Really Old Hound Wins Summerlin Half Marathon (4/12)

Summerlin Half Marathon By Steven Garand

After finalizing arrangements for a trip to Las Vegas, I remembered that there was a half marathon held around the same time the previous year. I looked up the date of the Summerlin Half Marathon and it turned out to be the very last morning my wife, daughter, and I would be there. This trip was somewhat of a family reunion, staying with my mom and dad who live in Summerlin, along with my uncle who lives nearby. My brother and his wife flew in from Connecticut as well. Since this was Las Vegas I decided to place my bet. I announced that I was going to try to win the race. I placed a similar side bet with my team mates back in Pittsburgh. The odds were stacked against a 51 year old taking first place in race this size. The stakes were high, embarrassment in front of most of my family. What better place to take a gamble than the vice capital of the world.

The packet pick up, the night before the race, proved to be a serious blow. I’ve never seen a race publish the expected times of all the participants before. To make matters worse, our race numbers were in the order of our expected times. I left with my head down and a number 5 in my bag. I felt like the race had already finished. The expected times that beat me were not even close, they were crushingly fast times starting at 1 hour and 10 minutes compared to my now seemingly lame 1 hour and 22 minutes. I arrived back at my mom’s house and folded my cards. I suggested that they all sleep in and not get up ridiculously early just to see me run behind a lot of other faster athletes.

The alarm dragged me from my dreams at 4:00 AM after way too little sleep. I started the pre-race routine I’ve done so many times, accompanied by the same repeated thought, “why the heck do I do this”? Las Vegas is a desert, so it was very accommodating for this fine city to make me feel like I was back in Pittsburgh with light rain, temperatures in the 40’s, and a fairly hilly course. My dad showed up to cheer me on, or to at least take my sorry butt back afterwards. There I stood on the line, branded as 5th place before the race began. The fastest athlete looked at me apologetically and said he was going to be far behind me. It turns out his wife entered his application for him and just put down 1 hour and 10 minutes because it sounded like a good round number. I thanked him and wished him luck in the race, wondering what other incorrect assumptions I made.

The race went off on time, which was greatly appreciated. I settled into my race pace and waited for the faster athletes to steadily make their way past me. A minute into the race and no one passed me. After two minutes I began to think I took a wrong turn and nervously glanced back. The lead pack was behind me but definitely going in my direction, so if I was lost, everyone was at least following me in the wrong direction. That’s when I noticed for the first time, the police motorcycle escort with the flashing lights in front of me. This was like watching a movie, where you feel like you’re really in the story, except I really was in the story. And just like in the movies, when things are going great, there’s always a problem to overcome. I was pondering this while I took a sharp turn onto a sidewalk and began sliding sideways on one foot while my other leg and arms flailed around like headless chickens. You see, Las Vegas is a desert and the thing about deserts is they’re very dry, so apparently the folks who design sidewalks there never intended them to be used in the rain. They must polish the walkways here and finish it off with a coat of varnish to give it that new city sparkle look. Unfortunately it gives them a well oiled sheet of ice feel, that is definitely not conducive to looking good in front of the cameras. Fortunately I managed to avoid both using the races medical services and embarrassing course pictures.

A few miles into the race, the other competitors were falling further behind, I had the mortorcycle escort all to myself, and was able to chat with the volunteers. Life was good. I ran the course a week earlier, so I knew if I could make it through the series of climbs to the highest point of the course in reasonable shape, it was all downhill and flat for the second half of the race. I love downhill running and was grateful for the course being set up this way. In the middle of the climbs, I heard applause soon after I went by the spectators. My first reaction was to think the spectators were a bit slow to show their encouragement, but then I realized, maybe they were cheering on someone close behind me. A quick look back told me it was the latter. There were several runners working together and getting real close to me up the last big climb. I quickly hatched plan “A” which was to catch up to the motorcycle escort and hitch a ride, but he kept staying annoyingly out of reach. Realizing plan “A” was not working out so well I resorted to plan “B”, which was basically run like hell to the finish. Plan “B” proved more successful, and with 2 miles left to go I asked a spectator how far back the next competitor was. The reply, which sang musically in my ears was, “no one in sight”. At this point I had visions of the 2004 Olympic marathon where the lead runner, Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima, was tackled by a crazed Irish kilt wearing spectator. I nervously scanned the course for kilts as I approached the finish.

I was elated, crossing the finish line after 1 hour 21 minutes and 19 seconds and setting the course record. My dad had a big grin that would last throughout the day. The crowd was cheering as one of the nicest and heaviest finishing medals was placed around my neck. Exiting the chute, there was a boy of around 10 with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, who was working at the event. He told me, matter-of-factly, that he knew from the start of the race that I was going to win it. I thanked him and smiled, which stayed with me the whole day.

A young woman approached me with a camera and asked if I would mind being interviewed. I had just run a hard 13.1 miles and the words that popped out of my mouth without properly processing through my somewhat oxygen deprived brain was “sure, but are there any boogers in my nose?”. She did not miss a beat, stepped in closer, looked up my nose, and said “no, we’re good to go”. I hope that exchange was edited in the final version of the interview.

Afterword I chatted with some of the other finishers. I learned of an athlete who made me feel guilty about being called the winner, because in my mind he really was. One of the two athletes working together right behind me, was a team mate, who was pacing his friend. The athlete had better times than me, and chances are, could have beaten me in the race. Instead he chose to help his team mate. I also had the opportunity to talk to the first place female athlete Erica Schramm who won the entire race last year, along with her husband who is running a marathon in every state in the country.

Dr. Bill Andrews, who was visible throughout the race, is on the board of directors for the organization who organizes the race, Desert Sky Adventures. I had the good fortune to talk with him afterwards. Dr. Andrews is the first real live Nobel Prize winner I’ve ever met. He earned his medal for his work on discovering the secrets of the aging process. At 10 years my senior, he runs 100 mile ultra marathons on a regular basis. He’s twice run what is referred to as the toughest race on earth, Badwater, which runs 135 miles through Death Valley and up an 8,360 foot mountain. One of the many challenges encountered on this race is that their shoes tend to melt during the race. He’s getting married on a one hundred and something mile run in the Himalayan mountains this summer. I hope this goes better than his story about being air lifted out of the mountains 50 miles from the nearest road for a serious medical emergency. In his spare time, he entertains billionaires to try and secure funding for his research to make people live forever. So if any of you have a spare billion or two, I would highly encourage you to invest with this guy.

The trophy given during the awards ceremony was the best I’ve ever received. It’s an awesome glass trophy with the words etched inside, and will be displayed proudly on my mantle for years to come. More importantly the kindness and hard work of so many people, including my family, the race directors Molly and Cynthia, volunteers, competitors, and spectators, are etched inside of me and will be cherished more than any trophy could be. Although my mom is making good use of the finisher medal I left with her, by showing every friend and neighbor she comes across in Summerlin.

It was a bumpy ride back to Pittsburgh the same day, over the tornadoes that devastated many towns in the Midwest that evening. Huddled together in the plane with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help imagine how unlikely it is that we can stay aloft above the turbulence below, but at least for tonight, we did.