Ron Marinucci: Las Vegas

Ron Marinucci: Las Vegas

Back in September, Matt offered me a challenge. “Hey, Dad, wanna run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Las Vegas?” Well, no, my marathon days are over. He knew that and was prepared, adding, “I think there’s a half, too.” Then he threw in the clincher. “It’s on the Strip—at night!” Yeah, right; they’re going to shut down Las Vegas Boulevard for eight or more hours “at night?”

It was intriguing, I thought. So, I checked it out and, as happens more times than I’d like to admit, Matt was right. Normally my racing season ends in November with the Big Bird 10K in Roseville. But this year, Matt talked me into extending it. I was excited and registered within a week. Other than the Crim and Brooksie, I rarely register for races more than a week or so in advance. I’m glad I did because the race entries for both distances closed weeks before the December 4th event(s). Karen made the flight and hotel accommodations and we were set.

Matt and I would run the half marathon together, well as long as I could keep up with him. In fact, he was training to do the marathon, his second, but registration for that distance closed in early October. So, he was going to run his first half marathon. And he decided he’d run it as a fund-raiser for the Clark County High School track team that he coaches.

A bit unusually, as the race grew closer and closer, I became more and more excited, not nervous, but genuinely excited. Matt moved out to Las Vegas about five years ago. (You know, the Michigan economy hasn’t been very kind to its college graduates.) Before then, Karen and I had never been out there, but now we make two or three trips a year. Michael has accompanied us three or four times to see Uncle Matt and Ashley last summer was finally old enough to tag along, too. It’s not only the kids who are still enraptured by all of the glitz along the Strip.

And now I was going to run a half marathon on it, at night with it lit up in all of its splendor! I will admit to checking several more times just to ensure the race was “on the Strip at night.” Yep, start time was 5:30 PM, and, with Las Vegas on the eastern edge of the Pacific Time Zone, it would be plenty dark.

Matt and I weren’t the only ones lured by the opportunity to run under the lights of the Strip. The 2010 Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon drew about 25,000 runners. This year the count rocketed to more than 44,000—6,000 in the marathon! Regardless of how I figured, it was the largest race in which I have participated. The 38,000 eclipsed the 37,000 official runners at the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996. Even if we include the perhaps 3-4,000 bandits at Boston that year, that doesn’t quite match the 44,000+.

The night event on the Strip was the brainchild of Dale Eeles, vice president of Corporate Sponsorship for Las Vegas Events. He relayed his idea to the Scott Dickey, president of Competitor Group, which manages all of the Rock ‘n’ Roll races. They agreed, “This [event] needs to be at night…when the Strip is all lit up.”

Runners came from all 50 states and 55 foreign countries were represented. More than 4,000 came from Canada! I noted at least a dozen Michigan runners on the plane with us on Friday morning. Along with the runners, those who accompanied them were expected to add more than $50,000,000 to the Las Vegas economy. That was enough to persuade the casinos, hotels, and restaurants on the Strip to shut down Las Vegas Boulevard from 3:00 PM to 11:00 or thereabouts. Local officials envision future races attracting 60,000 or even 70,000 runners.

To accommodate the numbers, a corral system was used at the start. Unofficially, I counted 59 corrals for the half marathon alone. Participants would start in waves a couple of minutes apart. In fact, I was approaching mile eleven when I saw the sweep vehicle, an LVPD cruiser, following the last of the runners. Wow!

Running at night, especially on Las Vegas time, posed a bit of a new experience for me. The 5:30 start was 8:30 “in our world,” as Matt said when we visited California 20 years ago. (“Mom, what time is it in our world?”) My finish was close to 11:00 PM, almost bed time for me “in our world.”

But one Las Vegas runner was thrilled at the night start and not because of the Strip light show. Clarita Kendall suffers from a light sensitivity condition that prevents her from daytime running and racing. She must run at night, often heading out to train after midnight. Races, of course, that late are rare. For her condition she takes almost two dozen pills daily and slathers on SPF 100 sunscreen during daylight hours. For her, the race was a Godsend. “I can be part of the world again for a while.”

The half marathon was all that I expected—festive and fun. It was also crowded throughout. What I didn’t expect were the temperatures. They were a reminder that it’s not always more than 100 degrees out there. Earlier in the week, Las Vegas reached the 70s. By the end of the week, daytime highs only made it to the low 50s, with periods of strong winds. When the sun went down, temperatures dropped quickly into the low 40s. Half marathon start temperatures were in the upper 40s and fell a few more degrees by the time Matt and I finished. The bitter wind that chilled us in our corral thankfully died down right when the starting gun sounded.

I have maintained that even if one isn’t a gambler, party animal, or the like, the Las Vegas Strip at night must be seen at least once in a lifetime. It’s a spectacle that has to be seen in person. Photographs and retellings don’t capture the essence. The race gave another perspective for us.

The start and finish were at the Mandalay Bay, the southern end of the Strip. The pre-race information claimed this was “as flat a course as you’ll find.” I knew that from experience. It headed north in the west lanes of Las Vegas Boulevard past all of the casinos and hotels: Luxor, the Excalibur, New York New York, the Monte Carlo (which has become Karen and my hotel of choice), the Bellagio, Caesar’s, the Mirage, Treasure Island, Circus Circus, and past the Stratosphere. About a mile was run in no man’s land, with little lighting, before taking runners to the downtown area and Fremont Street. The return followed Las Vegas Boulevard, the east lanes, and its casinos: the now-closed Sahara, Encore and Wynn, Palazzo and Venetian, Flamingo, Bally’s, MGM, and Tropicana. We caught a glimpse of the pawn shop featured on the History Channel’s Pawn Stars and several wedding chapels that claim to be the places where Elvis, Michael Jordan, and other celebrities were married. The Bellagio music-water-light show entertained us, although our timing for the volcano at the Mirage wasn’t good.

Along the way, Matt exclaimed, “Look! That’s cool!” The MGM electronic message board listed all of its M-List employees who were running the marathon or half marathon. Several other casinos’ lighted signs encouraged runners with messages.

Matt and I ran together for most of the race, exchanging comments, “Hey, look…!” and taking in the lighted Strip. Our pace was pretty steady and quick enough. We met our predicted time goals, although we were a bit disappointed in our times, especially since I had finished the much hillier Brooksie more than two minutes quicker. But, at the end, we had to remember that some runners, OK a lot of them, lied, er, were overly optimistic about their predicted finish times that determined their corral placements. Both of us had to do quite a bit of weaving, especially all the way up to Fremont to work our ways through runners unable to run at their stated paces. I kept wondering about the accuracy of the course, although I had no reason to believe it was long. But running one mile in 6:36 and the next in 8:24 didn’t seem to add up.

Just past mile ten, near the Encore and Wynn, Matt asked me, “Can you run a 20- or 21-minute 5K?” I muttered something like, “Maybe when I’m fresh, but not after running ten miles.” It dawned on me a few moments later that he wasn’t making casual conversation, that he was talking about the last 5K of this race. “Oh, OK, you take off. I’ll find you at the finish.”

So, at the Encore, off he went. I kept my pace, not speeding a bit until reaching the Monte Carlo, about a mile from the finish—or so I thought. By mile eleven, the Imperial Palace, he was out of my sight. Matt finished about two and a half minutes before I did. We remarked, as did a couple others who finished with me, that the finish line was a bit deceptive. It wasn’t on Las Vegas Boulevard, but curled back about three-tenths of a mile into the Mandalay Bay parking area.

The pre-race expo at the Venetian is also worth mentioning. It was the best I have attended. Karen and I spent an hour there before Matt joined us for another two hours. We won some prizes and received a lot of freebies. And, we did a bit of shopping there before heading across the street for a great spaghetti lunch at Maggiano’s.

Matt and I haven’t decided if we’ll do this again next year. I think we are still relishing the 2011 race. It was fun and, although a bit disappointed with our times, we were both excited about pretty high places in our respective age-groups. I can always tell the most memorable races when, in the following days, from out of nowhere, I recall specific moments in them. The Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon was one of these. Thanks, Matt, for talking me into it!