Carlsbad, CA. — While it was the inaugural San Diego Rock `n` Roll Marathon that set Elite Racing off onto its national manifest destiny in 1998, a status that today has gone global under the banner of The Competitor Group, it was the 1986 Carlsbad 5000 that made Elite Racing’s bones on the international racing circuit in the first place.
This Sunday morning the Carlsbad 5000 celebrates its 30th anniversary, ironically on the same weekend as the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in China. I say ironically, because the history of the Carlsbad 5000 has always been inextricably linked to World Cross, which has traditionally come one to two weeks before CBAD on the race calendar. Accordingly, one could always find Carlsbad elite athlete coordinators Mike Long and now Matthew Turnbull camped out at World Cross with a bevy of tickets for the World Cross medalist to make the trek to the legendary layout 30 miles north of San Diego for a little R & R, and, yes, a hard race in the middle. No wonder Carlsbad has been site to 16 world, 8 U.S., and innumerable other national 5K and age-group road records.
Designed by milers extraordinaire Steve Scott and John Walker, for 29 years the open-paper-clip-shaped race course in Carlsbad, California has been the gold standard for road 5Ks, shaping 46 of the top 50 men’s all-time performances. But this Sunday the famous route will undergo its first tweak in three decades.
While the eight people’s races (age and sex specific) will continue to use the traditional Carlsbad lay-out, the professional runners and wheelchair athletes will race over a newly designed course that hopes to see at least one of the main Carlsbad records fall for the first time since 2006 when Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar set the still-standing women’s world record at 14:46. Sammy Kipketer’s hair-raising men’s record, 13:00 (run in both 2000 & 2001), has remained inviolate. Ethiopia’s Dejene Berhanu has come the closest to Kipketer, posting a 13:10 in 2005, the last of his three-year winning streak. By comparison, current four-time CBAD men’s champion and Olympic 5000 meter silver medalist Dejene Gebrmeskel of Ethiopia has run 13:11 twice, while taking the title last year in 13:13.
So, with such grand history covering the traditional lay-out, why change now?
“The reasons were twofold,” says Competitor Group senior VP Tracy Sundlun. “Last year with top Americans in both races, we wanted to separate the men and women’s starts by more than two minutes, which was the schedule we had used since 1995 when both races started at the same time, and women’s winner Rose Cheruiyot slid in at the back of the men’s pack for the first mile, and nobody saw her.
“But what was interesting, last year I noticed as the celebration for Julia Bleasdale’s win was going on at the finish, there was no one at the start line for the men one block over. So we thought, ‘we have thousands of people at the finish, why should we make them move? All the electricity is here.”
The second issue had to do with that old Field of Dreams mantra, “build it, and they will come”.
“We heard it all the time through the years how most of the people who had run the course in the age and gender races earlier in the day tended to pool around the middle of the course at Carlsbad Boulevard and Carlsbad Village Drive. At the same time, the two ends of the course on Carlsbad Boulevard were empty, as well as being both downhill leading to a sharp U-turn. What if we eliminated the ups and the sharp turns?”
The idea of fashioning a race for a fan base, not just its participants, is a consideration that is gaining more and more momentum throughout the sport. So Tracy went out to the Carlsbad course — already as fan friendly a layout as the sport has — to see how to make the turns more gentle while sticking to as much of a flat track as possible.
Elite athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull said, ‘but you’re adding two turns. Won’t that mean it’s slower?’
“I vetted the idea of the new course with Tim (Murphy, race founder) and Steve (Scott),” explains Sundlun. “And I got their blessing. So away we go. Plus, the turns will be three-lanes wide, not hairpins. The idea is to make Carlsbad even better, more spectacular, and to bring the athletes even more to the people.”
Matt Turnbull was over in Ethiopia earlier this year, and presented the new layout to four-time Carlsbad men’s champion Dejen Gebremeskel, whose fastest turn on the old route was 13:11, done in 2012 & 2013. He won in 13:20 in 2013 and 13:13 in 2014. He is bound and determined to give Kipketer’s 13-flat record a scare. But remember this, in both 2000 and 2001 the buck-toothed whippet sped through the opening mile at sub-4:00 pace. Scary.
The 13:24 American record set by San Diego native Marc Davis in 1996 has withstood many a stern challenge, including last year’s assault by Bernard Lagat. But Lagat’s second-place effort was torpedoed by a misplaced cone marking the first turnaround on the course, and his 13:18 time was negated for record purposes. He returns to Carlsbad for another go this Sunday looking to add a seventh U.S. record to his rather glittering resume. But he will be challenged by rising road star Diego Estrada of Flagstaff, Arizona who we last saw pulling away to a dominant 1:00:51 win at January’s Aramco Houston Half Marathon.
Diego is a pupil of legendary coach Joe Vigil, who will also showcase 800 meter star Brenda Martinez in her traditional outdoor season opener. Brenda has been the top U.S. finisher in the last two Carlsbads, taking fifth in 2013, and fourth last year.
The other stars of the women’s race will be two-time former champion (2000 & 2002) and American record holder (14:54) Deena Kastor, who made her Carlsbad debut in 1993, finishing sixth in 16:03. Deena will be gunning for Colleen DeReuck’s masters 5K record 15:48, and says she is near 15:30 shape. And then there is Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba, 24, who is on one hell of a blistering hot streak.
Carlsbad will be Dibaba’s road debut, but on February 19th in Stockholm, Sweden, Genzebe set her fifth track world record of the last year, notching a world indoor 5000 meter record at 14:18.86. The younger sister of two-time Carlsbad champion and former road record holder Tirunesh Dibaba (14:51, 2005), Genzebe may be the women’s version of Sammy Kipketer if she goes out after it on the new layout.
A full women’s preview can be found here by Bert Rosenthal, my old pal and retired Associated Press writer. I will have a report after the race. We will also be providing a post-race video of both pro races for your viewing pleasure.