Conventional wisdom, or one familiar with the course of the California International Marathon, might say that Dylan Wykes won last year's event the hard way.
The Canadian pushed the pace almost immediately, breaking from the pack for an early lead that he never relinquished and later acknowledged was in complete disregard of the strategy he had drawn up with his coach.
"It's a tough way to do it," race director John Mansoor said last week. "It's tougher to run by yourself. But if you're confident and you're ready to go, then you're ready to go.
"If the winds don't die down, then you're just not going to see that (this year)," Mansoor said. "The difference, though, may be that the field is a little tighter in terms of competition. I don't know that anybody will let somebody go away like that."
The elite field for the 29th annual Folsom-to-Sacramento event, which begins at 7 a.m. today, includes several men who have completed marathons this year in the 2-hour, 12-minute range and three past CIM winners on the women's side. They are competing for top prizes of $10,000. Neither Wykes nor women's defending champion Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia is back.
Today's men's race, Mansoor said, might take its shape from the weather. Should the gusty winds of this week carry into morning, generating a headwind for runners to contend with, the pack likely will stay together over much of the course, as no one runner will want to venture ahead and bear the brunt of it. A calm day, on the other hand, could lead to earlier separation.
Strategies along 26.2 miles shift accordingly, Mansoor said. A slower, tighter pack benefits those with exceptional foot speed, who hang around until it is time for them to make a late move. A faster pace, early and overall, favors those who exploit superior leg strength and endurance by attempting to open and sustain an early lead.
In last year's event, Mansoor said, strength won out.
"Last year, the guy didn't care about anybody else; he was going to run his own race," said Rich Hanna, a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier in 1996 and local race director and coach. "I give him a lot of credit because it's not an easy way to win a marathon. He felt like he was ready to win at a certain pace, and nobody was willing to join him."
Typically, staying in the pack allows top runners to negotiate the early hills of the CIM course without burning too much energy and to determine the contenders, Hanna said.
"You get a sense early on who's fit and who's working too hard early," said Hanna, who finished ninth in 2:17:51 at the 1993 CIM. "These guys are smart enough to know who's going to be there for the long haul. There's other guys who are going to go out, and they're going to die before too long. A good runner does his homework."
Covering the early stages with the necessary patience, though, isn't always easy, said Midori Sperandeo of Folsom, the race's fastest local female finisher in 2006 and 2008.
Game plans in the CIM women's field are not as subject to windy conditions, Mansoor said, as those who break from the pack often run among men near a pace of 2:30:00. Ethiopia's Deba, who Mansoor said "simply dominated" the field in the last two races, established her pace throughout.
Unchanging, however, are the early, somewhat hilly stages of the course. Downhill stretches provide all runners with the potential for a fast start, but some pay down the road for attacking them too vigorously, Sperandeo said.
"The danger with CIM is you can feel incredible with the downhills, and you're flying," she said. "But if you've (overworked) your quads, you'll lose all your time in the last 10 (kilometers). You can get to 20 miles and be on an incredible pace and just lose it all."
Late moves are often made around the H Street Bridge near Mile 22, a sharp rise and "breaking point" for some, Hanna said. A runner who has made an early push and cannot sustain the pace might be caught at the bridge, or on the ensuing numbered streets of east Sacramento, he said.
Wykes, in victory, built an early lead and was still able to hold off the pack that closed on him over the last few miles. In 2009, American Mike Morgan used similarly aggressive tactics to lead for much of the race before being caught by a small chase pack near Mile 23.
Ethiopia's Tesfaye Alemayehu, who finished third in last year's CIM, said this week that he thought for most of the race he was actually running in second place, because Wykes broke ahead so early.
Alemayehu, who trains in Antioch and ran the San Diego Rock'n'Roll Marathon in June in 2:12:23, is among the favorites in this year's men's field. Others include Kenya's John Njoroge, Erick Monyenye and Benson Cheruiyot. Alemayehu said his strategy is to stay with the pack for the first half of the race and assess things at the midway point.
"I have to check my inner energy," he said in a phone interview. "If I am good, I would love to go ahead."
Cheruiyot said his game plan usually calls for staying near the back of the pack and making a late kick of speed. But if somebody breaks ahead early, he said, "If I know the guy is a strong guy and he will finish the race, then I know I have to catch up with him."
Favorites in the women's field include Ethiopia's Serkalem Biset-abrha, Kenya's Salome Kosgei and past CIM winners Wioletta Kryza (2007) of Poland and Elena Orlova (2005) of Russia.
Biset-abrha finished 15th in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6 in 2:33:22. Kosgei kept pace with Deba until dropping out late in the race.