The 38th annual California International Marathon took place Sunday morning after a yearlong hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with competitors running from the shores of Folsom Lake all the way into downtown Sacramento before finally crossing the finish line right in front of the state Capitol.
The race began on a brisk morning clouded by a blanket of tule fog at 7 a.m. just south of the Folsom Dam. A crush of racers crowded the intersection of Folsom-Auburn Road and Folsom Lake Crossing and filled up the street for blocks, waiting for the go-ahead to start running as the sun rose.
As runners at the starting line were stretching and getting warmed up for the race, Mireille Sine of Los Angeles stood by, waiting to get underway. She ran the last CIM, in 2019. Now that the marathon was back, she was itching to get back into the action.
“I feel really excited to just be in this environment again,” Sine said. “I’ve been watching friends do other races throughout the year and just kind of waiting for my turn. And now I’m just ready to do it.”
When announcers finally signaled the start of the race, the front of the pack took off, with slower pacing groups following along in turn. After crossing the starting line, runners headed southwest, cutting through Orangevale, Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks, Carmichael and Arden Arcade on their way into the capital city and toward the finish line.
For much of the race, runners followed close along the American River, passing through residential neighborhoods along Fair Oaks Boulevard to thunderous applause and cheers from eager spectators along the way into downtown Sacramento. The course drops from a 366-foot elevation in the Folsom foothills down to a scant 26 feet in downtown Sacramento, allowing for runners to make fast finishing times.
Koleana McGuire, a San Francisco resident and first-time CIM runner, said part of the draw of this marathon is the downhill slope. She, like many, has been unable to run a marathon since 2019.
“I’m super happy to be able to run again,” McGuire said. “For my first marathon since 2019, I wanted an easier course, so that’s kind of the drive to come to CIM specifically.”
Chasing a spot in Boston
More than 9,000 runners signed up for the full 26.2-mile marathon, and nearly another 1,000 signed up to take part in a relay race. The annual marathon — organized by the nonprofit Sacramento Running Association for nearly four decades — is a popular qualifying event for those seeking to run in the Boston Marathon and qualifies for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials as well.
“We are thrilled to be able to bring back this important civic amenity to Sacramento,” Scott Abbott, executive director of the Sacramento Running Association, said in a prepared statement. “The year off in 2020 amplified the importance that this event plays in the fabric of this community — from philanthropy to tourism to community health to sport and entertainment culture. The 2021 CIM, our ‘Comeback Edition,’ expects to deliver in all of those areas and continue to be a source of pride for our region.”
With thousands of participants from across the region and, indeed, the world, reasons for entering into the sold-out CIM vary. Many run in local groups and enjoy the challenge and excitement of the marathon, some are casual runners who take the race course at an easier pace, and some, such as Canadian runner Patrick Long, are looking forward to Boston.
Joel Francisco, an assistant principal at Cordova High School, had to take a break from marathons in 2019 due to an injury. Then, in 2020, the CIM was canceled. Francisco, a veteran of the CIM with 10 already completed before Sunday’s run, spent his off time on weekends preparing for race day.
“I just wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it, because I’m getting older, and I’m doing it for my school,” Francisco said, looking ahead to the starting lines, packed with runners. “It’s amazing to see a sea of people every marathon.”
Long, primarily a triathlon athlete, signed up for CIM partly because he hasn’t been able to compete in any triathlons since the pandemic began — but he also hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Although his last marathon was 15 years ago, he said many events have been canceled in British Columbia.
“My hometown race was canceled this year, so it’s great to be able to come down here and compete, to try for a Boston qualifying time,” Long said. “We’ve been kind of avoiding everyone for the last two years and to have everyone together like this is — it’s amazing.”
And many runners did qualify for the Boston Marathon. An enormous crowd of marathon finishers and their supporters filled the streets past the finish line on Capitol Mall.
Will Bottrell, a Bay Area resident, ran his first marathon ever Sunday. Standing near the steps to the Capitol dripping with sweat and sporting a medal around his neck, Bottrell described his training starting back in 2018, mostly running shorter stretches and working up to a half marathon in October. His time of about 2 hours, 50 minutes qualified him for a spot in Boston, which he plans on participating in.
“It feels really good to run in a crowd and just have people push you,” he said.
Women’s winner a record-setter
The top women’s finishers for this year’s California International Marathon were Sara Vaughn, with a time of 2:26:53, Molly Grabill, with a time of 2:29:17 and Carrie Dimoff with a time of 2:29:33. Vaughn, formerly a runner for the University of Colorado, ran her first marathon ever, and, according to marathon officials, her time set a CIM course record.
The top men’s finishers were Brendan Gregg, with a time of 2:11:21, Rory Linkletter, with a time of 2:12:52 and Nick Hauger with a time of 2:12:59.
Marathon officials said that Davis native and current resident Gregg ran the third-fastest time ever at CIM.
Speaking during an awards ceremony in front of the Capitol, Gregg said that, despite his experience in other races, the local marathon is special.
“I’ve done other marathons but I always want to come back here and do it at home,” he said.
Speaking with The Sacramento Bee following the ceremony, with his trophy in hand, Gregg, 32, said he got started running in middle school and began running competitively while at Davis High School. The Stanford alumnus competed in his first marathon in 2014 and has ran the CIM three times, including Sunday’s run.
Part of his strategy during the marathon was pacing himself in the hillier, higher-altitude first half of the course, then letting loose once the terrain flattens out closer to Sacramento.
“It’s definitely a fast course. I think it’s a fair course, though,” he said. “If you manage yourself in the hills you can really let it rip in the second half.”
Last year, without public marathons to compete in, Gregg took part in a few small, exclusive running events limited to only professional runners.
“But there’s nothing like lining up with thousands of other people. It really does change the dynamic,” he said.
Charities benefit; pandemic precautions
The marathon has helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for local charities and organizations, partly funded by registration fees. This year’s chief beneficiary was the UC Davis Children’s Hospital. The California International Marathon also boasts its considerable economic boost to the local economy, drawing in huge amounts of traffic to restaurants and retailers while filling beds in Sacramento over the weekend.
This year, organizers said the race was expected to fill 7,500 hotel rooms and bring in around $10 million to the region.
But after coming back from a year away during a pandemic, some changes needed to be put in place. Event organizers required all participants in the marathon and the relay to either show proof of vaccination or test negative for COVID-19 within three days of the race. The Sacramento Running Association also encouraged spectators to line the race course, but to wear masks and stay six feet apart.
“It has been great to see all the runners out there training for CIM over the past few months,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in a statement prepared by race organizers. “We are not out of this pandemic yet, but as long as we follow science and common sense safety precautions we can come back together in person and celebrate the achievements of all those who have worked so hard to prepare. Good luck to everyone participating on Sunday!”
Roadways in and around the marathon were closed off Sunday morning, causing some traffic jams along the length of the race course.