Why So Fast?

Sammy Kipketer set two world records in Carlsbad, including the standing record of 13:00.
Sammy Kipketer set two world records in Carlsbad, including the standing record of 13:00.

The Carlsbad 5000 bills itself as “the world’s fastest 5K,” and with good reason.  Sixteen world records have been set in this event since it was first won by former mile American record holder Steve Scott, who designed the course.  Yet the Carlsbad 5000 is not pancake-flat.  It has three gentle hills, plus two hairpin turns.

Make no mistake: it’s a fast course, but no faster than many others. So why do people run so well in Carlsbad, not just in the elite race, but in the several age-group races too?  (Forget world records: There’s no telling how many 5K personal records have been set there.)

I ran the Carlsbad 5000 in search of an answer to this question—and to conduct an informal experiment. On the preceding weekend I had run a smaller, newer 5K on a similar type of course.  I wanted to see whether I would run any faster in Carlsbad, and if I did, to figure out why.

Upon arriving at the perfectly organized registration area on a sunny Sunday race morning I was immediately struck by the immense scale of the event.  Scores of runners of all ages were milling about, pinning on race numbers, warming up, and greeting friends and training buddies. More than 4,000 athletes would compete in nine separate races today. An even greater number of children 12 and under had participated in shorter events on Saturday.

Spectators and supporters clearly outnumbered participants. The large outdoor expo area was packed with browsers and samplers, most of them wearing streetclothes. Cheering men, women and children stood three-deep along parts of the course, which affords an up-close view of the Pacific Ocean nearly start to finish. The Carlsbad community has warmly embraced the world’s fastest 5K, which it celebrates as a sort of city holiday, with intensive media buzz, restaurants opening early to accommodate the influx of hungry people and numerous local businesses, military units and other organizations putting together groups for the various team competitions.

My race was the Men’s 30-39 race, which alone had nearly 1,000 entrants. I got a good start and hit the one-mile mark right on pace. I was amazed to find myself still amid a large pack of runners.  By this point in last week’s race I had been almost alone. The pull of the runners in front of me and the push of the runners behind me were tangible, almost like a tailwind.

After I’d made the second hairpin turn and charged up the last hill in the closing mile, the density of cheering spectators increased steadily. An elderly gentleman shouted “Less than half a mile to go!” at just the right moment, and I picked up my pace. As I made a left turn onto the final stretch, the roar of the finish line crowd became deafening, and infused my kick to the line with extra power.

My time was 20 seconds faster than last week’s, and I knew why. It was the infectious energy of the thousands who had converged here in the same festive spirit.  It was the pull and push of well-matched runners who had come ready to do their best. And it was the encouragement of a large and enthusiastic throng of onlookers.

The next time you look for a fast road race to run, look for one that has these ingredients—as well as a fast course.


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