Mary Etta Blanchard first completed the 7.4-mile Dipsea Race when she was just 4 years old.
Well, sort of.
Mary Lucille Boitano did most of the climbing for her.
“The first time I went over the course, my mother carried me on her back until I got to Hogsback and that is over three miles into the run,” Blanchard said of where the course levels out and the Pacific Ocean comes into view, but the sun starts to beat down. “My mom was a rock star.”
The next year, 5-year-old Mary Etta Boitano — her name at the time — became the first-ever female to run the entire race from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, competing with her brother Michael, father John, and mother.
At age 10, thanks to a handicapping system that aided younger runners at the time, Boitano became the first female to win the race. Her brother, a year her senior, had won the race the previous two years — first at age 9 to become the race’s youngest champion.
“In 1973, Mike was going to be the first person in history to win it three times, but I beat him,” she said.
On Friday night, Blanchard — an assistant coach for the Justin-Siena cross country and track and field programs — and her brother were inducted into the Dipsea Hall of Fame during the pre-race dinner at Mill Valley Golf Club.
Established 20 years ago, the hall of fame honors “outstanding runners, volunteers and others who set standards of performance and determination in the race or who have made important contributions that have helped to establish the Dipsea as a much-admired community institution,” according to the Dipsea Race Foundation website.
Dave Albee, a member of the race’s board of directors, said the siblings started a youth movement when they won their first races in the early 1970s.
“The Boitanos changed the face of the Dipsea and inspired a new generation of young runners in the race,” Albee said. “Mary, then a 4-foot-4, 60-pound bespectacled girl in pigtails, beat her brother by 1 1/2 minutes.”
When females were allowed to officially run the race in 1971, they would get 15-minute head starts. Nowadays, a female has to be 53 or 54 to get that handicap.
Blanchard has run the race on and off for 46 years — “sometimes I would just show up and jump in the race as a bandit,” she confessed — but hasn’t skipped it since she was 39.
“The strongest women, ages 19-39, get eight minutes (as a head start). I started there when I came back to run the Dipsea (regularly again),” she said. “Now I am 50, so I get a 13-minute handicap. When I am 52, I will jump to a 14-minute handicap. As I age, I get more minutes. Yay!”
She said that what she and Michael did in the race at an early age forced race officials to alter the handicapping system for young runners.
“It gave the advantage to the older women and men,” she said. “The young ones got affected, and I still hear about it today from a few of them — mostly from Mike McManus, who is already in the Dipsea Hall of Fame. McManus almost won the Dipsea as a scratch runner. He got close, but never did.”
Running with scholarship recipient Vlaming
Blanchard will run in the 105th Dipsea Race on Sunday. Michael will not be competing; he hasn’t run in the race since the late 1970s.
But one of the Justin-Siena seniors Blanchard coached, Liam Vlaming, will be running in his ninth Dipsea. He started in 2004, the year his maternal grandfather passed away, and he and mother, Paula Vlaming, started running it together in his memory.
Liam Vlaming, in fact, was one of four seniors who were presented $5,000 college scholarships at the pre-race dinner Friday night. Vlaming, who will be attending Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, has had a memorable senior year athletically. He not only helped the Braves’ 4x400 relay team qualify for the CIF North Coast Section Meet of Champions last month, but also intercepted a San Marin pass in the end zone to seal the football team’s section championship in the fall.
Blanchard wrote a letter of recommendation to the Dipsea Committee for Vlaming.
“Liam had an awesome portfolio. He has a 4.00-plus GPA, he is a 2:02 800-meter runner, and he volunteers and has an outstanding service record working in the community,” she said.
Paula Vlaming, who beat Blanchard in the race one year, will run with her son and Blanchard in a race that has been held every year since 1905 except 1932 and 1933, due to economic reasons related to the Great Depression, and from 1942 to 1945, when much of Mount Tamalpais was closed by the military during World War II.
Runners start in downtown Mill Valley with a sprint down Throckmorton Avenue to Old Mill Park, climb about 400 feet up three flights of stairs, climb through an old horse ranch to Windy Gap, then plunge down into Muir Woods, cross Redwood Creek, and climb arduous trails named “Dynamite” and “Cardiac.” The course then levels out on the Hogsback before heading down through the “Swoop,” over the rocks and roots of “Steep Ravine,” and up steeply to “Insult Hill.” Finally, a gentle slope leads to the finish line at Stinson Beach.
“We ran the Dipsea on Thanksgiving and Christmas every year from about 1968 to 1978,” Blanchard said. “We had fun as a family. After we would run the course, we would swim in the ocean and have a picnic. Many families would run with us. My parents were instrumental in starting two running clubs in San Francisco, the Dolphin South End Runners and the Pamakid Runners — Pa-Ma-Kids, get it?”
The Boitano children started training in Golden Gate Park with their parents.
“We ran the trails in the park and ran on the beach. We met loads of runners and running the Bay to Breakers, and the Dipsea seemed like a good idea for everyone. So, we ran as a family,” Blanchard said. “The Bay to Breakers would not let my mom and me enter the race. The AAU prohibited women from running road races. Women were not allowed to run any farther than 1,500 meters, according to the rules of the AAU, but the Dipsea Committee let my mom and me run. We were grateful to the committee. Since it was not a road race, but a cross country race, maybe it was not governed under the same rules. Woman had been hikers in the race since its inception, though. In fact, my friends Colleen and Sharon Fox have an Aunt Minnie who hiked the Dipsea in the 1920s.”
Just to be safe, she was entered in her first Dipsea as “M. Boitano” and wore a hat so officials might think she was a boy.
World-class marathoner by her teens
Blanchard ran her first marathon at age 5 and won her first one, the Avenue of the Giants, when she was 10. Her time of 3:01.15 that year, 1974, ranked her fourth in the country and 13th in the world. By age 13, she had run in more than 40 marathons.
“Running the Dipsea is tough. Running a marathon is tough. They are comparable,” she said. “The Dipsea has always been my favorite. It is the second oldest foot race in the world.”
At age 11, she won the first of three straight Bay to Breakers races, and is still the youngest winner in the history of that race. She later ran cross country and track for San Francisco State University, where she graduated with a degree in nursing.
Blanchard is now a computer technician living in Sonoma with husband Richard and sons John and Richard III, 2011 and 2013 Justin-Siena graduates, respectively. John was a standout wrestler for the Braves and Richard III was on the football team.
She said her sons have never attempted the Dipsea Race, but have done the practice run.
“Rich and I took them over the course many times when they were really small. They seemed to really like it,” Mary Etta said. “They loved Stinson Beach the best.”
Her brother now lives in Richmond with wife Jovita and daughter Angela and still trains every day, sometimes with his daughter.
“Mike started running at the age of 6. He held many age-group world records in the marathon. At one point, he had about seven. He chased Mitch Kingery, who was an amazing runner from San Carlos who was claiming most of the records and still holds the high school national marathon record. Mike had completed over 40 marathons before entering high school. His best was a 2:54 at the age of 12. When Mike got into high school (St. Ignatius-San Francisco), he had a new coach, Terry Ward, and marathons and Dipseas were out. But he was a high school All-American in cross country.”
Other than the chance to get back to nature, and challenge herself each year, Blanchard said she likes the people involved.
“I like the old timers that come out to run. I have met some really great people,” she said. “When I return each year, I always get a friendly hello from my friends, like Barry Spitz, Jim “The Birdman” Weil, Don “Mr. Dipsea” Pickett, Edda Stickle, Darryl Beardall and all the old winners from year to year.”
She especially remembers the legendary Jack “Dipsea Demon” Kirk, who completed his 67th consecutive Dipsea race at age 95 and passed away in 2007 at 100. He was a two-time winner.
“I miss Jack Kirk. He taught me how to run the race and showed me what paths to take,” Blanchard said. “I will also miss Tony Stratta. We lost him on Good Friday this year. He ran in 59 Dipseas. Tony almost ran as many as Jack, and Jack had the record at 68. Tony knew everything about everyone and what they ran, their times, and when they did it. He was amazing.”
Her father could have used Kirk’s course knowledge one day.
“I remember Walter Stack took my father and his business partner, Rudy Stadleberger, over the Dipsea (course) on a practice run and we did not see them for hours. They got lost in the hills on top of Mt. Tam,” she said. “Walter did not tell my father or Rudy that he had never actually run the whole course to the finish before. We almost called for a search party that day.”
Blanchard said she doesn’t try to win the Dipsea these days.
“I am really all about preservation and not training, unfortunately. I am not completely ready to throw in the towel, though. I am getting more minutes in the Dipsea as I get older, so my odds are getting better to win,” she said. “I have been having a blast with the high schoolers at Justin-Siena. Those kids can run. They are really putting up some great numbers. My pop used to say when I couldn’t run anymore I would coach. I would say “No way.’ But he was right.”