So I had registered for races in Las Vegas, NV and Las Cruces, NM, put together (and followed) a pretty solid training plan and had a plan for getting to both races…. The only thing left to do was to put my plan into action on race weekend.
My flight to Vegas was fairly uneventful and so were the first couple nights at the Excalibur, which was where I booked my room (other than winning a few hundred bucks at Roulette….. which I promptly lost again on my next trip to Vegas but that’s another story) and I was able to go to the fitness expo and pick up my race packet on Friday just like I planned.
I had a decent sized group of friends that I was planning on meeting up with over the course of the weekend. My friend Alfred had originally signed up for the full marathon but switched to the half after his sister signed up for it a few weeks later so they could do the race together. They were only doing the race in Vegas so they didn’t need to get there as far in advance as I did, and their flight didn’t actually get in until after I was already on my way to Las Cruces. This was not a big deal though because the schedule I had laid out gave us enough time to meet up near the start line after I got back to Vegas. My friend Janelle came with for the trip too and was a lifesaver when it came to helping me out with all of the traveling. Another one of our friends happened to have already planned a trip to Vegas that same weekend with a group of her friends and once we found out we were all going to be there at the same time, we decided to have everyone meet up after the race.
The flight to El Paso and the drive to Las Cruces all went according to plan too. Packet pickup was in the lobby of the hotel that I was staying at, which made things even easier. The race in Las Cruces is a very small race so there wasn’t a big expo (it was three tables and one of them was the one with all of the race numbers). So even though I didn’t get there until about 15 minutes before they were ready to pack up for the evening, I really didn’t miss anything. After that, it was time to go check out the course really quickly and then get something to eat. I also saw the world’s largest chile pepper….
The race in Las Cruces is probably one of the best kept secrets as far as scenic races in the United States go. It was easily the smallest half marathon I’ve ever done – only around 450 runners total, the start and finish line were both at the local high school, and instead of corrals, everyone pretty much lined up in the parking lot and started running at the same time when the race director blew an air horn. It was a nice laid back race and also one of the most scenic I’ve ever done. The course is mostly flat and loops around some desert roads that are surrounded by mountains, and because of the small number of runners, by about the first half mile or so, everyone had separated out and was running their own pace (as opposed to some of the bigger races I’ve done where I’ve spent the first several miles weaving through crowds). I got to watch the sun come up over the mountains while I was running and even though it eventually got pretty hot outside, the race finished early enough that the temperatures never got above the mid 60’s.
Another benefit of running a smaller race: unless you’re an elite runner, no matter how fast you are, there are going to be a certain percentage of people who will finish a race before you and a certain percentage of people who finish a race after you. For me, those percentages are fairly consistent – I typically finish in the top 40% or so…. With a smaller group of runners, it was no different percentage-wise – about 40% of the people running the race finished ahead of me and about 60% finished behind me…. but when there are only 450 runners, being in the 40th percentile puts you right around 180th place…. So when I finally met up with Alfred in Vegas a few hours later, while we were standing in the start corrals with 50,000 other runners, he asked me how I did that morning and my response was “psh…. I finished in the top 200….”
After the race, I was able to get back to the hotel, shower, and change into the running clothes I was planning on wearing in the next race and then head downstairs, check out of the hotel, hop in the car and head to El Paso in perfect time. Everything was still going according to plan and after I got to the airport I even had enough time to eat lunch and head over to the gate. That’s when I looked up at the monitors and noticed that my flight was delayed. Apparently, the plane was coming from Los Angeles and there were some storms moving through the area that were preventing it from taking off. First the monitors only said 10 minutes…. no biggie…. until 10 minutes turned into 40 minutes and I started doing calculations in my head to try and figure out what the absolute latest time was that I’d be able to land and still get through the airport, find a cab and make my way to the start line (luckily I didn’t check any luggage). I originally planned on having a two hour window for all of those things, but that window was shrinking fast. In the meantime, I was standing at the gate wearing race clothes and stretching my legs while the people around me gave me funny looks.
Luckily the flight wasn’t delayed any longer – we finally took off almost an hour late, but it’s a fairly quick flight and with Southwest’s first come, first served seating policy I checked in early enough to get a seat fairly close to the front of the plane so I didn’t have to wait very long after we landed. Then I ran into the one other delay that I hadn’t anticipated – traffic.
The airport in Las Vegas is normally only a 10-15 minute drive from most of the hotels on the strip…. the problem is that the strip is the main road that people take to get to anywhere in the city, so shutting it down completely for a race has a ripple effect on traffic for miles. It would be the equivalent of shutting down Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue, and State Street in Chicago all at the same time…. That 10-15 minute cab ride suddenly turned into a 35 minute cab ride and I was running out of time to get to the race. The start line of the race was in front of Mandalay Bay and I ended up asking the cab driver to stop kiddie corner to the back of the hotel because it was about as close as we were going to get and I only had less than 10 minutes left to spare before the start of the race. I was happy that Janelle was there because she was able to take my bag and bring instead of having to look around for gear check and I sent Alfred a text to let him know that I probably wouldn’t see him until after the race….
Now at this point, for as much as I was starting to panic…. being late to this race was really not that big of a deal. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that there were so many runners that even though my estimated finish time was under two hours I still got placed in corral 24 (out of 58) and since they were waiting about 90 seconds between each corral, I could have gotten there a half hour late and still crossed the start line when I was supposed to. And I even somehow managed to find Alfred too. Actually Janelle managed to find him and then she told him where I was and he worked his way over along with his sister and one of her friends that was also doing the race. We ended up having plenty of time to chat for a little while and even take a few pictures before we actually got to start running.
As far as actually running the race goes, when it first started, I felt better than I’ve felt at mile 13 of any full marathon that I’ve ever done – my legs were a little bit stiff, but I had trained for this pretty well and had plenty of time to put on dry clothes, eat, and stretch in between runs so I was feeling pretty good. Plus it had gotten pretty dark outside by the time we actually started running and running down the Vegas strip at night was an awesome experience that motivated me to push my way through any stiffness that I was starting to feel.
Things started to change around mile 9 though. At that point I had run the equivalent of 22 miles so far that day and even with all the training I did and the time in between runs, all of the rushing around between the races finally started to get to me and all of the hours I had between the two races suddenly felt compressed to the point where I was starting to feel like I had been doing nothing but running all…..day……long….. The funny thing is that my legs weren’t even really that sore at this point – I just felt drained and mentally exhausted.
One of the things that makes Vegas a challenging race to run is the crowds. The experience was completely the opposite of Las Cruces where I got to find my own pace and run virtually alone in the desert for a couple hours – in this race, no matter how fast or slow I went, there was never a time when I wasn’t surrounded by other runners…. but not only that, there were tons of spectators lined up along the strip watching the race and besides all of those people there were other people who just happened to be in Vegas for the weekend and were randomly walking around and heading to the different casinos, etc….. Now don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of things I like about big races like this that have a carnival atmosphere to them but in this case I was starting to feel a bit claustrophobic. Fortunately though I had friends that were running with me who were able to help distract me a bit…. and at some point during the race Alfred’s sister mentioned that the longest training run she did was only five miles and she wasn’t sure if she would be able to run the entire course. So when we started talking about maybe slowing our pace down a little bit, I didn’t make any objections.
At that point though, Alfred and I decided to make things a little more interesting – we saw a liquor store in the distance and started to talk about how we thought that it might be a fun idea to run inside and grab a couple beers to drink on the course…. and it turns out that Alfred happened to have some cash with him. Now, you don’t have to tell me that drinking beer while running (and most likely dehydrated after doing another race that morning and all of the running around in between races, etc…) is not the smartest idea…. but we were in Vegas…. and for anyone who hasn’t done this particular race before, the best way I can describe it is to say that it’s more like a big long constantly moving party than a normal race. And nobody in our group was going to be breaking any speed records that night so why not? When we got close enough, Alfred and I ran off the course, into the liquor store, to the beer cooler in the back, made our selections, ran back up to the counter to pay for our beer and then ran outside and met back up with our other friends, all while constantly moving our legs. The other runners around us thought we were hilarious. They gave us high fives and cheered for us. A lot of people who have been running for a long time have memories of different races that will stay with them forever…. this was definitely one of mine.
The last few miles were kind of a blur…. the beer thing was funny but my body seemed to keep trying to tell me it was time to stop, I was still feeling a little bit boxed in by all of the crowds, and by that time my legs and back were starting to really stiffen up and feel sore. What seemed to make things even worse was the position of the finish line: the race finishes in front of the Mirage Hotel… which is great except for the fact that the Mirage is lit up so well that you can start to see it from about mile 10 and the lighting around it creates a weird illusion of making it like it’s closer than it really is while you’re running towards it. Also there were no mile markers after mile 11 (or honestly they may have been there and I just didn’t see them) so basically for the last two miles of the race I kept thinking to myself that I’d be done in just a couple more minutes but no matter how far I ran, even though I could see where the finish line was, it never seemed to be getting any closer.
We finally did make it to the finish line though – all those motivational quotes that you read about how you can keep pushing yourself long after you think you can’t anymore are true. As rough as those last few miles were there was no way I was ever going to actually let myself stop. I was utterly exhausted by the time I made it across the finish line but I did it. The four of us crossed the finish line together and still had our beers with us so we clinked cans right after we finished the race and the announcer at the finish line made some comment about how Alfred and I were a pair of lucky guys who managed to pick up a couple ladies on the course. It was pretty funny but I was so exhausted that I didn’t actually realize how funny it was until I thought back about it and laughed the next morning.
After the race was over, the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else was get away from the crowds and go someplace quiet for a little while (not an easy thing to do in Las Vegas). Alfred and his sister and her friend were staying with some relatives so we made some quick plans to go shower and change and then meet back up later and in the meantime Janelle and our other friend Jessica found me and walked back to the Excalibur with me.
Once I got back to the room, I took what felt like one of the best showers I had ever taken in my life, changed, and then sat down and relaxed for a few minutes. I knew that I had just done something really cool that I would be telling stories about forever… but at that point I really just wanted to rest. I remember going downstairs to eat steak tacos at Dick’s Last Resort (I was craving any kind of protein I could get at that point) and then going back up to my room and exchanging a few text messages with Alfred about how none of us were really up for a wild night on the town…. and then at some point I fell asleep.
The next morning, I was still sore, but I felt great – I couldn’t believe that everything came together like that and worked out the way I planned it. If anyone ever asks me to do something like that again, I’ll probably have to politely decline…. but man what an awesome weekend that was!