsea. Jensen used his intimate course knowledge and fearless downhill running ability to prevail. His 48:57 brought him to the tape first, ten seconds over Stephens, 28 ahead of Hughes. Not much was made of Jensen winning from scratch; it had happened four times previously, as recently as 1962. But in the half century since, no scratch runner has been able to duplicate Jensen’s win.
But Jensen’s life was about to turn, for the worse. The Vietnam War was raging and Jensen was drafted that December. He applied to join the Army’s elite running team, which would have spared him combat, but did not hear back in time. A week before the 1967 Dipsea Race, Jensen stepped on a land mine while leading his platoon in Vietnam. He suffered more than 100 fragment wounds, requiring nearly 10 pints of blood transfusions and some 1,000 stitches. He spent 17 months in the hospital.
Jensen returned to Marin, first to Fairfax, then Kentfield. He earned a degree from San Francisco State University. He worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters and the YMCA, including leading backpack trips for kids in the Sierras. He started his own landscaping business. He coached at Novato High; one of his runners, Ron Elijah, went on to record the two fastest times in Dipsea history. He got heavily involved in veterans issues.
Finally, Jensen began to run again. In 1981, encouraged by a friend, Bert Botta, and running beside then IJ sports editor Ward Bushee, Jensen made an emotional return to the Dipsea. His time was 1:01:03 and, with three handicap minutes, he finished 110th. In 2007, Jensen was selected into the Dipsea Race Hall of Fame.
The death of wife Susan in 2005 devastated Jensen. He became depressed and I was among those he began calling frequently, sometimes to talk, sometimes simply to read me a poem. With other health issues, he was forced to stop working.
“Over the last four years or so, Carl was feeling great, doing exactly what he wanted to do,” says Kathy. “We took trips, he read a lot, mostly military history; he was happy.” But what first seemed a simple head cold quickly led to a hospital visit, and his death.
Per Jensen’s request, there will be no funeral. A memorial service is being planned for early spring.
“Old Dipsea Runners Never Die, They Just Reach the 672nd Step”