California International Marathon 2021 Race Report

This post will give you details on what to expect if you run C.I.M. the California International Marathon. This a popular fall race for runners hoping to achieve a Boston Qualifying time. So let’s see how it holds up!   If you want to know how my race went, that’s in a my personal race report.

Where and When is it?

The California International Marathon (CIM) is held in Sacramento, California. If you are not familiar with Sacramento, it’s the state capital and is located about a 2 hour drive inland from San Francisco (depending on traffic). The race is usually held the first Sunday in December and the race starts at 7 AM.

What’s the race route?

The course is point to point so you have to get to the start line. To reach the start you have two options. Option one take a bus. Most buses leave at 5 AM so it’s an early start to the day. Option two, have someone drop you off at a shuttle stop. A shuttle will bring you to the start. One very important advantage to taking the bus is that after you get to the start line you can stay on the bus (and yes you are allowed to get off the bus, go to the port-a-potty and return to the bus). Shuttles go back and forth continuously so you don’t have that option of hanging out on the bus if you choose the shuttle option.

You start in Folsom and basically follow the river to the Capitol Building in downtown Sacramento. The start line is right next to Folsom Prison, yes *that* Folsom Prison, made famous by Johnny Cash. You run through Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks, then into Sacramento. You cross a bridge around the 22 mile mark bringing you into Sacramento. You are not running along a river path, you are running on the streets so it’s basically a run through suburbia.

Do take a close look at the last mile. See the little hook at the end? I recommend walking that last half mile before the race so you know what to expect. You will be running along L street, you will pass 10th street where the runners exit from the finish area, you keep going and turn left on 8th street. Then you will see two finisher chutes on your left, the first chute is for the women, the second is for the men. The women’s finish line is a touch further down the chute since you make the turn sooner so they can even out the mileage.

Is it hilly?

Great question! It is a net downhill of 366 feet as you can see from this little picture in the corner of the race map. Doesn’t that look like a great downhill course? Yeah… so let’s dig a little deeper into that.

The Boston marathon is also a net downhill course, in fact Boston has a net drop of 447 feet. I have never heard anyone say Boston is a great downhill race! Net downhill does not necessarily translate to easy downhill race!

What you cannot see in that elevation map are all the tiny ups and downs all along the route. Take a look at the hill profile below that shows up for my race in Strava. See all those tiny ups and downs along the way? This race is not flat! This race does not have long downhill stretches! Don’t be fooled by that smoothed out hill profile on the map. According to Strava I ran 292 m (958 feet) in elevation. Based on my Strava for Boston, the Boston marathon is 340 m (1115 feet) Boston is known as a tough hilly course! Let’s be clear, CIM is easier than Boston. None of the hills in CIM are as long or steep as the Newton hills and you don’t get those big nasty hills in the second half like you do in Boston. At CIM you are constantly running light rolling hills. But, if you go in expecting downhill and flat you are in for a shock. Do your hill training and you will be fine. I actually liked the rolling hills because it allowed me to use different muscles (full disclosure: I ran Boston 7 weeks earlier so I just kept thinking oh well these hills are easier than Boston)

If it’s hilly why is it known for Boston qualifiers?

That’s a great question! First of all lets dig into their Boston qualifier reputation.

According to the race program they have a higher number of BQs than the Erie marathon, or Tunnel marathon both of which I know are popular for BQ attempts. Erie has the advantage of being one of the last races before Boston registration opens and had 1302 finishers in 2019, and the Tunnel marathon is famous for it’s downhill but is generally less than 1000 finishers. CIM 2019 had closer to 7500 runners so bragging you have a higher number of BQs isn’t really an indication that an individual runner has a better chance of qualifying at CIM.

What I find more interesting is according to the race program they have a higher percentage of BQs than Grandma’s marathon, Philadelphia, OR Chicago. Conveniently I have run all those races so I can compare them to CIM based on my personal experience. All of them are great races! Chicago is flatter than CIM and Chicago has better crowds (it is one of the world Abbott majors after all!) but Chicago has a lot of twists and turns and forget using your Garmin to pace in Chicago, the skyscrapers really mess up your Garmin. Philadelphia I remember as being similar difficulty in terms of hills but has this out and back on the second half with very few crowds to cheer you on and is very exposed so you can get strong headwind for a solid 6 miles. I think Grandma’s was flatter than CIM, and has good crowds near the finish, but the first part of the race the crowds are a pretty thin.

Would a few twists and turns or a few less crowds really make the difference? On their own probably not, I think one of the biggest reasons CIM rocks the BQ is the weather! How many times do you obsessively check the forecast pre-marathon praying that rain will end before the race starts, or that the heat won’t arrive until later in the day? I had the bad luck to run Grandma’s in 2016. The high that day was 84F (29C) suffice to say I did NOT run a personal best that day. I had a friend who ran Chicago 2007, the year they ran out of water because it was so hot the early runners used it all up trying to keep cool. The year I ran Philly, the temperature was good, it was a little windier than I would have liked, about 14 mph as a headwind uphill from mile 14-20 (still got a PR and BQ, as I said, those are all great races and you could BQ at any of them on the right day).

Take a look at the weather conditions the last 5 years for CIM

  • 2021 Low 38F/3C High 60F/16C partly cloudy winds 5 mph
  • 2019 Low 51F/11C High 62F/17C partly cloudy with drizzle winds 8 mph
  • 2018 Low 39F/4C High 53F/12 C partly cloudy winds 4 mph
  • 2017 Low 44F/7C High 58F/14C clear winds 2 mph
  • 2016 Low 38F/3C High 59F/15C clear winds 2 mph

Yeah! Seriously I had to go back to 2012 to find a day which could be considered even vaguely bad weather (It rained and the winds reached 20 mph, but temperatures were low 55F/13C high 62F/17C). I couldn’t find a race with highs over 70F! According to researchers the perfect temperature to run a marathon is between 50F/10C and 62F/17.5C. Go back and look at those race day conditions for CIM again. When you are running 26.2 miles the weather plays a huge factor and CIM is the Vegas odds on favorite for perfect race day weather.

Okay this sounds intriguing is it a lottery to get a bib?

CIM usually sells out but it is not a lottery and at least this year (2021) it did not sell out the same day registration opened. That means with a little up front planning it’s a race  you can  do with friends and running buddies.

How was bib pick up and the expo?

Let’s cover the essentials here. Bib pick up was efficient and easy. The race expo wasn’t huge but had all the basics you would want and expect: last minute running supplies like gels and Nuun, CIM shirts, backdrops for photo ops, they do have panels and seating to listen to the panelists. There was also a poster display with details on all the past CIM races.

Did they have enough port-a-potties at the start?

Yes! I am not exaggerating when I say there was a line of port-a-potties as far as the eye could see. So if the lines at the first ones are too long, just keep going until the lines get shorter

Bag check?

As of 2021, bag check is at the finish line, you cannot check a bag at the start. So you need to check your bag Saturday during the day or before you board your bus at the finish line on race day.

Aid stations?

The race had 17 aid stations. All the stations were well supported in terms of amenities. Each had medical, toilets, electrolytes (Nuun) and water. 4 stops had Gu Gels, Gu Chews, and bananas. The last 6 stops had Hylands Anti cramping. They always had the Nuun tables before the water tables. At most stations the Nuun was served in the white & blue Nuun cups, and the water was in white cups which made it easy to spot where the Nuun ended and the water began. At a couple of aid stations they served Nuun in white cups but the volunteers at all the stops did a great job yelling out “Electrolytes” “Nuun” and they were always the first tables so even my running addled mind was quickly able to determine which volunteer had what I needed.

The spacing between water stops was inconsistent and not always on a particular mile or km marker. In a personally prefer having water stops at specific mile markers so that was a small minus for me. But the race absolutely has enough aid stations, and they do get closer together as the race progresses which I also appreciate. You will find aid stations approximately every 2 miles for the first half of the race , approximately every 1.5 miles from 13-19 miles, then approximately every mile from 19 miles to the finish.  In 2021, aid stations were located at miles 2.2, 4.2, 6.4, 8.5, 10.0, 12, 13.6, 15.1, 16.5, 17.9, 19.4, 20.4, 21.4, 22.3, 23.5, 24.5, 25.3 

If you are a runner who wants to be sure you take your gel just before a water stop, watch for the Elite fueling station signs those come just before the water stop and can be a good visual cue for when to take your gel.
One other small complaint, almost all the water stations were only on the right side of the road. I was running with the 3:55 pace group which was a pretty big pack of runners and it was a bit chaotic trying to reach a volunteer to get a cup.  Ideally they would stretch those tables out a bit more or have water stations on both sides of the road.  I did find myself having to mentally “prepare to go in” at every aid station. (Side note the last marathon I ran was  Boston which has aid stations on both sides of the road and has lots of tables stretched out, so that’s the bar I compare all races to). 

So if you are a runner who gets really nervous about hydration timing, you might want to consider wearing your hydration backpack. Unlike many of the big marathons you are allowed to wear hydration backpacks at CIM (at least I assume you were since I saw a good number of runners wearing them).

Volunteers?

Yes they had volunteers and they were amazing and wonderful! THANK YOU VOLUNTEERS!

Spectator friendly?

If you have a car it’s relatively easy to cheer on your runner at multiple locations and relatively easy to stand somewhere your runner will see you (as always, I recommend making sure your runner knows what side of the road you will cheer from, and at what mile markers you will be cheering). There were thin crowds the entire way and a few spots with some great loud cheering. It’s not New York marathon crowds (let’s be clear I’ve yet to run a race in North America with better crowds than New York), but for a race this size, there are decent crowds cheering you on.

Pacers?

In keeping with their theme of come to CIM being the best place to BQ, they have pacers for the BQ time for every gender and age group. I ran with the 3:55 pace group. 3:55 translates to a 5:34/km pace. Staying around the pacers my slowest km was 5:38 and my fastest km was 5:17 (remember there were hills so that variation is an indication of consistent effort throughout the race). I don’t know about the other pacers, but my pacers were great. Not only did they run a steady pace but they did a good job talking everyone through the race, the hills, even suggesting when you might want to take off if you still have something left approaching the finish (for the curious, they suggested stay with the pace team at least until you cross the bridge entering Sacramento which is just past the 21 mile mark).

The finish

Once across the finish line you get your medal and instead of the usual mylar blanket they give you a lightweight jacket with sleeves and a hood which helps you warn up and keeps your hands free. Then once again they go above and beyond. Instead of handing you a disposable plastic water bottle they give you a re-usable CIM Finishers water bottle pre-filled with water. They also hand you a re-usable shopping bag with some nibbles. There was a hot food tent and beer tent, and they also had a race shirt size exchange.

It wasn’t too difficult to find friends as there is open field on the lawn on the capital building.

For those who stayed at race hotels further from the start line there are also shuttle buses to take you back to your hotels.

Race Hotel options

There are three popular areas to stay. You likely want to pick a hotel that is near a bus pick up location.  There are hotels near the finish line (convenient for dropping off your bag check  on race day) and there are several hotels near Calexpo .  One word of warning, if you are hoping to get a late checkout so you can shower post-race before driving home, you may have to pay additional fees and there may be a limited number of late checkouts are available. Clearly the hotels are used to race weekend and the massive influx of runners requesting late checkouts. My hotel charged $50 for late checkout on race day.

Fun ways to celebrate if you do BQ!

This race is so well know for BQs they actually had shirts for sale at the expo that say ” California International Marathon Boston Qualified”. It takes serious confidence to buy that before the race (They do have a place to buy shirts in the finish area as well, I’m guessing that’s when most of those shirts are purchased)

I didn’t buy a shirt (and I did BQ) but…they have a fabulous photo op/ celebration moment at the finish line for runners who BQ. You get to ring the BQ bell. They have the bell on display at the race expo, but of course no-one rings the bell in the expo because they haven’t run a BQ yet. The thought of ringing that bell was actually one of my mantras when I started to get tired in the race. I found myself thinking “I am not giving up, I am going to ring that bell” (full disclosure there may have been a few expletives inserted depending on how I felt at that point in the race).

I was clearly not the only one who became obsessed with ringing the bell, because when I did finish there was a line of 50+ runners waiting to ring the bell. But despite my tired legs it was worth standing in line for 30+ minutes with all the other exhausted but very happy runners waiting their turn to ring that bell. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate a successful CIM!

If you enjoyed this race report check out my other running posts and race reports. Leave a comment if there is additional information I could have shared to help you evaluate this race as a potential destination!

2 responses to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on Run K2J.

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