On November 7, 2021, I sit in the very tiny Phyllis’ Giant Burger in Mill Valley, CA and share a meal with Mark Tatum and Wes Thurman, when Thurman, with an excited laugh, shows us his phone from a local news outlet with a banner headline reading:
“BREAKING NEWS: 61-year-old Colorado Springs man wins the 2021 Dipsea.”
We all laugh and shake our heads in awe, each one taking the phone into our hands to read the announcement up close. Ordinarily, this news wouldn’t elicit such an enthusiastic response, however, the 110th annual race occurred only a few hours prior and the three of us call the Colorado Springs area home, so the association was close. So close, in fact, that it was no coincidence that Tatum also happened to be 61 years old and was wearing an oversized bulky, black cotton shirt with a large silver “1” emblazoned across his chest. He had just won the oldest trail race in America, The Dipsea Race, and it was beginning to sink in.
As the three of us walked through downtown Mill Valley, just about everyone we passed who caught a glimpse of Tatum’s “black shirt” knew what he had accomplished and gave him sincere congratulations as if he had just won an Olympic gold medal. A Dipsea title is the equivalent of a key to the city, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed unto a citizen. Once you earn that title, you instantly become a celebrity in this town. I urged him to carry his 25-pound bronze Champion’s trophy everywhere he went, but he thought that might be overkill. The XL-sized black shirt was more than enough to inform everyone of his accolade.
Tatum ran his first Dipsea Race, a 7.4-mile trek starting in Mill Valley and finishing at Stinson Beach, CA, in 2016 after some urging from his friend and training partner, Thurman, who suggested he could be very competitive at the age of 56. Thurman had won a coveted “black shirt” the year before and was very enthusiastic about the event. The top 35 finishers of the Dipsea earn this prestigious shirt, numbered 1 through 35.
That first year went exceptionally well for Tatum, as he placed seventh overall amongst other race legends, like back-to-back champion Brian Pilcher, Diana Fitzpatrick, Alex Varner, Rickey Gates and others. That is when he finally “understood the race,” the competitiveness, the handicapping, the history, the reason why it truly is one of the classic footraces in the country. “I was hooked!” Tatum said, “That is why it is my all-time favorite race.” From that day forward, his goal was to reach the finish line before anyone else.
The Dipsea isn’t your average trail race. There are numerous intricacies involved in everything from the entry process to one’s individual starting time based on age and gender, and even course navigation, not to mention navigating up to 1,500 other runners on some very narrow, poison oak-lined single-track trails. As Tatum described it, “The Dipsea Trail is complicated, there are roads and trails and cutoffs and shortcuts and that’s just the trail….then you have the head starts. Even getting into the race is complicated.”
The race maintains a mail-in registration system, and, with many thousands of registrations received, the “first come, first serve” method benefits the local residents. To further complicate things, the race was cancelled in 2020, due to the global Coronavirus pandemic, then postponed in 2021 from the third Sunday in June to the first Sunday in November.
The format of the race requires some explanation. There are two sections of 750 runners each. The first is the Invitational section, which is staggered into 26 waves that go off every minute. The second section, called the Runner section, starts its 26-wave sendoff two minutes after the last Invitational runner wave, making it impossible for a Runner section participant to win overall. It is still possible for a Runner section participant to garner the fastest time trophy, however, that would mean dealing with an absurd amount of traffic on the trail. A first-time entrant to the race must compete in the Runner section and be amongst the top 450 in that section to qualify for the Invitational section.
After placing seventh in 2016, Tatum knew that the possibility of a win was in the cards, he just needed to hone his training for the course. After a year of disappointing 2017 performance, where he placed 26th, Tatum bounced back in 2018 by breaking into the top three with his third place finish. Then, in 2017, he took one step up to the runner-up position. In 2020, the race was cancelled for just the seventh time in history since its founding in 1905, the others coming during World War II and the Great Depression. Tatum thought that 2020 would have been his year. Instead, he had to wait another 17 months to race the Dipsea again.
On November 7, 2021, Tatum was ready. He knew his main competition. He had studied the course with the help of YouTube GoPro videos. He had trained for the past five years with focus on this race. He executed his race plan perfectly and, with a 13 minute handicap start, he broke the purple ribbon at the finish line, 32 seconds ahead of second place finisher, and fellow Coloradoan, Dan King, to become the Dipsea Champion and first non-Californian to win the race since 1986.
Tatum can’t wait for the third Sunday in June, 2022, when the 111th Dipsea will once again start in Mill Valley by climbing 700 stairs before plunging down to the finish at the Pacific Ocean in Stinson Beach. The course will be fresh in his mind, having just run the race seven months prior. With a target on his back, and an additional one minute winner’s penalty, Tatum is hungry for another winning hamburger at Phyllis’ Giant Burger in Mill Valley.
Dipsea: The Greatest Race, a book by Barry Spitz details the history of the race and is available at https://www.dipseabook.com/order-dipsea-book.html
[Editor’s Note: For in-depth history, course description, chronicled records, stories, conflicting stories, characters, tall tales, race battles and shenanigans of the fabled Dipsea Race, look for a forthcoming article in the Trail News section of this website.]