Monday, August 6, 2012

ET Midnight Marathon Lit Up the Sky

Back in 2009 I first heard about The ET Midnight Marathon, this wacky marathon being held in the Nevada Desert at midnight along the notorious Extraterrestrial Highway -- the spot in the US that has the most reported UFO sightings. It was held at midnight each year, during a full moon cycle. It was strange, geeky and challenging all at once. How could I say no. Well it took me three years to find room for it on my running calendar and it lived up to all the expectations.  

I convinced my work colleague and fellow marathon fanatic, John Rymer, into joining me. We flew into Las Vegas Saturday morning and were immediately hit by the summer heat that was pushing past 100 degrees. This would normally be a warning sign that a marathon on this day was a very bad idea. But for anyone who has lived in the desert you know that temperatures can swing wildly from day to night. And Rachel, Nevada, which is in the high desert, above 4000 feet, the temperature there can be up to 15 degrees cooler. That meant 100 mid-day in Vegas and sub-70 degrees come race time. 

After getting lunch at Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina and watching the thrilling Men's 10,000 meter Olympic final from London, we headed over to the expo which was filled with similarly crazy people - about 600 or so -- who also wanted to run in alien territory. The majority of participants were there for the 10K or half marathon but about 150 hearty souls signed up for the full marathon and about ten more for the 51K. You can't have just a 50K when running alongside Area 51, after all. 

We went back to our room to get a short nap, dress our chairs, eat a little dinner and relax before the 2.5 hour bus ride from Las Vegas to Rachel. Since the race is at midnight and no lighting is provided, everyone is required to wear reflective material, a headlamp and glow sticks. That's the minimum. Plenty of people went over the top, of course. 

When we got to the bus stop at the Hard Rock Cafe, John and I both had alien heads bobbing above us and sticky little aliens dangling from our belts. I joking told people they were there to ward off any possible abductions. But we were no match for some of the other costumes we saw. Marvin the Martian from Looney Toons fame was there in full regalia - including the full helmet and mask. As was a Power Ranger, and several Hollywood-style aliens. As for illumination, I was thoroughly impressed with the women who wore a blinking bridal veil, the man who's whole back blinked and the walkers who were so covered in glow sticks that they lit the road wherever they stood.

The buses dropped us at the "black mailbox" which signifies the start of the ET Highway. Way off to the right from here is the US Air Force base best known as Area 51 and suspected by many to be where the military is housing downed UFO spaceships. The "black mailbox." ironically is painted white and painted on its side, (in black paint) is "We believe."

This fun, wacky setting was a perfect setup for what would be a rather tough marathon. Starting at 4500 feet, the course went up roughly 1000 feet over the first 13 miles, then dropped the next 7, arriving at the town of Rachel and The Little A "lee" Inn. That's the finish line but since we're doing 26.2, not 20 miles we bypass the finish and continue along the ET highway 3.1 more miles and turn around. 

Sounds simple enough but this turned out to be a very tough course and a harsh conviction of my lax training over the last few months. Work has been very stressful and all-consuming over the last couple of months, so getting sick and not getting enough sleep over this time period really did me in.

I started out strong at 7:26 for the first mile as I broke free from the crowd of 150 or so marathoners. By mile two I pulled the pace back to 8:20 without really noticing it, as we started the climb. By mile 5 you could really feel the climb but I was holding 8:30s.

As the marathoners started to spread out you could really take in the beauty of this desert. As far as you could see to the left and right were fields of dirt and cacti that disappeared into purple mountains in the distance. Ahead of you was a flat road rising and disappearing at the horizon. It was a full moon with just scattered clouds so you could see thousands of stars overhead. This made the evening very special as I saw ten shooting stars throughout the race. And yes, I made a wish on every one. Mostly health, happiness and long life for those I love.

Around mile 8 I was getting mild stomach cramps. I had a PowerGel at 5 miles and was planning another at 10. So I decided to back off to every six miles and that seemed to help.

I was also steadily passing other marathoners every half-mile or so. By mile eight, we started catching up to the back of the pack half marathoners so you never really felt alone on the course.

By mile 11 the climb got more significant and pushed my pace back to 9:30, then above 10 for mile 12.

At 13 it leveled off, then started descending but I had burnt a lot of energy climbing and so couldn't pick up the pace as much as I would have liked. I was around 8:30-8:45 each mile through 21. Then I hit the wall. Miles 22 and 23 were rough. 10 min miles. I was tired. The last 6 miles are out and back, turning at 23.1. When I turned the volunteer told me I was 21st overall, and there were two people ahead if me that I felt I could catch, so I picked up the pace and got a second wind. Their blinking lights and reflectors made them beacons in front of me that drove me forward. I wanted a top 20 finish! 

But pacing was still not great, I could only muster 9:15-8:40 but by mile 25 I had caught and passed them both. Now I wanted to keep that lead so I kept the pace strong through the finish and ended 19th.

Time wasn't great - 3:56 but I'll take it given how I felt.

I definitely don't think I'm fully recovered from being sick the last few weeks and obviously a midnight start put me at a sleep deficit. It's now Monday and I'm definitely feeling a bit off. John and I crashed on the bus ride back to Vegas and in our hotel room after we got back but I'm definitely still feeling it today. 

I know I could have run this stronger under the right conditions. Oh well. Now I have 12 weeks to get sleep, prepare properly, get in more consistent speed work and shoot for the magic 3:00 mark I am seeking at the Santa Barbara Marathon in November. Wish me luck!