By: Sam Stanton
Published: Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 – 11:37 pm
When thousands of runners take off from Folsom Dam in the California International Marathon next Sunday, organizers hope few will notice any difference from past races through the Sacramento region.
But, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, some changes will be in place, even if they aren’t readily noticeable.
At the starting line of the race, a bomb-sniffing dog from the Folsom Police Department will be on hand for the first time, and along the route, contingency plans have been drawn up for where runners might have to be diverted if there is some sort of emergency.
The changes are a byproduct of the April 15 Boston bombings that killed three people and injured about 260 others, as well as the fact that the CIM has a new race director for the first time in three decades, a 33-year-old marathoner who was in her hotel room three blocks from the Boston Marathon finish line that day.
“It was scary,” said Michelle La Sala, who had already finished the race, as had her husband, Kevin Pool, who placed 18th. “I think Boston may have been my 23rd marathon, and it was not something I was expecting.
“But at the same time, these marathons are huge, huge sporting events, so I wasn’t surprised,” she said.
La Sala recalled her first time running Boston in 2002, when she noticed police snipers on the rooftops watching over the crowded starting line and realizing the amount of security needed for such events.
In her new job, La Sala and race organizers have attempted to look at the way the CIM has been run to see what improvements can be made to ensure the safety of the estimated 8,000 runners and 50,000 spectators lining the 26.2-mile route to the Capitol.
After longtime race official John Mansoor stepped down last year, La Sala was tapped to oversee race day preparations.
“One of the first things I did was come up with a crisis communications plan, and that was because many times in the last four years that I’ve been working with John Mansoor, I’ve thought, ‘What if X, Y or Z happens? What if something goes wrong on race day and we’re not prepared for it?’”
Since then, race officials have worked with local law enforcement and medical teams, as well as their own private security company, to have extensive security in place, particularly at the start and finish lines, the two most crowded spots in a marathon.
“What we would like to do is not have people notice,” La Sala said. “We still want to give spectators, fans and runners the same experience of the marathon.”
Law enforcement agencies from throughout the region are heavily involved in the event, and Sacramento police Lt. Marc Coopwood said planning begins months in advance.
“We have a blueprint in place that we’ve had for many years as I can recall,” Coopwood said. “We do a traffic-control plan, where we assign officers to specific locations not only to handle traffic control but to look for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary.”
This year’s race may be the biggest yet for the CIM, which capped its number of racers at 8,000 this year, plus 1,000 on relay teams and another 2,000 running in a kids’ marathon.
La Sala hopes the turnout will surpass the record of 6,500 runners who participated a few years ago and said organizers have been wary of expanding too quickly to ensure that the event does not become too crowded for the streets.
CIM officials say the race has grown dramatically from the 1,600 runners in 1983 and has doubled in size since 2005, when 4,000 runners participated.
Each race draws runners from around the globe and transforms Sacramento’s streets into a mix of cheering supporters, champagne-swilling spectators, bands serenading from parking lots and volunteers helping at aid stations as the throngs pass by.
“We want to increase smartly and safely,” La Sala said.
But neither she nor her husband, the race’s director of technical operations, will be running in the CIM themselves because they will be busy working the race route.
“But I will be running the Houston Marathon in January, so I will get mine in,” La Sala said.