Sunday, December 09, 2007

12/1,2/07 Death Valley/Las Vegas Double

December began with a very intriguing double proposition: The Death Valley Borax Marathon followed by the Las Vegas Marathon (or more specifically, the "New" Las Vegas Marathon). The logistics for this double didn't seem insane, Death Valley would give me the opportunity to visit a cool place I've never been as well as the chance to sample a short section of the Badwater course, and at Las Vegas I could banish a ghost from my marathon past.

Unfortunately, it would also mean I'd have to take back a blood oath. The "New" Las Vegas Marathon was introduced in 2005. It replaced a strange race where runners were bused 23 miles out of town on Las Vegas Blvd. You ran and you ran back towards the city, always seeing the strip hotels in the distance, but you never got there. It was a big tease: just before getting to the excitement, the course made a right turn out by the airport. The race always seemed to have gale-force winds and it was kind of a drag. The "New" version promised to be better - starting on the strip, the course would take everyone up the strip, near the downtown area, out through some neighborhoods, and then back to the strip. The "New" version was being organized by a professional race management company that promised tons of hoopla along the way. 2005 went off fairly normally, but 2006 was a disaster. Most of the mile markers were incorrect or simply missing. There was no food at the end. I swore that I would not run this race until they had a good year.

But here I was registered for it. It was the double's fault. I wanted to do two, and this opportunity was too hard to pass up. Ok, that's not entirely true. My adventure on the old Las Vegas course was something I've wanted to rectify for awhile. Back in 2002, I ran it as my third post-sickness marathon. Well, "ran" is subject to debate. I didn't train for it. I was in the middle of some baaaaad family issues. I ran the first half, threw up, shuffled for a few miles, threw up again, and then walked the rest. And walking for miles in the desert when it is 29 degrees and blowing wind ain't no fun. 5:02. I didn't keep mile splits back then, but considering how much I walked and how long I spent puking, I must have run the first half pretty lickity split. Which probably 'splains how I felt in the second half. Anyway, it was yucky and I had a terrible time.

And so here I was on Friday, arriving at the Las Vegas airport. We had circled for an extra hour and finally landed in the middle of a blinding rain storm. And wind. Welcome to Las Vegas!

All the casinos have free parking. Unfortunately, the roads are very crowded and the free parking isn't so well marked. I drove to the expo for the Las Vegas Marathon at the Mandalay Bay and spent some extra time behind the hotel wandering through various Do Not Enters and Keep Outs. Eventually, I found the parking. Coming to the expo on Friday was important... the race did not offer day-of-race packet pickup, and the expo would close on Saturday at 5p. I wasn't sure I could make it back from Death Valley before then. So I picked up my packet on Friday. It was a nice expo with all kinds of stuff. But it was all stuff I already have, so I got my number and my shirt, and I split.

Four hours later, I was in Death Valley. The trip was supposed to be 2 1/2 hours, but google maps doesn't seem to know about the traffic on one of those roads. And google maps didn't know about the blinding rain and fog. Silly google.

You know what's halfway between Las Vegas and Death Valley? The little town of Pahrump, Nevada. I went to the town's website to learn the population count because I wanted to give them an old-time Hee Haw sal-UTE here, but I couldn't find that information easily. You know what IS easy to find? The town's mission statement. Huh.

Pahrump. I think that's The Little Drummer Boy's first name, right? He's grown up. These days, they call him Mr. Uhpumpum. I didn't know he had a whole town named for him.

The picture at the top of this report is of Death Valley, of course. It pretty much tells you what you need to know. Road Runner country. If you require trees, DV is not for you. Heck, if you require *water*, DV might not be for you. I thought it was pretty cool. Lots of neat mountains in the distance too. I checked in at my hotel, ate a sketchy dinner at the hotel restaurant (it isn't like there were choices), and went to bed.

Race morning came early. And dark. However, as the sun started coming up, it looked like it would be a blue-sky day. It was also supposed to be cool-to-warm... so a day for layers, and a day I had to consciously make an effort NOT to overdress. My consciousness has not achieved the appropriate state, I guess, because it would turn out that I overdressed. Island Boy.

The Death Valley Borax Marathon course is easy to describe. It's a Better Off Dead course:
Go that way, really fast. If someone gets in your way, turn.
Seriously... the course was an out-and-back. Runners left a place called Furnace Creek Ranch, ran down the highway 13.1 miles, turned around, and came back. No turns, no getting lost. Aid stations every 2 1/2 miles. Mile markers painted on the ground. I thought the course would be flat, which was a weird assumption. Just because it is a valley (actually? Death Valley isn't really a valley) and is below sea-level doesn't mean "flat". In fact, the course was very very roly poly.

My goal for this race was even-effort... not evenly timed.. splits and "about 3:40". I was having some trouble keeping fluids down. It wasn't that they came back up, it was that they didn't stay in long. Two potty stops in the first 12 miles. Gah. Nevertheless, I hit the half at 1:51.

Turning around, I got blasted by the headwind. Luckily, it didn't last for the entire 13.1 miles back, but it was strong enough to leave me caked in my own salt. It helped dehydrate me... I could feel my pace slowing and there wasn't anything to be done about it. When I get dehydrated, sometimes my bladder doesn't quite keep up with that, and it'll still send the "you need to pee!" signal to my brain. Sure enough, I stopped to potty (third time!) at M17. I tried and I tried. Tick tick tick. Nothing. My brain was telling me that I had to go, but I couldn't go.

I hate it when that happens.

Out the door, and off I went. My brain still playing the pee pee song. By M20, my pace was closer to 10 than the 8:20ish required for "about 3:40". The wind wasn't so bad, but it was kind of warm. I was definitely dehydrated. One of my Maniac friends, coconutgirl (see my Lake Tahoe reports for more information about the coconut family), had passed me about M18. Trying to keep her in sight occupied my brain, toned down the fake pee pee song, and kept me on the right side of 10. She lost me by M24. I was able to get my pace back around 9 for the final mile, but I certainly wasn't going to make it my fastest mile of the race, which is what I like to do.

Done. 3:48. Given how I was feeling in the second half of the race, this was totally fine. I got an interesting finisher's shirt after the race (made out of cotton, which I've now decided is much much MUCH preferred over most technical fiber race shirts). And I ate the best oranges I've ever had outside of Ka'u, Hawai'i anywhere. Maybe it was because I was dehydrated :-), but they were amazing oranges. Yum. I talked to a few of my Maniac friends... and then it was time to drive to Las Vegas.

...and get ready for the banishing of some demons. The wiping away of a black mark. Balancing the books. Ghost busting. Blah blah blah. Mostly I was very nervous that the race organization would suck. HA. I was also nervous about the weather. When I got back into the city on Saturday afternoon, the rain was gone, but the wind had cranked it up to supersonic speed. Yikes. Another year, another windy Las Vegas Marathon. Maybe it would blow over.

I was staying at the Monte Carlo. Little tip about the Monte Carlo: it looks a lot nicer from the outside than it actually IS. It's a fine place, but my room was certainly showing wear and tear. If you are going to Las Vegas, don't book the Monte Carlo if the rates are high. It's closer on the fancy scale to Excalibur than it is to Bellagio. I ate dinner at their Mexican food place. The crowd was thick, and the music was way too loud. Not my thing. But the food? Incredible, and worth the atmosphere. The last time I ate Mexican before a marathon was in New Mexico, and I paid a high price for it. However, I've done this many times before without issue. Hopefully, that would be the case.

Time to go to bed.

Time to get up. The Las Vegas marathon was scheduled to start at exactly 6:07. Odd, huh. They were doing a fun little trick that many big city marathons do these days - starting the elite women 15-20 minutes before everyone else. At the end, the overall winner gets a bonus... so the women get a cushion roughly equivalent to the difference between the current men's record and women's record. The first woman tries to stay in front of the first man.

The starting area was well organized, but it was only once I was there that I realized they were doing two special corrals: sub-3 finishers and sub-4 finishers. To stay ahead of the sea of humanity... and including the half, this race was large... I needed to be in the sub-4 corral. No luck, though, because I didn't arrange it ahead of time.

So I put myself in the first line at the front of the sea of humanity. It was here that I noticed a couple things. First off, there was a third corral off to the right side that was filled with Elvis people. All of them, male and female, dressed like Elvis. Turns out, the marathon was trying to set a world record for the number of Elvises running. And... huh. Who knew there was a record for that?

I also learned that members of the local running club were allowed to start up in the sub-3 and sub-4 corrals, regardless of their intended pace. "It's ok, they are instructed to move over to the side." Yeah.

About two minutes before the start, the organizers dropped the netting that separated the sub-4 corral from the sea of humanity. There had been an empty space of about 50 yards between the two groups. When the net came down, the organizers expected the volunteers to hold everyone back. Yeah, that didn't exactly happen. Everyone, me included, did a 50 yard dash to mesh in with the sub-4 corral... and then BOOM we were off.


Fireworks. It probably took 20ish minutes to get everyone across the line, and fireworks were going the entire time. Running up the strip was pretty cool, especially in the pre-dawn hour. Running up the strip with a constant boom boom boom behind me for almost 4 miles was extra cool.

And I learned that the strip is indeed 4 miles long, from Mandalay Bay on the southern edge to the Stratosphere at the extreme north end. Along the way, there were all the hotels you know about. And The Blue Men! They were performing across the street from The Wynn at M3.

Of course, I got caught up in the energy of the strip and the boom boom boom action behind me, and my first miles were smoking (for me) 7:50s. Hmmm. My goal for this race had been to get the "about 3:40" that I missed at Death Valley. However, last week, I had pulled a 3:36 out of my hat... or my legs... in my 3rd marathon in 4 days on a hilly course. The weather this morning was *perfect*. A little chilly, perhaps, but the wind was long gone. It was calm. And the Las Vegas course was mostly flat. Dare I try for 3:30?

Back in the summer, my goal had been 3:30. I seriously tried twice and flamed out both times. I had picked two races where the temperature was 95 degrees, so oooops. Was I ready to try it again? Probably not. The reason why I didn't nail my 3:40 on the previous day was dehydration... and I was pretty sure I hadn't caught up from that. But I was having fun running my sub-8 miles.

I decided to stick with it for a few more miles. If I blew up completely, that would suck... but I hoped that I'd just dial it back to 8:20-8:30 for the rest of the race and everything would work out.

Just past M5, there was a little bypass section for runners who wanted to stop and get married. Gotta love Las Vegas. The coconut family did this, and wrote later that it added about 30 minutes to their time. But still - how cool is getting married or renewing vows in the middle of a marathon?

At M6, the half marathon course split off. I think some people missed this because I saw several people running the other way later on the full course. This was also where we ran near the original casino area - downtown Las Vegas. We didn't get to run under the Fremont Street Experience's roof, but we saw all kinds of cool casino signage.

And then, once the course veered away from downtown, it became "just another suburban marathon". M7 through M21 could have been basically anywhere. The neighborhoods were pretty, the spectators were loud, and the water stops were great. During this section, I noticed the only blip regarding mile markers for the whole race - M11 was way long, and M12 was short. In any other race, this would have bugged me. Considering the problems last year at THIS race, it was a-ok.

My 7:50s came to an abrupt end around M9. My half split was 1:49. I wasn't feeling all that great, but I also wasn't hurting too much. I could tell that I wasn't going to have a magical day, but it seemed like I was holding together fine for a good-level day. As I approached M20, "about 3:40" became more like "work hard and beat 3:45".

Throughout this section, there had been bands and cheerleader stations periodically. They were all good. But somewhere in here was a Kiss tribute band, in full-on Kiss makeup. They were really, really fun. Too bad I only got to see them for about 10 seconds...

At M21, the course turned back towards the strip. M21 through M23.5 still could have been in any suburban marathon... except for the view. How cool. And vaguely, sorta, maybe a little downhill. I didn't get back down below 8:30, but I also didn't drift above 9.

At M23.5, we turned onto the road that parallels the strip behind the hotels. We also merged in with the half marathon course, and at this point, it meant navigating the hoard of walkers. There were tons. Gah.

M24. M25. My pace was holding up well. I tried to kick it in for the last mile, but I couldn't find much there.

Until, at M26, the dude next to me pulled out one of those chemical cold packs and winged it right at me. I dunno what he'd been icing, but he wanted to sprint to the finish and he was done with the pack. He simply tossed it, and hadn't noticed that I was there. But I *was* there. WHACK. It hit me in the back and then bounced off the back of my legs. I didn't see it coming, so it scared the crap out of me. And it hurt a little. Then my brain processed what had just happened as I saw him start his sprint. I was pissed.

Las Vegas was my 151st marathon/ultra. During the first 150, I can recall actually racing a person at some point during a race... maybe... three times. I race the clock, and I race myself, and sometimes I will push it to help another person push it. I don't tactically race against specific people.

But I was pissed.

And so, in the last .2 miles of my 151st marathon, I raced a guy. Everything I had went into catching him, which included navigating the walkers and other marathoners who weren't sprinting. When I caught him, I ran behind him for about 10 steps, then pulled up beside him, and did the whole Road Runner "meep meep" tactic. I found 6th gear and sprinted on top of the existing sprint.

Got him. Yeah, it was petty and it certainly doesn't make me a better person.

But it was fun. :-)

3:40, just like I wanted. I covered that last .2 in 1:08. 68 seconds x 5 is 340 seconds... a 5:40 mile :-). Not bad for the last little chunk of a double weekend. I hyperventilated for a bit, which the volunteers did not like. It didn't last.

I guess the Mexican food worked this time.

In summary: I was overwhelmingly pleased with this year's edition of the "New" Las Vegas Marathon. I don't think I'd run it every year because the frenetic energy of Las Vegas is not my thing... but I will suggest it to others now.

Next up: Yeah, already happened. An ultra+marathon double weekend... the Sunmart 50k coupled with the Dallas White Rock Marathon. An example of both ends of the extreme weather spectrum. I'll be back with that report realsoonnow.

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