Since its inception in 1986 the now famous Carlsbad 5000 has built its reputation on world and U.S. road 5K records. To date there have been 16 world records and 8 U.S. marks set on this ocean-side layout. But while Ethiopia’s Dejen Gebremeskel won his third straight Carlsbad 5000 men’s title yesterday, his winning time of 13:20 was the slowest since countryman Terefe Maregu beat a young Mo Farah, 13:34 to 13:35, in 2008.
Thus, after yesterday’s 28th edition in the charming seaside village north of San Diego, it has now been seven years since the World’s Fastest 5K has witnessed a new open division record. Meseret Defar ran her 14:46 women’s world record in 2006. And that’s the newest of the marks. Deena Kastor’s 14:54 American women’s record is now 11 years old, Sammy Kipketer’s seemingly unassailable 13-flat men’s mark is 12 years old, and it’s been 17 years since Marc Davis’s 13:24 American men’s record was set.
Two reasons stand out for the paucity of recent records, one being the very strength of the records themselves. As U.S. record holder Davis told me last week from his home in Boston, “It’s a risk in April to be in 13:24 shape in Carlsbad. That’s 13:10 – to 13:15 shape on the track.” The inference being it you’re on that form in April, will you be able to hold it through the important summer track season?
Another factor is the weather. As I pointed out yesterday, the sun and winds came up like clockwork at 11:30 a.m. after a morning of perfectly still, overcast conditions. While the course looks much nicer in the sun, anything less than ideal laboratory conditions won’t do if records are your goal. Finally, there is the aggression factor.
As the men took off yesterday the density of the pack bespoke a lack of a lead dog. Compare that with the 1992 race where 1990 Carlsbad champion Doug Padilla sprinted to catch up to Kenya’s William Mutwol in the first quarter mile, spurring Mutwol, coming off a silver medal at the World Cross Country Championships, to a then road world record 13:12. And no one can forget Sammy Kipketer’s legendary sub-4:00 opening miles in his two 13:00 record years of 2000 & 2001.
Certainly one reason for the lack of an early surge yesterday was the makeup of the field. Kenya’s Haron Lagat (7th, 13:42) was running in his sixth Carlsbad 5000, finishing as high as third in 2008. A paid pacer on the Diamond League track circuit, he tried to put the boot in as the course swept left onto Carlsbad Boulevard in the first half-mile. But that sting soon faded when nobody else wanted to join forces. A 4:22 opening mile sealed the tactical fate of the 2013 Carlsbad 5000.
“When I saw the field I knew it was going to go out slow,“ six-time Carlsbad top 10 finisher Lagat said. “There weren’t any frontrunners. You need at least two, like Eliud Kipchoge (2010 winner, 2011 runner up, and 2012 third-placer) or Sammy Kipketer (2000-2002 champ). Someone like Isaiah Koech is a very good frontrunner. If you’re going to get the course record you have to go from the start.”
Though I have always been against the idea of pacers at major competitions, Carlsbad could be an exception as its raison d’etre has always been pure speed. And while eventual third-place finisher Yenew Alamirew (13:26) did drive an impressive 4:17 second mile uphill into the headwind, the move only put pared the field down to the major contenders rather than supporting a record effort.
Pro athlete recruiter Matt Turnbull certainly put together a powerful field this year, but in the end, two of his headliners pulled out, Olympic 10,000 meter bronze medalist Tariku Bekele – fourth here last year – along with recent IAAF World Junior Cross Country champion Hagos Gebrihiwet, second at C’bad in 2012.
“I was told that Tariku had a visa issue,” Turnbull informed me, “but in all honesty I think he may be hurt but doesn’t want people to know. Hagos I was told decided after World Cross Country to focus on track and his assault on Moscow (World Championships).”
Whether it’s visa difficulties or not racing unless you’re at what I like to call the “perilous peak of perfection”, late dropouts from announced fields is one of the things which keeps this sport from connecting with a wider audience.
“If you’re a recognized athlete,” continued Matt Turnbull, “I think it’s easy to get a visa, albeit a lengthy process and not something which can be done on spur of the moment. The problem in getting visas occurs when you’re an emerging athlete with little pedigree other than potential.
“On the injury front, athletics is like no other sport. Athletes are aware of every muscle and sinew, and when one isn’t quite right they don’t run. This isn’t because they’re not tough, it’s because they know that in the purest form of sport (running) there’s someone who is in shape, injury free and feeling good.”
But in truth, part of the problem comes down to remuneration. Small race purses and shoe contracts based on end-of-year rankings make athletes think twice about competing unless everything lines up perfectly for them. Carlsbad, for instance, offers a $35,000 total purse with $5000 going to the champions. But 10th place gets all of $200. As long as the sport pays a working wage only to the winner, rather than anyone willing to risk losing, only a perilous peak of perfection is good enough to bring to a start line. But, at the same time, that leads to injury, too. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t system. And as long as running shoe contracts are predicated on rankings, the same principle applies.
If every athlete knew he could make a living wage by racing even when things weren’t 100%, the sport would have many more marquee matchups to tout, but which are in such short supply these days.
Oh, one final thing. Could it be that the start times for the pros will be up for a change in 2014? Let’s keep fingers and toes crossed.