(Originally Published on Runners World Loop 12/7/11)
When I first saw the ads for the Rock’n’Roll Las Vegas Marathon, I knew this was going to be an opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event. “STRIP AT NIGHT” was the teaser – a marathon run at night, along the famous Vegas Strip – it sounded like fun, so I immediately took advantage of their two-day early-bird special pricing way back in March.
What I didn’t realize was that this event was going to be the largest marathon I’d ever participated in; nor did I know that in the days leading up to the race, I’d be fretting over a strained calf muscle that made it nearly impossible for me to walk. I just knew that this was going to be a big party, and it turns out that I wasn’t disappointed!
Vegas is a relatively cheap destination from Tucson; my flight was under $200 and the hotel room at the Luxor was $55 per night. I might have found a better deal, but the Luxor was right next to Mandalay Bay, where the race started and finished. Unfortunately, it was also 3 miles away from the Expo, and I didn’t rent a car. So on Friday, I hobbled down the strip to get to the Expo, passing the guys and girls trying to hand me cards promising “sexy girls in your room in 20 minutes guaranteed”, strange folks dressed up as superheros, and Elvis impersonators. It was a long walk but well worth it – in addition to the usual expo hall full of things that every runner absolutely must have, there were plenty of opportunites to meet elite athletes. I got a chance to talk to Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers Kara Goucher (lower left) and Tera Moody (middle), and former World Record holder Khalid Khannouchi (upper right).
I always love meeting with these elite runners. My experience is that they are always extremely friendly, and full of encouragement. Kara signed my race bib, and Tera gave me her picture and signed it with an encouraging note. It’s quite a contrast to some other sports where the elites are so high on themselves. Elite runners tend to treat everyone with equal respect.
By the time I got back to my hotel room on Friday night, my leg was hurting quite badly. I met a Physical Therapist at the Expo who gave me a “KT” taping job. I must admit that it made me feel a bit silly because she not only had to shave my leg, but also used pink tape!
She promised it would help me, but of course this put me in jeopardy of violating one of the cardinal rules of marathon racing – you should never try anything new in a marathon.
On Saturday, I participated in the Las Vegas Great Santa Run 5k race. This event was a fundraiser for Opportunity Village, and was really crazy – they gave every participant a Santa suit in a Guinness Book of World Records effort (they did set a new record of 8,123 running Santas)! I like to do a 3 mile shakeout the day before a marathon, and this was a perfect way to do that. It also gave me a final chance to test my hurting legs to see if starting the marathon on Sunday was still a reasonable possibility. I was very fortunate that my friend Alfredo called me on Saturday morning and offered me a ride to the Santa race – otherwise I’d have had to walk another 2 miles to get to it. At the start, I met up with another friend, Bob, from Tucson. As you can see, my Santa suit was a bit small…or maybe I’ve been eating too many Christmas cookies!
It was freezing cold and extremely windy, but they had some Las Vegas performers keeping the crowd energized prior to the start. Here’s a short movie I took of the Sea of Santas:
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Before the start, a few Santas arrived by parachute (very surprising given the 30mph winds). I never actually heard any starting gun, and the whole crowd just sort of gradually started, but since I wasn’t running for a fast time I didn’t care much.
It was so weird being dressed in a Santa suit and running along in a gigantic crowd of Santas! Some people even had their dogs dressed up.
I finished the 5k in 24:44, and spent most of the rest of the day wondering how I was possibly going to run a marathon the next day. My leg was really hurting, so I gave it a lot of rest. I also removed the KT Tape – I just couldn’t bring myself to keep it on for the marathon, even though it didn’t seem to be an issue in the 5k.
Sunday was the big day. My brother Darryl decided to come in and cheer me on for the race – he’s a pilot for Continental so he grabbed a jump seat and showed up around 11 a.m. I had planned to eat earlier, but by the time we got our Subway sandwiches and ate, it was 1:30 – a bit too close to race start time. I was still limping when we went to get lunch – but I knew I was going to run no matter what. When we headed to the start line around 3:15, I was very happy to see that the wind wasn’t bad, but it was still cold (about 45F) so I decided to wear arm warmers. I put the rest of my warm gear in my bag, handed it to Darryl, and headed towards the start line.
I was in corral number 1, and there was a 3:05 pace group that I decided to tag along with. Right before the starting gun, I made a horrible discovery – I had forgotten to put on my fuel belt! I normally carry 4 packs of AccelGel with me on a marathon, and this was a disaster, but it was too late to do anything about it. We started off with a lot of excitement, and I quickly dropped in to a 7:00 per mile pace which felt quite good. My calf was behaving, but my stomach wasn’t – I had nausea pretty bad from that Subway. I ended up having to stop at a porta-pot at mile 7. An unfortunate part of my race, but it was much better to stop early and lose a couple of minutes than it was to try to carry on with a sick feeling stomach.
After my pit-stop I felt much better and picked up the pace very slightly. There were a few spots where the course did a 180 turn, so I eventually saw that I was catching back up to the 3:05 group. At about mile 9, there was a Gu station and I grabbed a couple of packets and stashed them in my arm warmers. It’s not good to use a gel different from what you’re used to in training, but it probably would have been even worse if I’d had to go the entire race without any gels. By mile 13, I had caught back up to the 3:05 pacers. Darryl was waiting there, because at the halfway point we had returned back to the starting area. He took this picture just before I turned onto The Strip for the second half (I'm in the orange).
I was feeling strong and excited because the pace was feeling easy. I crossed the half marathon point at 1:32:44, right on target. My enthusiasm didn’t last long, though, because as soon as I hit The Strip, the race merged with the half-marathon crowd, which had started about 15-20 minutes before we arrived. Actually, it wasn’t just a crowd, it was more like a human zoo – there were something like 38,000 half marathoners, and none seemed interested in providing room for anyone to pass. It got really crazy at times, and I admit to resorting to plowing my way through some groups that just weren’t willing to move aside (there was supposedly a marathoner lane on the left side of the road, but nobody seemed to respect it). As one of my friends said, it was more like a parade than a race. So my pace became rather erratic, and the side-twisting motions required to navigate through were not too friendly on my now-complaining calf muscles. It never truly thinned out, and I was dodging people the whole rest of the race.
I was totally surprised somewhere around mile 16 when I heard a friendly voice and turned to find my friend Steve, who was running the half marathon, alongside me! How he recognized me out of so many people I’ll never know, but even more surprising was that he saw me again around mile 21, when I was heading back. His cheers for me were the equivalent of an adrenaline shot!
By mile 21 I was starting to tire. The mobs of runners, lack of gels (I had already used both Gu’s), and the extra energy used by running in the dark and being careful with footing (even Las Vegas’ lights can’t replace daylight) were all combining to make me weary. I had lost the 3:05 pacers, and knew that goal was no longer realistic. At mile 23, a cigar smoker on the side of the road blew a huge cloud of smoke in our path, and somehow inhaling that caused me to take another step back in my goal – it was now just a matter of finishing without stopping. The last 5k took me over 29 minutes, enough to change my final result from a new PR to a decent-but-not-PR-time of 3:15:03. After I finished I quickly began to freeze – it was SO cold! Darryl met up with me and somehow I managed to crawl through the thick crowd of people and get back to my hotel to warm up. My right leg decided enough was enough and went into pain mode; fortunately it calmed down once I got to the room.
I felt worn, but not entirely beaten – I had finished with a decent time after spending over a week worrying about whether I’d even be able to run at all. I got to spend some time with one of my brothers, and also some friends. Which reminds me, in addition to Alfredo who ran the full marathon (his 92nd!), and Steve and Bob who ran the half, I had other friends out there as well – Shoko, Ed, and Craig among them (Craig Curley ran the half as a tuneup for the Olympic Marathon Trials in January – he was 7th overall in 64:35 – way to go Craig!) The finisher medals were really cool – they actually glow in the dark!
In my post-marathon evaluation, I’m finding myself very happy that I made the decision to go ahead and run, despite an injury. I would not necessarily recommend that everyone run on an injury, and certainly I wouldn’t have if it had been extreme. I am disappointed in myself for forgetting the gel belt in the rush to get to the starting corral – normally I plan very carefully in order to avoid mishaps like that.
In the past couple of days the internet has been abuzz with folks complaining about the disorganization. Apparently the corral system wasn’t adhered to in the half, and perhaps the Rock’n’Roll organization could have done some things differently. In fact, they have posted some apologies on FaceBook already and have identified several areas that they intend to improve. I’m reminded of the very first Rock’n’Roll Marathon ever, held in San Diego in 1998 (which I was a finisher in). At that event, they underestimated certain logistics and had a few problems, but in the end it still went on. As frustrating as these problems can be, I think that anyone entering an event of huge size like this should expect some issues. There is no reasonable way to manage a crowd of 40,000 + people without some bottlenecks. It’s possible I would have run a slightly better race without the chaotic second half, but I also had an awful lot of fun being part of history of this first nighttime race in Vegas.