courtesy of Facchino Photography

Jerry Ronninger of Fremont, heads through the hills of Marin County toward the Pacific Ocean on the Dipsea Trail, the route of the Dipsea Quad in November.

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For these races, it isn't the field, it's the ambience

Published: Thursday, May. 24, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D

Experiencing a historic run – from the Big Sur International Marathon to the Boston Marathon to the Peachtree road race in Atlanta – is rewarding.

But it can also prove onerous.

The country's most well-known events fill quickly, sometimes via lotteries or convoluted qualifying standards.

Runners with hopes of making it to the starting line often have to rent cars and make airline and hotel reservations months in advance.

Crowded expos, restrictive starting-line grids, long bus trips to drop-off areas – the hectic nature of massive running events can prompt more of the stress that runners are trying to reduce.

But there's another approach to destination running – going smaller.

Northern California has some of the country's biggest running events. But it also has many un- heralded, small-field events with vast appeal and interesting names – the Quad Dipsea to the Last Chance 50, for example.

"For the newer runners, it is a glimpse into the way things used to be," said John Medinger, race director of the Quad Dipsea, the low-key ultramarathon in Mill Valley that debuted in 1983 with eight runners. "It's the way it used to be when all races were small and nearly everyone knew everyone else."

Now a must-run event among runners who prefer distances longer than the marathon, the Quad Dipsea is 28.4 miles, a double-out-and-back traverse of the famed Dipsea Trail. It's set for Nov. 24 this year.

"We intentionally keep Quad Dipsea low-key and 'old school,' " said Medinger, a veteran endurance athlete and publisher of UltraRunning Magazine. "A lot of folks run it to cap off their years before lying fallow over the winter.

"One of the beauties of the event is that it is out-and-back twice, so you get to see everyone else in the race three times. There's a lot of high-fiving and camaraderie generated out on the trail. Most runners hang around for a long time after they finish, and the party goes on all afternoon."

Since its inaugural running, the Quad Dipsea has grown exponentially. The event is about 30 times as large as it once was, with last year's starting field of 265 runners and finishing field of 233 record highs.

"The Dipsea Trail has a bit of everything," said Medinger. "It's infamous for its stairs. But there are dense redwood forests, open grasslands with vast vistas over the Pacific to the west and San Francisco to the south, and a bit of urbanity at either end, Mill Valley and Stinson Beach."

The Forest of Nisene Marks Marathon doesn't have the same legend as the Quad Dipsea or its more well-known shorter distance sibling, the 103-year-old Dipsea Race. But its course is equally stunning.

"I'm a big fan of the smaller races, especially trail-type races," said Russ Coillot, owner of the Fleet Feet store in Aptos that sponsors the 12-year-old marathon. "They are a little less glitzy. They are a lot more grass-roots. The atmosphere is usually a lot more relaxed."

Despite its name, the marathon is actually three races, including a 5-kilometer run and a half-marathon, all held in Nisene Marks State Park and with a field never exceeding 500.

"People absolutely come here to run the event as a vacation spot," said Coillot, who moved to the area recently from Sacramento. "I've been coming here since I was a kid. I cannot tell you how peaceful and serene it is in the park. It's amazing, just amazing."

Several years ago, runners finishing the Gold Country Half-Marathon and Marathon in Nevada City were ideally welcomed entering Pioneer Park: A folk guitarist serenaded the field. Local volunteers provided homemade picnic fare and area businesses offered raffle prizes.

The event took runners on up-and-down terrain that added at least an hour to most runners' average road marathon finishing times.

But the route featured flume trails, the traversing of wooden bridges and running through tunnels.

The marathon no longer exists, but its organizers, Christian Youth Ministries, still direct other niche events, including the 49er Canyon 10-Miler in Auburn.

Individuals and two-runner teams can enter, with the course among the most strenuous, yet beloved, sections of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run.

Like the former marathon, the Auburn 10-miler is on a rugged trail. Runners experience nature with few restraints and finish in a community-oriented setting.

Several years ago, a runner finishing the Gold Country event said the finish reminded him of attending a Southampton (N.Y.) lawn party. It's a description that works well for small field running events everywhere.

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