In June 2017, Chinese-owned Ironman bought Competitor Group Holdings Inc. and its prize properties — the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series including the original event in San Diego.
Rarely mentioned in press coverage: The Carlsbad 5000 went with the deal, too.
On Tuesday, a 32-year-old Carmel Valley ultradistance runner announced her acquisition of the iconic “Party by the Sea,” with running legend Meb Keflezighi, 43, “brought in” as part owner.
Ashley Gibson, who prefers trail runs but completed last April’s London Marathon in 4 hours and 2 minutes, said she self-funded the purchase via her 3-month-old company Groundwork Endurance, a “one-manager” limited liability company.
She didn’t disclose the cost. But to local runners, the “world’s fastest 5K” is priceless.
In fact, the sale may have saved the race from oblivion.
Bob Babbitt, whose Competitor Magazine featured the Carlsbad 5000 on its cover 20 years in a row, said he was concerned that the race “was going away.”
It still hasn’t begun accepting entries for the 2019 races — only four months away.
The fact that Carlsbad 5000 operators didn’t invite 2018 finishers to sign up for the following year was a signal the race was going to be “offloaded,” Babbit said in a phone interview.
(Gibson promised that carlsbad5000.com would begin accepting reservations in the next two weeks, with the bare-bones website inviting runners to sign up for alerts.)
Dan Cruz, longtime publicity agent for the two-day series of races, will work with Gibson as well, vowing to return the event to its “historical prominence on the global running calendar.”
He said: “We want to get those American records back that have been broken over the past couple years” — by Ben True (13:20) last year in Boston and Molly Huddle (14:50), also in Boston, in April 2015.
Carlsbad champions still hold the men’s and women’s world 5K road-running records — 12:59.5 by Kenya’s Sammy Kipketer in 2000 and 14:46 by Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar in 2006.
Matt Turnbull will return as elite athlete recruiter, but Cruz said: “Right out of the gate, it might not be 1998 again. [But] you can’t have Carlsbad without great athletes.”
Carlsbad also gained fame for its mix of masters age-groupers, kids and run-of-the-mill joggers. Also its party atmosphere with a Pizza Port beer garden (which will be back).
“It’s one of the few running events that’s also a spectator event,” Babbitt said of the festival founded by Elite Racing’s Tim Murphy in 1986.
But in 2018, it had 6,031 finishers (compared with a routine 10,000), according to the Carlsbad Tourism Business Improvement District, which gave the event $15,000.
Cruz and Babbitt said Carlsbad didn’t fit the business model of Ironman, a Florida-based concern whose parent World Triathlon Corp. was bought by China’s Wanda Group for $650 million in 2015.
Carlsbad “didn’t fit in the portfolio” of Ironman, whose marathons and triathlons attract tens of thousands and where cities bid for them to put “heads in beds,” Babbitt said.
So Babbitt is excited that local ownership will give it “TLC” and revive its standards after years of less-than-stellar elite marks and declining purses. (After $55,800 for combined men’s and women’s prizes in 2015, the purse dropped to $28,800 in 2017.)
So who is the woman jump-starting the race?
Born in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Gibson grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and studied journalism and advertising at the University of North Texas in Denton.
She worked in marketing agencies and while living in Dallas with her husband, Travis, also an ultradistance specialist, decided to “explore life in other places.”
She said they were “really focused on geographies that are more conducive for active lifestyle and being outdoors and … in nature. San Diego’s a good spot for that.”
Gibson took a job with Competitor Group, doing digital marketing of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, and moved to its San Diego base nearly five years ago. She stayed with Ironman after the sale (and move to Tampa) for almost a year, then left to do some traveling.
But having been part of Rock ‘n’ Roll leadership at Ironman, she knew the Carlsbad 5000 had stepchild status and might be shopped.
“Having done the event only a handful of times, I knew that it was very special,” she said. “It obviously has a celebrated history. And I immediately raised my hand for it.”
Gibson said other potential buyers existed and “conversations” were taking place, so she expressed an interest to Josh Furlow, the former CEO of Competitor Group.
“I was one of the first to say I’d love it if it’s an option,” she said. “And I’m thankful that it turned out to work that way.”
The course won’t change in 2019, she said, although she’s looking at later alterations to avoid the nuisance of planning around train schedules — runners crossing tracks twice on the course.
She said Olympian and Boston Marathon winner Keflezighi was brought on as a part owner of the organization. (She’s not sure of his title.)
“He’s on the ownership team because we want him to feel involved, and in decisions shaping the event,” with a focus on youth development, high school runners and community engagement, Gibson said. “He’s an athlete who will always be at the finish line high-fiving runners.”
She expects him to run the 3.1-mile hairpin-turn race as well.
“I am delighted to join the local ownership team in building upon the legacy of the Carlsbad 5000,” Keflezighi, a San Diego High School product, said in a statement. “There is no better place than the San Diego coast to celebrate the sport that has meant so much to me.”
He said he raced the Carlsbad 5000 twice in his professional career and “both experiences were unforgettable. Having the opportunity to now help shape the direction of this amazing event for future generations is truly an honor.”
He said his three daughters plan to run in their first Junior Carlsbad — its 30th year with races from 25 yards to a mile, “and we can’t wait to get more kids throughout the area to join in on the fun.”
Former publisher Babbitt also is excited — and hopeful.
“I’m 1000 percent confident in Ashley and her team that they’ll make the event great,” he said.
Updated at 2:45 p.m. Dec. 5, 2018