Story #11 in a series of 25. Written to celebrate the CIM’s 25th Anniversary on December 2, 2007. By Cynci Calvin.

Fastest Course in the West!
Over its soon-to-be-25-year history, the California International Marathon has certainly had its share of drama. Sometimes this happens during behind the scenes events – like the time a National Guard truck laden with supplies crashed on its way to stock the aid stations… or the time a train was rerouted through Sacramento during the marathon… or the times elite runners missed flights and arrived in Sacramento race morning… or the time the start area was declared a crime scene and was shut down a few hours before race time. You will learn the nitty gritty happenings like this in Story #22 – CIM: the Good, the Bad, and the Weird. Story #11 will focus on the drama of the top athletes’ close finishes and near misses over the years.

Story #2 in this series gives a step by step description how the inaugural CIM unfolded, including the finish where American Hal Schulz, who appeared to be the sure winner, suffered cramps and needed a bathroom stop in the final mile. Finland’s Marti Kilhoma caught him and went on to win. A lead change like this in the final mile certainly fits our criteria for a close finish, considering all that can happen in a marathon over the 26.2-mile distance. Not quite so dramatic, but still of interest was the side by side running of three leaders (Ken Martin, Scotland’s Fraser Clyne, and Sweden’s Kjell-Erik Stahl) in the 1984 CIM – all the way to mile 24. The back and forth in the final two miles ended with Martin winning in 2:11:24, Clyne only 26 seconds back and Stahl 10 seconds behind Clyne. The correct race strategy resulted in the 1985 win for Nancy Ditz: she gave it her all and established a long enough lead to hold off Janis Klecker, who steadily gained on Ditz but had to settle for second, 2:31:53 to Ditz’s 2:31:36 – both times under the previous CIM course record.

The 2002 CIM gives us another example of the importance of proper race strategy. Russian women Irina Permitina and Alena Maklova took control with a fast first half. Running behind them more conservatively were Russian Tatiana Titova and Elena Vinitskaia of Belarus. Permitina fell apart after the half way mark and finished in 3:07, but Titova and Vinitskaia stayed together and passed Maklova at mile 23. Titova gradually increased her lead and prevailed to win in 2:33:13, with Vinitskaia a strong second (2:33:40) and Maklova only a minute back in 2:34:42.

These were dramatic situations, but below are the stories about the top three most dramatic CIM finishes. Two of these came down to a sprint to the finish in the final meters, with a mere second separating first from second. The first of these occurred in 1992.

In the 1992 CIM pre-race publicity, Scotland’s Fraser Clyne, Namibia’s Luketz Swartboi, Brazil’s Nivaldo Filho, debut marathoner Steve Placensia (Eugene, OR), and 1991 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials 4th place finisher Keith Brantly were all considered strong possibilities to win. The weather was not the best with a headwind wind that slowed the overall pace, but Swartzboi pulled away to an early two-minute lead. At mile 17, Placensia was ready to go after Swartzboi, but the more experienced Brantly gave Placensia some generous (and costly to him) advice: “It doesn’t start yet…” Then at mile 20, Brantly decided it was time to “start” and he surged to a 4:40 minute-per-mile pace. Plasencia stayed right with him and the duo swept passed Swartboi at mile 25.5. After rounding the turn onto Capitol Mall, they matched stride for stride until Placensia threw in a final kick to separate himself from Brantly by a mere three feet, winning in 2:15:14 to Brantly’s 2:15:15.

In a recent interview with Keith Brantly, when asked what he might have done differently to achieve the win, he replied,“ …I think patience would have helped me, but you can hindsight these races to death. Would we have caught Swarboi had I not pressed? …Who knows? All I can confirm is that I was out kicked by one of the toughest, most patient distance runners in US history. Steve deserves a lot of credit and I think that was his first marathon too!”

Keith also responded to a question about what happened next in his running career with this answer:“Well, as the old saying goes, you learn more in defeat than victory. CIM definitely opened my eyes. I pulled myself together and had a great 1993 with a 9th at Boston and 5th at NYC. I also ran a 61:30 half marathon at the 1993 Philly Half finishing just a step or two behind …none other than …Luketz Swartboi!” He adds, “CIM has a legacy for producing good times. It also gives a chance for young, talented marathoners to improve their racing skills without getting caught up in a mega-fast field like Chicago or Boston. While I did not win CIM, I felt the experience of being close to the front and contending for the victory gave me more confidence for future marathons.”

Both these runners went on to exemplary running careers. They were ranked in the top 10 U.S. Men’s Marathoners in multiple years throughout the 1990s with Keith taking top honors in 1998. Interestingly both missed being U.S. Olympic Marathon team members by one spot – Keith finished fourth in the U.S. Trials for the 1992 Olympic Marathon and Steve was fourth in the 1996 Trials. Keith went on to achieve Olympian status when he made the 1996 team that Steve missed (Steve was an Olympian in the 10,000 meters in 1988 and 1992). Both continue to give back to the running community – Steve is the Men’s Head Cross Country Coach at the University of Minnesota University of Minnesota and Assistant Coach for the Golden Gophers’ track & field team, working with the middle distance and distance track runners. Keith is a motivational speaker for corporations and special interest groups and has a personal training business, for runners and triathletes of all levels.

Brantly Running Source no longer available.

Fourteen years later, in 2006, the CIM had another one-second-finish, this time between Kenyan Jonathan Ndambuki (age 30) and Ethiopian Kassahun Kabiso (age 23). The race began with a large men’s lead pack that included Ndambuki and Kabiso. By mile 11 the pack was comprised of five runners: Ndambuki, Kabiso, Andrei Gordeev of Belarus, and Kenyans Joseph Mutinda and Fred Getange. At mile 21, American Miguel Nuci from Turlock, Calif., caught the pack. Nuci, Ndambuki and Kabiso pulled away and stayed together until mile 25, where Ndambuki and Kabiso surged ahead. These two rounded the final corner at 8th Street and Capitol Mall locked in a dead heat sprint, stride for stride. Ndambuki had the final kick to win by one step 2:14:58 to 2:14:59. Miguel Nuci finished third in an “A” standard Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time (2:15:34).

KCRA captured this drama in the middle of its live five-hour broadcast. The color commentary at the finish was done by an original Sacramento Long Distance Running Association member, Al Baeta and by elite 1980s marathoner Dick Beardsley. Dick, renown for his second place finish at the 1982 Boston Marathon, only two seconds behind Alberto Salazar, was the perfect commentator to have on board! Recently published are two books about the this finish drama: “Staying the Course, a Runner’s Toughest Race (by Dick Beardsley and Maureen Anderson), “Duel in the Sun” (by John Brant). Dick is currently a distance running coach and motivational speaker.

Currently both Ndambuki and Kabiso are prolific competitors. Ndambuki is a three time winner of the Big Sur International Marathon (2003, 2004 and 2005) and was runner up at three 2006 marathons: Deseret Morning News Marathon (Salt Lake City, July, an event he has won four times), Quad Cities Marathon (Moline, IL, September) and Hartford Marathon (Connecticut, October), which he lost by two seconds, perhaps setting him up for his 2006 CIM win. He divides his time between Kenya, Incline Village, Nevada and Santa Fe, New Mexico area where he is on the staff of the Marafiki Running Camp.

Marafiki Running Camp

Ethiopian native Kassahun Kabiso has resided in Irvington, New York, for the last five years where he is a member of the Westchester Track Club, coached by Mike Barnow. Read more about WTC in this 2005 New York Times story. Kabiso’s first marathon was a 2:17:02 run at age 16, and he moved to New York from Ethiopia after finishing San Diego’s Rock ’N’ Roll Marathon in 2:18:56 at age 17. He won the Vancouver Marathon in 2005 (2:15:40) and 2006 (2:18:29) and placed third at the 2005 ING NYC Marathon (2:18:58). He was the 2006 New York Road Runner’s Club 20-29 Distance Runner of the Year and was awarded the NYRR Fred Lebow Runner of the Year award in 2003 and 2004.

New York Times Article

Our third story about a dramatic finish took place in 2005. A top contender was Polish marathoner Violetta Kryza, who, between 1995 and 2002, had won 21 marathons and achieved a personal best at the 2001 Pittsburgh Marathon of 2:31:45. Following her second Pittsburgh Marathon victory in 2002 she was suspended for two years due to a positive drug test, but returned to racing in late 2004. She resides and trains in Germantown, MD in between trips to her hometown of Olsztyn, Poland.

A less experienced contender was Russian Elena Orlova, who nonetheless had notched a couple of marathon and middle distance wins and top placings in the last two years. Her PR was her 2004 Detroit Free Press Marathon winning time of 2:34:16. Elena is a member of Red Square Sports, an organization based in Maryland and Russia, with the mission of assisting international elite athletes with their careers.

At the 2005 CIM, Violetta (also spelled Wioletta) took a convincing lead at mile three, maintained it for the next 22 miles, and her victory appeared assured. Elena ran conservatively early on and at the half was more than a minute and a half back, along with countrywomen Marina Bychkova and 1998 CIM winner Elena Vinitskaia. Orlova gradually pulled away from these two and steadily gained on the unsuspecting Kryza, attracting the attention of the media as she began to close on her with less than a mile to go. Orlova’s come-from-behind-race strategy paid off when she surged past Kryza in the final 500 meters for a 2:37:35 to 2:37:53 victory.

Interestingly, on October 23 at the 2005 Detroit Free Press Marathon, just over a month before the 2005 CIM, Violetta was the winner over Elena. The following October, Elena returned to the Detroit Free Press Marathon victory stand, and guess who finished second? Yep! Violetta. This is quite the duo. Cap it off with their 2006 CIM second and third place finishes (Elena 2:37:40, Violetta 2:387:58), 18 seconds apart, exactly the same margin as at the 2005 CIM.

Age division competitions also produce close finishes, but they are much less publicized. In 1988 Christine Curtis out-dueled Joan Reiss (a CIM Board member at the time) 3:15:06 to 3:15:27 to win the 50-54 women’s division. 1995 saw a close 55-59 age division finish between Eve Pell (3:29:56) and Louise Walters (3:30:10). In 2004, John Pius won the 65-69 age division in 3:29:10 over Glenn Frick’s 3:29:23.

On a personal note, just last year, in a close age division finish, I won the women’s 60-64 division over Jan Kerklaan (4:10:09 to 4:10:25) of Delta, British Columbia. This was also an example of the award rules concerning gun time versus chip time. CIM Awards are based on gun times. If they were based on chip time, Jan was the winner (4:09:10 to my 04:09:41), indicating that I must have crossed the start line well ahead of her. I was pleased to have achieved an age division win at my 50th marathon, my 16th CIM and my first marathon in the 60-64 age division, but the victory is bittersweet knowing that Jan had the better “wire to wire” time.