When it comes to metaphors, John Branch has the perfect one to describe the annual Dipsea trail-running race: "It is like unloading a zoo’s worth of animals in reverse order of mobility and releasing the cheetahs at the end." That's just one quirk of the 7.4-mile Stinson Beach, California, race, which Branch doesn't just delve into for the New York Times: The 50-year-old actually gave it a try. Held since 1905, it's thought to be the country's second-oldest race behind the Boston Marathon, and it has two highly distinctive features. One is the course, which is treacherously steep, involves nearly 700 stairs to climb in the first mile alone, and allows for shortcuts. The other is that handicapping, which places children and the most elderly runners at the front of the pack; at the rear are men ages 19-30.
In the middle are runners distributed "by a complex algorithm of gender and age" now handled by an MIT-educated engineer, with waves released every minute for 25 minutes. That's allowed an 8-year-old girl and 72-year-old man to win the June race in recent years. The winner of the 2017 race was a 46-year-old woman named Chris Lundy. There's a heck of a lot of passing involved, and by extension, "a lot of touching, hands on sweaty backs and shoulders, to keep in control." As for Branch, he started out six minutes before the young male runners. Read his full piece to find out where he finished, how many people he managed to pass, and how Lundy did this year. (Read more Longform stories.)