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Race Report: Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll (Half)Marathon 2015

I love Vegas… despite the fact that it’s designed explicitly to destroy you. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, there’s convenient access to people and machines happy to divest you of all post and future income (or the incomes of friends, family, and gullible enemies if you can get your hands on it, Vegas doesn’t judge). If spending money on the bleep blooping siren song of the casino floor isn’t your thing, there’s a bevy of borderline carnival barkers (ranging from vaguely creepy, genderless, hoodie wearing street hustlers, to the absolutely terrifying besuited hotel employees, who seem to be motion activated, and leap at anyone who wanders into their sensory sphere with an intensity usually reserved for mothers rescuing children from traffic) willing to sign you up for a show, a tour, a marriage, or just a general purpose bank statement-ectomy. And if there’s any money left in your wallet to keep it from making an underfed tamogotchi sad face, you can use it to start breaking yourself down physically as well. Vegas features some of the best restaurants in the world, but let’s not kid ourselves, your version of the meat sweats are going to come courtesy of the buffets, which stretch as far as the eye can see (allowing for that fact that regular buffet attendees can obtain a girth that doesn’t just obscure your vision of the fruit salad, but can often block out the radiance of even Vegas’s overpowered sun). And if you find your other “appetites” have been left unsatisfied, feel free to step just outside the city limits and indulge in a whole different type of roulette with one of the state’s many legal prostitutes. And don’t worry about your willpower overcoming temptation, allowing you to escape somewhat unscathed. There’s a solution for that too, because alcohol flows literally cheaper than water in this desert, and even comes disguised in slushie form to help trick your brain if you’re not typically a drinker. Oh, and by the way, don’t smoke? Doesn’t matter. Everyone else does, and the billowing cloud of depression will follow you everywhere, gently tapping you on the shoulder to whisper somewhat-less-than-sweet nothings in your ear. Or, failing all of that, if you go in November for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon you can even attempt to health yourself to death.

If you run, you’ve probably heard of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon series. It’s not bigger than God, but in  all fairness the holy one had a bit of a head start. As of this writing they’ve got races scattered across the whole of the United States, and on into several other countries as well. That, combined with the sheer size of some of these races (their website boasts of 40,000 people showing up for their Vegas event this year) probably leaves them with a reach of close to a million people a year, and growing. Not bad for a business model that relies on people paying money to torture themselves. The benefit of signing up for race with a monolith like this is their sheer size gives them the muscle to goad cities into allowing some truly interesting race courses. For example, in Vegas both the half and full marathons cruise down the middle of the famous Vegas strip at night, when it’s lit up bright enough to blind a halogen lamp. The only other way to get that view on foot is to crank your mind out on LSD first, so you’re willing to brave the traffic and near certain chance of ending up on one of those “unfortunate statistic” lists.

I’d actually run the full marathon in Vegas the year before and had such a good time I’d immediately signed up to do it again. A choice I was living to regret. Physically I haven’t been the same since the Pikes Peak Marathon, and for a while now my body’s just felt kinda broken down. Even when I manage to blow through the resulting malaise and really attack a  workout I’ve generally managed injure myself. And so it was about 2 and a half weeks before the race, while flying through a plyometrics workout I felt something twinge a little funny in my left knee during the up portion of a jump, and when I landed the whole thing just kinda collapsed beneath me. Since then the leg hasn’t been much good. I’m mobile, but I’ve generally been limping whenever I try to run (after the first mile or so the pain fades to the background a bit, and I even out, but it always comes back again and signals the end of a training session before I would have) and there are days where I even have trouble bending the stupid thing at all. None of which was gonna stop me from trying to run this marathon. Mostly because I’d already paid for it… and I’m an idiot. A big, flaming, consequences-be-damned, idiot.

In any case when I woke up on race day the leg was actually feeling as good as it had since the initial injury. It bent fine, and when I took a walk to go discover what Vegas had to offer in the way of a healthy, race day, breakfast I only felt one or two very minor pangs. So far so good, and after a day of tortuously little activity to keep it that way (going easy in Vegas is vaguely akin to trying to crash a car softly, it’s conceptually bankrupt and before it’s over you will be in pain, but once the dust settles you’ll try to convince yourself you did a good job of it anyway) I was still moving fine on my way to the prerace concert.

As a brief aside from the main narrative, if you’ve run a decent length race in a moderately sized city before you’ve probably gotten used to seeing live bands (of varying quality) playing alongside the course, so Rock ‘n’ Roll’s promise to live up to its name by including this “perk” likely doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. Where I will give them credit, at least in Vegas, is in including a prerace headliner concert with an act worthy of the title. Last year they were supposed to have Snoop Dogg do it, until he (I swear this was the actual verbiage they used in their email on the subject) “dropped us like we were hot,” so they replaced him with Macklemore, coming fresh off his Grammy wins. This year they brought in Kid Rock, and I gotta say I felt for the guy, or really anyone performing one of these concerts. It has to be weird to know you’re a big name star used to putting on shows for thousands of screaming fans, and suddenly find yourself in front of people who don’t seem to care much at all. Most of the runners only seem to show up out of curiosity for a show they know is a free perk, and for a large percentage of them this is not for a performer they would have paid to see given the choice. But if you like Kid Rock (and I’ll admit I do) he gave it his all, and you probably enjoyed yourself (random highlight of the show: during the bridge of a song Rock declared that he too “could do that Justin Bieber shit,” and proceeded to line up with two other band members and start stepping back and forth clapping their hands while half-heartedly spinning around in rhythm, it was hilarious). And, if you don’t like Kid Rock, odds are you at least found his endless supply of hats somewhere between fascinating and endearing (seriously the guy seemed to change his hat, and only his hat, with every song).

Back to the race itself, they use a corral system to line you up, and since it’s gotta accommodate 40,000 people it stretches back quite a ways. Forty eight corrals in fact, with the last one taking about an hour to get up to the start line from what I hear. Luckily I was all the way up in corral six and got to zoom off pretty quickly, except… Well it’s time for a basic complaint you’ll probably here from me a lot if you frequent this blog, but people need to be a little more realistic about where they line up. The corrals exist to try and keep the slower people in the back so they don’t block the way for the faster runners (and likewise don’t get run over by them), keeping everyone moving along at a fairly smooth and enjoyable pace. But it never really works like that because people tend to line up based on self delusions so firm, they actually have legal residence there and require passport stamps and a trip through customs to get to the race location. In this case part of the problem could be traced to the fact that the corrals were based on self reported predicted finish times, and I’ve noticed many people predict their finish times with slightly less accuracy than they predict lotto numbers, so there were a bevy of people in the corral around me who had clearly never run a single mile at the pace they were going to have to average to meet that corral’s time.  And I’m not really sure how to fix the problem for a race like this. It’s Vegas, on the strip, at night. Some people (like moi) are going to take it seriously, because we take everything seriously, but for quite a few people this thing amounted to an extended fun run, so asking for a qualifying time to line people up seems a bit extreme. Worse still though, for the people of my ilk, since the corrals were based on self reporting there wasn’t much reason to police them, and so even people who’d been honest enough to get a corral number based on a realistic guess at where they would finish seemed free to mosey on up front anyhow. The end result was a very slow push out of the gate, and even once I’d broken out of my group and could run a little freer I quickly ran into the back of the corral ahead of me (I found a group of walkers from the next corral up less than one minute into the race, even accounting for the head start their corral had on mine that means they couldn’t even run for two whole minutes, but somehow felt in spite of that they absolutely deserved to be right up at the front).

The course starts just across the street from the Luxor (that’s the pyramid shaped hotel with the giant beacon on top, should be easy to find) and heads south so you can flip a U-turn around the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, before heading back north towards the madness of the strip proper. I was taking a pretty casual pace, both because the slower crowds made for some difficult weaving, and just to be a little easy on the rotten knee in the early going. Besides, if you’re running the full marathon only the first half is on the strip, so you want to soak in the sights while you can (pro tip: don’t get too caught up staring up in the air at the lights, Vegas uses those little plastic caps to mark its street lanes, rather than the classic painted lines, and it’s really easy to trip on one if you’re not keeping at least one eye towards the asphalt). But a little after the 5k mark problems started to develop. To begin with, the wind had been kicking up a fuss all day, and as night settled it was shifting into overdrive. It was bad on the strip, but the further north we got (and the farther away from the sheltering presence of all those monolithic hotels) the more it asserted its presence. I don’t keep a wind vane handy but I heard varying reports of 30 to 55 mph, and you could see it taking a toll on the course around us. The array of things I personally saw tipping over and/or blowing away included a mile marker, several garbage cans, the entire top half of a median palm tree, and first the filled cups from a water table, followed by the table itself. Mix in a little intermittent rain, and you’ve got some unpleasant shit. And on a more personal note this was also about the point where my knee sent up it’s first signal flare. It didn’t hurt yet, but it started popping with every single step, and I went into high alert.

But before I explain what finally went a little too wrong, it’s time for one more race tip. It’s pretty common to see people stop at the aid stations. Some people need the rest, others can’t drink water while running,  and some just don’t like to. And that’s all fine, but there’s a technique to stopping. If you want to pause at a water station, don’t just dead freeze in your tracks where ever you happen to be when the urge hits. Instead, step into the crowd of volunteers handing out the cups. That way you’re not coming to a sudden halt directly in the path of a bunch of other runners, which is both rude, and possibly dangerous for them and you. Remember, just about everybody is suddenly angling onto the same part of the course, aiming to grab some water, which will turn even the widest areas into, essentially, locked down singletrack.  I’ve seen some fairly extensive pileups because of this in few of the more crowded races I’ve been a part of, and not suprisingly, I bring this up now because it’s what spelled doom for me in this race. Charging along into one of the water stations a guy slipped in front of me, snatched a cup from a volunteer, and didn’t even slow down for a step or two, just suddenly froze solid as if caught off guard by rapid onset rigor mortis. I had to jerk backwards to avoid running into him, and when I planted my foot hard to stop my forward momentum it slid sideways on the wet ground and I felt my injured knee give way. It was one of those moments where you don’t actually cry out in pain because you suddenly find there’s no air left in your body. The sensations flooding through my leg were so bad that my entire range of vision went white, and I actually couldn’t see for a second. When I did come back to myself, I put the leg down pretty tenderly and found it could hold weight, and after a few more moments was managing a sort of skip step that got me moving forward again. After about a block of that I had it down to just an exaggerated hobble, and in another block, with my jaw set against the pain, I’d turned it into mere limp and was back in the race… kinda. This particular marathon had a somewhat unique feature that allowed you to switch race distances on the fly without filing any paperwork, just by choosing not to follow the final turn off into the empty darkness of the second stage of the marathon course, and instead chugging along with the rest of the half marathoners and letting the remaining timing mats pick up on your altered course choice. I’ve run a race on a broken foot (mostly because I’d paid for it before I broke the foot, and being the cheap bastard that I am, I was damned if that money was gonna go to waste), I’ve had races where I’ve fallen and opened holes big enough to bleed myself dizzy before the finish line, and in one particular race I got so cold that I started having fractured delusions and blacked out a few chunks of time, but I’ve never once started a race and didn’t manage to complete it. Until this one. I set out to do the marathon, but with the wind howling, the rain pissing along at an ebb and flow, and every step I took turning me cross eyed with pain, I made the executive decision to roll into the half marathon and just get the damn thing over with. Being a little pain drunk I even tried to speed up and just get out of there as quick as I could. It didn’t work of course, and my pace flagged hard towards the end, but I crossed the finish line, and can say, while I didn’t run the race I wanted, at least I finished something.

Overall Impressions:  What can I say? The concept of this race should tell you if you whether you would enjoy it. If you’re one of those trail runners who can’t even imagine polluting your shoes with even the barest touch of asphalt, this clearly isn’t the race for you. But if boogieing along under the bright lights of Vegas sounds even a little bit like fun I can almost guarantee you it will be. A bit of advice though, for most people the half marathon is really all you need to run. It takes you through all the highlights of the course, with as little meandering as possible. The full marathon sees everything too (and last year even had the added bonus of passing through the Fremont Street Experience, something neither course had on the docket this year), but it also pads its distance by throwing you through some very remote areas of town. I’m not saying that it can’t be fun (especially if you like to see fenced off airport runways for, what I’m sure, are very personal reasons), in fact I enjoyed the hell out of it when I ran it last year. But let’s face it, there’s something intrinsically wrong with me. For most people it’s going to amount to a big come down after the exciting glitz and glamour of the strip, and mostly not worth the extra effort. Stick to the half, and when you finish before happy hour’s over you’ll thank me.