State 29: Nevada (2012 Hoover Dam Marathon)

1. Not Quite Ready to Rock

I had different intentions for the Silver State.  Very early in my searches for out-of-state races I came across Calico Racing, an organization that puts together many unique runs throughout Nevada.  Chief among them in my opinion was the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon & 51K, which runs near the secretive Area 51 site (or so they say).  I had planned on running it this year but flights to Vegas weren’t cheap in early August and a certain bachelor party had already been planned for Sin City about a month later.  So in the interest of keeping me off food stamps, I postponed my Nevada race to another year.

That is, until I got this chat from my father-in-law:

Steve: thoughts about doing vegas half in dec?

Guess we're going back to Vegas

Guess we’re going back to Vegas.

He was, of course, referring to the Rock ‘n Roll Las Vegas Marathon & Half Marathon, whose suggestive catchphrase is “Strip at Night” because it gives runners the chance to run through the heart of Vegas without the sun to upstage the seizure of color happening all around you.  He and his two brothers had been throwing around the idea of doing the race and decided to rope me into the conversation.  Obviously, I had “thoughts” on the matter.

It may already be public knowledge that I’m not a big fan of Competitor’s Rock ‘n Roll races in general.  Though I’m not explicitly boycotting them, I try to work my way around them (which can be tough) when choosing races.  For starters, signing up for any of their events will burn a hole in your moisture-wicking pockets.  Their “early bird” rate for the 2013 Vegas race is $145.  I won’t pay that much money for any race unless it’s a World Marathon Major or has a cartoon mouse as the titular sponsor.  To make matters worse, the marathon and half marathons are priced equally, so you get gouged even harder comparatively for running half the distance (though I will admit that this tiny price differential is typical for most races).

While this wouldn’t be a huge dealbreaker for me, I just plain don’t like the glitter and noise that they throw into their events.  Plus, any organization that goes out of their way to promote Kate Gosselin or any “Real Housewife” as a celebrity in their event has a questionable modus operandi.  They aren’t the only organization that likes to tout their more famous runners, but Rock ‘n Roll’s focus on glitz and flash seems more pointed than other large races.

All that said, I would have still agreed to go were it not for one huge problem: last year’s race was a disaster.  While I didn’t run it myself, the blogosphere largely panned the race for several reasons, including an over-bloated field, a chaotic starting area, poorly designated half/full courses, riotous convergences between the two distances and even widely reported stomach conditions stemming from what could have been dirty water at certain aid stations.

So when I was offered my thoughts, I said I would rather wait until they get their ducks in a row before committing.  However, if Steve and his brothers were set on running a desert half in December, I knew of a smaller race called the Hoover Dam Marathon (put together by Calico Racing) that might interest them.  Lo and behold, they were not only interested but borderline gonzo about the marvel of engineering and within 24 hours everyone had signed up, bought flights, and made more than one Dam joke.  I guess that’s how it feels to be an adult.

We were headed for the shores of Lake Mead

We were headed for the shores of Lake Mead

I'm freaking out here, man ...

I’m freaking out here, man …

I brought a Jimmy John’s sandwich on the plane with me so I wasn’t starving when I landed.  However, I had neglected to tell the brothers that they should go and eat without me.  So the first thing that happened after I put my bags in the trunk of the rental car was drive to the Palms’ $9 buffet.  Fair enough, I can always eat more.  So I packed my plate with paella, shrimp scampi, mac-n-cheese, Thanksgiving turkey, sweet potato purée and several other carb-heavy foods.  It wasn’t the smartest choice I’ve made, but hey, when in Vegas.  So after my second lunch, we drove out to Boulder City to pick up our race packets at the Hacienda Hotel, the only sign of life for miles and likely the first lightning rod to lure out-of-state gamblers.  Once back in Vegas, we went to the Fremont Street Experience where we enjoyed a crazy psychedelic LED light show on a cylindrical ceiling draped over the boardwalk.

That night none of us were hungry for dinner.  The most I could put down was a last-minute CLIF bar before going to bed, wondering if the buffet gorge had been an egregious pre-race mistake.

2. Race Day

We were at the Hoover Dam, just outside of Boulder City, at 7:45 AM the next morning, just fifteen minutes shy of the marathon and 10k start.  I put on my usual base layer but added the official T-shirt that the brothers had made, which said “Team Chicago: Another Dam Race” on the back.  We took the pre-race group shot and I made my way to the timing clocks.  Since the half wouldn’t start for another hour, the brothers were left to hang out in the car, where I imagined they listened to gangsta rap and watched Key & Peele clips on their phones.

Left to right: Jim, Greg, Steve, Me

Left to right: Jim, Greg, Steve, Me

The first three miles of the race are all uphill on a paved sidewalk next to the main road with Lake Mead to our left.  We could see how much the water level had dropped on its stepped shores because the rock closest to the water was a much lighter color.  There were even a few islands in the middle that might not have been visible in previous years.  This unsettling detail though, wasn’t enough to detract from our enjoyment of the red and brown landscape before us.  Three slow uphill miles later, we were off the sidewalk and onto a trail path only about four people wide.  To reach the trail we had to pass through a chain link gate that was only partway open.  As Greg would later mention, that gate made us feel like running through this area was a huge privilege that few ever get.

Google Earth rendering of the first / last five miles of the course.

Google Earth rendering of the first / last five miles of the course.

The next two miles were the race’s best.  Before we could reach the dam’s electrical towers, we had to cross a few mountains on this trail, which was mostly packed red dirt with a few loose rocks.  To get through these mountains we went through five tunnels, each excavated by dynamite, presumably around the time the dam was built in the 1930s.  However, unlike most tunnels, the walls and roof of these were like the inside of a cave, jagged and wild.  Though the organization had laid out glowsticks in a straight line to mark the path, the ground was pitch black.  Even with my sunglasses perched on my hat, I couldn’t see the contour of the ground but I didn’t care.  I was loving it.  I also found myself wondering how much Steve and his brothers were going to enjoy this.

Two of the five tunnels (Evan Pilchik / Calico Racing Photography)

Two of the five tunnels (Evan Pilchik / Calico Racing Photography)

Around mile 5, we’re done with the tunnels and we’re getting close to the dam.  The 10k ends at there while everyone else has to turn around.

This last mile is also where we would encounter the steepest hills.  I picked up a lot of speed as I cruised downward, knowing full well I’d be climbing these in just a few minutes.  We reached a clearing where we ran in between two large clusters of electrical towers and pylons.  I heard what sounded like rain on a stretched plastic sheet, but soon learned it was the sound of electricity buzzing through the complex.  Not long after, we reached a sign that said “No Passing, No Headphones, 1/10 Mile.”  Shortly after, we were on a thin path surrounded by juts of red rock and a few quick turns (a fat man’s squeeze of sorts) followed by the switchbacks.

When you hear that word, you might think of zigzagging roads, slicing their way up or down a mountainous slope.  In Greg’s words, a more apt description would have been a long wheelchair ramp.  Runners descended this section in single-file, slingshotting their way around each 180-degree turn by holding on to a metal handrail.  We did this about six times before reaching a large platform overlooking the famous Hoover Dam.

To be perfectly honest, I was more in awe of the enormous bypass that connected both sides of the canyon.  It was the first thing I saw as we reached the dam because of its sheer enormity.  Recently completed in 2010, it rerouted a lot of the traffic away from the crest of the dam and is, as I’ve mentioned, enormous.  So I’m sad to report that when I looked left and saw the actual Hoover Dam, I was a little underwhelmed.  That, and there were web-like nets of electrical wires tainting the otherwise simple brilliance of the structure.  It was like reaching the statues of Easter Island but having to peer through bramble patches to see them.

Google Earth rendering of the Dam turnaround.

Google Earth rendering of the Dam turnaround.

I only had about six seconds to take it all in before I had to turn around and march in single file up the switchbacks.  I haven’t mentioned this yet, but the marathon is a two-loop course.  So everything I was doing I knew I had to do again, with 13.1 miles on my legs.  As I slogged my way up those narrow turns, I couldn’t help but think two things: this sucks, and douche almighty this is going to hurt during round two.

I spent the next fifty minutes undoing the entire route, but this time the majority of it was downhill.  I ran through the five tunnels again, went through the chain link gate, and re-entered the sidewalk for three miles of easy downhill.  The half marathon had started about twenty minutes earlier, so one by one, I saw the brothers running uphill: Jim (wave) then Greg (high-five) and then Steve (fist-bump).  I reached the bottom of the descent at a 7:15 pace, knowing I had probably gone too fast.  After rounding a volunteer at the finish line, it was time to déjà-run back to the dam.

Nope, not the finish.  Just the turnaround.

Nope, not the finish. Just the turnaround.

Back up those uphill miles.  Through the chain link gate.  Five more tunnels.  Another rocky downhill to the electrical towers.  Through the squeeze and down the switchbacks.  Jim, then Greg, then Steve.  Up until this point, it definitely felt like I had jumped backwards two hours in time.  I wasn’t deteriorating too quickly and I was in control of the race.  But as I climbed those switchbacks for the second time, my quads began to welcome the prickly and warm sensation just before a cramp.  Luckily, I made it past the squeeze and to the top before my legs could reach a full boil.

Once past the electrical towers and up the worst climb of the race, I came to a comforting realization.  I ran past the 20-mile marker and found that I wasn’t dying.  This wasn’t the easiest course, but 20 miles in I was still fighting.  With few hills left to climb, I felt confident about the 10k to go.  My demise was forgetting that in a marathon, the last 10k sucks even if it’s easy on a normal day.  But I was determined to fight it out.

Long-sleeve tech t-shirt, medal and bib

Long-sleeve tech t-shirt (back pictured), medal and bib

Past the tunnels, through the gate and back on the sidewalk, everything was going well.  Just three miles left and I would be done.  But right around mile 23, probably because I didn’t eat dinner the night before, I was struck down hard by a terrible bonk.  All day the weather had been hovering in the mid 40s, there was very little wind and I wasn’t sweating more than usual.  So I couldn’t blame it on heat or dehydration – this was the real deal.  I was out of sugar and my body was through.  Downhill meant nothing anymore.  Two hours earlier I had scorched down this path, bereft of all respect for the distance and practically pointing and laughing at everyone as they dragged themselves up.  This time, I was running almost two minutes per mile slower, wondering how the hell this felt so hard.

My watch beeped at 24.8 miles (the last 5k split) and I saw that my pace was in the low 9s.  I looked down and saw my feet moving at what I thought was faster than that.  But that pace kept dropping.  I saw Greg around mile 25, just before the final turnaround.  “Keep it up and you’ll catch me!” he taunted, but I knew I was finished.  My lungs were fine, my heart was still working, but my legs were shot.  The climbs and descents had put more than enough punishment in them to sponge up all the buffet food I had eaten the day before, leaving me to run purely on electrical impulses.

1215_1_hooverdammarathon 06Mercifully, the last 0.2 miles are downhill, ending in a quiet celebration at Lake Mead’s Boulder Beach, where several picnic tables were flush with energy drinks, water, cornbread, slices of ham, cinnamon rolls, and bowls of chili.  A volunteer asked me what I wanted and all I could do was slur my words through a warped mouth.  As I struggled to communicate, I learned that the race had gotten to more than just my legs.  Before I could eat anything, I had to settle down (and clean the chili off my shoes that I had spilled because I was a delirious mess of a person).  After lying down in the backseat for a few minutes, I was ready to chow down on some post-race savory treats.  It was also time to celebrate: I had finished my 12th marathon on the 12th month of the 12th year and with a respectable finishing time of 3:35.  As a side bonus, I became eligible to join the 50 States Marathon club!

I was also happy to learn that the reaction from the brothers was unanimously positive.  From the challenge to the scenery and unexpected terrain, they had a great time.  Given that I had shifted their plans from a huge, big city production to a small, scenic alternative, I was relieved.  The whole event was very understated and quiet.  There were no spectators to speak of and the calm nature of the finish line mirrored the quiet landscape all around us.  But whatever zen-like peace we might have achieved on the shores and slopes around Lake Mead, we instantly dispelled it when we returned to Las Vegas.

Kobe Beef, Teriyaki Glaze, Nori Furikake, Crispy Yam, Spicy Mayo, Tempura Avocado and Steak Fries

Kobe Beef, Teriyaki Glaze, Nori Furikake, Crispy Yam, Spicy Mayo, Tempura Avocado and Steak Fries

Since my bachelor party weekend in early September, I have been dreaming of the Rising Sun burger at Holstein’s.  Located in the shopping center of the Cosmopolitan, my friends and I randomly found it and loved it.  It was therefore the frontrunner for my post-race meal.  I called Damian, a friend of mine from Chicago (who I actually know since childhood) who had recently moved to Vegas.  It had been just a few weeks since his wife had given birth to their first child, so I was unsure if he would be available to join me for a face-stuffing.  Fortunately, he was, and despite his best efforts at recommending restaurants, I couldn’t convince my stomach that there was an option better than Holstein’s.  We caught up over a spirited conversation whose topics ranged from the questionable virtues of Las Vegas conservatives to the subtle spark of well-seasoned greens and even a quick tutorial on his and his wife’s favorite game, Spot the Ho.

Left to right: Holsteins Cow, Me, Damian

Left to right: Holsteins Cow, Me, Damian

By Vegas standards, it was a tame weekend.  Nobody (to my knowledge) drained their net worth, accidentally married a stripper or woke up in an opium den handcuffed to a severed leg.  But I won’t complain.  I had a great time with the brothers Snyder, often feeling myself like the youngest sibling.  I continued my streak of fast marathon times and beheld another world-famous monument, this time through the barebones organization of Calico Racing.  Lastly, this was my last race for 2012, which has been a truly game-changing year.

But more on that later.  For now, it’s time to eat and be merry.

Marathon_Map 036 (NV)

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