As the first pack of lead runners formed in the early stages of Sunday's California International Marathon, Weldon Kirui was nowhere to be seen. Even after joining the leaders, the Kenyan seemed content to hover toward the back of the pack, which still numbered a dozen at the halfway point of the Folsom-to-Sacramento course.
Yet as the group dwindled to six runners near mile 20, then to three by mile 23, Kirui did not falter. And rounding the race's final turn toward the finish at 9th Street and Capitol Mall, he used a burst of speed to separate from his lone remaining challenger, crossing the finish in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 34 seconds to win the 31st annual CIM.
CIM officials reported that 7,368 runners lined up to start the race in freezing temperatures near Folsom Dam and 7,056 crossed the finish line, including both full marathoners and members of relay teams. Another 2,000 participants were expected in the event's 2.62-mile fun run.
Pockets of spectators, though, still lined the streets, dressed in jackets and scarves and drinking out of steaming cups. Wearing black long sleeves under his white singlet to help ward off the cold, Kirui came across the finish line with arms raised and straight into a hug from his agent Brad Poore, an Auburn resident.
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Rebecca Wade, of Houston, Texas, won the women's race with a time of 2:30:41, passing Sarah Kiptoo in the final mile after trailing for much of the race. While Kirui was a favorite in the men's field entering the race, Wade, 24, was making her marathon debut.
Kirui, admittedly not accustomed to running in cold weather, said he allowed the other leaders to set the pace for most of the race. "I was staying with the fast group up to the last mile, when I went to the front," he said. "It was the plan to go to the front near the finish."
By that point, the race was between Kirui and Julius Koskei, a native of Kenya who trains in the United States, as the two had shed the rest of the lead group between Carmichael and the numbered streets of East Sacramento.
"I tried to push to see if I could win," said Koskei, 32. "But the winner was very strong."
Kirui edged Koskei by three seconds to claim the $10,000 winner's check by the thinnest margin in the men's field since 2006, with Jacob Chemtai -- one of several late entries to CIM after the Dallas Marathon was cancelled due to weather -- placing third in 2:15:36.
Kiptoo, a Kenya native who trains in Santa Fe, also transferred from the Dallas field and held a sizeable lead in the women's race as late as mile 15, when she appeared on pace to challenge the women's course record of 2:29:21.
But Wade pulled even with her at mile 25 and passed Kiptoo about a quarter-mile later, widening her lead over the final mile of the race to win by a comfortable 42 seconds. Kiptoo finished second in 2:31:23, while Paige Siemers, of Littleton, Colo., placed third in 2:36:56.
"When I pulled even with her I could tell she was working a little harder than I was," said Wade, a former Rice University runner who now works as a legal assistant. "I had been gaining on her for the past 10 miles or so, so I was trying to be cool and wait until I was sure I could maintain the lead."
Having competed mainly in the 10-kilometer and steeplechase events in college, Wade said she wasn't sure how she'd feel over the final six miles of the marathon but that her legs and conditioning held up well. After she caught Kiptoo, Wade said, the two jockeyed for position for 400 meters before Wade "decided I had to make a more decisive move."
"I just tried to get away as much as possible and just hang on," Wade said.
Tim and Lindsay Tollefson, of Lincoln, were the top local finishers as they placed 11th in the men's and women's fields, respectively. Lindsay Tollefson, 28, ran a 2:42:31, which qualifies her for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. Tim Tollefson, meanwhile, narrowly missed the men's Olympic standard of 2 hours, 18 minutes, finishing in 2:18:29.