Lezlie Sterling Bee file, 2008 Ernest Takahashi is one of 12 runners who have finished every California International Marathon.

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12 runners prepare for their 30th California International Marathon

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 - 12:17 pm

Nearly an inch of rain fell in Sacramento on Dec. 3, 1983, a Saturday, leaving Steve Haun to wonder if he should reconsider his plans for the next morning. Running the inaugural California International Marathon seemed a lot less appealing in stormy weather.

"I got up (Sunday) about 5 a.m. and wasn't sure I was going to do it," Haun, a retired dentist, recalled. "(But) there was no wind and the sky was clear, so I thought, it looks like a great day for a run."

Haun was one of 1,600 entrants to the first Folsom-to-Sacramento race. Of that field, he and 11 others have finished it every year since. Barring any slip-ups, the full dozen plan to make it 30 in a row when this year's CIM is held Sunday morning, even though more stormy weather is in the forecast.

The 12 of them range in age from 53 to 71, year-round runners mostly. They harbor the fortitude to train for the 26.2-mile run, and give a nod to fortune for the fact no devastating injury or race-day illness has kept them from the starting line.

There have been close calls. John O'Neill, 71, a semi-retired teacher from Diamond Springs, said he nearly didn't finish the year he ate a large pre-race dinner of tofu lasagna instead of spaghetti. The stomach problems began about 12 miles into the race.

"It actually felt good to be in the Porta-Potty," O'Neill recalled. "It was cold (outside), like I don't want to leave."

Around mile 17, slowed to a walk by the discomfort, O'Neill said he "all of a sudden thought, 'I might not finish this thing.' But about mile 19 I just started running again."

Tim Twietmeyer, a veteran ultra-runner from Auburn, led a pace group last year with a brace on his hand and road rash on his side after crashing his road bike a week before.

Awful weather in 1987 had Barry Turner, 59, ducking behind packs of runners along the course. Steve Polansky, a local obstetrician, had a pulled hamstring four years ago, so he wrapped it with duct tape and gritted it out.

Had he looked down during the 2001 race, Sacramento optometrist Ernest Takahashi said, his streak might have ended that year.

"Those days, for some crazy reason, I thought it would make me faster (if) I didn't wear socks," said Takahashi, 67. "I got really bad blisters on both feet."

But it was a cold, wet morning. And Takahashi said it wasn't until after he crossed the finish line that he noticed the red seeping through his white Nike racing flats.

"I think my feet were numb," he said. "If I knew about it, I probably would have stopped. The painful thing was taking my shoe off and trying to take a shower.

"Now I wear socks," he added.

Most of the 12 California residents still run the race with time goals, though admittedly those times have increased. The streak, a testament to their longevity, comes with a twist – years after they raged against the clock, conquering it when they shaved seconds off their fastest finishes, the 12 are coming to acknowledge time's effect on them.

Turner, of East Sacramento, can recite his faster CIM times from memory, such as his 1985 finish of 2 hours, 49 minutes and 52 seconds. That qualified him for the Boston Marathon by eight seconds. At the peak of his training for this year's CIM, he said, he was still doing 60 miles a week, but his target time this year is closer to 3:40.

"That part's kind of hard," Turner said. "My body doesn't respond, but my mind says, 'Barry, you used to run at a 6:30 (per mile) pace.' Now it's an 8:30 pace."

The effort of training, said Michael Buzbee, a math teacher and cross country coach at Yuba City High School, feels the same. It just bears different results. Buzbee finished last year's CIM in 3:30:53. His first was in 2:40:57.

"It feels like you're going as fast," Buzbee said. "There's different little aches and pains or maybe your form has changed a little to compensate for an injury. It's wear and tear. I've probably run close to 150,000 miles in my lifetime. That's more than the family station wagon has on it."

"I work as hard as I ever did," agreed O'Neill, who ran the first CIM in 2:49:25. "It's just you get older, and it's just a natural slowdown."

As frequent runners, the 12 are certainly less susceptible to the effects of age than if they spent all their time on a couch, but they're not immune, said Judd Van Sickle, a biomechanical engineer with the UC Davis Sports Medicine Program. With age comes a decrease in muscle mass and less elasticity of tendons and ligaments, which can shorten a runner's stride and lead to easier injury, Van Sickle said. The heart begins to pump slower and the body doesn't take in as much oxygen.

"All that stuff combined can just slow you down," Van Sickle said.

All that stuff, said Buzbee, simply requires a shift in thinking. "I have to set myself new goals," said Buzbee, 60. "How many younger people can I place ahead of? How can I do in my age group?"

Haun, a Sacramento resident, said while he likes long training runs on the track at American River College or nearby bike trails, some of his workouts these days occur in the gym, on the elliptical machine.

"My senile joints don't entirely appreciate huge doses of running," Haun quipped. "I'm beginning to understand why there are relatively few 69-year-old marathoners. But what's life without challenges?"

Polansky, a member of the CIM board, recalled a past member of the dwindling fraternity who "did a Forrest Gump" a few years ago.

"He was running, running, training, doing races, and then all of a sudden he woke up the morning of the marathon and said, 'I don't want to do this anymore,' " Polansky said. "I'm sure some of us will probably say that, too."

First, though, Polansky said he wants to run the Berlin Marathon. O'Neill has the Boston Marathon on his schedule for next year. Takahashi isn't sure the members of his running club would let him end his CIM streak without some serious ribbing.

"Nowadays, all my friends and everybody that knows I've been doing this expect it," he said. "So you can't stop."

Someday he will, of course, but he doesn't know when that will be. Takahashi finished last year's race in 3:31:40, second in the men's 65-69 age group. This year he hopes to finish around 3:40.

"I guess I'll try to continue as long as I'm healthy enough to do it," Takahashi said. "But they do have a six-hour cutoff time."

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