When Competitor Group Inc. was sold to Ironman in June 2017, then exited San Diego to consolidate with Ironman at its headquarters in Tampa, Florida, you knew the Carlsbad 5000 might be in trouble.
Though it was the event that put Elite Racing, Inc. on the international running map in 1986 and led to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series 12 years later, there was no surprise when Carlsbad’s prize purse was slashed in 2018 and only six men ran sub-15:00 on the world’s fastest 5K road course, a layout that has produced 16 world and nine American records. It had become evident that if no one was there to pick it up, the event would have been abandoned. And that would have been a tragedy, both for the San Diego area and the sport worldwide.
Instead, the Carlsbad 5000, the iconic Party-by-the-Sea, world record race that gave birth to the modern road 5K, enters its 34th year with a fresh step and new owners, anxious to reclaim its place among the world’s best road races.
The woman who stepped up to save Carlsbad is former CGI digital marketing executive Ashley Gibson. She and husband Travis invited local Olympic legend Meb Keflezighi to join them, and together, have had four months to put the event back on solid footing.
“In 2018, when the pre-sale registration was not happening and there were no plans for 2019, we all felt it was coming,” said Ms. Gibson. “With the change in ownership, it became clear that Carlsbad didn’t fit the brand and that the passion and appreciation for what running meant wasn’t there.”
Conversations to buy the event kicked off, but ownership wasn’t secured until December. So registration for 2019 wasn’t begun until very late last year.
“There’s a lot of learning to do,” admitted Gibson, “but we feel fortunate we are the ones to keep Carlsbad’s legacy alive and thriving.”
I spoke with Meb on the phone yesterday from NYC and asked him first why get involved with Carlsbad rather than start a race of his own back home?
“That’s an interesting question,“ he said. “I had some opportunities back in 2010 to start a race of my own. But with the legacy of Carlsbad, when Ashley and her husband asked me to join them, I was delighted.
“When you go to races like the Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine, or the Bix 7 in Iowa, or the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, I always asked how can we have something like this in San Diego? But we already do with Carlsbad. It’s an iconic race, nationally and internationally.”
So what are the goals for 2019?
“Well, we didn’t get our hands on it right away. We’ve only had it for a few months and it takes at least a year to plan it out. So we will try to make it bigger and more attractive in 2020.
“But we did want to make sure for 2019 that we get the kid’s race back up. We had to make that happen. I sent pictures of my kids running the Junior Carlsbad to Ashley and said ‘we need to have the kids involved, it’s important.’
“But the legacy of the Carlsbad 5000 is it’s the birthplace of the road 5K. I remember trying to break the American record there back in 2001 (AR then was 13:24 by Marc Davis in CBAD 1996). That was the second year Sammy Kipketer went through the first mile in 3:59 (on the way to tying his own world record of 13:00 set the year before). I went out in 4:08 and finished seventh. The next year I played it safe and finished fourth, but both times I ran 13:34.
“What makes Carlsbad work is that it’s right after World Cross-Country and before the track season. So it’s perfectly situated on the calendar. It’s where I met Steve Scott for the first time (course designer and first three years champion). And with all the world record holders like Deena (Kastor), Liz McColgan, Meseret Defar, and Tirunesh Dibaba, it’s where you can run then meet the superstars of the sport.”
In 2016 an unheralded 19-year-old from Uganda named Joshua Cheptegei won the Carlsbad title in 13:24. Last weekend in Aarhus, Denmark the Carlsbad champ from three years ago won the World Country Championship. That is the legacy of the Carlsbad 5000.
This year’s headliner will be Edward “King Chez” Cheserek, the 17-time NCAA champ out of Kenya and the University of Oregon who will be gunning for what is now recognized as the official IAAF world 5K road record, 13:29, run 17 February 2019 in Monaco (Herculis 5K) by Switzerland’s Julius Wanders.
“ I don’t understand it,“ said Meb with a laugh. “I guess it’s a new designation of the 5K road distance by the IAAF. Sammy’s 13-flat is considered the “world best”.
“But Ed can run fast whether he’s being paced or takes the lead himself. He’s fearless. I had lunch with him in Mammoth and I heard the workouts he was doing. If he can do mile repeats like that… We’re delighted he’s coming. He lends a lot of credibility to the event, and (elite athlete coordinator) Matt Turnbull did a great job in getting him.”
Chez posted a world-leading 13:08.5 indoor 5000 in Boston February 24th. And has run a couple of sub-4:00 miles, as well. 13:29 should be in his wheel-house given a decent day.
There is one other man who took special note of Carlsbad coming back to its rightful place.
“I’m very happy Meb and the team picked it up,” said race founder Tim Murphy from his home in Solana Beach, just south of Carlsbad. “They can get it back to the way we thought of the event, the best non-marathon race in the world.
“Carlsbad had the format (age-groupers and genders running separate races before the pro races capped off the day), it had the course, the village, the music, everything you would want in a road race. It’s where people could run, then watch the best in the world. It was exciting. You don’t see crowds like that in road races. You could stand at the T along Carlsbad Boulevard and Carlsbad Village Drive and see the runners three times, once at the beginning, then breaking up in the middle, and then at the end when they turned to finish.
“And it was downhill the final stretch. So the people on Carlsbad Boulevard could see the whole run down to the finish. My greatest feeling was seeing those guys turning the corner and going into another gear with the crowd going Wacko!”
You could still hear it in his voice, the excitement of a fan of the sport who went on to change the game with his innovations in race staging and presentation.
“Tim and Mike Long (the sadly departed ex-elite athlete coordinator) were the heart and soul of the race,” Meb said. “The memory of those guys – it really is a memory lane for me.”
And now, thankfully, it will be for many others, as well.
Both elite races will be broadcast in their entirety on Sunday afternoon. We will post on social media where and how to watch. Go to the Carlsbad 5000 FB page for updates as well.
The professional athletes will be competing for more than $24,000 in prize money, including $3,500 dedicated to the competitive master’s races taking place earlier in the morning. Till then, it’s the Party-by-the-Sea back in full swing. If you are in the area, come and say hello. It should be a whirl once again.