Race Review of CIM

This is unusual for me as I usually incorporate a review of the race in a race report. I felt the race report was getting too long, so I cut the CIM review portion out.

California International Marathon (CIM) has a BIG reputation, for what is arguably a medium-sized race (approximately 7000 marathoners & 4000 runners on relay teams for a total of about 11,000 participants). New York City Marathon has over 50,000 runners. Chicago Marathon has 45,000 runners. Even the LA Marathon has about twice the number of runners with over 20,000 marathoners.

CIM is known for being a fast course because of its net downhill decline. Runners, particularly those who live in the West or looking for a late race, wanting to qualify for the Olympic Trials or for Boston go to CIM, specifically for it. Approximately a quarter of the field qualifies for Boston. CIM always draws a good elite crowd, and this year it was the host for the 2017 USATF Marathon Championships, so the elite field was particularly deep.

Everything about CIM is about qualifying for Boston. Even people in Sacramento who don’t run, know about CIM and BQs. Whenever I mentioned that I was in Sac for CIM, they immediately asked if I was there to BQ. I’ve never had non-runners ask me if I planned on qualifying for Boston. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” I always answered.

The pace groups offered at CIM are unusual times. Instead of the usual 3:00, 3:15, 3:30, etc groups, they offer 3:02, 3:07, 3:12, 3:22, etc. Have you figured out the reason why? They’re BQ times minus 3 minutes. For a long while CIM offered pace groups consistent with the necessary BQ times. This is not unusual and in fact, many marathons do this. What is different about CIM is that they are there to help you, not only BQ but to get you to Boston with a time that is sufficiently under the BQ cut-off time. For the few years since Boston instigated the rule of rolling registration for potential entrants and thus pretty much ensuring that the people who squeaked under the BQ time won’t get to run Boston, CIM moved their pace groups to be two minutes under the BQ time. For 2018, you needed to be 3 minutes and 28 seconds under. CIM responded by moving their pace groups to be 3 minutes under (with the idea that the pacers will cross the finish line approximately 30 seconds under their listed group time). Each pace group is led by two pacers who run together (basically insurance that if one has a bad day, the other is there to salvage the group).

There’s a BQ bell. Not a PR bell. A BQ bell. Got a PR, but not a BQ? Tough luck, that bell is solely for BQ’ers. The line, by the way, for the bell was ridiculously long.

The first 700 BQ’ers receive a cute little Boston Creme cupcake with a little flag declaring, “Boston Bound.”

It’s all about the BQ at CIM.

The expo was held at the Sacramento Convention Center. I liked the size of the expo. It wasn’t small, but it wasn’t so large that I felt overwhelmed and crowded and wanted to leave right away. The bib pick-up was quick. I even got a photo and a video of me breaking the finish line tape. I love it when they have these setups. CIM hosted a few social hours for first marathoners, first CIM’ers, and legacy runners. There were various panels (Q&A with the elite runners, CIM running strategy, pacers, etc) and I attended the one with the pacers because I wanted to know what the pacers were going to do. It was rather helpful because they discussed in detail what the course was like, particularly warning about the incline at Mile 22 when crossing a bridge. Based on that info, Freshman kindly offered to drive me the last 6 miles of the course so I would know what to expect when I hit the final 10K of CIM. Having a little bit of familiarity meant a lot to me and it made racing mentally less taxing.

Because it’s a point-to-point course, there are pre-race bus shuttles to the start line. CIM offers shuttle service from different locations in downtown Sacramento and at Folsom, where the start line is. The buses depart Sacramento at 5 am and the buses depart Folsom at 5:30 am. The bus service from my location at 3rd St & L was quick and efficient. I stood in long line. Promptly at 5 am, a phalanx of buses appeared and we were promptly loaded and on our way. I learned through social media the next day, that this wasn’t true for all the locations. Buses never appeared at one location in Folsom (it was a hotel pick-up) and runners either ran 2 miles as a “warm-up” to the start line or called Uber or friends to drop them off closer to the start. Everyone did make it to the start line. CIM was apologetic about the snafu, and is looking into what happened.

From where I was picked up in downtown Sacramento, we arrived at around 5:30 am. The entire start area looked like a post-apocalyptic scene. CIM had shut the entire intersection down, so there were no cars whatsoever and instead, you had thousands and thousands of runners (many badly dressed in throwaway clothes) milling about. We, runners, had the run of the place.

CIM thought of everything in terms of a runner’s comfort. There were several portalets, so even when long lines formed later, the lines moved quickly. The buses remained in the start area, so you had a warm place to hang out. The convenience stores in the intersection were open, so runners could buy coffee. I decided to buy myself a small cup so I could have something warm to drink (and be as caffeinated as possible). Runners took over the place, as many of us chose to hang out there sitting on the floor rather than going back to the bus. There was a nutrition station, where water, Nuun, bananas, and gels were offered. The bag check was incredibly easy. You threw your bag at a volunteer and they sorted it into the correct truck later.

One of the negatives that some runners expressed was that there were no corrals. CIM did have signs with various paces so you could self-seed yourself. I was one of the last few hundred people going into the start area because I wanted to empty my bladder as much as possible. It was extraordinarily crowded and I had to aggressively weave through people to get as close to the 3:42 pace group as possible. I always intended to start behind them, so I wasn’t trying to reach the group, but I did start farther behind than I originally intended. In the end, this didn’t matter. My friend, Herman, who is a super fast runner (he ran CIM in 2:41 and no, he wasn’t happy with his time) opined that there should have been corrals because even up in the front where he was at, he thought it was too crowded.

I feel that any race with a sizeable field is congested at the start. The question is how long the congestion lasts. I was lined up roughly with the 3:52 pacers and running approximately an 8:25 pace. It wasn’t until Mile 4 where the crowd thinned out enough that I was no longer fighting and weaving to move forward. I spotted the 3:42 pacers ahead of me when I reached around Mile 7. It wasn’t until Mile 10 that I caught up to them. My original plan was to run with them for a while before leaving them, but the 3:42 group was a large one. I felt claustrophobic and there was too much jockeying of positions to maintain a spot as close to the pacers as possible. I decided I was better off on my own and I left them about a half mile later. During the very short time I was there, the pacers were friendly and chatting to keep the runners’ minds distracted and relaxed. After the race, I looked up the pacers’ time and they did cross the finish line about 20 seconds under 3:42, so they did their job.

CIM bills itself as the fastest marathon in the West because of the net downhill decline and the large proportion of BQ’ers. The question is the course really PR-friendly? There’s a net 340 feet downhill decline, but in my opinion, any benefit from the decline was negated by the constant rolling hills in the first 20 miles of the race; you lose more time going uphill than you gain when you go downhill. Pretty much all of the hills are quite gentle, but they’re endless. Thankfully I trained in Prospect Park where I had Zoo Hill to contend with, so I did not find any of the hills in CIM to be a problem. If I had gone to CIM, training solely on flat terrain (as when I did when I lived in Hoboken), I would have had more problems with the hills. In my experience runners’ perceptions of the rolling hills are contingent upon where they train. If you’re from a hilly area (San Francisco, Vermont), you’ll cruise through with no problems. If you’re from a pancake flat land, unless you find someplace to put in some serious hill training, this is not the PR-friendly course you’re looking for. None of the hills are steep, nor do they last long, but they continuously pop up for several miles. If you’re not prepared, the hills will get you.

I don’t mean to scare anyone off with the talk of the rolling hills, but they are there. I have run several downhill races, including two marathons. Many people go into these net downhill races thinking it’s a straight shoot down to the finish line, not realizing that there will be a few hills to contend with. The questions are how many of those hills are there, how steep/long are they, and where are they located. Wineglass Marathon has a net decline of about 250 feet, but I feel that Wineglass is a PR-friendlier course than CIM because there are fewer hills.

But what about all the fast times? The OTQs? The BQs? I feel like there’s what we would call a sampling bias. If a race has a reputation for being fast and good for OTQ and BQ, then it’s going to attract more runners who are highly likely to OTQ and BQ anyway. So, the high proportion of OTQs and BQs is less about the course than it is about the people.

I would rate the course as a fair one, meaning that the times garnered at CIM are probably equivalent to what would have been achieved on a flat course.

Aid stations were plentiful and well spaced out. The first two stations were on both sides of the course (which was great because of all the congestion), but after that all the aid stations were on the right hand side. Every station had water and Nuun. My biggest complaint about CIM is that they had Nuun out on the course instead of Gatorade. I like Nuun just fine, but not during a race. I need CALORIES while running long distances. I got around this problem by filling my Simple Hydration bottle with Gatorade that I saved for the last 10K. Some of the aid stations had fuel (Clif shots and fruit, bananas and oranges). The stations were well organized. The fueling stations appeared shortly before the water stations, and the water stations were always first Nuun, and then water, so you knew what to expect. I appreciated the lady who ran a few yards with me so I could grab a slice of orange from her tray without interrupting my stride. CIM provides a guidebook that clearly indicates where the aid stations are located and what you could find at each aid station in order to create your hydration and fueling plan. There were also plenty of medical tents and portalets out on the course.

The weather is historically good at CIM. Early December in California usually means cool dry morning weather because rainy season starts in January. With a few exceptions in the 35 year history of CIM, this is generally true. The temperature started in the mid-40s and slowly climbed a few degrees for the first couple of hours of the race. Afterward, the weather quickly ramped up to the mid-50s, but no warmer. It was a nice clear day. Knowing that I run better in cool (low 40s and overcast is my idea), I started dumping water on my head from the first aid station. I didn’t need the water to cool down, but I dumped water to prevent or at the very least to delay feeling warm as long as possible. It worked, as I never felt warm during the entire race, even when we ran out in the full sun late in the race.

CIM is the most urban marathon I’ve ever done, which isn’t saying much because the other two marathons I did went through farmlands and tiny towns. As such, I’m used to running miles alone, except for other runners and bystanding cows. The crowd support at CIM is wonderful and I loved it. Sacramento (and Folsom) is really into CIM, as evidenced by how even non-runners knew about the importance of BQ times! The first 15, 16 or so miles is lively – lots of crowds; cheers; cowbells; signs; so MUCH MUSIC (loud speakers and bands);  unofficial announcers; unofficial aid stations with beer, pretzels, donut holes, and more; and high fives. It was amazing and the miles flew quickly.

Then there’s a bit of a lull, but there’s another giant cheer zone at Mile 20.5 called The Wall. It was so much fun to run through a fake brick wall. There was a huge crowd there. Very energetic and just the thing you need if you’re starting to lag.

Then things get pretty quiet because you’re starting to enter a residential area. Around Mile 22, the route goes over a bridge. I was warned about this bridge as the pacer panel because though the incline isn’t long, nor steep, by Mile 22, you’re not having any of it. I was actually okay going over this bridge and it didn’t hurt like I worried it might. To help power runners over the bridge, a cycling studio sets up a cheer zone right on the bridge. There are music over loudspeakers, an announcer, and a bunch of people cycling like mad on trainers.

The last few miles are quiet compared to the energy, crowd, and spirit experienced in the first half of the marathon, but there are still people cheering. The crowd gets bigger and noiser the closer you get to the finish line.

CIM has a finishing chute for women and another one for men, although you’re welcome to run through any chute you want. Not really quite sure why they have different chutes, other than the woman winner gets her moment of glory by herself, rather than being surrounded with men, and it spreads the field out, so it’s easier to get a nice photo of yourself at the finish line without a bunch of people right in front of you.

Personally, I found the organization of CIM to be excellent. The email communications were clear. I got all the information I needed through the emails, on the website, or in the guidebook (a lot of the info is redundant, which is good, because I didn’t have to remember where exactly I had read that info). There was a bus snafu, but thankfully, for once, it didn’t affect me (sorry to the runners whom it did affect).

The post-race food at CIM was rather lackluster for a larger race. They only offered a hot breakfast sandwich, along with a banana, Clif bars, and water. La Colombe provided their new canned draft lattes. Whole Foods was the sponsor of the hot food item and I was rather disappointed with how lackluster it was. Wegman’s at Wineglass goes all out for the runners. Steamtown had so much food that I couldn’t even remember it all when I wrote my race report. I did, however, love the Boston Creme cupcakes for BQers. That was a cute touch. Anyway, runners go to CIM for the BQ time, not for the post-race food.

I thought the volunteers were great and well informed. Every time I asked a question, I got the correct answer. This isn’t always true. Sometimes at other races, well-meaning volunteers steer me the wrong way or admit they don’t know. I never had this problem at CIM. Also I got my bag so quickly at CIM. They didn’t have a line, instead you approached the fenced off area where the bags were laid out in rows, and a volunteer ran up to you, looked at your bib, and either they themselves, or they directed another volunteer to get your bag.

The swag at CIM is pretty good. The finishers medal is a solid one with real heft. The quarter-zip pullover is nicely designed, but the tech material is not as breathable as I would have liked. I do love love love the cute little CIM ankle socks. I will wear them with great pleasure. After the race, they provided runners with a terrific throwaway jacket. I’ll be rather sad when I use that jacket as a throwaway at a race one day. Thankfully Ben still has a lot of terrible clothes that we have to go through.

Overall CIM is a very good race and regardless of the BQ time I achieved, I had a lovely time there. There’s something rather fun about being in an environment geared toward helping you achieve your BQ time, like I had a whole team behind me. There was a camaraderie that I hadn’t noticed at the other races. Good race organization, great lively crowd support, good weather all make CIM a race worth doing. Just make sure you prepare for the rolling hills.


10 thoughts on “Race Review of CIM

  1. Reading this so makes me want to go run this next year. I love a race where the town knows about it and gets excited. It made me think of Grandma’s. The other similarity was the no corrals. Grandma’s had the exact same set up and it took me until mile 5 to get to a point where I could feel like I wasn’t cramped with a bunch of walkers! Loved reading this. You do great reviews.

  2. Great write up! I have never been to Sacramento but knowing how well run this race is, I might have to try it one day! Urban marathons are indeed the best because the energy propels you when you start to feel depleted! Congrats!!

  3. Great review! Totally spot on. As for the swag – I think they only offer special items for specific years. When I ran the 30th CIM, they gave out buffs and gloves — both of which I still have and use! Last year, they only had standard shirts and medals.

    BTW, my friends’ have a race review site called RaceRaves. They’re doing a $50 CIM merch giveaway raffle for everyone who submits a review by 12/17: https://raceraves.com/review-cim-2017/

    • I didn’t know that! Thanks for the info. Good thing I went this year so I could get the better swag.

      Thanks for letting me know about RaceRaves. I may submit a review for the raffle prize. 🙂

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