Stars dot landscape for Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon

Local runners dreaming breaking the tape as the first finisher at Sunday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon and Marathon in New Orleans might want to pick a different time to fantasize.

The field of 16,000-plus runners includes an impressive group of fleet-footed competitors, including both the men’s and women’s 2012 Olympic gold-medalists in the 5,000-meter run.

Headlining the field is 29-year-old Mo Farah, who pulled off an impressive double-gold performance in last year’s Olympics by winning both the 5,000 and 10,000-meter runs in his London hometown.

“He’s one of the most sought-after athletes in the world right now,” said Matt Turnbull, Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans’ elite athletes coordinator. “We’re delighted that we were able to attract him down here to New Orleans.”

Farah, whose 1:00:23 personal best in the half marathon is a Great Britain record, will compete in the half marathon.

While Farah comes into the race as the favorite, he’ll be challenged by several other elite athletes, including Kenyan Martin Lel.

Lel won the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans half marathon in 2010 and is a three-time champion in the prestigious London Marathon.

Past champions of the ING New York City Marathon and Los Angeles Marathon will also race on Sunday.

Turnbull thinks the field is well-stocked with elite athletes because of the timing. It falls nicely between the Boston and New York City marathons.

“Once I looked at the calendar … I knew we had a chance at putting together one of the best half marathons in the U.S.,” Turnbul said.

The women’s side figures to be just as competitive as the men’s, headlined by Ethiopian Meseret Defar, the 2012 Olympic gold-medalist in the 5,000.

“She’s expecting some fast times,” Turnbull said. “She could tell from the course, she wants to make a statement on Sunday.”

American distance runners Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan, both of whom represented the United States as 2012 Olympic marathoners, will challenge Defar. Flanagan finished 10th and Goucher finished 11th at the Olympics last year.

“The U.S. is very fortunate to have two of their shining lights of distance running in Shalene Flanagan and Kara Goucher,” Turnbull said. “We’re delighted to have those two come in.”

New Orleans’ flat topography served as a tantalizing prospect to the elite runners looking to set a personal best — but Turnbull thinks the stakes could eventually be higher.

“One day we could have a world record here,” Turnbull said. “I’m not sure we’re going to get world records this weekend, but we should be seeing some of the fastest times ever run in the U.S.”

The race isn’t just a gathering for world-class runners. The Rock ‘n’ Roll series started in 1998 with the goal of livening a grueling physical challenge.

Live bands will be stationed at each mile and cheerleaders will dot the route to motivate runners as they make their way toward the finish.

“We want to make running an enjoyable experience for every type of athlete, whether they’re fast or slow or somewhere in between,” said Event Director Malain McCormick. “The course is power-packed and charged with energy.”

Beginning in downtown New Orleans, runners will meander through uptown on St. Charles Ave. and through City Park before finishing at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

“New Orleans has the perfect mix of an awesome race: a flat and fast course and some scenery that you can’t see anywhere else in the country,” McCormick said.

The race figures to have a healthy contingent of Baton Rouge runners making the trek to New Orleans.

Jenni Peters, founder of Varsity Sports running store in Baton Rouge, said roughly 70 members of the Varsity Sports running group will run this weekend.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll will serve as the culmination of the group’s distance running season.

“This almost is just a symbolic end-of-season run,” Peters said. “It’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, there’s bands every mile and it’s in New Orleans, so for most Baton Rouge runners it’s a whole lot of fun and a hard run.”