CIM, the Marathon Made for Breakthroughs

The only marathon where you can watch women qualify for the Trials one after the other! From left: Teal Burrell, Lindsay Tellefson, Victoria Russell. Photo courtesy of Teal Burrell

Some races have their mythology. like Athens, of course, where Pheidippides died upon completing his journey. Then there’s Boston, which embodies its mythology in its unicorn logo. In the twenty-first century, a new legend is emerging in Sacramento, where the California International Marathon churns our more breakthroughs than any other marathon.

Sunday’s CIM didn’t disappoint, adding 13 new U.S. women Olympic Trials Qualifiers to the nine it produced in 2013 and the 14 from last year. But that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

While 13 trials qualifiers is impressive, if the trials standard was 2:46 as it was for the 2012 trials, 31 women would have qualified last week! A whopping 101 women ran sub-3:00 at this year’s CIM. In a race with just 5,800 participants, that’s a lot of excellent racing!

What is it about this race that produces so many stellar performances?

The short answer? The race was created, and continues to be operated, by and for runners. There is no money hungry corporation making decisions about the race to increase profits. There is no self-interested race director calling the shots. CIM’s race director is a nonprofit organization called the Sacramento Running Association. The race director isn’t one person, but rather a board of directors made up entirely of long-time runners who make decisions about race day, the course, how many porta-potties to have on hand, how many official pacers to have, and how much prize money or what awards to offer.

CIM’s board makes every decision about the race to maximize you, the runner’s, performance! It’s a runner’s dream race!

The Course

The course is point-to-point with a slight net elevation drop. It has a gentle roll to it, but starts at 366 ft above sea level and ends at 26 feet above sea level. While it has a speed-enhancing net drop, the elevation loss isn’t so severe as to disqualify racers from using their performances as qualifiers for races like the Olympic Trials. The race starts 26 miles from downtown Sacramento, but finishes to roaring crowds in front of the state capitol building. Also, the race advertises well maintained roads; which is huge if you’ve ever tried to race while avoiding a pot hole disaster.

The Weather

The weather in Northern California in early December is almost always marathon perfection. It’s not a hot humid place, so runners can almost always expect cool dry ideal conditions! Of course, it’s not always perfect, but if you’re betting on a race with good weather, this is about as good as it gets!

[pullquote]”Making the Olympic Trials qualifying time was a long shot for me. I chose CIM because it is known to be a very speedy course and I needed a huge PR.” Leah Frost [/pullquote]


Early December means the race is perfect for a last-minute OTQ attempt for those looking to qualify by way of a 2:43:00 full marathon in lieu of running a sub 1:15 half. The 10 weeks between CIM and the Olympic Trials race provides the minimum recovery necessary for two stellar marathon performances. For the rest of us, the early December date is perfect to get in a full season of quality training in cooler fall temperatures most anywhere you might be training in the U.S.


The race offers OTQ bonuses: $2,500 for an A standard (2:37:00) or $1,000 for a B standard (2:43:00).

The Magic

The magic of CIM is its heart. Because it’s all about the runner, runners come year after year to feel that love and go for their big goals. CIM is known for breakout performances, but it’s also earning a reputation for runners spreading the love by working together to help each other. The OTQ pace groups are a sight to behold! In 2011, dozens of women worked together to qualify for the trials with a whopping 24 meeting the 2:46:00 standard that day!

Last year, with the faster 2:43:00 OTQ standard in place, CIM produced 14 first-time OTQ’s. One of them was Teal Burrell. Teal attributes much of her success to her training, of course, but the pacers and the power of the pack of Trials hopefuls sealed the deal for her:

The pace leader and pack of women going for the standard were hugely helpful. I’ve never run with a pacer, he took so much pressure off it was amazing. And to have so many people with a similar goal–we were sharing water bottles, some people were talking; there was no competition, just a team working towards a mutual goal. That made the mental game so much easier.

This year was similar with 13 more women beating that 2:43:00 standard!

Check out this amazing pack of women GOING FOR IT at the 2015 CIM! Thanks to Wendy Shulik for the screen grab!

Leah Frost, in her homemade t-shirt is in that pack somewhere. Last weekend, she flew all the way from Vermont to Sacramento to take a stab at an OTQ. She admits she was a long shot to qualify, having run her previous best of 2:47 less than two months before CIM. But, she knew if she was going to qualify for the 2016 trials, it would be with the help of CIM’s magic! “I chose CIM because it is known to be a very speedy course and I needed a huge PR,” she said.

Going into the race I felt confident that I COULD qualify on that course, but not confident that I would. I trained diligently and believed strongly that I was capable of it, but I was going to have to push really hard to make it and have a pretty all around good race.

Epic! Photo courtesy of Leah Frost.
Leah feeling triumphant, exhausted and relieved! Photo by Rachel Curtin.

And she did, squeaking in under the 2:43:00 standard, finishing in 2:42:52! “I did not feel confident that I would qualify until I was literally crossing the finish line,” she said. “My partner was waiting there about to have a heart attack as she watched the time tick away. I sure felt triumphant and exhausted and relieved when I made it!”

Besides Leah’s nail-biter, another magical moment came when Samantha Bluske qualified for the Olympic Trials. You might remember her as the runner who ran a course record 2:47 at the Toledo Glass City Marathon after being led off course, making that 2:47 for over 27 miles! To add insult to injury, even if she had run 2:43:00 for 26.2 miles, she still wouldn’t have nabbed an OTQ because Glass City isn’t a USATF sanctioned race. However, now all of that is water under the Glass City bridge and Samantha Bluske is going to L.A. in February!

To read a first-hand account, and because we’re kinda obsessed with race reports right now, read Teal Burrell’s amazing race report from last year which really captures the magic of CIM!

Have you ever run CIM? Is it on your must-race list? 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I love this and was so excited to see the incredible results over the weekend. I ran CIM in 2013, as a last ditch attempt to break 3:15 as I had missed my goal in October at Wineglass (ran 3:17, still 4 minute PR). A Friend and I decided to take on CIM and make a girls weekend of it. It ended up being insanely cold, and 2 other marathons that weekend were cancelled due to extreme cold/ice (one in Texas and the other was Memphis). We got to the start and people were amazed at snow on top of the buses, my friend and I snickered….we have feet of snow at home. The conditions turned water stops to ice skating rinks, and made it so fueling was tough (shot blocks were too hard to eat and gels had to be kept in hand from getting too hard). But…the race went off and it was an amazing day. The course keeps you honest, but if ran properly bodes well for a PR. The pacers are second to none- they all have TONS of experience and know the course better than anyone. I had a 45 minute chat with the 3:15 pacer the day before the race and it helped TONS! I only ended up running with the pacer for a few miles in the middle, and finished with a 3:13 which was a 4 minute PR. It may not be an OTQ but it was a breakthrough none the less. I can’t wait to go back to CIM to race it again, perhaps in ’17 or ’18 for a different type of breakthrough than what that 3:15 was 😉

  2. I lived five miles from the CIM start for many years. It was my first–and so far–only marathon. I qualified for Boston at age 58 in December 2009 (with the 40 year olds!). The day started at 31 degrees and with wind and clouds didn’t get much warmer (I even wore my throw-away sweater for 20 miles). That said, it is a great course, friendly volunteers, talented and enthusiastic pacers, familiar (to me anyway) scenery, and the final turn and straight-away to the capitol building makes for a breath-taking finish. I like the small number of runners, which allows break-aways (after the somewhat crowded but fast start), but still enough people to allow you to feel part of a bigger adventure. Exciting that CIM is becoming a go-to run for OTQs!

  3. My PRs bounce back and forth from CIM to Eugene. Both great courses. As a part of SRAElite team and the huge running community in Sacramento, I can say the hard work and dedication that goes into this race, are amazing. It’s a timeless job for some, and one, many people discuss and plan for, for many months. It’s well organized, has tons of committed volunteers, loud cheering sections and a point to point course that is fairly easy to control your paces. CIM is a big race with the “not so big” feel. It ROCKS, and it makes us Sacramento peeps proud! Sunday I ran my 2nd fastest Marathon in 2:49 breaking an age group (50-54) course record that has stood since 1983!!

  4. I was registered for it this year, but couldn’t run due to injury. Not only is a fast course, they let you defer registration (for a fee). I am registered for 2016 and praying I can recover and make it happen.