From 1,149 feet above, the city didn’t seem like such a wasteland. It was even a bit magical. The clusters of flashing lights and ever-changing billboard displays were no longer discordantly fighting for my attention. Instead, they all blended together, creating a peaceful, twinkling glow for me and the other viewers on top of the Stratosphere.
But then I stepped back inside — and there was the bar selling drinks for a minimum of $10; and the group of tourists using FaceTime to show their relatives the views rather than enjoying them and the moment themselves; and the gift shop touting every item the word “Stratosphere” could possibly be pasted onto; and the skydiving and amusement park rides with people actually standing in line to pay the insanely high ticket prices. That’s when I fully remembered where I was, and, more importantly, how much I could not wait to leave.
I’ll be perfectly honest: I knew that I would most likely not enjoy Las Vegas. That’s not to say I stepped off the plane with a negative attitude, but as someone who rarely imbibes beyond a glass, thinks gambling is waste of time and money, and hasn’t stayed up past 11 p.m. in years, the odds were never in my favor. That’s why I chose to go there for something I do enjoy: running.
I signed up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half-Marathon almost a year ago, back when I lived in Maryland and was still preparing for my move to Colorado. At that time, I thought I was fully aware of what I was signing up for beyond the race. However, I’ve now come to realize that you don’t know Vegas until you’re in Vegas.
I’ll start with what my husband, Blake, calls the “sad malls.” Every casino in Vegas had retail establishments connected to it. The Venetian, where I wanted to stay until I saw the $300 price tag for one night, was not quite as sad as others; The Grand Canal Shoppes included Coach, Dooney & Bourke, Barneys New York, and Louis Vuitton. However, Bally’s, where I had the pleasure of residing for my five-day trip, was the definition of a sad mall. The store Lick sold t-shirts that boldly read “Lick Me!” Several other unnamed stores sold rhinestone underwear and bra sets, shirts that let every passerby know both how drunk and sexually available the wearers were, and, of course, shot, pint, and wine glasses with the ever popular “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” slogan embossed on them.
It wasn’t just the distasteful goods being sold that made the malls at Bally’s, Stratosphere, Luxor Las Vegas, and so many other hotel and casinos we visited sad, it was how the goods were being sold. If I so much as glanced in the direction of a store’s display window, I was immediately greeted by an overzealous sales clerk who would use whatever tactics needed to get my attention. Even when browsing the Pandora store at the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes, I was repeatedly pestered by a woman trying to sell me a limited-edition Vegas charm that could, she eagerly informed me, only be purchased in that one store. I was thrilled she realized how badly I wanted to remember my trip. The best tactic I heard used during my stay, and saw work within a matter of seconds, was when a lanky woman with bloodshot eyes and dark brown roots peeking through her blond locks — who had probably once modeled for some knock-off fashion brand — said to the 40-year-old mom walking by, “Do you work out? You look amazing!” Within seconds, that frumpy middle-aged woman, who probably hadn’t even contemplated exercising since birthing her children years ago, was in the grasps of the washed-up model, learning more about the latest and greatest makeup products from Europe. I held my back applause.
Worse than the malls I had to walk through to leave or enter any hotel and casino were the casinos themselves. When I came down from my room each morning in search of coffee and breakfast, the air was still thick with cigarette smoke and the faint smell of alcohol, and beer-bellied men were still gathered around the tables pretending to watch the dealers while actually leering at women half their ages who were still stumbling from the casino bars to their hotel rooms in 10-inch heels and sequined body-con dresses. New York City isn’t the only city that never sleeps, but Vegas is more than deserving of its catchphrase.
Once outside of the casinos’ walls, the overzealous sales clerks, beer-bellied men and scantily clad women were replaced with modern-day zombies: A minimum of 20 people bumped into me on the streets because they could not stop looking at their phones for more than a millisecond, and that time was used to slurp their yard drinks. I’m not sure what these zombies were looking at because there was more than enough entertainment on the Vegas strip. Ethnic men wearing neon yellow and orange t-shirts that read “Girls Direct to You” passed out cards with naked women of all shapes, sizes and races on them to anyone — regardless of age, gender, or whether or not they were clearly holding the hand of a significant other. Twenty-year-old women dressed head-to-toe in vintage showgirl outfits stood on street corners inviting people to pay to take pictures with them, as did people wearing Batman, Transformers, Spiderman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes. While walking under the Freemont Street video screen, which blasts music and blares lights while people walk what was once the original Vegas strip, I witnessed a woman who looked like the before photo on the TV show “My 600-lb Life” wearing nothing but nipple stickers and a string thong smiling and swaying to the music as though she were alone in her bedroom. When I looked away from the throngs of people on the streets and toward the smog-filled skies, the entertainment only continued. While I only saw one of the seven Cirque de Solei shows in Vegas, I felt as though I saw “Zumanity” after looking at the billboards for the show, which featured a shirtless, muscular African American man draped on either side by two petite, ghostly pale women wearing nothing but coy grins.
* * *
What I failed to realize when I signed up to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half-Marathon, was that I was ultimately signing up to be part of the city’s 24/7 entertainment reel. As I toed the start line and watched the onlookers holding up their phones, patiently wait for the horn to blow so they could get their Snapchat and Instagram videos timed just right, it didn’t hit me. It didn’t hit me until mile two, as I passed the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign and circled back up the strip. “Am I allowed to think this is fun?” I thought, while watching hordes of people standing body-to-body on the walkways above drunkenly cheering and snapping photos of me and my fellow runners. “Does this make me like them?” I’ve always loved big city races because of the crowd support, but I didn’t want these people supporting me — the ones who came here not to run a race, but because they thought the idea of Vegas alone was fun without a race. I wanted to be better than them.
But I wasn’t. I may have flown to Las Vegas to run a half-marathon, but I planned to stay after the race because I wanted to see and experience the city. That made me just like everyone else.
Luckily, running taught me how to push away both physical and mental pain a long time ago. At mile three, I shoved my worries deep down, let the rhythmic slapping of my feet put me in a trance-like state, and focused solely on keeping my eyes and mind occupied. Elvis Presley cheered me on from one of the numerous wedding chapels on the strip as the chapel’s bell rang out loudly behind him. The pro-cannabis group waggled their clever race signs up and down as I whizzed by; my favorite read: “Motivational sign.” A group of police officers halfheartedly clapped for me while methodically scanning the crowds with their eyes. The high schoolers manning the aid station at mile six yelled, “You’re almost there!” at me, to which a loudly replied, “No, I’m not!” And yes, the throngs of tipsy tourists along the streets hollered at me as well. When my thoughts tried to resurface, I kept reminding myself that this is what I wanted; I chose this. That became my mantra until I crossed the finish line.
* * *
After every race, I’m ravenous the moment I cross the finish line and stop running; I promise that you will never see someone devour a Chipotle burrito bowl as fast as I can after a big race. This time, however, I was nauseated for hours afterward.
Shortly after I crossed the finish line, Blake took me to Battista’s Hole in the Wall — yes, that’s the actual name of the restaurant — for an Italian feast, but I barely ate two bites before rushing to the bathroom. Later that night, I woke up crying and begged Blake to take me to the hospital. After he called an urgent care center in a panic, I managed to fall back asleep despite the waves of nausea.
The nausea didn’t fade until late the next morning, when we began the 13-mile loop drive through Red Rocks Canyon, a national conversation area that sits approximately 15 miles west of the Vegas strip. Up until that point, I’d attributed my illness to one of several factors: I’d probably pushed too hard during the race; perhaps I wasn’t adequately hydrated; maybe I was overhydrated and low on electrolytes. Based on history, though, none of those explanations seemed viable. Looking back, the only explanation I have is that I was sick to my stomach for taking in part in the Vegas experience, and worse, for liking it.
As Blake slowly drove the rental car past the canyon’s sandstone peaks — streaked with horizontal rows of brown, red, and white — my stomach let out a series of low, long growls. When the sand and gravel crunched beneath my feet each time I stepped out of the car at a pullover lot, I wished I’d done more than pick at my breakfast. Away from the city, life didn’t seem so sickening. The canyons towering above me were a fresh sight compared to the skyscrapers along the strip. Here, I could breathe without inhaling smoke, cheap perfume, and fast food smells.
Halfway through the drive, we got out at one stop that had a large, scraggly Joshua tree partially blocking the view of the canyons and wildlife beyond. But I didn’t care about those views; it was the tree that held my attention. That Joshua tree, fighting to stay green and upright despite the heat of the Mojave Desert, was like the area itself, struggling to remind me and other visitors that beauty could be found in Vegas. And just like the Joshua tree had survived in the desert, Red Rocks Canyon had won the fight against the city. I felt like I was a million miles away from Vegas. It was then I realized that a trip to Vegas did not have the power to take the Coloradan out of me.
No, I would never obnoxiously boast a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker, but the state had adopted me as much as I had adopted it. I spent almost every weekend exploring more of its trails, canyons, rivers, and peaks, and it always rewarded me with jaw-dropping views at the end of my explorations. I feel more than proud to call the beautiful state my home; that’s probably why I will tell anyone who asks — or doesn’t, but looks like they would enjoy knowing — where I live.
Maryland never felt like home to me. There, people looked like I told them I’d eaten toenails for breakfast when I said I got up at 5 a.m. every day to run. If I told them I was training for a half-marathon, their looks only became more incredulous.
In Colorado, running a half-marathon is nothing. It’s a warm-up to the ultrarunners here, like Larry, the 60-year-old man in my run club who will run a 100-mile race and still show up for our Wednesday night run that week. In Colorado, I would get the toenails-for-breakfast look if I didn’t venture outdoors and explore every day. When I meet people for the first time here, we exchange our names quickly followed by an exchange of our outdoor hobbies. And for some of us, they’re extensive: road running, trail running, mountain biking, road biking, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, hiking, rock climbing.
Unlike Vegas, Colorado requires residents and visitors alike to create their own entertainment reel. To find excitement here, I have to do more than take an elevator to the floor of a casino. I have to put on my shoes; I have to go outside; I have to move my body and at times feel uncomfortable.
Colorado plays a little game of cat and mouse with me each time I do this. Its mountains have numerous false summits, and the elevation on some of its trails steals the air from my lungs no matter how many breaks I take and gallons of water I chug. Despite these challenges, I never quit. My pursuit of the state’s never-ending skylines keep me going.
* * *
As Blake and I drove home from Denver International Airport, huge drops of water hit our windshield — this was not the weather I’d hoped would greet me on my first day back from Vegas. I wondered if Colorado was just testing me. Maybe it needed to know if Vegas had changed me, sucked my soul dry. Little did it know that rain or not, I had planned to run — I needed to run. As soon as we got home, I dug my shoes out from the bottom of my suitcase and quickly laced them up. Then I found my rain jacket and hat, and stepped outside. With every slap of my foot, I exhaled a little more. After two miles, the skies began to clear. The Boulder Flatirons gradually appeared from the mist, with Bear Peak, which I’d summited just a few months prior, peeking above the clouds as though it wanted to say, “Hello.”
I guess I’d passed the test.