“ What are you doing here? ” The Carlsbad 5000….by John Harmon

For the past several years, I have had to endure incessant and sometimes interminable stories of the famed Carlsbad 5000 by several fellow Empire club members – Bryon Porter, Brad Zanetti, Val Sel. Even the champions of few words, Larry Meredith and Dale Peterson, had something to say about it. Zen gardens, beer, beautiful weather, the Ocean, beer, the Elite runners. Did I mention beer?

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I had registered for it last year at their behest, but was unable to go. ER sent its largest contingent in 2014. Stories abound. I feared I had missed something epic, much like the Boston experience when Larry turned 50 and dragged half the county to the shores of the East Coast before it was too late. It was with this in mind that I registered again in December, still not knowing if I would again be thwarted by something else more requisite of my presence. But this year is different, as I have since retired from full time work and have a bit more command of my waking hours – although one would be hard-pressed to observe such. At first, it appeared we might have an equally large contingent. But slowly the proverbial wheels came off. Val came down with injury so debilitating she could not run if she hoped to recover. This took her and her happy band of Dave and McKenna out. Dale passed this year for reasons I now forget. He had run the 25K version of Carlsbad – doing the 5K all day (5X) is a survivor’s trophy. But now he was out. Finally Doug Murdoch dropped for a work conflict (I think) – something I am sympathetic to but no longer threatened by.

Jill and I flew down on the preceding Friday – with Brad, Bev (Zanetti) and Larry. Bryan was already there. Jill and I took in the zoo, then dinner at a little place we found years ago while the others trundled off to Carlsbad to seek out hop-infested lair. Saturday was a low-key day. I got up early and drove to the course start to run a preview. I was glad I did – despite what little good it did. While flat, there are a couple of upgrades which take your legs out – as proved Sunday. We picked up my numbers, visited an aunt and joined all the rest for dinner. After dinner, I dragged (with little resistance) Larry, Brad and Bev to a gelato place. While standing in line, a young gal struck up a conversation with us. She was in town from Boulder for the race. Larry probed further. Come to find out she was quite a talent – wanted to break 17:00 and has trained with Collen De Reuck. We asked her to join us. More on her later.

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The next day, I found myself standing at the starting line….in front. To my left was none other than Bernard Lagat. Bernard and I go way back. Bernard went to WSU. I went to WSU. Bernard runs. I run. Similarities fade at this point. We did meet at the Olympic Trials in 2012. Celebrating Kim Conley’s amazing 5000m qualification at a Eugene restaurant, a herd of us from Santa Rosa sat at our table digesting dinner and recounting for the umpteenth time Kim’s call to glory. In walks said Mr. Lagat with his wife and two kids in tow. We all stood to applaud. Several of us went up to him to congratulate him, snap a few gratuitous photos, etc. I mentioned I went to Wazzu. We did a secret handshake, he promised me he’d give me his gold medal and then he ushered himself and family to his table. It was a groupie moment.

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So here at Carlsbad you can imagine my surprise at seeing him standing there…with me. “What are you doing here?” he asked me. “Well I’m racing, of course. Why?” I replied. “Well, you’re in the wrong race. This is the Elite race.” This is where I awoke in a drenching sweat. It was 1 am. I could only take this as a bad omen.

On the real Race Day morning at 6 am, Larry, Bryan and I piled in with Brad and headed to a secret parking spot. Jill and Bev took a more leisurely approach and left 15 minutes later. It was cool with little or no wind – perfect weather. I had been training with hopes of pushing 20 minutes. A race two weeks earlier had sobered me, but my training had gone well. Nevertheless, I was resolved not to go out too fast. My warmup went well. Caleb and Daniel Skandera spotted me and wished me well. Daniel was there to run his age group (he ran an amazing 19:25, as is told in a related story). At the starting line, I wished Bryan, Larry and Brad “Good Luck” and found what I thought was a good place. It was 7 am.

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This is truly a wonderful experience, wonderful course, beautiful scenery – with the ocean and great weather. Besides what happened, it was awesome.

The first half-mile includes a little upgrade. I felt pushed as we approached the Mile mark – 6:37. Gad! I was already blowing it. As we approach a turn around, I could see Bryan about 20 seconds ahead. I never did see Brad (he was just slightly ahead of Bryan). Larry was a little behind me – still recovering from being out with injury. I leaned into the slight upgrade of the second mile before its slight downhill. I thought I was doing better, but timepieces don’t lie – I was not. A hearty yell from Bev and Jill spurred me on, but to no avail. With less than a mile to go, I faced what Brad had called “this nasty little uphill.” It took my legs out. My goals never made their way out of my mind. The final 300m is slightly downhill. I managed to hold my place, but couldn’t push ahead of anyone in front of me. I finished in 20:53 – well off my goal, but slightly better than my race the two week earlier – wait till next year. Brad finished in 20:28 with Bryan just 2 seconds back. Larry came in behind me.

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We went back to the hotel to get cleaned up and have breakfast. Larry and Bryan stayed to save a place at the beer pen (finishers get a finishing medal and two free beers). When we came back for the beers and to see the elite race, whom did we see but the gal we met the night before at the gelato shop. Kristen Johansen had just won the Women’s Open race (not the Elite one). Her time was 17:08. We congratulated her and took some photos. What a treat to have met her the night before and here she was the winner.

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When we made our way over to the beer pen, Larry was there as promised. We finagled our way through the lines and finally celebrated our race in style – with an IPA. As we enjoyed the live band and the sun and the beer, who comes by, but Kristen again. OK, she must have been stalking us. But now Larry could talk to her about her race too. We spent the rest of our time waiting for the Elite races near noon by drinking more beer and watching Larry dance to rock’n’roll. I feel a book – There Will Be Beer.

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It was time to get serious and find a key spot to watch the Elite Women’s and Men’s races. The others were the experts. Jill and I just tried to keep up. The course we ran is goes out from one street to the ocean-loop once along the ocean promenade-then finishes on another street. The Elite race starts and finishes on the same spot and loops shorter but twice so everyone gets to see the runners-up to 4 times. It very close watching – a lot like what you see in the Tour de France on the hill climbs. They do a great job of course management. Everyone is cheerful, helpful and makes it fun and safe. I’ve not seen a lot of elite racing up so close. It’s worth that experience alone. You watch the trailing men and women in these races stumble and sputter far behind the leaders only realizing their running at phenomenal speeds.

The women’s race was a three women contest, but quickly turned into the Genzebe Dibaba show. Her pursuit of a WR fell short by 2 seconds – 14:48. Deena Kastor, now 40, missed the Master’s WR by 17 seconds, finishing in 16:08.

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The Men’s race was just as exciting. Lawi Lelang managed 1st in 13:32 – slow by Elite standards. Bernard Lagat missed his goal of a Master’s WR coming through in 13:41 (3rd). The WR is 13:24. But his time was nearly a minute off the course master’s record. If he had let me stay in my dream a little longer, perhaps I could have paced him to the WR.

This was a blast to run, to see, and mostly to enjoy with this group. Maybe we can assemble a larger group for next year. I highly recommend it. It’s not too early to mark your calendars – Sunday, April 3, 2016.

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