For California International Marathon finishers, pride outweighs cold conditions

Standing just beyond the finish line of the California International Marathon on Sunday, wearing a jacket, gloves and a hat to keep out the morning chill, Melissa Davis draped a medal around the neck of a shivering marathoner and smiled.

“Congratulations,” Davis said. “Awesome job. You’re incredible.”

Davis, a 34-year-old Sacramento resident, said she has run in the Folsom-to-Sacramento event in the past but opted to volunteer this year. As runners arrived at the finish at Ninth Street and Capitol Mall in downtown Sacramento, some with arms raised triumphantly, others in varying states of exhaustion and relief, Davis was among those distributing the slate-gray finisher’s medals for the 31st annual race.

“The emotions are incredible. Some are all smiles, some are just happy it’s over,” Davis said. “It has such meaning to them. It’s nice to be a part of that moment.”

A field of 7,368 runners lined up to start the race in frigid conditions near Folsom Dam on Sunday morning and 7,056 crossed the finish line, CIM officials reported, including both full marathoners and members of relay teams. Another 2,000 participants were expected for the event’s 2.62-mile fun run.

Temperatures were in the high 20s as runners gathered near the starting line before dawn, many wrapped in blankets or with scarves pulled over their faces. Others hopped in place or jogged to warm up. Maria Cerqueira, 66, who said she flew in from Brazil last week to run the marathon, planned to begin the run in gloves and a plastic poncho.

“Like an onion,” Cerqueira said. “If it gets hotter I’ll just throw things away.”

For the first several miles, runners passed cars and front lawns still frosted over from the overnight chill. Still, pockets of spectators lined the streets dressed in jackets and scarves and holding steaming cups while cheering on the runners and waving homemade signs. Most runners reached the Capitol under blue, cloudless skies – a contrast to last year’s rain-soaked affair.

First-year race director Michelle La Sala said the reopening of roads along the course was delayed slightly when water spilling at fluid stations turned to ice on the ground, but that overall things had “been smooth.”

“Some of the fast people dropped out because it was a little chilly,” La Sala said. “But everything else is kind of rolling as usual.”

CIM co-medical director Cathy Norbutas said extra personnel had been placed at the finish line to wrap runners in heat blankets and a heating tent was available, but the number of people seeking medical attention was no higher than normal. Course records remained intact, meanwhile, as Kenya’s Weldon Kirui placed first in the men’s field in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 34 seconds and American Rebecca Wade, of Houston, won the women’s race with a time of 2:30:41.

While the CIM adopted extra security measures this year in light of the Boston Marathon bombings in April, including emergency contingency plans and a clear-bag policy for runners, race officials reported no security concerns on race day.

Throughout the morning, supporters lined the fences around the finish line, waiting to greet family members and friends as they came across. Ashley Milhizer, 25, of Davis was met by her boyfriend, who presented her with an embrace and a giant teddy bear. Milhizer said she decided to run her first marathon as part of “taking back my life after a rough year,” which included the death of her father, Robert.

“It’s still sinking in, kind of,” she said after finishing in just under 41/2 hours. “Amazing. I don’t know if I’ve fully realized it.”

As for her legs, she added: “They want to fall off.”

Michael Ryan began the day as one of a dozen people to have completed every CIM and extended the streak by running his 31st in less than four hours. Wrapped in a blanket near the finish line, the 63-year-old Fair Oaks resident attributed the streak to “stubbornness.”

“Every morning when I start this thing, I go, ‘What am I doing out here?’” Ryan said. “The spectators are awesome. We couldn’t do this without people out there yelling at us.”

Inside the adjacent Sutter Club, Shadrack Chepyego, one of two Kenyan runners brought to CIM by a spirited local fundraising effort, was still shivering as he downed a croissant and hot tea shortly after finishing the race. Chepyego ran a 2:46:50 to place 134th overall, while countryman Japhet Koech did not complete the race.

“I am very happy,” Chepyego said. “This is my first time running in the cold. But now I am still freezing.”

The course remained open until 1 p.m., as runners continued to come in. Well before that, Leah Blix, 33, and Wati Hlusak, 36, friends from Minnesota, reached the finish at nearly the same time – both in the 3-hour, 25-minute range.

Blix later said it was a personal best for each. But as the two met in the immediate wake of the race, Blix could only check her watch, wrap Hlusak in a hug and exclaim: “Oh, my God!”

“We did it!” Blix said. “How the hell did we do that?”

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