What if this were your only chance? Sure it’ll be painful, but what’s pain?
– Franz Stampfl, Roger Bannister’s coach

Carlsbad coastline - photo credit: Mike Sohaskey

Carlsbad? No, CarlsGOOD

This is going to hurt… maybe we start slow and see how it goes?
Start slow and watch everyone pass you? What could hurt more than that?

The two competing voices weren’t the only sounds filling his head.  Joining them was the rhythmic throbbing of his pulse, like a time bomb ticking down and primed to explode with the starter’s pistol.  This, to his recollection, was a first – the first time he’d ever run before a race, in this case a warmup mile plus several short sprints to try to jolt his legs awake.  Better to kickstart mind and body now, he knew, than to wait and let the race do it for him.

Because unlike his usual marathon or half marathon (of his past 43 races, only 4 had been shorter than 13.1 miles), this was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 5000 meters.  And not just the usual 5K included as the shorter cousin to a longer race.  This was the start line of the Carlsbad 5000, arguably the most popular 5K in the world.  A different beast than its longer counterparts, but a beast nonetheless.

Carlsbad’s billing as “The World’s Fastest 5K” is well-deserved.  Each year elite track-and-field athletes from around the world gather in this small oceanside town just north of San Diego to battle for the top prize of $5,000, with the promise of another $10,000 for a world record.  But if the notion of a 5,000m world record being set in sleepy Carlsbad sounds like wishful thinking, think again – before this year, Carlsbad had claimed 46 of the top 50 men’s all-time road 5K performances, including the world record of 13:00 set in 2000 and 2001 by Kenyan Sammy Kipketer.  The women’s world record of 14:46 was also set here in 2006 by Ethiopian Meseret Defar.

With its bloodlust for speed, even pseudo-competitive age-group runners will toe the start line at Carlsbad feeling more than the usual pre-race adrenaline coursing through their system.  They may even feel a bit of – if we’re being honest here – fear.

This is going to hurt.

So it was with the angel & devil now battling for control of his psyche.  Safe to say those same voices greet most runners at the start line, and he was pretty sure that in this his 70th race, he’d heard them 70 times.  But today they were a bit louder and a bit more insistent, their edge sharpening as the National Anthem ended and the voice on the PA began its countdown…

Start slow and take it easy.
Start fast and pick up the pace!

2015 Carlsbad 5000 Men's Master start

The cheetahs in the men’s Master’s division race toward the Pacific Ocean

Off to a fast start (mile 1)
Like a bullet fired through an apple, the shrill airhorn pierced the quiet morning air, announcing the start of the 30th Carlsbad 5000.  Instantly the runners in the men’s Master’s division (age 40 & over) fired off the start line and shot down Grand Avenue like greyhounds, thundering past quaint shops and palm trees swaying gently in the ocean breeze.  Immediately his instinct and training took the reins, legs hammering heavily to keep up with the stream of runners flowing swiftly downhill toward the paperclip-shaped course that would lead them on a loop around Carlsbad Blvd and back toward the finish line on Carlsbad Village Drive.

He’d lined up (wishfully) among the 6:00/mile runners.  He agreed with the devil on his left shoulder – he’d rather start fast and burn up in his orbit around Carlsbad Blvd, than start too slow and lose out on a shot to break 20 minutes.  That magic number of “20” meant an average pace of 6:26/mile for 3.1 miles.

He’d run that fast only once before, winning the monthly Boeing lunchtime 5K in nearby Seal Beach one year earlier.  That had been an informal and low-key affair, in which he’d shown up at the last minute and trailed the leader until the halfway point largely because – well, he hadn’t known where he was going in his first time on the unmarked out-and-back course.

So sub-20 minutes wasn’t a pipe dream, particularly (he figured) if he took the time to loosen up properly.  Sure he’d need to run a damn good race, and get a bit lucky at the same time.  But wasn’t that what chasing a PR was all about?

2015 Carlsbad 5000 - People's Course Google Earth map

The course runs clockwise – green means “go”, red means “stop”

And yet despite his best-laid plans and sensible warmup, that first ½-mile down Grand Avenue and onto Carlsbad Blvd still came as a shock to the system.  He rarely felt graceful when running fast – Meb he was not – and today was no exception.

His heart leapt into action as it had so many times before, pumping blue blood to the lungs and red blood to where it was needed the most.  Neurons fired like an overloaded electrical grid, jolting muscles awake while his legs pounded the asphalt like bony jackhammers, all the while his feet converting the force into forward propulsion at a sub-6:30/mile pace.

Who forces themselves to run this fast at 7:00am? Cruel AND unusual!
You want to finish last? Pick up those feet, you’re falling behind already!

The 7:00am start was a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, early morning cloud cover ensured cooler temperatures, before the sun would have its way later in the day.  On the other, he’d never run so fast so early in his life – he always planned his speed work later in the day, and even last year’s Boeing 5K had been run at high noon.

Despite the clouds and cooler temperatures, the air felt surprisingly heavy.  Like a typical Californian, it too had come dressed in extra layers it would shed throughout the day.

His plan was to run on the right side of the road, to ensure himself the inside lane on the hairpin turns – this was his best chance to run the tangents, i.e. the shortest distance possible from start to finish.

The official timer alongside the mile 1 marker ticked up to 6:30 as he passed.  As if on cue, the Garmin on his wrist chimed to signal the end of mile 1.  Doing some ragged math in his head, he guesstimated he’d crossed the finish line 10-15 seconds after the airhorn had sounded, meaning his pace after the first mile was… fast.  Maybe too fast.  During mile repeats on the track, his first mile was inevitably slower than the next two as his body recognized and adapted to the shock of running fast.  But with a ~6:15/mile pace for the first mile he was in uncharted waters, and the question quickly turned to whether he could hold this together for another 2.1.

Carlsbad 5000 course elevation profile

The course was a bit more hilly than I’d anticipated

Holding it together (mile 2)
As the stampede of male runners – the only women in this first race would be those running the “All Day 20K”, a series of four separate 5Ks – rounded the first hairpin turn and headed back in the direction they’d come, a wave of leaden-legged fatigue swept over him.  And the voices suddenly found their own second wind:

You tried, you really did – nobody could fault you for stopping now!
You stop now, and you might as well walk your ass home.

As a runner, he couldn’t recall the last time his brain had pleaded with him so vehemently to stop.  Certainly the latter miles of the California International Marathon had doled out their share of misery, though luckily his mind had largely banished that memory.  His unfamiliarity with the 5K distance didn’t help here – he knew the longer distances, knew at which miles the lulls typically occurred in a marathon or half marathon, and knew that if he stayed focused and kept pushing that he’d come out the other side.  Here, though, he had no such assurances.  This sickening feeling might pass… or it might force him to pull up short at any second like a car with an engine fire, smoke billowing out from under its hood.

Pain may be temporary, pride may be forever… but pain has fangs.

Stop stop stop stop stop stop PLEASE stop!!!
Go go go go faster faster faster dammit GO!!!

Just run. Just run. Just run. he repeated to himself, partly to distract from his discomfort and partly to drown out the competing voices in his head.  He was starting to debate the pros and cons of slamming on the brakes when he reached a decision.

Maybe his devil made him do it, or maybe he had a moment of clarity.  But as anger flared and his resolve stiffened, he made up his mind that until his legs came detached from his torso, he’d not give in to fatigue.  So instead of slowing down he gritted his teeth, bit the bullet… and tried to speed up.

The sheer absurdity of this decision seemed to take his angelic voice of reason aback, silencing its protests for the moment.  Meanwhile he tried to focus on something outside himself and his mounting fatigue.  He realized that watching the runner directly ahead of him was sapping his dwindling energy, as the fellow ran with a cartoonish stride, each leg kicking back and to the side on its follow-through as though every step landed him on a discarded banana peel.

The scene reminded him of how commentator Toni Reavis had amusingly described the stride of 2013 Boston Marathon champ and 2014 NYC runner-up Lelisa Desisa: “Put enough fruits, veggies and yogurt around him and he could churn up a smoothie for you”.  Accelerating ever so slightly he cleared the human blender (who was also visibly tiring) and passed the mile 2 marker, gratefully putting both in his rearview mirror as his Garmin chimed agreeably.

One more mile and you can rest – don’t screw this up!

Mike Sohaskey at mile 2.1 of Carlsbad 5000

Mile 2.1 – you know the going’s tough when Katie doesn’t elicit a smile

A final push (mile 3)
Just past the mile 2 marker he saw Katie cheering from the median and clumsily tossed his sunglasses her way.  He winced as they bounced off the concrete and landed at her feet.  Nice.

The undulating nature of the course surprised him – he hadn’t expected the “World’s Fastest 5K” to feature such noticeable stretches of up and down.  How much this affected him he couldn’t be sure, though notably the new double-loop course designed specifically for the elite races would eliminate much of this hillage while adding two more hairpin turns.

Gradually he zoned out as both mind and body at last adapted to the physical strain.  Sure he could still feel the discomfort in every step, but he also felt better able to absorb and ignore it.  He envisioned himself as legendary miler Roger Bannister, his fluid stride carrying him across the asphalt effortlessly in pursuit of that elusive sub-4:00 mile.  This was, of course, self-delusion – in truth he felt more like a water buffalo balancing on two legs than a sub-4 miler.  But in that moment, as his adrenaline waned and “fight or flight” seemed an increasingly perverse choice, every ounce of positive energy mattered.

Mike Sohaskey at finish of 2015 Carlsbad 5000

I don’t typically run away from palm trees (left)… unless something better awaits (right)

Rounding the second hairpin turn at mile 2.5, he felt his stride beginning to degenerate.  He half-expected spectators to point at him and guffaw as he passed, parents to shield their children’s eyes from his choppy stride.  His stomach now seemed ready to side with the rest of him, its familiar protests telling him he was approaching the limit of how much longer he could keep this up without any gastro-ramifications.

The beatings will continue until morale improves, he thought without much humor.

They were closing the loop, heading back toward the finish, and the pack around him now seemed to move in unison as one relentless, multi-legged creature.  But was the creature speeding up or slowing down?  With no way of knowing for sure, he couldn’t take a chance of matching his own pace to anyone else’s.  So instead he focused on the road directly ahead, his eyes doing all they could to summon the mile 3 marker.

Until at last – there it was, and with it the final left turn toward home.  Down the stretch they came, the black finish arch awaiting them dead ahead and slightly downhill on Carlsbad Village Drive.  Digging deep, he mustered as much of a finishing kick as he could, the red numbers above the finish line counting up to and then passing 20:00 as the other runners fell away from his consciousness – the clock at that moment was his sole competition.  He saw it touch 20:13 as he hit the finisher’s mat, passed under the arch and immediately stopped his Garmin.  Had he broken 20:00? Had he crossed the start line more than 13 seconds after the airhorn?

2015 Carlsbad 5000 men's elite race - Lawi Lalang wins

Men’s elite winner Lawi Lalang finishes ahead of Wilson Too (in red) and Bernard Lagat (in yellow)

Every second counts
He gulped in several jagged breaths of air and – because running isn’t glamorous – teetered to a stop in the finish chute with hands on knees, willing his autonomic nervous system to behave and his external urethral sphincter to stay shut.  After a fleeting moment of uncertainty, his resolve won out.  He’d never been the type to vomit after a fast run, but this near evacuation of his bladder was a sure sign he’d given the Carlsbad 5000 everything he had.

But had it been enough?  He glanced down at his Garmin: 19:59.0 for 3.14 miles.  Too close to tell, and not that his wrist time mattered anyway… but at least he’d given himself a chance to break 20 minutes.  A shaky chance to be sure, but still a chance.

But 3.14 miles?  That seemed to his tired mind a significant discrepancy from the official distance of 3.1 miles… and in fact, 0.04 miles would amount to an extra 70 yards.

Let’s not do that again anytime soon, shall we?
Same time next year? You know you can run faster – your pants are still dry!

Inspiration

Scenes from the Carlsbad 5000: Most inspirational finisher…

Carlsbad 5000 finisher

… and the finisher I could most relate to

Gratefully he accepted his finisher’s medal, adorned with the image of women’s world record holder Meseret Defar.  A “FIRST 250” label on the ribbon confirmed his placement among the first 250 finishers (more precisely, 164th out of 1,634 total finishers).  He hadn’t been expecting a medal for running a 5K, but then again this was the Competitor Group’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Series signature event, and who was he to argue with a pleasant surprise?

The next hour, though, was spent waiting for official results to be posted and wishing away any unpleasant surprises.  He reunited with Katie and flagged down a few other runners he knew, comparing notes and strolling the post-race expo.  As the two of them waited they kept one eye on the other age-group events, each race timed (unsuccessfully, it seemed) to avoid the Amtrak train whose route passed directly across the course.  With each successive race the sun rose higher and burned hotter in the SoCal sky.  Given the escalating mercury, the late timing of the elite races – 11:56am for the women, 12:24pm for the men – struck him as curious.

At last the official results arrived on Roosevelt Street, and with them the renewed and frustrating realization that in the sport of running, every second counts:

Name                          Clock time                  Chip time                   Pace
Mike Sohaskey                 20:16                        20:00                      6:26

You did your best and that’s what counts – so turn that frown upside-down!
You really couldn’t shave off ONE MORE SECOND out there?

He reminded himself that his recent training had focused on the marathon distance, and that he’d only registered for Carlsbad on a whim ten days before the race.  He flashed back to December, when he’d come within a second of his marathon PR in Sacramento – running 26.2 miles and coming up a second short, now that had been disheartening.  And he consoled himself with the knowledge that even the Carlsbad course record, set by Kenyan Sammy Kipketer not once but twice, in 2000 and 2001 – stood at a nice, round 13:00.

Any runner who’s ever chased a PR knows that running is a game of seconds.  And all too often, milliseconds.

2015 Carlsbad 5000 course map (image courtesy of Toni Reavis)

The start line was moved back nearly a block this year (shown in red); original image courtesy of Toni Reavis

Again he thought of the stats recorded by his Garmin: 3.14 miles in 19:59 = 6:21/mile pace.  According to one Carlsbad veteran the organizers had moved the start line back this year, an off-handed comment confirmed by his Garmin’s tracing of the course: the start line had indeed been moved back inexplicably relative to previous years, adding ~0.05 miles to the total distance.  At a 6:21/mile pace, an extra 0.05 miles would add 19 seconds to his 5K time… 19 extra seconds, and all he needed was just one of those back.

But that second was gone, and it wasn’t coming back.  And as much as he hated seeing a “2” before his official time, he wasn’t going to let one second ruin the other 86,399 in this excellent day.  Promising himself he’d return to run Carlsbad again, he and Katie set the wheels in motion at the post-race expo, locking in their 2016 registrations at the no-brainer price of $20 each.

A dollar a minute, he thought wryly as he filled in his credit card information, though Katie would certainly be getting greater dollar-per-minute value.  The conspiracy theorist in him even considered that maybe, just maybe, the official scorer had rounded up every finisher’s time by one second to ensure a ready supply of returning customers…

Mike Sohaskey & Lawi Lalang - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

Lawi Lalang, all smiles in his well-deserved moment in the sun

 

Mike Sohaskey & Bernard Lagat - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

Master’s champ and top American finisher Bernard Lagat

 

Mike Sohaskey, Deena Kastor & Katie Ho - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

A lucky meeting w/ American marathon world record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite post-race brunch spot

He looked forward to catching the men’s elite race later that day.  There he’d jump at the chance for impromptu photo-ops with winner Lawi Lalang of Kenya (13:32) and third-place finisher & top American Bernard Lagat (13:40), who would add yet another Master’s record to his already overflowing trophy case.

Lagat is one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. track-and-field history, and yet you wouldn’t have known it from meeting him – both he and Lawi were incredibly gracious.  And speaking of gracious athletes, what more perfect way to round out a day like this than with a serendipitous meeting of American marathon world record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite race-day brunch spot?  Luckily Deena would do most of the talking during their brief conversation, as he was quite sure the whirlwind of questions in his head would have translated into little more than an awkward stammer.

But again, that was all future tense.  Right now, with the Carlsbad 5000 as a brisk warmup (but a warmup nonetheless), he had 14 more training miles to run in the late-morning heat – 14 more miles to lock up another 60+ mile week.  No better marathon training partner than tired legs, he reminded himself with a sigh as he fired up his reluctant quads.

After all, while it’s nice to have a guardian angel, the devil is in the details.

2015 Carlsbad 5000 finish line selfie - Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

A finish line tradition: me, Katie and the MarathonFoto man perched on his ladder

BOTTOM LINE: The Competitor Group bills the Carlsbad 5000 as its “Party by the Sea”.  It’s an apt description – Carlsbad isn’t a 5K race so much as it is an entire morning of 5K races.  But even more than the races themselves, it’s a celebration of running.  What better venue for a high-stakes race than a low-key coastal town like Carlsbad?

After running it, I now understand why the folks at the Competitor Group have branded this their signature event.  Maybe the race gets obscured by the other 2,000+ races held in California every year – but the truth is, Carlsbad is a not-so-hidden gem.

The course is surprisingly hilly; according to my Garmin, the total elevation gain and loss over 3.1 miles exceeded both the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon I ran in November, and the Disney World Marathon I ran in January.  Total elevation gain of the course (413ft) slightly exceeds elevation loss (387ft), and while the uphills are noticeable, I most appreciated the fact that the home stretch on Carlsbad Village Dr from the final turn to the finish line was all downhill.  A great way to end a fast race.

Granted I’m used to paying marathon and half marathon fees, but the Carlsbad 5000 is very affordable – registration ten days before the race cost $40 (plus a $5.99 processing fee), and I was able to find a discount code online that saved me an additional $10.  The fact that I was able to sign up for this race so cheaply less than two weeks out still surprises me.

My only – complaint may be too strong a word – objection would be that moving back the start line on Grand Ave added ~88 yards (or in my case ~19 seconds) to the commoner’s course, or “Peoples Route” as it’s referred to on the race website.  For a marathon 88 yards is negligible, easily falling within the margin of error for those not running the tangents.  But for a 5K race 88 yards is over 1.5% of the distance, so it’s critical to get that measurement right.  Not a deal-breaker by any means, but something for the organizers to keep in mind next year.  Although the name rolls off the tongue, I doubt they want to rebrand their signature event the “Carlsbad 5080” (“Fifty-Eighty”).

2015 Carlsbad 5000 medal

PRODUCTION: It’s tough to beat a race that’s run only a few yards from the ocean.  Or at least that’s what the course map showed – my laser (read: pained) focus during the race precluded me from appreciating my surroundings in the moment.

I’m not sure how runners in the later races fared, but running in the first event of the morning meant parking near the start line was a (ocean) breeze.  I made a porta-potty stop, ran my warmup mile + striders, picked up my number directly adjacent to the start line (easy race-day bib pickup, how awesome is that?), and attached my timing chip to my shoe in time for the national anthem… all within 30 minutes.  Thanks Competitor, for a seamless pre-race experience.

My only critique of the production would be, as noted above, that the course was 0.05 miles too long, a buzz kill for those of us chasing PRs and/or a well-defined finish time like 20:00.

Flock of pelicans - photo credit: Mike Sohaskey

Flock of seagulls? Nope, though admittedly “I ran” to photograph this flock of pelicans

On the other hand, the chance to meet and take photos with the elite runners more than made up for the added distance.  For a race with significant prize money at stake, the organizers do a fantastic job of maintaining a low-key vibe and allowing spectators post-race access to the elites.  Where else can an age-group runner stroll up to and shake hands with world-class athletes like Bernard Lagat and Deena Kastor?  I felt like a kid on Christmas day, except in this case Santa Claus was real.

That said, there’s a lot to recommend here even for those runners who aren’t stargazers.  It’s a premier race in a relaxed oceanside venue (the “relaxed” part comes once you cross the finish line), a solid opportunity to test your mettle and your fitness level.  Plus it’s a great value – the entry fee ranges from $20 (early) to $40 (late).  And if you really like running the course, you can sign up for the “All Day 20K” and run it four times to earn special 20K swag.

Speaking of swag, I was pleasantly surprised to receive not only a blue Leslie Jordan short-sleeve tech tee (always high quality) but a cool medal as well featuring women’s world record holder Meseret Defar.  Not to mention some decent snacks in the finish chute.

The new elite course, with its tighter loops and two added hairpin turns, seems designed more for the spectators than the runners.  But whereas the effect of the new course on finish times remains to be seen, the organizers may want to reconsider the sequence and timing of the events if they hope to see Sammy Kipketer’s course record of 13:00 challenged anytime soon.  I didn’t envy the elites having to run in the heat of the day.

Click HERE (for the women) and HERE (for the men) to watch video coverage of the elite races, including interviews.

RaceRaves rating:

Mike Sohaskey - RaceRaves review of Carlsbad 5000

FINAL STATS:
March 29, 2015
3.14 miles in Carlsbad, CA
Finish time & pace: 20:00 (first time running the Carlsbad 5000), 6:21/mile
Finish place: 164 overall, 48/256 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 1,634 (Master’s Men 40+ & All Day 20K participants)
Race weather: Warm and cloudy (starting temp 61°F), light breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 413ft gain, 387ft loss
2016 registration re-opens soon

Carlsbad 5000 splits

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Comments
  1. Dan says:

    You met in one day more athletes of extremely high caliber than most people do in a year. I’d have to go to 3 expos to get that collection of handshakes. I’m looking forward to seeing Mr. Lagat and Mrs. Kastor as my newest followers on RaceRaves.

    I remember running the 2010 Bucktown 5k and looking at my Garmin to read 20:06, a new PR at the time. I was thrilled until I saw my chip time was 20-flat, and then, despite having six seconds docked from my time, cursing the skies. Every second counted. Oh well. I wouldn’t even run another 5k for another 17 months after that, where I handily killed the barrier to the tune of 19:14.

    So yeah. It sucks. But trust your training and that 20-minute threshold will vanish easily. Good call on warming up though. The 5k is the only distance where I do a few strides beforehand because I hate going from 0 to 90 in the first 200 meters.

    The hills were surprising. I watched Toni’s feed and it looked very flat from that vantage point. Weird.

    And last but not least, is that a BADGE I see on the left side of your blog?

    • Mike says:

      Ha, if I’d anticipated the brushes with fame we’d have in Carlsbad, I would’ve brought along a stack of RaceRaves tees to hand out. I can see it now: “Hi, I’m Bernard Lagat, 13-time World Championship & Olympic medalist… and when I’m looking for my next race to run, I look to RaceRaves.” Next year we’ll be ready!

      Admittedly I’m now itching to run another 5K, just to get the official PR in my Personal Bests table below 20:00. Nothing as nutty as a 19:14, but I’d be happy with anything that starts with a “1”. And since the experience isn’t as grueling as a marathon (though yeah, those first 200m are fast-twitch agony), I’d love to get that done before the 31st Carlsbad 5000. Funny, I’d never even thought about running a fast 5K before the Boeing race last year, and now it’s actually become a fun exercise and a great training partner. So we’ll see…

      Toni’s feed was shot along the new (for 2015) elite course, a tighter double-loop course that excluded some of the hillage of the “Peoples Route”. In any case it wasn’t so much that the course was hilly in the usual sense, as that trying to run 3.1 miles as fast as possible makes mental mountains out of molehills, and emphasizes any surface that’s not perfectly flat.

      And yes! the badge! Thanks for noticing. Just what the running blogosphere needs now, don’t you think?

  2. Jen says:

    Just one second! Heartbreaking. But like Dan said above (and more eloquently than me), I’m sure a sub-20 5K will be yours soon. The 5K is such a different beast, and requires a completely different mindset and pacing strategy… I’m actually very impressed with how you hung on in the last mile of the race. That’s awesome that you got to meet Lawi, Lagat, and Kastor.

  3. John Brennand says:

    how do I register!

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