It’s 7 a.m. on Sunday morning and I am standing in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, shivering. It’s partly from the 40-degree cold and partly from the nerves of what I’m about to do. I haven’t had an ounce of caffeine, but feel like I’m two cups deep with no breakfast. And I’m stuck in this damn corral.
It’s corral no. 15. And it’s for people who, like me, think they’ll be running the Zappos Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon at about a 10-minute mile pace for a grand total of 130 minutes pounding the Vegas pavement. Altogether there are around 28,000 runners and walkers shooting for 13.1 or 26.2 miles packed into corals at the south end of the Strip. It’s a bit like being stuck in a herd of Nike-sponsored cattle. The upside is the body heat radiating from the crowd. It’s getting downright toasty.
The fact that I’m running this half-marathon is odd, and not because it’s the Vegas race chock full of running Elvi—including one crafty lady who affixed wide swatches of gold sequins to her running shorts—and brides and grooms getting married en route around mile two or three. It’s strange because I’ve always viewed marathoning as a spectator sport. Long-limbed, all-weather weirdoes do the running; I do the spectating, with plenty of eating, drinking and cheering on the side. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember, through countless April Mondays spent screaming myself hoarse for Boston marathoners near my parent’s house at the top of Heartbreak Hill. But this year, somehow, I’ve found myself on the other side of the race, and a row of chipper volunteers holding a flimsy yellow cord is all that stands between me and my first run. “Five … four … three … two … one,” and corral 15 is off, bleeding out onto the Strip in a mess of flying legs and sweat-wicking spandex.
After that, it’s all a blur. There are cheerleaders with pom-poms doing shoulder stands, and Wynn employees in Wynn athletic wear and pairs of runners in matching shirts and shorts. Further along, I hit the first water table, fully stocked with volunteers handing out Dixie cups of water and Cytomax, a sports drink so sweet it makes me cough when I grab it running by. Drinking out of a cup without slowing down is a skill I’ve yet to develop, and most of the drink ends up on my face. After hesitating—years of anti-littering campaigns running through my head—I toss the cup to the ground where it joins thousands of its flattened brothers.
As the race continues, I get into the groove of the whole flock-running thing. My friend and I engage in a sort of uncoordinated pattern of run, run, dodge, taking a few strides forward before darting around whoever’s in our way. We weave up the Strip towards Downtown at a pace that feels far quicker than our original estimate. And all around us there are characters. There’s a trio wearing Sesame Street costume heads, furry Elmo and Cookie Monster atop regular running wear. All I can think as I run by is how much it must suck to be inside those helmets. They might be jogging slowly, but they’ve taken hardcore to a whole different level.
Soon we pass a homeless man, eagerly cheering with two thumbs up as he shouts, “Good job!” For the next minute or so I’m smiling as I run. And we keep running and running. Past the race’s fastest competitors who draw a cheer from the crowd, already heading back up the course while we’re only around mile five, past Dino’s where a pair of ladies have paused for a mid-race beer, past the El Cortez Downtown, and a giant inflatable rocker whose legs form an arch over the Boulevard. It’s surprisingly fun until, around mile 10, I hit a wall. Suddenly, my feet feel like they’ve spent a full day in heels and my glutes are screaming in protest. Only three miles left, I comfort myself, before the voice in my head changes tone: still three miles left?! And right when the frustration of having to run for 30 more minutes is beginning to mount, my friend looks at her watch and breaks some shocking news. “We can break two hours.”
Two hours. It’s something I hadn’t even considered, and it becomes an obsession. Eyes on road, eyes on watch. Eyes on road, eyes on watch. For three painful, disheartening miles I watch the clock as I feel the energy leaving my legs and feet. It seems like the end of the race will never come, but soon we pass the turn off for the full marathon. And then the crowd lining the course begins to thicken, and I see runners—already finished—walking down the Strip with medals hanging around their neck. Then the finish line is in sight. And for the last 20 seconds or so, I’m not tired. My legs feel light again. Just a few more feet and … it’s done! 1:54:46. I have placed 2,532 in my first half-marathon. It doesn’t sound impressive, but I’m ecstatic. I have run an average pace of 8:45 per mile, and I’m feeling fast. Super fast. Faster than I ever imagined I might be. And then, half an hour later, as I’m stretching out and snacking on post-race shwag, a cheer goes up from the finish line. The first marathoner has finished. Damn, I think. He’s fast.