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Staff Blog: New Surroundings

Mario Fraioli writes about pacing a 2-hour group at the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon.

When the starter’s gun went off on Sunday night at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, signaling the send off of some 25,000 runners down the world-famous Strip, I just stood still on the starting line.

Well, I was actually standing a few hundred feet behind it, patiently planted in Corral 7 with a few hundred of my newest closest friends, waiting our turn to be sent running down the road. This was totally new territory for me, as I’m usually accustomed to pushing around for a prime position at the front of the field with no more than a few dozen other folks who are fighting for a finishing spot somewhere amongst the top 15.

I was running Sunday night’s race as a 2-hour pacer in partnership with CEP Compression, who gave away pairs of neon knee-length compression socks to the first 50 folks who signed up for the promotion. It was a hit! Nearly 300 runners signed up to take part, and the pre-race energy in the corral was uplifting and infectious. Many runners came up to say hi and introduce themselves to me, ask some last-minute questions, snap a quick photo or otherwise shoot the shit. The interaction was fun, and loose. Please note this is not normal pre-race behavior for me.

Still, I sensed the same air of nervous excitement that pervades the entire population of an event, regardless of whether you’re trying to land on the podium or break 2 hours for the first time, as was the case with many in my group on Sunday night. Running down a traffic-free Las Vegas Boulevard is surely an unforgettable experience for everyone involved, but it’s also a race — yes, for everyone involved. There weren’t just 25,000 runners on the starting line Sunday night. There were 25,000 goals waiting to be shattered.

While I knew our intended target pace of 9:09 per mile would not be difficult for me to sustain — on paper anyway — I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have me scared shitless for the better part of the last week. When I race on my own accord, I have no fear of foiling anyone else’s race plans — I’m only worried about executing my own initiatives — but knowing I would be responsible for getting a good number of people across the finish line in a very precise, timely fashion was nerve-racking as all hell.

About 20 minutes before we took off on our 13.1-mile adventure I found a few of the official 2-hour pacers. They were pros at this, I figured, so I went ahead and introduced myself and asked how they would adjust their pacing plan for the howling 30-40 mph winds that were permeating the desert on this otherwise pleasant early December evening. “We’ll try and bank some time in the middle miles when it’s at our back,” David Schwartz, a Las Vegas native and veteran pacer told me. “And keep it steady the final 3-4 miles.”

“Easy enough,” I thought. I suggested we keep the effort honest, stick together as long as possible, share sign duties (more taxing than you’d think) and bring as many people across the finish line in as close to, if not slightly under 2 hours as possible. After a week of worrying about whether or not I’d be able to slow down over 2 minutes per mile from my everyday training pace, we were off.

First mile, BOOM! Nine-oh-nine on the dot.

We were right on pace as we made the turn to head south on the Strip and started bobbing and weaving through some of the slower runners who somehow started ahead of us. The next five or so miles included more bobbing and weaving, along with lots of encouragement amongst everyone involved. Unlike my cohorts at the front of the field, the middle of the packers are a rather gabby group!

With strong, shifting winds throughout the race, the amount of chit-chatting went down as the mile markers went up. Pace-wise we fluctuated between 8:50 and 9:30 per mile, depending on which way the wind blew, with a majority of our miles within five seconds of our intended target. Coming down the final few wind-strewn miles to the finish line, I encouraged those who looked fresh to take off, while assuring others that if they held steady for another few minutes they would hit their mark.

When all was said and done we crossed the finish line in 1 hour, 59 minutes and 42 seconds. An entire herd of runners came in comfortably under their 2-hour time goal, while a bunch of others met or just missed their objective for the evening. Seeing the elation on the faces of those who had just broken a significant barrier for the first time is something I’ll remember for a long, long time.

Sunday night’s half marathon was the slowest 13.1 miles I’ve ever run, but it was one of the most gratifying (and relieving!) feelings to walk away from the race knowing I played a part in helping other runners achieve their goals. As I made my way back to the gear check tent to gather my things, it struck me that the true essence of competition, regardless of what your final place is at the finish line, is not try and beat one another, but rather to assist your fellow competitors in achieving something they may have previously never thought possible.

Thank you to David (1:59:42), Lindsey (2:00:00), Diane (2:00:41), Sally (2:08:42), and the others who ran with our group on Sunday night for making me feel comfortable in my new surroundings.