How Low Can They Go?

Mesert Defar at the 2010 indoor world championships. Photo: PhotoRun.

Mesert Defar at the 2010 indoor world championships. Photo: PhotoRun.

This year’s Carlsbad 5000 assembles some of the fastest elite fields ever.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Let’s start with the easy prediction: The winners of Sunday’s Carlsbad 5000 men’s and women’s elite races will almost certainly come from Ethiopia and/or Kenya. Representatives of these two countries bring the five fastest personal-best times at the contested distance on the men’s side and the three fastest times on the women’s side.

The next surest shot is that Meseret Defar will win the women’s race. The 26-year-old Ethiopian has run 14:12.48 on the track. That’s just one second off the world record and 44 seconds faster than the best time ever run by any other woman in the race. Defar is at the height of her powers, having won her fourth 3000m indoor world title just last month.

It would be pretty shocking if anyone beat her. Her countrywoman, Aheza Kiros, returns as the defending champion. However, her winning time of 15:38 is almost a minute slower than Defar hopes to run Sunday, as she has expressed her intention to take aim at her own 5K road world record of 14:46.

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Which brings us to the next prediction: Can Defar break the world record? Of course she can. To do it she just has to run one second faster (or less) than she ran for the same distance on the same course three years ago. However, in that race Defar was pushed hard by Isabella Ochichi, who finished just seven seconds behind her. It is unlikely that Defar will be pushed in the same way again this year, and without that, I think it’s unlikely that she will beat her mark. Success cannot be ruled out, however, as Defar has run alone in setting past records on the track (she is the current world record holder for 3000m, two miles, and 5000m indoors and previously held the outdoor 5000m world record twice).

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge is a strong favorite to win the men’s race, but is not quite the lock that Defar is on the women’s side. It’s hard to believe Kipchoge is only 25 years old, so long has he been kicking butt in international racing. His track 5000m PR is 12:46.53, which is a solid 13 seconds faster than the PR’s of the next two fastest men in the race: Ethiopians Bekana Daba and Ali Abdosh. Two other Ethiopians, Markos Geneti and Dejen Gebremeskel, have only slightly slower PR’s of 13:00.25 and 13:03.13, respectively.

What’s also noteworthy about these men is that they are all young—25 years of age and under—and thus capable of performing at a higher level than ever before. With so much great young talent on the start line, Kipchoge cannot be considered a shoo-in to break the finish tape despite his superior resume, which includes medals from the past two Olympics.

However, while the density of speed in the men’s race reduces Kipchoge’s chances of winning, it increases his chances of setting a world record if he does win. Like Defar, Kipchoge has expressed his intent to pursue the 5K world record in this year’s Carlsbad 5000. The existing record of 13:00 was set by Kenya’s Sammy Kipketer in Carlsbad in 2000 and matched the following year.

While the track is considered much more conducive to fast running than the road, Kipketer’s track 5000 PR was only two seconds faster when he set his first record, and his later-set lifetime PR was “only” 12:52.33. This indicates that Kipchoge has all the speed he needs to establish a new mark.

Whether he does depends entirely on how the race shapes up in the first kilometer. Elite road races are unpredictable social organisms with group dynamics that affect the behavior of each runner in ways that no individual can entirely control. Some races become slow and tactical even though no one in the field intends it. Others are flat-out drag races from the start, again not by plan. Those of us who would like to see a new record Sunday will just have to hope that the group dynamics work out favorably—and that the weather is not too hot.

On that subject, the forecast calls for idea conditions Sunday: partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees. I think Mother Nature may want a record too!


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