by Don Norcross
Dejen Gebremeskel walked along the fence that separated spectators from runners along the Carlsbad Village Drive finishing chute, held his right hand aloft, spreading his fingers and thumb wide.
For the fifth time Sunday, the lithe Ethiopian won the Carlsbad 5000, this time in 13 minutes, 27 seconds, dusting second-place Paul Chelimo of the United States by 20 seconds.
“I want the history of the Carlsbad 5000,” said Gebremeskel. “No one has won five times. (No one else has celebrated four victories.) This is not easy. They bring champions here.”
On the women’s side, the race went to a runner with a famous family lineage. Kenyan Violah Lagat, the sister of American Bernard Lagat, the second-fastest 1,500-meter runner ever, hit the tape in 15:35, one second ahead of American Shannon Rowbury.
For Gebremeskel, silver medalist in the 5,000 at the 2012 London Olympics, he owed his victory as much to intellect as speed. In his effort to set an American record, Chelimo requested a pacing rabbit. Problem was, the rabbit scooted too fast, busting from the start line like the race was a 400-meter sprint.
After about 500 meters the rabbit was so far in front he turned his head, saw that he was too far in front of Chelimo and almost came to a walk.
Gebremeskel, meanwhile, let Chelimo burn himself out.
“No human being can hold that pace,” said the Ethiopian.
Some 6,923 runners and walkers turned out for the 32nd Carlsbad 5000, touring the 3.1-mile layout that began near the corner of Grant Avenue and Harding Street, completed an ocean-front loop along Carlsbad Boulevard, then finished with a downhill sprint over the train tracks on Carlsbad Village Drive.
By the first U-turn on Carlsbad Boulevard, Gebremeskel had caught Chelimo, who once led by about 15 yards. Shortly after the 2-mile mark, on a slight downhill, Gebremeskel passed Chelimo like he was a statue.
“He’s just destroying Chelimo,” racing historian and broadcaster Toni Reavis said on the press truck.
The American men’s record for 5,000 meters on the road is 13:22. At 13:47, Chelimo did not come close.
To his credit, he didn’t blame the rabbit’s blistering pace.
“It wasn’t too fast,” he said. “I just wasn’t feeling it today. I didn’t have the leg turnover.”
Carlsbad has been the site of 24 world bests and eight U.S. bests. But the race has not been kind to Americans for some time. The last American male winner: Doug Padilla in 1990. Last American women’s winner: Deena Drossin in 2002.
The thinking was that Rowbury, a three-time Olympian at 1,500 meters, would end the women’s drought. But Lagat wouldn’t cooperate.
Two years ago, Lagat, 28, showed up at Carlsbad and finished 14th. Last year, she served as a rabbit for Meseret Defar.
With about 600 meters to go, in front of a Starbucks, Lagat found herself virtually even with Rowbury and Jamaica’s Aisha Praught.
“Is anybody else going make a move or should I just go?” Lagat asked herself.
Lagat pressed the issue.
“Usually when I come here, by the last 600 meters I’m just trying to finish,” said Lagat. “With 600 meters, I was feeling great.”
Lagat is the last of 10 children. Seven have run professionally. In late game of Catch Me If You Can, there was no catching Lagat.
“This is the first time for me to win a big race,” said Lagat. “It feels amazing.”
Neville Davey of Palo Alto won the men’s masters in 15:20. Former Olympian Courtney Babcock of Canada won the women’s masters in 17:29.
*The pro winners each earned $3,500.
*For the first time in at least 27 years, there was not a wheelchair race. According to a race representative, only one wheelchair athlete signed up for the event. The person was offered the chance to compete in one of the masters races.
Norcross is a freelance writer.