As promised, here’s a recap of my experience with the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Marathon.
Nevermind that it was five months ago in November 2016. I mean, that’s a long gap. But believe me, it’s still fresh on my mind.
Let me preface this by saying that running this marathon (any marathon, or triathlon, really) is like final exams in college. You put in the grueling work ahead of time so that the test is irrelevant. Right? Except only the wiz kids I knew did that. Most were like me, hoping to hit a home run during finals to make up for a lackadaisical semester.
You just can’t get away with that in a race like this. No, you shouldn’t wait until you’re 100% ready, but put in some work ahead of time.
To me, that was the worst part of this race. Four weeks of grueling runs, lost toenails, responsible eating and drinking (UGH), and several pairs of shoes.
The race itself was incredible. Just great.
(Except for the last six miles.)
Here are more words than you care to read about it.
The Rock and Roll series of races are designed to be spectacles. This one was no different. There was a huge health fair the day before, with all kinds of vendors hawking granola this and hemp that.
Speaking of, Snoop Dogg was the pre-race performer. I’ve been to a lot of rap shows and most of them really aren’t that great because it’s a couple dudes with mics, a dancing lady or two, and a DJ in the back.
Snoop wasn’t any different, but it felt like at least half of the 20k runners knew the words to all of his songs. There was a portion of his set where he just started riffing on other people’s songs (such as Jump Around by House of Pain and NWA’s Boyz n Tha Hood).
Bananas and water were being passed out, but my biggest concern was making sure I had an empty bladder before the race started. So I was making constant trips to the port-a-potty lot across the street from whatever deserted Vegas parking lot we were in.
The race website had said no facilities would be available at the starting line, so there was an urgency to go before the race started. Then, when the time came for marathoners to head to the starting gate, it turned into absolute panic.
I won’t lie. I was one of thousands who relieved themselves behind the various buildings along the path to the starting line (which was a ¼ mile away from the staging/concert area). Send my apologies to the Greater Las Vegas Chamber, if you will.
Boy were we surprised to find an entire lot of facilities waiting, empty, when we arrived.
Then, after 30 minutes of awkward chitchat and nervous jokes, the sun was nearly down and it was time to run.
There’s nothing quite like running down a huge, wide road, lined by thousands of screaming maniacs on each side. As if my adrenaline wasn’t pumping already, I got even more wired by high-fiving random people as I ran alongside the blinding casino lights.
Supposedly this race, occurring on a November Sunday night, is the only event that closes down the Vegas strip. Spectators are sandwiched on the sidewalks and overpasses, and they have no choice really but to watch the runners and heckle or cheer them on. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The course took us all the way down the strip, a solid five miles from the starting point. From there the course veered past Fremont Street at about eight miles. After that is where things got weird.
And Now, an Interlude to Discuss Nutrition
Every endurance athlete knows that every race has two components: your activity, and your nutrition. If you’re a triathlete, then you have four sports to conquer on race day.
Hydration and nutrition are super important. Most people will burn several hundred calories per hour, not to mention all the hydration and electrolytes that go as well. I tend to burn about 900 calories per hour when running, so I figured I needed to ingest 30-60g of carbs per hour, totaling a few hundred calories if I could.
I started carb loading four days before the race, eating a bit less each day.
Race day, I ate a high-protein, high-carb meal for lunch (fish taco bowl from Wahoo’s) after a high-protein breakfast (a chickenful of eggs). For in-race eating, I took big ole thick protein bar and tore it into chunks, rolled those chunks into balls, and placed them in a ziploc bag for my pocket. I planned to eat one ball every 20 minutes. I also packed in some energy jelly beans, which I had used quite a bit while training.
(Sleep pays a big factor as well. But not the night before; two nights before is when you need to sleep as much as possible. After a week of galavanting and beer-touristing across Boston pre-race, I desperately needed the 12 hours I got Friday night before the race.)
Back to the Race
I go on that tangent only for the purpose of pointing out that this Vegas marathon has water stations every two miles, and every other one of those has Powerade. Three such stops also came with some sort of energy gels and drinks.
I didn’t think I could have too much of these items, despite having trained on a very meager fluid intake.
So after the bright lights and cheering crowds of miles 1-10 come darkness, winding roads, and desolation for miles 11-23. The race had thinned out. The most people I saw after the casinos were the kids handing out drinks at the stations, who competed and jostled with each other to win the momentary affection of the runners.
I was happy to oblige them. Every time.
By mile 15 I was in some neighborhood, a mouth full of chewy protein bar, and a stomach sloshing with Powerade and water. I had totally overdone it.
But seriously, look at this part of the course.
That red line is the marathon course. It’s a ton of winding, turning, and backtracking. Occasionally, we’d run into a parking lot divided by orange cones, and would knock out a mile just going round and round.
Scattered throughout the course, and the saving grace of this part, were 18 or so live bands. I was able to hear each one for a few minutes, and would pump my fists in the air to show them my appreciation.
Plus, my headphones were streaming a Thunder game, and they were getting killed by Serge Ibaka and the Magic. I was much happier to hear some Vegas band belting out Sister Sledge.
At one point, running laps outside an empty warehouse lit by strobes and concert lighting, an elderly man took a tumble. People were helping him immediately, but it’s a good reminder to really be careful when running mile 15 of 26 at night with concert strobe lights five feet from your face.
The Final Eight
Even veteran marathoners have always told me that the last 6-8 miles are hell on earth. They say it’s mental – that the body is beaten but trudging, and that it’s the mind looking to tap out.
I like to think my brain is stronger than my body, and my pain tolerance is high. No big deal.
So there I am hitting mile 20, hallucinating and thinking of puking up the gallon of Powerade in my belly. The Thunder game was over and the station had switched to some hockey talk…and at one point they spoke to me.
Throughout this entire race I could see the Stratosphere. At the beginning it appears miles away. Then you’re next to it. Then again it – and the Strip is sits upon – is miles away.
I knew, or at least told myself, that the Stratosphere represented the final stretch. Every time we ran toward it, I knew the end was near.
There I am at mile 21. I’m telling myself that from this point on, it’s a couple miles shorter than my usual daily runs. And the Stratosphere!
“The Strip straightaway at the beginning…that was 5 miles right…so this is it…back to the strip! LET’S FINISH STRONG!!”
In case you couldn’t tell, that was my internal monologue.
Right Turn To Hell
21 miles and I had seen plenty of people slow down (myself included), two pukers, and one dude fall.
Nothing prepared me for the carnage of what happened at mile 22.
The straight shot to the finish line I thought I was on? It veered sharply off Las Vegas Boulevard and onto Sahara. A hard right turn, away from the finish line.
I saw six people puking. I saw a man with his shirt pulled over his face, sobbing. One woman lay flat on the ground, staring up at whatever was the opposite of the road. So many of the runners I had been following now walked. Some openly cursed.
It wound into another parking lot course, then off onto another side road. The straightaway finish was gone.
Miles 21-23 were the longest, most painful miles I’ve ever run in my life.
My brain wanted to walk.
My legs were beginning to cramp.
I really thought I would just walk the final three miles and be happy with a five hour finish.
But then I thought, three miles isn’t too bad. 18 minutes when I’m cranking, so maybe….25 minutes when I’m busted?
This is where the old high school athlete woke up, and I focused intensely on my steps. I pushed my pace a bit, threw out the half-uneaten protein bar from my pockets, switched the sports talk to Metallica, and pushed.
Then, mile 24 and I’m back on the strip. Crowds are gathered on the sidewalks now. The nancy 10k and 5k runners are on the other side of the road. And then, I can see the FINISH LINE!
But then, another right turn.
This course…I swear.
Everyone was right. The last few miles are total garbage and your brain is both your biggest weakness and strength.
After the last offshoot, the finish line was a clear straight shot away. 25 miles of waiting for it, of thinking it was right around the corner. To catch it, and to see my wife and relatives cheering on the side, was one of the top 10 feelings in my life.
Final time: 3:57, a final pace of 9:05 mins/mile.
I’ll take it.
I’m probably not going to run a marathon ever again. It’s just not my distance. I like to run enough to earn my beer and a bad meal or two. 10ks and halfs will suffice just fine.
But I’m so glad I did this, and Vegas was the perfect race for it. Cool weather, plenty of spectacles, a flat but still mentally challenging course, very professional staff and decent swag. I couldn’t ask for more.
But it’s just a marathon, right? There are people who do these every couple weeks. I’m sure one of my ultra-marathon friends is reading this and thinking, “How quaint!”
I’m proud of it. It’s something that just 1% of the population will ever achieve (totally making that number up). More than that, it was something 20 year old me couldn’t have done.
30 year-old me might have had the mental toughness, but not the physical strength.
I’m glad I can say I did it at 35. I’m glad to say I didn’t fold when things got brutal this time around, which I certainly can’t claim too much in my life.
From here, I go back to triathlons. They’re hard, but just when you get mentally broken there’s a transition to another sport to distract you. I might throw in a half marathon or two this year as well.
I’m probably done with the true long distance endurance events.
Well,maybe there’s a half-iron in my near future.
Just so long as I don’t have to see the Stratosphere.