Thursday, December 8, 2011

This won't stay in Vegas

I am, at heart, an optimist. I prefer the rosy-tinted goggles to dark shades, and I really, really wanted to like my experience in Vegas last weekend. After all, I like to like things!

But I think that in this case, I must apply the old adage my aunt once passed along to me: Everything is either a good time or a good story. I've been dying to sit down and write this story all week long.

The problems began before Lauren and I even arrived in Vegas. This nighttime marathon/half marathon event sold out at a whopping 44,000 participants - which already sounded like far too many. On the other hand, the Competitor group and their Rock 'n Roll events generally have a solid reputation for putting on world class events, so I relaxed. I relaxed even more upon learning that of those 44K, only 6,000 would be doing the full marathon, and we'd get to start an hour and a half earlier than the 38,000 half runners.

However, I noticed a worrisome thing when I looked at the course maps online: we full marathoners would run a 13.1-mile route off the strip before merging with the half marathon - which was run almost entirely up and down the famous Las Vegas Strip. From the outset, this seemed like a terrible lack of planning on Competitor Group's part - only the elite full runners would be fast enough to miss the messy merge with the half runners, whereas the rest of us could fully expect to run into a wall of the back-of-the-pack half runners and walkers. I was not the only full marathoner stressed about this before hand - the event's Facebook page was littered with runners asking whether there would be separate lanes for full and half runners. Competitor Group ignored all these questions, leaving us all in the dark, uncertain of what to plan for or count on.

Competitor Group further ticked me off by not allowing Race Day packet/bib pickup. I understand this rule when the marathon starts at the crack of dawn - but when it doesn't start until 4 p.m., it seems a little unnecessary. Furthermore, it wasn't made clear at registration, so if for some reason your travel plans didn't put you in Vegas in time for the Expo the day before, you had to pay an extra $40 - FORTY DOLLARS!!! - to be able to pick up your packet at all - and even then, you had to be one of the first thousand people to sign up for Race Day pickup, or else you were SOL. All this on top of the $140-170 you already paid - which, for you non-runners still with me at this point, is about twice what a typical marathon costs to run. Talk about a money grab.

Let's jump to the marathon day itself. While the 4 p.m. start was part of the initial draw for me to this event, it actually proved a bit odd - Lauren and I had no idea what to do all day leading up to the marathon. We'd laid out all our clothes and gear the night before, slept in late, then more or less spent the day twiddling our thumbs. We couldn't eat too much, certainly couldn't drink, didn't want to be on our feet too there went an entire day of our Vegas trip, lounging around and doing very little in our hotel room. When the time was finally nigh, we hopped on the monorail to get to the starting area at Mandalay Bay resort/hotel/casino.

Our race start was fairly pleasant. The sun was shining brilliantly, the temperatures cool and the wind tame. Lauren and I hugged and wished each other good luck, found our starting corrals, and soon enough, the race began. I felt great for about two miles, maintaining a good clip right at about 8-minute miles. A talkative Canadian woman fell in step with me at that point, making unpleasant conversation as she ticked off, at no particular prompting, a litany of her race accomplishments, PR's, Ironman times, training philosophies, opinions on GPS devices, etc. In my haste to try and shake her, I made the classic mistake of running the next few miles a little too fast, clocking a 7:45 and a 7:40 mile. Whoops. This being the first day of a certain time of the month, this was also about the point at which abdominal cramps kicked in. The party was just getting started!

Obviously, of course, none of these factors had anything to do with the Competitor Group and their race organization. By all counts, in fact, they were doing great at this point! The weather was ideal, the sunset over the mountains as we all ran toward the desert was lovely, the bands along the course were good.

However: no porta-potties for the first 8 miles of the course. What?! I've never used a bathroom during a marathon, and fortunately didn't need to this time - but there were plenty of people hopping off the course, women squatting in the bushes, because Competitor Group failed to provide any toilets for large stretches. The few porta-potties that appeared later in the course were so few and far between that the lines were outrageous; reports later indicate the average wait time was around 15 minutes if you needed a mid-race bathroom break.

But let's talk about my first real encounter with disaster: nearly getting mowed down by a cop car. At about mile 7 or 8, there was an aid station on the left side of the road, which many of us drifted over from the right side (where we were, in anticipation of a right turn in the course soon) to try to access. Before I made it, though, a few cop cars came down the left side of the road, driving against the marathon traffic, separating us from the aid station we were trying to access, honking their horns with their siren lights swirling in the darkening dusk. This was befuddling indeed.

The cops started yelling at the aid station volunteers not to give us any water. Turns out the marathon course would eventually double back on itself on this road, so they were the aid station for later in the course - not yet. Obviously, none of them had been told this beforehand. The volunteers began frantically yelling at runners not to come over to their tables after all, which all led to a great deal of confusion and weaving and more angry yelling.

So, while I thought running at night would be amazing and peaceful (the way it always is at Ragnar), it was anything but. The race organizers - for good reason, of course - had lined the whole course with massive street lights powered by massive generators. I have a strong personal policy against racing with headphones, but the annoying whirr of these generators made me wish I'd brought some headphones after all to drown out the noise. Like running next to a lawn mower mile after mile!

Meanwhile, my cramps were getting worse. I came close to dropping out at several points, just feeling miserable and generally feeling like I hated running. I knew I'd started out way too fast when the 3:30 pacer group caught and passed me around mile 7 or so, and I already felt too pooped to try and stay with them. But I kept going.

As we approached the Strip again around the halfway point, the crowd energy was fantastic. There was music, cheering spectators, lights...all of this was great. I strung together a few more sub-8-minute miles and felt like a rockstar. But then...then came the true plummet into race-organization disaster.

I hit the halfway point in a new half-marathon PR of 1:45:18, on pace to finish in under 3:31 - a more generous Boston Qualifying margin than I'd even thought myself capable of - and I was proud of myself for gutting it out through what had already been a pretty tough race, mentally. The merge with the half marathon, however, was every bit as disastrous as my worst imagining.

The "separate lane" for the marathoners, a tiny chute along the left side of the Strip, was delineated with small orange cones, spaced hundreds of yards apart. Every tenth cone or so had an 8.5 X 11" piece of paper with size 16 font on it explaining that full marathoners should stay to the left, half marathoners to the right. In the dark, among the stampeding of tens of thousands of feet, you can imagine that the cones went entirely unnoticed. Most had been tripped over or kicked aside by the time I ran by them.

Full marathoners were yelling at half marathoners to stay to the right. This fell entirely on deaf ears. A few bike marshals tried in vain to ride through the crowd and keep half and full runners separate, but they were screamed at, spat on, and ignored as well. I don't blame the half marathoners; they were "running" in the biggest clusterf--- of their lives, too, and just trying to find space to be able to move - but to be on pace to Boston qualify and then be literally running into the backs of half marathon walkers, arms linked and chatting on their cell phones in the middle of our 10-foot-wide lane, was beyond acceptable. The ugliness that emerged between runners was the most depressing and deflating part of it all - the yelling, the name-calling, the pushing and shoving. Maintaining a positive mindset was harder than trying to maintain my physical pace at this point.

Over the next 13 miles, I pulled my calf muscles more times than I could count, dodging between runners and walkers, jumping on and off of curbs just to be able to run at all, much like try to maintain any semblance of my pace.

The aid stations were some of the worst on-course messes of all. There were no flags or lights indicating ahead of time where they were, and in the dark, you'd be even with the aid stations before you even realized they were there. This created horizontal movement across the course, resulting in tremendous traffic jams with tripping and more pushing and shoving. I missed a couple aid stations altogether because it was too late to "merge" horizontally across fifty people to get myself water. Moreover, there weren't separate cups for water and Cytomax, so you had to stop and have a conversation with the volunteers to find out what you were drinking. Lastly, there was ICE in some of the Cytomax cups - can you say choking hazard? Christ! I still have no idea what ice cubes were doing in Dixie cups when the temperature had already dropped to 40 degrees.

From mile 16 through the end, I only ran one more sub-8-minute mile. My calves cramped up horribly from all the curb-jumping and course-weaving. The half-marathon stampede never thinned out, so until the very end, I couldn't run in a straight line. And don't get me started about the horrible screamo-angry-metal band we had to listen to twice along the Strip. I was not in a good mood when I crossed that finish line in a chip time of 3:36:36.

Which is really a bummer, since it was a new personal record for me, and a full six minutes faster than when I ran Amsterdam less than two months ago!

Traffic was completely backed up at the finish line, thanks to Competitor Group's brilliant idea that all runners needed to funnel through a photo line before going anywhere. No room to walk, no room to sit down, no room to even put your hands above your head without whacking someone else's face with your elbow. I felt nauseous in the crowd.

The finishers' "food" provided at the finish line consisted of bagels hard as hockey pucks and bananas green as grapes. I walked by a woman with a banana who was complaining to her husband, "I can't even break into this thing!"

At this point, I got the hell out of there and went to stuff my face at the Bellagio buffet with Lauren and her parents - and so concludes my own list of relatively mild complaints about the race. Not awful, but certainly not great either. Unfortunately, I learned later, I had one of the better experiences at the Vegas Rock 'n Roll marathon of anyone. The stories that have emerged since are downright ugly.

Eventually, the aid stations ran out of water and Cytomax. The half marathoners out on the course for three or four hours had nothing. Then they ran out of medals. Half finishers were initially given full marathon medals (as if anyone could feel excited to wear a medal for a race they didn't complete!), then when they ran out of those, had nothing to give the finishers. I don't know how that happens in an event that's been sold out for two months, but it did.

The sparse medical tents were not given even basic supplies like blankets - so when runners began pouring in with the beginning stages of hypothermia (the temperature drop once the sun went down and winds picked up was substantial), RN volunteers were offering their own jackets and clothes to help warm runners back up. Totally unacceptable.

All runners were funneled, after the finish line, through a single set of doors into the Mandalay Bay casino - nothing like being swarmed in mobs of people, cigarette smoke and flashing lights after running a marathon! The Michael Jackson Cirque de Soleil show, also in the Mandalay Bay, let out at about the same time that many of the slower half runners were finishing - so another 35,000 (mostly drunk) people joined the already massive mob inside the casino. This is where crowd control utterly failed. People began throwing up, passing out, and getting trampled - but the mob was so dense inside that medical assistance was nearly impossible. The Strip was so clogged with ambulances and taxis afterward that most people reported being able to run the entire race in less time than it took to get back to their hotel at the end. Although the Competitor Group had promised free shuttles at the end of the race, there were none in sight, and so most of us wound up walking (limping?) for miles after running to get where we needed to go.

After running out of water, some of the aid stations started using hydrant water for runners. Hoses from hydrants filled trash cans, then volunteers scooped cups in the trash cans to fill them up - talk about unsanitary! On top of Las Vegas having one of the highest levels of pollutants in their water supply, it's no shock that handfuls of runners reported violent sickness after this whole fiasco.

The Competitor Group had reported in pre-race materials that parking for runners would be free and available at many of the major casinos. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case, and many runners were turned away at the casinos that had been specified and forced to find parking elsewhere, resulting in them missing the starting line or just being unable to reach their starting corrals. The corrals in the half marathon failed entirely, so most half marathoners couldn't start actually running until 8 or 9 miles into the race, due to all the walkers in the early, unenforced corrals.

Another minor, but nevertheless notable, Fail on Competitor Group's part was the pre-race "medical information" in our swag bags. There were two different pamphlets with race day tips - one which recommended all runners take a baby aspirin the morning of their race, and another that warned that aspirin has been shown to reduce kidney function and should be avoided for 24 hours leading up to any race. Way to be consistent, Competitor Group.

But the ultimate Fail of all is that for 36 hours after the race, the Competitor Group failed to comment on the deluge of stories and complaints. Instead, they went to the local news channel and filmed a segment on what an "economic success" the event was, and that they plan to open it up to 60,000 runners next year.

Three days later, finally, there was a formal acknowledgment of "difficulties", and a commitment to hearing runners' feedback and using it to improve next year's event, plus a generous $10 off our next Competitor Group event - but I'm afraid, it was too little, too late. There are too many amazing race directors and organizations who do an incredible job and value the runners that keep them in business. This was nothing but a giant money grab, and I have no interest in ever being a part of it again. I'm sorry calves, I'm sorry wallet, I'm sorry first time runners who may never be interested in doing a race again because their experience in Vegas was so atrocious, I'm sorry half marathoners who trained for months for this and didn't even get a medal at the end.

Some of these issues would be forgivable - except that this organization puts on dozens of these races every single year, and have a huge full-time staff devoted to race organization. They collected over $7 million in race fees for this. From race spokesperson Dan Cruz, "We certainly learned a number of things that will be planned better in the future" is simply not enough to make up for what happened this year in Vegas.

Haven't had enough? Read on. Four days later, the horror stories are still pouring in by the hour: Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon Facebook page.

No comments:

Post a Comment