Finding Camaraderie and Competition on the Trails

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It’s 6:30 on a Tuesday evening in winter. We are running through a chilled and emulsified pea soup of rain, fog and wind that exists only at certain coastal latitudes in wintertime. The only people strange or brave enough for this type of weather are fishermen, ranchers and a few hearty runners.

“We are really going to give it to Tamalpa,” Tomas says, referencing the well-established Marin County, California, running club.

He speaks with a thick Eastern European accent despite the 30 years he has been absent from the Czech Republic. He is Dos-Equis-Most-Interesting-Man-in-the-World sort of handsome. He laughs at everything I say.

Not far behind is Bill, a retired contractor from Mill Valley. A beam of light extends from the headlamp on his forehead, bobbing up and down and then occasionally off into the great void of the Pacific Ocean below.

We bomb down a hill that Tomas knows more from memory than sight at this point: splashing through puddles, muddying up our calves, picking up the pace with the speckled glow of the secluded community of Muir Beach, California, below us.

Bypassing the beach, the crashing waves and a few mildly lit houses, we end our run at the Pelican Inn—a bar and inn so expertly mimicking one from the English countryside it might have brought the weather with it.

In the bar, pints of English bitter followed by baskets of fish and chips begin to surround us. With a Czech swagger, Tomas pulls off his cold and wet shirt, balls it up and dries his pits before tossing it into his duffle. He pulls out a dry green long-sleeve with our club’s logo on it—a beer-wielding pelican in track shoes.

We are the Pelican Inn Track Club, a team whose solidarity is based not on coaching advice, health, tradition or even the fish and chips around us right now, but rather on being Tamalpa’s obverse at the one race that means anything to any of my cohorts. It is the Bay Area’s point-to-point Dipsea Race.

For 34 years, from 1977 to 2007, Tamalpa walked away with the Dipsea official team title with nary a fight from another challenger. From this dominance formed a schism in which some of us broke off.  A small group of men as committed to drinking as to running invested in some matching singlets, and a team was born.

I look around the bar where, with the exception of some grunts and burps, everybody is silent—ale sloshes about, beer-battered fish disappears and, for a moment, my companions look like a slightly sophisticated pack of animals. I watch them and wonder if our gravitation toward making an individual pursuit into a team effort is something primordial.

Several months later, the sun is shining, and we gather at Stinson Beach, where runners are still finishing the 106th Dipsea Race. Several members of the Pelican Inn Track Club exercise our most basic math skills by adding together our top five finishers’ places, hoping for a lower total than our rivals.’

“Two plus three plus seven plus eight plus nine … 29.”

“And Tamalpa?”

“One plus four plus five plus 10 plus 11 … 31!”

After the celebration, after our winners’ cups have been filled an irresponsible number of times, after the soreness of the race has worn off, we will again gather in the dark and cold of winter talking about our rivals.

The Dipsea, though it may only last for an hour or two, is the cement that antagonistically binds our two tribes together and holds within it the promise of camaraderie for the other 364 days out of the year.

By Rickey’s last count, he found himself to be a card-carrying member of six different teams on three continents.

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