The granddaddy of all marathons is less than three weeks away in Boston, but the progenitor of the modern road race is up this weekend in Carlsbad, California. Entering its 27th year, the suntanned Carlsbad 5000 began buff and has never lost its P-90X shape. Sixteen world road records have been set on the glittering sea-side course north of San Diego. Add to that innumerable national records and Carlsbad’s reputation as the “World’s Fastest 5K” is more than secure. Not that that was the original goal.
In 1986 American mile legend Steve Scott and New Zealand Olympic 1500 meter champion John Walker re-designed the original inland layout that race founder Tim Murphy had plotted. Scott and Walker remapped the course into its current T-shaped seaside configuration. Then Steve won the first three editions of the race, establishing 5K road records in two of those years.
“John and I weren’t thinking in terms of a fast course,” said Scott, who will miss his first Carlsbad 5000 ever, as he takes his Cal State San Marcos team out of town all weekend for the Cal-Nevada Championships. “We were thinking of the visuals along the beach for ABC Wide World of Sports and news photographers. Then the two world records in the first three years established it as a world-record course. Like in Oslo (home of the Bislett Games), people had a mind-set that they were going to run fast. So they did.”
It is all legend now, but less we forget, before Carlsbad the 10K was the most popular road distance, and nobody thought people would even sign up for a race as short as the 5K. How wrong they were. Today, the 5K is the #1 U.S. road race distance – or, should we say “Road Event” distance, due to the mega Race for the Cure series.
“The 5K is still handily the road race “King of the Hill” with nearly 4.7 million finishers (yes, another record in 2010),” explained Running USA stats and press guru Ryan Lamppa. “It had 36% of all race finishers in 2010; the universal 3.1 mile distance has been #1 in the U.S. since 1994 when it surpassed the 10K.” (See Table 1 at: http://www.runningusa.org/node/76115#76910.)
Truth be told, with a first-place check of only $5000, the CBAD 5000 is no big payoff. And the course, though California perfect in style and scenery, is not really as bullet-fast as the record times suggest. The layout features two 180-degree turns, the second mile is up a slight incline, and by the time the pros go off at 12:15 p.m. – after the seven previous age and gender specific races – the winds have come up along the beach. What has trumped all that has been Carlsbad’s position on the race calendar.
Coming, as it does, just one (sometimes two) weeks after the annual IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Carlsbad was like a splash of surf following the athlete’s main course over the turf. Runners like Deena Kastor, Lynn Williams, Benita Johnson, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Meseret Defar all came to Carlsbad following medal-winning performances at the World Cross. On the men’s side, William Mutwol in 1992 arrived following a silver medal performance at World Cross, and Sammy Kipketer’s seemingly impossible 13:00 world road records from 2000 and 2001 – both kicked-off with sub-4:00 opening miles! – followed a second and fourth place finish at World Cross, as well.
“In the beginning it was having all the people along the sidelines after their age-group races,” explained Scott of the fast times produced at Carlsbad. “Running in front of a crowd really got us going. But for sure the records kept coming because of World Cross Country. Without it, who’s going to be in that kind of shape this time of year? It’s like the post-Olympic track meets. You’ve come off the Games, and all the pressure is off. You can run free. You’ve already done the big thing. So Mike (Long) used to go to World Cross and tell the medalists, ‘come to Southern California. It’s like a vacation’. So they’d come and run as hard as they could for as long as we could. And they didn’t even have to train hard during the week since they were coming off the championships. They had nothing to lose.”
All of which leads us to the sad realization that for the first time in Carlsbad’s history there is no IAAF World Cross Country Championships leading in. Last year the IAAF voted to make the cross country championships a biennial competition, and this is year one with a big hole in the calendar. Thus, though the year’s fields are the strongest in four years according to Competitor Group elite athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull, the buzz that had always attended the coming of world championship medalists to Carlsbad is missing. Carlsbad has become untethered. What used to be the cherry atop the cake is now just a lonesome cherry rolling around by itself.
Nowtithstanding, reigning Olympic 5000 and 10,000 meter gold medalist and track 5000m record holder Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia is back for the first time since 2005 when she tied the then road world record of 14:51. But in 2005 she arrived in Carlsbad as both the long and short World Cross Country titleist from St. Etienne, France two weeks before. This year Tiru has only raced once, winning the NB Boston Indoor 3000 February 4th while coming off an injury- eliminated 2011 campaign.
The colorfully monikered “Baby-faced Destroyer” – a nickname the sadly-departed Mike Long gave Tirunesh after her second-place finish to Deena Kastor at her Carlsbad debut in 2002 at age 16 – will have to contend with countrywomen Aheza Kiros, winner of two of the last three CBAD women’s titles. Also on hand will be Werknesh Kidane, holder of six individual medals at past World Cross Championships and the `04 Olympic 10,000-meter silver medal from Athens. The interesting new name to watch, however, is Gotytom Gebreslase, the World Youth Champion over 3000 meters who entered the senior division finishing second to 2007 CBAD champ and world record holder Meseret Defar at the New Balance Boston Indoor Games 3000m this February.
The men’s field, too, is brimming with talent. Defending champion Dejen Gebremeskel of Ethiopia returns off a fifth place finish at the IAAF World Indoor T & F Championships in Instanbul over 3000m in early March. Two-time Olympic medalist at 5000m and CBAD runner-up in 2011, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya also will be flying in along with another Ethiopian track star,Tariku Bekele, a 12:52.45 track man over the 5000m now making his initial foray over the roads at 5K. Two-time Olympian and six-time US champion Anthony Famiglietti highlights the American presence.
Both the men’s (13:00, 2000)and women’s (14:46, 2006) 5K road world records have begun to grow moss. And now, notwithstanding the talent on hand, without the focus and energy of World Cross Country as the set-up, it’s hard to imagine athletes being in anywhere near the same shape as before when they arrived in Carlsbad. The vibe is just completely different, especially in this Olympic year. Wonder if the IAAF understood there would be such collateral damage caused by their decision to end the world cross champs?