Monday, November 17, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Rock N Roll Las Vegas Marathon

On November 16th, I ran the Rock N Roll Las Vegas Marathon.  I travel by myself to a lot of races, but this trip was a vacation with Deb.  We were in Las Vegas earlier this year and visited The Venetian, which is a hotel on the strip with a Venice theme.  Unlike most hotels on the strip, which are primarily casinos, The Venetian is oriented more toward shopping and dining.  They have casino areas, but there’s far more space dedicated to stores and restaurants.  Instead of a hotel/casino, it’s more like a hotel/shopping mall.  Since neither of us gamble, this was more our style.

Two years ago, we traveled to Venice and loved it.  We plan to make another trip to Italy eventually, but until then, staying at The Venetian would be the next best thing.  Unfortunately, the rates on weekends are pretty expensive.  As luck would have it, it was one of the host hotels for the marathon.  The special room rate for the marathon was still a bit pricey, but it was much lower than the usual rates, so it was probably our best opportunity to stay there.

At the end of June, I learned that the race was looking for pacers.  In particular, they needed people to lead the faster pace groups.  I volunteered to be the 3:30 pacer.  I’ve led a 3:30 pace group once before, and I’ve also paced friends who wanted to break 3:30.  It’s a familiar pace for me, but it also made me a little bit nervous since other runners would be depending on me.  A few years ago, I was consistently running marathons in 3:15, and 3:30 felt easy.  I’m still beating 3:30 pretty consistently, but I don’t have as much margin for a bad day as I used to.  Usually pacers lead groups that are at least 20 minutes slower than they usually run.

To make sure I had fresh legs, I took two rest days before the race.  Usually, I only rest one day before a race.  That worked out well, because we flew to Las Vegas on Friday.  We had a non-stop flight, arriving in the early afternoon.

When we got to the Venetian, we parked in the wrong parking ramp.  There are two separate guest room towers – the Venetian and the Palazzo.  Each has its own lobby and parking ramp.  Our room was in the Palazzo, so after parking in the ramp for the Venetian, we had to carry our luggage a long distance to get to the correct lobby.

This is a luxurious hotel.  I think our room was bigger than the first floor of our house.  The bedroom area had two queen beds, each with its own small sitting area.  There was also a large dresser and a flat screen TV.

There were steps leading down to a sunken living room.  There was a night light next to the steps, so you could see them in the dark.  The living room included a large L-shaped sofa and table, a desk with a printer/fax/copier, and a small table with three chairs.  We had a remote control for opening the drapes and raising the curtains.

The bathroom was also huge.  It two sinks, a large tub, and a separate shower stall.  The toilet was in another small room off to the side.

There’s a large area of small shops and restaurants between the Venetian and Palazzo towers that’s made up to look like Venice, complete with a canal.  After dropping off our bags, we headed there to grab a quick lunch at Trattoria Reggiano, a small Italian restaurant we discovered last March.  We wanted to go someplace familiar, because it was already 2:30, and we hadn’t had any lunch yet.  When we got there, we discovered they were closed for renovation, so they can expand.  We found a larger Italian restaurant nearby that overlooked the canal.  We only needed a light lunch to tide us over until dinner. After seeing the menu, we each ordered three course meals.  While we ate, we had this view, and could hear the gondoliers singing.

Usually our hotel is just our home base, and we spend our days doing sightseeing around town.  This time, the hotel was our primary destination.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing and exploring the hotel/resort.  After such a large lunch, we didn’t need a full dinner.  Instead, we stopped at a gelato stand in their mockup of St. Mark’s Square.

We’re both used to going to bed early and getting up early.  Our transition to a later schedule was complicated by the two hour time difference between Minneapolis and Las Vegas.  Friday night, we went to bed at 9:00 PST.  To us, that felt like 11:00 CST.  Neither of us slept well.  It didn’t help that we both got up to use the bathroom at the same time and bumped into each other in the dark.  After that, we both had trouble getting back to sleep.  After waking up and going back to sleep several times, we finally got up around 6:45.

We had breakfast at Grand Lux Café, one of the many restaurants at our hotel.  Although they have a buffet, we decided to order off the menu.  We each ordered the same entrée.  Had we known how large the portions were, we easily could have split one.

The expo was at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which was a little over a mile from out hotel.  I made two trips over there.  I went by myself shortly after they opened for the day.  After picking up my race packet, I stopped by the pace team booth to check in.  Later in the afternoon, I returned with Deb.  I volunteered to help staff the pace team booth for two hours.  While I was in the booth, Deb had a chance to shop the expo.

We both slept better Saturday night.  We adjusted to the time zone difference, but we were still on our usual early schedule.  Neither of us could sleep past 6:00.  We ate breakfast at a different restaurant in the hotel.  This one has nutritional info on the menu, so we had a better idea of the portions.  I wanted to eat something satisfying without being over the top.

Before lunch, I took some time to organize all my clothes for the race.  I usually do that the night before a race.  I probably could have waited until after lunch, but I didn’t want to risk being pressed for time.

I had to be careful not to eat too big a lunch.  I just wanted something light to tide me over.  We went to an Italian restaurant and split a small pizza.

Weather on race day was a little bit cooler than I expected.  It was 55 degrees at the start, and about 48 by the time I finished.  The sun would go down shortly after the race started, making it feel cooler than it would if the sun was out.  There was also going to be a little bit of wind.

All of the pacers had pace team T-shirts and hats.  It was warm enough for shorts, but I needed gloves to keep my hands warm.  I also wore arm warmers.  I expected to be a little bit warm in the early miles, but I didn’t want to get cold as the temperature dropped.  I was actually most concerned about getting hypothermic after I finished running.

Because the Venetian-Palazzo was one of the host hotels, they had free shuttles to the start of the race.  Shuttles left between 2:00 and 3:00.  I caught one around 2:15.

This is a huge race.  The marathon itself isn’t that big, but there are about 10 times as many runners in the half marathon.  Altogether, there were about 40,000 runners.

Both courses start near Mandalay Bay and head south for the first mile.  Then they make a U-turn and ran north along the entire length of the strip, followed by a couple miles through downtown Las Vegas.  The half marathon returns to the strip, while the marathon course continues on a long loop through North Las Vegas.  That part of the course isn’t so exciting.  The marathon course runs parallel to the strip from miles 22-24 and then returns to the strip for the last two miles.

Besides my pace team shirt and hat, I had a sign that said “3:30.”  The sign was on a long stick, and I needed to carry it while I ran.  It was a little bit inconvenient to keep the sign with me from the time I left the hotel until the race started.

We were dropped off at the starting line festival, which was in a large fenced area across the street from the Luxor.  I didn’t have to stand outside for two hours, so I walked across the street and waiting inside the lobby of the Luxor, where it was warmer and I could sit down. While I was there, I bumped into a few other Marathon Maniacs and joined them for a group picture.

I returned to the starting line festival so I could take off my warm-ups and turn in my gear bag.  The sun was going down, and I was starting to feel cold.  Knowing that the temperature would keep dropping during the race, I wondered if I would regret wearing shorts.

There were roughly 50 start corrals, so I had to walk a fair distance to get to my corral.  I lined up in the middle of the corral and held my “3:30” sign high, so people wanting to run with me could spot me easily.  As I held up the sign, I could feel the wind pushing on it.  I knew it would be windy, but I was surprised by the wind direction.  It was the opposite of what I expected.  We would have a tailwind for the first mile, but then we would have a headwind for the next six miles, as we ran down the strip.

I usually wear a regular watch and check my time at each mile marker.  Because I was pacing, I also wore a Garmin watch.  In the first few miles, I was checking our time every quarter mile.  I didn’t know how hard it would be to read my watch in the dark, so I wore a headlamp.  There was enough light along the strip that I didn’t need it.

Although it was a large race, our corral was close enough to the front that we were able to get into our pace quickly.  Near the end of the first mile, we made the U-turn at the south end of the strip.  I saw the one mile sign well before my watch read one mile.  GPS watches are usually a little off, but they seldom read low.  I told my group that mile marker was off, and for the time being I trusted my watch.  According to my watch, we ran the first mile in 8:05.  We needed to average 8:00, so we were pretty close.

After making the turn, I could feel the wind pushing against my sign.  I had to carry it low, so it wouldn’t be too tiring.  I realized the pace would be more tiring because I was carrying the sign.  Although we were pacing for 3:30, to me it would feel more like 3:25.

Before the race, I could only identify five or six of the runners in my group.  It was only after two or three miles that I could see that it was actually a large group.  We settled into a pace that was pretty close to our goal.  Individual miles varied by as much as 10 seconds, but overall, we stayed 5-15 seconds ahead of schedule.

For most people, the highlight of the race is running down the strip at night.  It was cool running right down Las Vegas Blvd., but I was too distracted by my pacing duties to take in all the sights.  I would have loved to take pictures, but there’s no way I could have handled a camera while carrying the sign.  I also couldn’t afford to be stopping and starting.

At aid stations, I usually slowed down temporarily and gave everyone a chance to drink and then regroup.  Other times, I was holding the sign low so it wouldn’t catch the wind too much.  After each aid station, I would hold it high, so everyone could see where I was.

Looking at the elevation profile, you can see that Las Vegas Blvd. is downhill as you run toward downtown.  The grade is so slight, however, that it felt flat in both directions.  Overall, it was a pretty flat course.  The most noticeable hills were ramps going under the freeway.  I was more concerned about the wind.  In the early miles, we were mostly running into it.

After running the length of the strip, we entered the downtown area.  We made several turns between seven and nine miles.  Then the half marathon turned left to return to the strip, while the marathon continued through downtown.  I’m familiar with most of the hotels on the strip, but I had never been downtown before.  Running through downtown at night was exciting.  We ran down a pedestrian-only street that’s covered.  Although we were still outdoors, it felt a little like running through an indoor mall.  There was great crowd support there.

Leaving downtown, we crossed under the freeway for the first time.  We probably slowed down a little going up the ramp.  At 10 miles, we were slightly behind our pace.  It was the first time since mile one that we fell behind.

After leaving downtown, the next 12 miles weren’t as well lit.  There was more than enough light to see where you were going, but it was tough to read my watch.  I tried using my headlamp, but it was awkward to hold my wrist where it was illuminated by the headlamp.  Through this section, I only checked our time at the mile markers.

We were more exposed to the wind on this section.  There were long stretches of crosswinds and headwinds, but we seldom had a tailwind for very long.  It didn’t help that the wind had shifted since the early miles and now seemed to be coming from the east.  Because some miles were more tiring than others, I had trouble gauging our pace.  A couple of times, I accidently sped up the group.  When I noticed, I would ease up in the next mile.  Overall, we were going a little too fast.  At one point, we were as much as a minute ahead of schedule.  Most of the group stayed right with me.  A couple of runners who felt strong went ahead on their own.

Around 21 miles, we got back into the downtown area.  As we went under the freeway again, I told the group that the ramp on the other side would be our last obstacle.  I went easy up the hill, but the group seemed to break up a little.

I never saw a 22 mile sign, so I couldn’t check our pace.  My Garmin was reading a bit high, so I didn’t want to trust it to check our time going into the last few miles.  It gives me splits for individual miles, and I was somewhat trusting of those.  We were still almost a minute ahead of schedule, but had settled back into the right pace for our most recent miles.

After running down the same pedestrian-only street, we turned onto streets that ran roughly parallel to the strip.  I never saw a 23 mile sign.  I also never saw a 24 mile sign.  With about two miles to go, we finally turned onto Las Vegas Blvd. for the remainder of the race.  We were running in the right lane, which was separated by fences from the other lanes.  The half marathon used the other lanes.  I was surprised how many runners were still on the half marathon course after over three hours.  Then I realized that the people in the last few corrals probably started about 40 minutes later than we did.

From my individual mile splits, I assumed we were still at least 30 seconds ahead of schedule overall.  I wanted to ease up in the last two miles, but it was afraid to ease up too much without know for sure how much of a cushion we had.

I finally saw a sign at 25 miles.  Our margin wasn’t as big as I thought.  I encouraged everyone around me to finish strong if they could.  I picked up my effort a little bit.  I knew we finished in front of the Mirage, so I was looking ahead for other casinos that are close.

My plan was to lead out the runners who could finish strong, and then slow down and wait for the stragglers.  I needed to see the 26 mile sign before I would know how much I could afford to slow down.  On my left, I saw Encore and Wynn.  On my right, I saw Treasure Island.  As we ran between Treasure Island and Palazzo, I could see the Mirage up ahead.  I told the runner next to me, “I think I see the finish, but it could be a mirage.”  He was too fatigued to get the joke.

When I reached the 26 mile sign, I looked at my watch.  It read 3:28:28.  I was shocked.  Either that sign was misplaced, or I would need to sprint for the line to break 3:30.  I sprinted.  I finished in 3:29:12.  Clearly, that last mile marker was badly misplaced.  I never got to go back and help the stragglers.  It was tough to see how many runners finished under 3:30.  Because we were running in the dark, I only saw what a few of the other runners in my group looked like.

When we planned this trip, I was looking forward to finishing across the street from The Venetian.  I didn’t know how far I would have to keep walking to get through the finish area.  They spread it out so people wouldn’t bunch up too much after finishing.  I’m used to getting my finisher medal, a bottle or water and a Mylar blanket all without 50 feet of the finish line.  Instead, it was about 100 yard of walking for each one.  I like the design of the finisher medal.  They found a creative way to include the date of the race.

I took a bottle of water, even though I wasn’t very thirsty.  I knew I would need it to wash down the food.   I was getting cold, so I kept moving to get a Mylar blanket.  I used one of the pins from my bib to hold it in place, so I could keep my hands free.  Next, I drank a bottle of chocolate milk and ate a protein bar.  There was other finish line food, but I was tired, so everything is a blur.

The finish area went past Harrah’s and The Flamingo.  I continued walking to get to the trucks with gear bags.  I walked past Bally’s and all the way to Paris. After I got my bag, I took the time to put on warm pants.  Then I walked as quickly as I could back to the Palazzo. I was cold.

The race finished in the southbound lanes of Las Vegas Blvd., but the whole street was closed to traffic.  I was able to walk back to my hotel in the northbound lanes.  Now that I was no longer preoccupied, it was a treat to be able to walk down the strip at night and not have any traffic.

While I was running, Deb had dinner.  She got a milkshake to go and saved it for me.  That and finish line snacks were my dinner.  It was already after 9:00 when I got back to the room.  I needed to take a bath, but after that, I went to bed.

This morning, we each slept as late as we could and had a huge breakfast.  Today is our last full day in Las Vegas.  We’ve been here a number of times over the years, but we’ve never seen a show.  Tonight we’re going over to the Rio to see Penn & Teller.

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