Beyond pure competition the beauty of racing lies in the absolute of distance in relation to the inarguable measure of time. This weekend marks the 31st running of the Carlsbad 5000, billed, as always, as the World’s Fastest 5K. And while that subtitle still holds true, as 16 world records, 8 U.S. records, and a laundry list of age-group marks have been set on the tranquil seaside course, it is true mostly in regard to potential for national and age-group marks, rather than the world bests.
Since Kenya’s Sammy Kipketer reeled off his two 13:00 wins in 2000 and 2001 — both years featuring sub-4:00 opening miles — no one has come within a javelin throw of his mark. Last year on a newly designed layout Tucson-based Kenyan Lawi Lalang took the title in 13:32, equal fourth slowest winning time in Carlsbad history, and same as Steve Scott’s inaugural year win in 1986. U.S. master phenom Bernard Lagat finished third overall in a new world master’s record 13:40 (behind little known Wilson Too of Kenya, 13:35).
Lalang, an eight-time NCAA champion while at the University of Arizona, is back to defend in 2016, again taking on his training mate Lagat. The two will test their mettle against American mile standout Will Leer (fourth in 2013, 13:36), two-time Australian Olympian Collis Birmingham, and Great Britain’s Andy Vernon who set his road 5K PR in Carlsbad in 2012 at 13:40.
On the women’s side, 5K road world record holder and three-time Carlsbad champion Meseret Defar of Ethiopia returns to Carlsbad for the sixth time overall, and first since her 15:04 win in 2010. Mezzy, now 32, is coming off a solid silver medal performance over 3000 meters (behind Genzebe Dibaba) at the recent IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon. The two-time Olympic 5000 meter champion will be inducted into the Carlsbad 5000 Hall of Fame this weekend, along with six-time women’s wheelchair champion DeAnna Sodoma.
For the second straight year race organizers at Competitor Group have re-engineered the Carlsbad course for the pros and top wheelchair fields. All the age-group races will still run the traditional layout first designed by Steve Scott and New Zealand Olympic 1500 meter gold medalist John Walker in 1986. There will also be a new road mile contested on Saturday morning at 9:19 a.m. for adults in conjunction with the Carlsbad Kids races. A $3000 prize purse will be on offer (for the adults, not the kids).
The new pro 5K course has been designed to increase fan interest and athlete comfort (it will run counter-clockwise) more so than to improve chances for a record. It seems clear now that barring some mis-measurement or new form of gene therapy, Sammy Kipketer’s 13:00 record will never be broken. So, too, is Meseret Defar’s women’s world record of 14:46 from 2006 in nearly untouchable territory, though fellow Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba took a mighty swing at it last year, finishing in 14:48, kept off the books mostly by a off-paced opening mile of 4:51.
This year’s layout will begin up on Carlsbad Boulevard, the main drag alongside the Pacific Ocean amidst the largest spectator gathering point. Last year the pros began four blocks down on Carlsbad Village Drive at the traditional finish line, which required an uphill start. This year’s layout will take the field through two laps along Carlsbad Boulevard before descending back down Carlsbad Village Drive to the finish in the heart of picturesque Carlsbad Village.
That means the athletes will have to negotiate three 180-degree turns and one right-hander of 90 degrees. With the traditional ocean breezes arriving like clockwork just after 11 a.m. as the sun burns off the morning fog, there is little chance to avoid a slowing headwind somewhere along the route as the pro women go off at 11:15 and the men at 11:45. The master’s men begin the day’s competition at 7 a.m.
This is the the danger side of focusing so heavily on a time-based result, whether in Carlsbad or any other paced Diamond League distance over 400 meters. With the sport’s records so far out of sight (for whatever the reasons), and the corresponding lack of marketable personalities or high stakes, there is little to interest a shrinking, and now cynical fan base.
And yet, there will still be thousands of participants reveling in their own efforts as well as the charms of Carlsbad Village and the sweet smell of sand and surf. But will there be the high anxiety and tense drama of Carlsbad’s past? We will just have to wait and find out.