Fastest course in the west.

Let Us Entertain You: Course Entertainment Review

Story #8 in a series of 25. Written to celebrate the CIM’s 25th Anniversary on December 2, 2007. By Cynci Calvin.

Just what is it about running and music?
Running and cheering spectators? Running with amusing distractions? In post-CIM conversations you are likely to hear things like: “Did ya see those belly dancers – could you believe it?” “How about that Bull Horn Dude? He was everywhere!” “I LOVED the surfer band at Arden and Fair Oaks!” Marathons and entertainment: we’ve come a long, long way.

Although it seems like a no-brainer, research has proven that music influences exercise; for example, as music tempo picks up so does activity level. The proliferation of portable electronic devices provides even more obvious evidence that music is popular with runners. Other distractions are also known to help, like listening to sporting events. A friend of mine selected a late September 24-hour track run so she could listen to a morning Oakland A’s game, an afternoon SF Giants game and topped it off with an evening 49’er game. Cheering crowds lift the spirits of the nearly down-and-out runner, as will clowns, drums, banjos, bells and whistles — you name it — anything to break the monotony of the repetitive step-after-step routine.

Elite distance runners could be an exception to these studies. Ever seen a marathon winner, or anyone in the lead pack, wearing a headset? One very basic reason is that it is against the rules – more clearly so now that USA Track & Field has changed the electronic device ruling from “not recommended” to “not allowed.” A more significant reason is that these speedsters must focus on race strategy and pacing. Headsets aside, course entertainment in general is not of much consequence to the lead runners; a five-minute per mile pace doesn’t leave much time to register a tune or even a belly dancer!

In the early years course entertainment at the CIM, as at other marathons, was minimal and wasn’t a part of the marathoners’ expectations. Terry DeBencik, the event’s technical director for the past 16 years, volunteered at the inaugural 1983 CIM and ran the 1984 event. He recalls that Fair Oaks Village (mile 10) was one of the few lively locations, with the Bella Vista High School band accompanied by hundreds of cheering locals. Loehman’s Plaza always boasted “The Wall,” which has had numerous renditions over the years, and there was always a band at the finish area. The eight aid stations were encouraged to provide entertainment, and they responded as best they could. By 1986 there were 13 aid stations (there are 18 now) and in 1987 an award was presented to the aid station with the most “color and enthusiasm.” In 1989 befitting the CIM’s “international” status, each aid station was decked out to represent a different country. Then there was the occasional clown, Santa, juggler. Whoopee.

As marathoning’s popularity increased, and as the fact that runners enjoy music and other distractions became better known, course entertainment was given a much higher priority. By the early ’90s, Bay to Breakers had swollen to a 40,000-person street party, Disneyworld Marathon was famous for their start line fireworks extravaganza, Boston was renown for the screaming Wellesley coeds, and in 1998 the inaugural San Diego Rock ’n Roll Marathon put music front and center, advertising a band every mile (and taking priority over sufficient water at its aid stations, a debacle for which it is perhaps better known).

As the CIM entries grew, the CIM’s demographics changed. Overall numbers and the percentage of recreational fitness runners both increased, and the CIM Board recognized that the runners’ marathon experience would be much improved by more course entertainment. The Board also recognized that aid station volunteers were kept plenty busy with their most important task – providing fluid replacement. To that end Technical Director Terry DeBencik started working with Brett Freeman of the Sacramento CVB and the CIM’s Outreach Coordinator Julie Fingar (just one of her CIM hats). The number and variety of the CIM’s course entertainment venues continues to grow to this day. In 2006 there were 38 different gigs along the CIM’s course.

A quality marathon, a run for runners, remains the CIM’s primary goal, not a street party or a volksmarche. With this in mind, the CIM’s entertainment focus has a multi-cultural and multi-faceted approach to enhance rather than distract from each runner’s marathon experience. Bands range from Taiko Drums to Mariachis, to Reggae, Blues, Hip Hop, and Blue Grass rather than nonstop blasting rock ’n roll. Regional high school/middle school cheerleaders and bands contribute their youthful enthusiasm. The Sacramento State Hornet Cheerleaders are regulars at the 23-mile mark with their topnotch gymnastics. Local Disc Jockeys bring a mix of amplified music. The roll of “bull-horn dude” was created and the CIM now boasts a fleet of them who roam the course voicing their encouragement. Red Bull arches, flame-throwers, belly dancers, clowns, Santas, banjo players… the list goes on.

And how about spectators as an important part of the course-long entertainment? One would think that CIM’s Sunday morning 7 a.m. start isn’t very conducive to drawing large crowds – but this is simply not the case. Perhaps it’s their curiosity, or the chance to see internationally ranked elite distance runners, or more people have running friends and family, but whatever the reason the CIM, year after year, has had increasing numbers of folks out early and staying late to cheer the runners. Mini-traditions have evolved like tailgate parties complete with gin fizzes and bloody mary’s. Bundled up and sitting on lawn chairs, toddlers to grandparents shout out “You can do it!” and “You’re awesome!” Others set up their own boom boxes and play runners’ favorites like Chariot’s of Fire and Eye of the Tiger. Recognizing the importance of the spectators’ loyalty and enthusiasm, the CIM encourages and rewards their presence. At the two-day Expo there is a special “Creation Station” where friends, kids, families can make posters to display for their runners; the Sacramento Bee provides a free Spectator Guide that lists the entrants’ names next to their bib number, so runners can be identified and cheered individually; coffee houses along the course offer special discounts; cowbells and thunder sticks are distributed for additional sound effects; finally, the runners’ course entertainment described above serves a double purpose of being spectator entertainment, too.

What does the future hold? The immediate future is coming December 2, 2007 and you can bet that course entertainment will focus on helping us all to celebrate the CIM’s 25th Anniversary. After that… one option on the drawing board is a partnership with NASCAR (the Sacramento area is it’s #2 viewing market!). NASCARs on display at key spectator intersections could attract a whole new crop of dedicated Sunday couch potatoes out to participate in all the marathon excitement, fun and festivities.