I’m exhausted. After one of the most physically grueling days of my life, I had precious few hours to sleep before I had to wake up and drive back to LA for work. I strolled in about 10 minutes late. Although, I don’t think you could really describe it as “strolling” because I was hobbled by sore muscles in my feet and legs. In fact, as I dropped a box of muffins on the counter for my co-workers, one of them not-so-casually remarked, “Look at how he’s walking!” an insult that was greeted with more than a few laughs from those within earshot. Whatever. I ran a fucking marathon. Again.
Sleep did not come so easily Saturday night. This is to be expected when thoughts flood one’s brain in the hours before such a monumental event. I read last year that any anxiousness felt in the hours before a marathon is a sign of good preparation. It shows that your mind is in the right place, that you’re focused on the race, and that you’re considering every possibility and taking every precaution to run the best race possible. However, when you’re in the moment, this seems far from true. In actuality, I would describe my thoughts in the hours before yesterday’s marathon as a confusing blend of excitement, nervousness, anxiousness and confidence. You know how sometimes when you’re sick and feverish it feels like you can pinpoint each minute shift in the progression of your illness? It’s like that.
Breakfast was tough. I was hoping for something equivalent to last year, when my mother and I went to the Grand Lux Cafe in the Venetian. There was a large buffet and I could control the portion sizes of protein, carbs, and fats. I could also sneak away with an extra bagel, banana and peanut butter to eat shortly before race time. This year, the cafe in the ARIA had a line that stretched long out the door at 10:30am. I figured if we waited there we wouldn’t be eating for at least an hour, which I deemed too close to the start of the 3pm race. So we stopped at a small coffee shop where I got a breakfast panini with eggs, ham and cheese, a wheat bagel, and two bananas. It wasn’t an optimal breakfast, but it would do.
I ate in the hotel room while watching football to help clear my mind. At 1pm I peanut-buttered my bagel and drank some Gatorade and water. A few minutes later I dressed, and then it was time to head over to Mandalay Bay.
This isn’t really the place to talk smack about the myriad ways in which the event organizers screwed up this year’s marathon. But the changes to the starting line procedure were awful. Instead of beginning in the gigantic parking lot at Mandalay Bay, an empty lot across the street from the Luxor was used as a holding pen before runners could enter their corrals. Every e-mail and everything I read on the marathon website stated that the start line was at Mandalay Bay, not only was this misinformation, it appeared to confuse literally every runner I came across in my search for the corrals. And this was just the first of many absurd problems that befell participants.
I eschewed the holding pen for a spot on the floor inside the entranceway to Mandalay Bay. That’s where I drank the last of my water, stretched, and said goodbye to mom before heading to the starting line. I don’t know if I looked ready and confident, but I wasn’t quite feeling it yet.
Corral 3. Bib number 53162 (that’s me!) took his spot among the throng of runners with about fifteen minutes until the official start of the race. For the past 4 months, every time I run I listen to the same two songs while stretching. I don’t know how or why I started using these two tracks as my warmup music, but it happened. Mick Harvey’s “Out Of Time Man” and The Silver Seas’ “Catch Yer Own Train.” Two songs that were featured in the first season of Breaking Bad. I stretched while soaking in the afternoon sun and the scene unfolding around me. The corral began to fill as the clock crept closer to 3pm. I did my best to calm myself in those last ten minutes. My resting heart-rate these days is anywhere between 48-55 bpm, but in the five minutes before the marathon — simply standing around in the corrals listening to my iPod and straining to hear the distant voices counting down the minutes, my resting heart-rate was hovering around 100 beats-per-minute. I closed my eyes, told myself to trust myself, shook off any lingering doubts, and queued up my iPod for the start of the run.
When the first group left with the starting gun, corral 3 moved up slowly. When the next group left, we inched towards the starting line. To my left I watched a young blonde girl count us down, and suddenly Corral 3 was jogging over the starting line. Cue the first album on my marathon playlist, Superdrag’s “Head Trip In Every Key.”
My goal for this race was to stick as close to an 8-minute, 30-second mile as possible. For the first eight miles of this race, I was almost as consistent as could be:
Mile One: 8:21.7
Mile Two: 8:10.7
Mile Three: 8:11.3
Mile Four: 8:16.6
Mile Five: 8:10.8
Mile Six: 8:11.1
Mile Seven: 8:12.8
Mile Eight: 8:10.4
Truth be told, it was faster than I would have liked, but I didn’t feel rushed, I was breathing easy, and I felt strong. Running south along Las Vegas Blvd. we passed the airport, then turned around to the North side of the Blvd. alongside Bali Hai Golf Club. Beyond Russell Road, in front of Mandalay Bay, crossing the road the bisects Mandalay and Luxor, I looked to my left and saw Peter cheering me on. It wasn’t far beyond this point that I felt the first huge gust of wind hit me in the face. I’d heard that there would be strong headwinds blowing throughout the race, but until that moment I don’t think I’ve ever in my life attempted to run into a 30 mph gust of wind. I can’t really describe it in a way that could put you in my shoes, but I will say this…Each gust sucks more energy out of you than you can ever imagine.
That said, I’ve read about “drafting” off other runners in the event of strong headwinds…and I don’t see how anyone can actually achieve that. I tried locking my steps mere inches behind runners who were taller or wider than me — who were running at near-identical paces– and I was still getting hit with every gust of wind. Running in those winds sucked. It really, really sucked.
Continuing north on the strip, past Excalibur and the Tropicana, New York New York and the MGM Grand, I started looking out for Planet Hollywood in the distance. My sister told me that she’d be outside that resort, near the 3-mile marker. I remember passing that marker shortly before running beneath an overpass, so I looked up to see if she was on it. She was not. To my right, on a raised platform a few feet above street level, I saw her and her friend cheering me on. She was wearing one of those shirts with my face on it, and I couldn’t help but smile a big, goofy smile. It’s amazing how such a simple sign of support can strengthen you.
We kept running up the strip, past the Bellagio, past Caesar’s and the Mirage. I actually mouthed the words “Fuck you” as I ran past the Mirage, because the gates were already raised and volunteers were beginning to prep for the finish line, which was located in front of that resort. At the time it seemed cruel to have us run past the finish line, almost as if the organizers were saying, “Don’t you wish you were here? Now?”
So we ran past Treasure Island, past Fashion Show Mall, past the Wynn and Encore, the Riviera, the Sahara, all those landmarks leading into Downtown South and the Overlay District. At Freemont Street near Hennessy’s Tavern we turned right and ran for about six blocks before turning and heading in the opposite direction. Eventually we turned onto Ogden Avenue. This was about at the Mile 9 marker. I was making really good time.
Mile 9 started a rise in elevation that would continue steadily for the next six or seven miles, almost without relent. By Mile 10 it had increased to roughly 2,060 feet. That might not seem like a lot, but when you consider the first eight miles were downhill, that first uphill stretch can take you off your game. And so it did. Around this time the next album on my playlist began, Odd Future’s “Radical” mix tape.
Mile Nine: 8:42.6
Mile Ten: 8:52.9
Mile Eleven: 8:16.6
Mile Twelve: 8:31.8
Mile Thirteen: 8:35.2
At the time I couldn’t fathom how my pace had slowed during miles nine and ten, but looking at the map now I see the elevation change might have had something to do with it. Either that, or those inescapable headwinds. My 10-mile time was 1:23:04. I felt good about it, as that was less than 2-minutes off my 10-mile time at the LA Half Marathon in October. I was running very close to my perfect pace. We took Discovery Road to Martin Luther King Blvd., and kept running north, north north, past Las Vegas Enterprise Park, crossed W. Carey Avenue, and reached the halfway point somewhere near Windsor Park. My first 13.1 miles was completed in 1 hour, 50 minutes, 34 seconds. That’s just four minutes off my finishing time at the LA Half Marathon, a race I barely paced myself during due to its short length (relative to a full marathon, that is). I felt really good about my time.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t feel very good about was my body. As the sky darkened and the temperature began to drop, the physical wear and tear started to take hold. Almost as if by design, at the halfway point my right calf began to ache, and then the ache turned into full-on cramping. I began to panic. My pace slowed considerably over the next two or three miles while I tried to navigate the course, the winds, and the seriousness of my sore calf. I don’t remember which mile it started — I just remember how dark out it was — but next up on my marathon playlist was Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring For My Halo.” Maybe THAT’S why I slowed down…
Mile Fourteen: 8:55.8
Mile Fifteen: 9:12.9
Mile Sixteen: 9:49.8
With ten miles to go, I remember telling myself that I was too close to let the cramp derail me, and that if I stopped even to walk or stretch that it would keep me from re-starting, so I tried my best to “medicate” on the run. I grabbed a couple salt packets from the pouch on my water bottle and tore into the first one, hoping that somehow it would alleviate my pain. Around this time I also did the unthinkable, I reached for a packet of Peanut Butter-flavored GU and ate the entire thing. To say that I don’t like the taste of GU would be an understatement. It makes me want to vomit. It’s one of the foulest tasting concoctions I’ve ever experienced. At a loss for works, I asked a runner friend to describe its taste for my sister, and they simply said, “artificially flavored cum.” Yet there I was at Mile 16 biting down and scraping my teeth along the package to work every last bit of peanut butter cum into my mouth. That might have been the moment during the race at which I hated myself the most.
Mile Seventeen: 9:17.9
Mile Eighteen: 9:06.2
Mile Nineteen: 9:36.2
The decay had begun. Instead of consistently running 8-plus-minute miles I was now running 9-plus-minute miles. The sky had darkened, the winds were whipping me to-and-fro, and I couldn’t for the life of me find someone behind which to run or “draft”. The problem with running a full marathon is that after a certain distance participants begin to drop out, walk, or fade. Whereas two hours ago I was surrounded by a sea of bodies, now I was lucky if there were two other people running at my pace.
Cue Goat’s “World Music.” After running north on MLK Blvd. we turned and ran back, stopping at W. Carey Ave and running towards the Fiesta Rancho Hotel & Casino before turning yet again and running back to MLK, turning south, and heading back the way we came. At Mile 18 I gained my second wind. Kind of. I still finished at at 9-minute mile, but it was my fastest “lap” in four miles. During this long, meandering portion of the course, all I wanted was to turn back towards the way I came, to see The Strip in the distance, to know that I was running towards the finish line. At Mile 18 when we hit MLK Blvd. going South again, I could see the Stratosphere. Way out in the distance I could see the light atop the Luxor (not the actual light atop the pyramid, but the beam that shoots into outer space), and I knew I was now on the right path, facing the right direction. Mile 19 took me back around Las Vegas Enterprise Park, and the marker for Mile 20 came upon us near W. Washington Avenue.
Mile Twenty: 9:55.5
At Mile 20, my elapsed time was 2:53.59. During my training program, the you build your stamina over the first fourteen or fifteen weeks to the climactic 20-mile run. After that, you simply decrease your workload and allow your body to heal itself and conserve energy for the full marathon. Last year, my 20-mile run took me 3:15 to complete. This year it took me 2:48 and change. During the marathon, I hit the Mile 20 marker at 2:53.59. I was just five minutes off my training pace, which was a revelation considering how fucking horrible my calf felt at the time. As I considered my options for the last six miles (stopping to stretch, stopping to walk, collapsing in heap on the side of the road and crying myself to death from the pain) I reminded myself that even if I ran 10-minute miles the rest of the way, I could finish in under four hours. So what did I do? I slowed to a more comfortable pace — not that much slower than I was currently running — but a pace that actually gave me some relief from the cramping I had been experiencing on and off for the past six miles. You have no idea how good it felt to pull up, even just a little bit.
Mile Twenty-One: 9:39.7 (I know, what the fuck? 20-seconds faster than the previous mile?)
Mile Twenty-Two: 9:47.6
Cue Depeche Mode’s “Violator”. I’m not going to lie, Mile 22 was my favorite mile of the entire race. We’d just finished the transition from MLK Blvd. to Discovery Drive and S. Grand Central Pky (running uphill, which when I first saw it approaching I actually said allowed, “Oh, fuck you guys” as if the people who plotted the course could actually hear me). Suddenly, we turned sharply onto Main Street instead of continuing on Ogden (the way in which we came way back on Mile 8 or 9). Suddenly I was running through the Freemont Street Experience, which was PACKED with spectators, blaring music, and wild psychedelic lights swimming back and forth across the canopied outdoor mall. I laughed aloud as I tried to get a sense of what I was experiencing. It was so cool and so bizarre and so unexpected that I could help (again) but smile. So cool.
From there we zig-zagged our way towards Bonneville Avenue, ran south on 3rd Street, crossed over Charleston Boulevard and started south on Casino Center Boulevard. Right at the 24-mile marker we rejoined Las Vegas Blvd. for the home stretch.
Mile Twenty-Three: 10:06.5
Mile Twenty-Four: 10:08.7
At mile twenty-four I reached for another packet of salt and another Peanut Butter GU. I knew I was going to finish. I knew I was going to come in at under four hours, but I also knew I wasn’t going to hit my goal time of 3:45. I didn’t let it bother me, as I told myself that the original goal was under 4-hours, and no matter what time I finished in, I was going to significantly improve over last year’s finish. I don’t know if it happened on Mile 24 or Mile 25, but I remember seeing the sign for the Mirage in the distance and knowing I was home free. All I had to do was keep my current pace and I’d finish the marathon with a new personal record. For a little inspiration, I switched over to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas To Heaven… / Gathering Storm.” That played me through the finish line.
Mile Twenty-Five: 10:10.5
The Marker for Mile 25 was somewhere in front of Circus Circus. I didn’t see it. In fact, if I’m not mistaken the last three or four mile markers had been knocked down or hidden from sight. I really didn’t have anything to go on but my Garmin, and that was usually off by anywhere from .01 to .04 miles. The last thing I needed at this time was false hope, but I could see the finish in the distance, and it looked like with every block those searchlights waving me in were growing brighter. Crowds of spectators were beginning to line the streets as I approached the Encore and the Wynn.
Mile Twenty-Six: 10:04.4
At Treasure Island, about four-tenths of a mile from the finish line, the crowd had spilled over from the sidewalk, with some spectators standing dangerously close to the runners. In hindsight, that last half-mile was horribly organized. It was impossible to pass runners in front of you because the crowd had swelled to such a size that there were literally people in the course standing and cheering. I’m surprised no one got hurt. Or, at least I didn’t see anybody get hurt. Still, it was a crummy way to corral the runners on the approach to the finish line.
I crossed at 3:55:42, almost 30-minutes faster than my time last year. And, not surprisingly, the finish line was AGAIN totally ruined by the organizers. Supposedly they changed the finish line this year to create a better “flow” of traffic, but there was more of a clusterfuck this time around than even last year. I received my medal, but I couldn’t get any water, I couldn’t get a mylar blanket, Gatorade, a bagel, banana, NOTHING. Too many bodies stumbling around unsure of themselves and horrible layout made for a miserable finish. What’s worse is, the organizers completely did away with the friends and family meet-up area this year, and we were FENCED IN so we were told we needed to walk all the way to the end of the corral (by the Bellagio) to exit. A security guard even told me I couldn’t leave the corral at the Mirage. After I told him I was staying at the Mirage (right where the finish line was) he said I had to walk all the way to the end and then circle back around. Yeah, that’s just what someone who just ran 26.2 miles wants to be told. Go further. It’s totally out of your way, but you have to. I waited until he was distracted and I just pushed past him and left. I walked into the Mirage, I found my way to the Carnegie Deli, and I joined my mother, my sister, Peter and his friend Peri (she’d just finished the Half-Marathon) for a celebratory dinner. Hugs, kisses, congratulations, I fucking did it. Again.
Overall: 674 out of 3,209
Division: 68 out of 232
Gender: 540 out of 2,057
What does all that mean to me? Not much, really. I think just that 134 girls finished faster than I did? How embarrassing!
It’s been a long day. I still don’t think it has really set in that I did it, again, and that I improved as much as I did. Almost 30-minutes faster this year than last year. I went from finishing 2,122nd overall to 674th. That’s fucking insane! Could you imagine what I might achieve if I tried again next year?
No, I don’t think that’s not going to happen.
I know I say it all the time, but I don’t think I can see myself running another full marathon. The time, the mental and physical strain, I don’t know if I want to endure that anymore. As good and as proud as I felt crossing that finish line last night, I more clearly remember the agony of miles 17-22 than I do those final strides. Don’t get me wrong, I saw and felt things last night that will stay with me my entire life — that will invariably cause me to smile or chuckle whenever I recall them, from the Freemont Street Experience to seeing my sister jumping up and down cheering for me — but I’m also going to remember the struggle it took to complete the race. My total inability to stop for even one second to consider the pain or fatigue I was experiencing will be one of the clearest memories I have of this year’s race. It hurt this time. That feeling of headwinds nearly knocking my legs out from beneath me will remain with me, too. I’ve never played any sports (team or individual) on anything even remotely close to a professional level before, but running a marathon has to be one of the most grueling physical tests the human body can endure. Don’t be a smart ass and say something like “What about a triathlon! What about an Iron Man!” You know what I mean. Just the act of being completely alone with your thoughts for that long, relying on this strength you’ve been training to build for months on end, it is easily the most challenging physical test I’ve taken in my life. And now I’ve done it twice. What more can a third time teach me that I don’t already know?
Thank you mom and sister for stubbornly (or proudly?) flying out west to see me cross the finish line. I know the circumstances weren’t ideal, but I can’t imagine doing that all alone and without you there I might have just given up and lied and said I finished a few minutes faster. Thank you friends who have offered support or stopped me to tell me how inspiring my dedication is (I know, weird, right?). Thank you to friends who fed me, who kept my company and who kept my nights occupied during my months of sobriety, who told me I was insane (or totally sane), who expressed disbelief and who made me feel superior to most humans when asking, “How far did you have to run today?” Thank you to anyone who wished me luck, told me they loved me, called, texted or e-mailed to offer their support in the hours before and after the marathon.
3:55, that’s pretty good, right? I can be satisfied with that time? Come June 1st, 2013 I won’t start looking at my calendar and planning another December trip to Vegas? Promise me I did good enough, guys. I really don’t want to do this again. I want to be satisfied with my performance and be proud someday when I relay these stories to kids or grandkids.
Fucking hell, I did it again. Stronger, faster, and happier than last time. And since my body has actually recovered pretty well (read: isn’t a mess of torn and strained and aching muscles right now), I might just get a full night of sleep.
Yeah, that sounds really nice right now. Hell, I can even sleep in tomorrow. It’ll be the first Tuesday since July that I don’t have to train before work!
Thanks for reading this.