What it’s like to run the California International Marathon
It started as a labor of love for 1,600 runners one crisp autumn morning in 1983. Thirty-five years later, 11,000 people will run from Folsom to Sacramento in the California International Marathon, pumping $11 million into the region’s economy and at least $400,000 into local charities.
Twelve men have been along for the entire ride, running every one of the last 34 CIMs. They’re called the “streakers.”
“Back in those days, very few people ran marathons,” said CIM streaker Denis Zilaff, now board president of the Sacramento Running Association, which organizes CIM. “Back then, they didn’t have training groups. Now you can join 10 different training groups in Sacramento alone.”
CIM will have its largest field ever this year on Sunday, with participants skyrocketing in the past 15 years. In the 1990s, CIM was averaging 3,000 runners, less than a third of this year’s field, according to Dr. Steve Polansky, another CIM streaker and SRA board member.
In recent years, the Sacramento Running Association has had to close registration well in advance. Polansky, 71, said that if any more people had signed up, the organization would have had to reconfigure the start line.
That would be a shame, he said, because the sight of thousands of runners lined up downhill into the start line in Folsom at first light “is just a breathless sight.”
His love of the course route is one reason he returns every year. The race starts at Folsom Dam and travels through Orangevale, Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks and Carmichael before heading into East Sacramento and Downtown Sacramento, then finishing on Capitol Mall.
“For someone like myself, who loves Sacramento, and for people who aren’t familiar with Sacramento, it’s really a tour of the area,” Polansky said.
He and Zilaff also like that the CIM women’s finish is separated from the men’s. At many other races, the original tape is already broken by the men’s winner, and the woman who wins can get treated like an afterthought.
“She gets her own recognition at our course,” Zilaff said.
The woman with longest CIM streak is Sandra Hatcher of Sacramento, according to SRA spokeswoman Ellen Moore. This will be Hatcher’s 30th CIM.
Auburn-based Tim Twietmeyer, an elite runner who won the Western States Endurance Run five times, said he continues running CIM every year because it’s a course with few turns and a relatively downhill trajectory. The course hasn’t changed much over time, though he said the organization and amenities of the race have vastly improved.
“Back then, it was kind of a few real diehards who put this thing together,” said Zilaff.
The prevailing wisdom on how to train has changed significantly over the years, Polansky said. In 1983, runners were told to avoid eating or drinking before the race, under a theory that digestion diverts blood from your leg muscles.
“That whole concept is wrong,” Polansky said. “You need to fuel.”
The race now offers energy gels and fruit on the course for runners to fuel midrace, in addition to aid stations offering water and electrolyte drinks.
These days, hundreds of books, blog posts and message boards provide information on how to run marathons, from detailed workout schedules to daily meal plans. But when Zilaff and a friend decided to run the inaugural CIM, they had to find someone who had already run a marathon to tell them how to do it – there were very few books on the subject and long-distance running was not as mainstream an endeavor as it is today.
Runners were told to log huge miles in the months leading up to the race – 80 to 100 miles a week, said Zilaff, 64. Now, very few marathon entrants run that kind of mileage, especially as the sport has attracted a wider range of runners.
Sacramento resident Ernest Takahashi, 72, had run the Boston Marathon months before the first CIM, and he wanted to be part of what promised to be a significant local event. “It was considered ‘international’ because there were a few people from outside the country that ran,” he said.
Having run marathons in San Francisco, San Diego, Houston and Washington, D.C., Takahashi said he considers CIM one of the best organized. As an example, he pointed to the unusually large number of porta-potties near the start line.
Although the number of participants has increased over the years, he praised organizers for keeping numbers manageable so that all runners can start at the same time.
Running the same course year after year has its downsides, he said.
“You know where the rolling hills are. ... You know exactly where you are on the course, and that can slow you down. You know exactly how much farther you’ve got to go.”
Zilaff and Polansky said they didn’t start out intending to “streak.” Because CIM was in their backyard, they just kept running it until it became a big deal that they were there every year, even as they got older and things began to ache.
“None of us have illusions that this is going to last forever, but I usually say that being a streaker is a blessing and a curse,” Polansky said. “How blessed am I that for 34 years – hopefully in a couple days 35 years – nothing has happened to stop me from showing up at the starting line ... but it’s also a curse because I start worrying about the streak.”
About three months ago, he started thinking about all the things that could go wrong, like pneumonia or a complete body collapse.
For the first 20 years, Twietmeyer ran it because it was a fast course in his backyard. For the last 14 years, he’s been leading a pace group along the course as a way of giving back to the running community – he’s slated to pace the 3-hour, 32-minute group on Sunday with runners trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
He really enjoys “seeing a few people make it to Boston and realize their dreams,” he said.
Zilaff and Polansky agree that the last streaker standing will most likely be Twietmeyer.
“I think Tim will be 120 and still breaking four hours; the guy is pretty amazing,” Zilaff said.
Twietmeyer, 59, says he’ll have company for many more years.
“I always say that we’re going to be out there with our walkers bashing into each other,” he said.
- Michael Buzbee, Yuba City
- Steve Haun, Sacramento
- Bruce Mauldin, Fort Jones
- Mike Nolan, Sacramento
- John O’Neill, Diamond Springs
- Steven Polansky, Carmichael
- Michael Ryan, Fair Oaks
- Michael Sullivan, San Bruno
- Ernest Takahashi, Sacramento
- Barry Turner, Sacramento
- Tim Twietmeyer, Auburn
- Denis Zilaff, Sacramento
Source: Sacramento Running Association