I have a strange love affair with marathons. Something about the literal sweat and camaraderie of strangers running for 26.2 miles restores my faith in humanity for a few hours once a year. Wars rage, hatred is everywhere, but on marathon day people give water and snacks to folks they’ve never met. It’s like a big mushy group hug has taken over the entire city.
There is an astonishing range of genuine human emotion on display when people push their bodies past their physical limit. Pain is untempered. Joy is uncensored. The honesty is surprising and endearing.
I’ve never actually run in a marathon. In fact, I sort of hate running. I’ve watched many, volunteered at one and after the 2008 Las Vegas Marathon on December 7, covered one as well.
My relationship with marathons was born at an address – 85 Waban Hill Rd. N. in Newton, Massachusetts. The house I grew up in sits less than a block from the Boston Marathon course, just off mile 21 near the top of the infamous Heartbreak Hill. From the time I can remember, every April meant going to the marathon, watching and cheering as thousands of runner streamed by in a river of pumping running shoes and race numbers.
Marathon Monday, as it’s known in Boston, is best described as a local holiday. Major streets are shut down, schools are closed, and much of the city spends the morning and early afternoon on a sidewalk along the course, encouraging the marathoners as they make their way east to the finish line in the heart of downtown.
Until this past Sunday, I had never experienced a marathon outside of Boston. As I rolled out of bed at 4:45 a.m. on race day, the sky still black but for the lights of the Strip, I realized I had no idea what to expect.
Comparing the 4-year-old Las Vegas Marathon to Boston’s 113-year tradition is, of course, unfair. But while I spent six hours reporting on and photographing the Las Vegas race, it was also impossible for me not to.
I watched the runners slog through mile after mile of urban streets to make their way back to the shining beacon of Mandalay Bay, and a single question hung over my head: Where was everybody?
The Las Vegas marathon course was largely deserted. Except for the water stations, the cops blocking traffic and an occasional spectator awaiting the arrival of a friend or family member, the sidewalks were empty. No cheering crowds urged the runners. No drunken college students shouted the names off official race bibs. While more than 15,000 people ran through Las Vegas, virtually no one was watching.
I blame the lack of community in Las Vegas. I blame poor advertising. I blame the marathon’s newness, and more than anything, I blame the 6 a.m. start. Getting fans to a Major League baseball game at 6 a.m. would be difficult in most cities; getting them to a marathon proved impossible.
In fact, the early morning start was a slap in the face in more ways than one. Not only did it mean the course was nearly spectator-free, but it also meant the runners had to wake up pre-dawn to get to the race on time. While the course started with participants pouring over a blocked off Strip, even the momentous closing of Las Vegas Boulevard felt like a backhanded compliment. “Sure, we’ll let you run on the Strip, but only at an hour that is totally devoid of traffic, and we’re opening it back up to cars as soon as you pass.” A marathon running down the Strip at a reasonable hour would become a tourist attraction. At 6 a.m., it was more like a mirage.
Of course, there were bright spots to the fourth running of the Vegas marathon. One hundred and seventy-eight Elvis impersonators ran in costume, one wheeling a boom box and beers in a stroller in front of him. Forty-seven couples were married or renewed their vows as part of a run-through wedding ceremony along the course at mile five. Most of the couples sported veils, garters, bowties or other wedding appropriate accessories in addition to their running garb.
At the halfway point of the half marathon, a local marching band serenaded the runners with current radio hits, and along the home stretch a crew of drummers pounded in the racers’ final minute on the course.
But when it was all said and done, the marathon seemed like a non-event in a city that excels at throwing parties and hosting huge events. Much of the full marathon course was run on small residential streets – boring for the runners and less inviting for spectators. The final stretches of the race were on Frank Sinatra Drive – hidden away behind the Strip, which would have been an obvious home stretch to pump up exhausted runners.
One racer, who said she hit her wall around mile 21, complained that the last miles of the marathon were the most dull to run. The adrenalin boost of a better finish would have really helped, she imagined.
Still, I left the marathon with the warm fuzzies. I was still thrilled to watch my roommate hurdle over the finish line of her first full marathon, a giant smile plastered to her otherwise exhausted face. Vegas’ race has all the potential in the world, but it needs the same support and encouragement that the runners do when they hit that 21st mile wall: Keep it up, Vegas marathon! Fight for a better finish! You can do it! Next year just don’t start doing it at 6 a.m.