Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar Won Carlsbad 5000

Carlsbad, CA: Meseret Defar of Ethiopia poses her nation's flag at the finish line after finishing first in the Elite field at the Carlsbad 5000 on April 3, 2016 in Carlsbad, California. (PHOTO: Kent Horner/Getty Images for Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series)

“Messi number one! Messi number one!” cried a partying crowd of Ethiopians near the Carlsbad 5000 finish line.

By Don Norcross | San Diego Union Tribune

Carlsbad, CA—The Ethiopian flags began to be unfurled about the time Meseret Defar rounded the corner, heading down the Carlsbad Village Drive finishing stretch. Then came the chants.

“Messi number one! Messi number one!” cried a partying crowd of Ethiopians near the Carlsbad 5000 finish line.

It had been six years since Defar, the two-time Olympic gold medalist at 5,000 meters, had raced at the seaside layout. But judging from her performance Sunday, the 95-pound whippet hasn’t forgotten her way around the downtown village.

Meseret and Carlsbad 2Defar, 32, sped to victory in the professional women’s race in 15 minutes flat. Average pace per mile: 4 minutes, 50 seconds. Caroline Kipkirui of Kenya finished second in 15:11.

Since the Carlsbad 5000 debut in 1986, no Ugandan had won the men’s or women’s race. But in the 31st year of the event, 19-year-old Joshua Cheptegei set history, winning the men’s race in 13:24, averaging 4 minutes, 19 seconds per mile.

Kenya’s Wilson Too placed second for the second year in a row, in 13:29.

On a fog-shrouded morning when 7,262 runners, walkers and wheelchair athletes took to the streets, Defar was the story. She first came to Carlsbad as a promising 18-year-old in 2002, placing 11th.

After a fifth here in 2003, then a third in ’04, Defar signified her arrival to the world at the 2004 Athens Olympics, winning her first gold at 5,000 meters.

In 2006, Defar returned to Carlsbad and won in a world road record of 14 minutes, 46 seconds, a mark that still stands. Her victory Sunday was her fourth at Carlsbad.

“Our hero! Our lion! Our flower! Our shining star!” chanted the Ethiopian spectators in their native language.

“I have been a fan of hers through the years,” said Ethiopian Yidi Wossen of Mission Valley, who posed for pictures with Defar. “Finally, I get to see her live. This is like a dream come true.”

Through four kilometers, Defar was pushed by the 21-year-old Kipkirui, who hugged Defar’s shoulder. But the pace proved too taxing for the young Kenyan.

Meseret and Carlsbad 3“I could hear her breathing hard,” said Defar. “She was tired, so I took off.”

While Defar waited until late to separate herself, Cheptegei pulled away after about two kilometers and was never seriously threatened. Later, the teenager illustrated the innocence of youth

He has already been selected to Uganda’s Olympic team in the 10,000.

“I think I could be top five (at Rio de Janeiro),” said Cheptegei.

“Really?” a bystander replied.

“A bronze medal would be all right this time,” he added.

Some perspective: Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich won the marathon at the 2012 London Olympics. It was the nation’s first Olympic medal since 1996.

Of Cheptegei’s confidence, running historian Toni (cq) Reavis said, “To be 19 and East African. You’re just bullet proof. There are no hurdles. There’s no ‘I can’ts.’ It’s all possible.”

Bernard Lagat, 41, finished fourth in the men’s race in 13:38, breaking the masters road 5K record he set a year ago at Carlsbad 5000 by two seconds.