Rock and Roll Running In Vegas

Rock and Roll Running In Vegas

This was it, race day. I had another think about what Abdi was going to be doing on race day.  I just checked, and he was going to be in the same race as me and had previously done it in one hour and four minutes.  Maybe a massage, some fruit a warm up run and a protein shake.  Who knows?  I walked down to Dennys and ordered a pancake and refused the eggs and bacon that came with it, that was my preparation and training complete.  One thing that stood out at Dennys were the cartons of milk on the table that were infused with vanilla. As sweet as anything I have ever tasted and set us up for the day with a kick square between the eyes!

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We finished up and started to walk back to the hotel, a 20 minute walk, but stopped off at was supposed to be a discount store for clothing but was, I think, just a bloody big jumble sale.  Imagine the presentation of TK Maxx mixed with the absolute chaos of Primark with the smell of a jumble sale and you are close to the hell that it was.  I got out quickly as my nerves were kicking in and I needed to plan.

One thing I have always been told about running is that you should never do a long run in any new kit in case it causes you problems.  My intention had been to do a training run in Vegas to test out my new shorts and make sure the temperature and conditions were not a shock to me.  I hadn’t.  The shorts had a built-in pair of compression shorts and a pouch to slot your phone in, I wasn’t sure if my phone might jump out of it and so I would be better off with my usual arm band.  I therefore spent an hour in my room running back and forth in my kit working out options and sorting out my bib and working out which top to wear.  I wasn’t sure if I should wear my new official Rock and Roll marathon top or my normal running gear.

My ankles were sore but that wasn’t a trouble. The terrible diet and the lack of sleep were the main concerns.  The other thing troubling me was that the Vegas strip was closed off for the day and so the traffic was going to be a nightmare.  N and J were starting their 10K race pretty much outside our hotel and so they were fine, but I had to get to the far end of the strip for my start party.  I didn’t want the panic of being late and so organised my ride down there very early.  I wandered through the casino floor dressed for my run and I have never felt more out of place.

My early pick up was perfect as the roads were gridlocked, even with my driver’s specialist knowledge of the shortcuts.  In the end, he got me pretty close but then I jumped out and just followed the crowds of runners walking in the same direction and trusted that they knew what they were doing. As I walked into the huge open area that had been sectioned off for the start party, I got my 10,000 steps on my Fitbit.  Again, not sure that was great warm up for the race!

I had never been involved in anything this big.  There were 18,000 people running the half marathon plus the marathon was starting at the same time and that was over 20,000 people.  The great north run is 12,000.  This was big.  There was a stage with a full on concert taking place before you started the walk up to the strip but I was too nervous to listen to that.  I fuelled up on bananas and water and had three toilet breaks in an hour.  I wasn’t enjoying this wait, but it was better than being late.
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Eventually, 5pm came around and it was time for my corral to round up and walk up to the start line.  It was maybe a half mile walk and I immediately needed my fourth comfort break.  I asked a yellow topped marshal if there were toilets ahead and he said yes, keep moving, I got the impression he would have said anything to me, the ‘keep moving’ part was what mattered to him.  45 minutes later we were still standing just off the strip waiting to get started, listening to other runners setting off and I was terrified that we would be started without fair warning.Eventually, at ten to six, we were let loose and we walked to the start line.  Being in group one I was right at the front and due to set off at six.  I was about to burst.  I spotted a huge empty bottle of Gatorade and then my subconscious took over.  Before I had time to think about it, the empty bottle was opened, it was tucked into my compression shorts and I casually refilled it whilst standing on one of the most famous roads on the planet.  If it was a UK sized bottle of pop I would have had issues. It was a US measure but I still got three quarters to the top before casually leaving it at the side of the strip.  I half imagined a policeman chasing me for the full 21KM ahead, but I think I got away with it!

Under a load of flames, excitement and eternal pizazz, we were off.  I started really slowly due to the crowds that seemed to be mainly overweight Americans walking the course from step one.  Within half a mile there was a McDonalds at the side of the road and, I swear to god, there were ‘runners’ going in there.  Despite the slow start, the field opened up pretty quickly and I was running faster and on clearer roads.  We started off running out past the airport and past the famous Vegas sign.  Lots of people stopped to get a picture there and made the running even easier for me.
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There were a lot of people running with the stars and stripes in their hands as it was Veterans Day and it was great to see the response that this got from the crowd. They really do love their flag and their veterans out there.  We turned and ran back through Vegas, all the way past the Stratosphere and back down into downtown Vegas.  We made the turn at Fremont Street and headed back to the strip.  Having run past the finish line half way down the strip, I knew exactly how far we had to run back and the legs started to feel very heavy.  There were no crowds to encourage you in the downtown area and it was dark and, I think this is true, the streets were coated with a treacle that seemed to make each step so much harder than the last.  I was nowhere near my target time of two hours despite feeling so strong up until this point and when I got to 18km I had to stop to catch my breath and take on some fluids.  I was used to drinking from bottles on a run but this event just had paper cups.  Lots of them, but they were a bugger to drink from without throwing it up your own nose.

I was disappointed that I hadn’t run it all and disappointed that my two hour target had not been met but, with my build up and preparation in general being so poor, it wasn’t a huge surprise.  I could see the purple lights at the finish line ahead and suddenly I got my second wind and the build up of nerves and adrenaline came out.  I knew I was going to finish and I was pumped. Every part of me wanted to swear and scream as I finished but this was America and I was representing my country, I kept the emotion inside.

Two hours and 19 minutes after I started, I was done.  I could start my holiday now!

There was a about a kilometre of fenced in finishing walk where you picked up a medal, a warming silver sheet to stop the chill getting to you and all sorts  of beers, water, nibbles, snacks, Pringles, nuts and God knows what else.  I met up with C and J at the arranged spot at the Bellagio fountains and walked back to meet up with N and her family from Costa Rica.  I was greeted with a Spanish chant that I didn’t understand but it made me feel like a superstar and I was very happy to be back amongst good friends.

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N and J went off with their family for dinner and Charlie took me for a burger to celebrate.  He thought that I would be broken and too sore to eat, but that burger was going to be heaven!  My main concern was that I was in running kit and looked like I had been to war but I needn’t have worried, there were more running medals in the Cosmopolitan than betting chips.  I had mine hidden under my jumper as I am not a big fan of people showing off (if you can show off after a 2hr 20 half marathon), but I guess we all got the same medal and the same t-shirt.

The burger was huge and amazing but the race caught up with me, so I was soon in a cab heading home.  My taxi driver complained to me all the while about the strip being closed. The 45 minute journey ended up with me being dropped in Downtown Vegas and walking home in running kit through a really shitty neighbourhood.  I tried to look as intimidating and big as possible but I think it just make me look like I had a worse limp with my cramp.  I had a bath before bed and slept with my medal next to me on one of my three spare pillows and prayed that the legs would be OK in the morning.

Vagina Rabbit And Race Prep Ice Cream

Vagina Rabbit And Race Prep Ice Cream

Next day it was shopping day.  We got up and headed to the factory outlet stores in an Uber in time for breakfast.  The only place that was open was Starbucks and so that was where we dined.  I then spent the rest of the day walking around every shop in the factory outlet trying to find a pair of football shorts for my boy child….with no luck!  I did end up with two pairs of Levis so that was nice.  We got an Uber back to the hotel and caught up on some sleep before heading out again for the evening.

It was C’s birthday and so we met up for dinner at a place called Lago inside the Bellagio.  It was a very nice place in every way you can imagine.  The customers, the staff, the setting, the food, the atmosphere….it was all at a very high standard.  It was Italian food but you ordered for the table and then shared whatever came out.  We had a range of pastas, steaks and seafood risotto and every bite was delicious.  As someone that doesn’t eat fish, I was assured that the risotto was good, but I trusted the review.

No matter how good the food was, the best part of the evening was always going to be the backdrop.  I had a great seat to experience this too. I sat and ate my meal with the Bellagio fountains putting on their show in the background to music.  Of course I had heard of this theatre and it was one of the things that people said I *had* to see, but until you see the size and scale of the fountains, you can’t begin to appreciate it properly. More of that thought to come in a bit.

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We were asked if we wanted desserts and I was looking forward to seeing what they had to offer; the mains were so good it was going to be a treat.  C stepped in and suggested that we should go somewhere else and, as it was his birthday, we put our faith in him.  We went back to the Cosmopolitan and up onto the second floor to a place called Milk Bar.  Are you ready for this?  OK.  Imagine you have just finished your crunchy nut cornflakes and you are left with that delicious cold sugary milk in the bowl.  Now, if you can, don’t drink that but make some ice-cream with it.  For those people that don’t find ice cream sweet enough, this is the one for you!  It was served in a cardboard carton with crunchy nut cornflakes in the base, a lump of this super sweet ice cream and then more sprinkled crunchy nut cornflakes on the top.  I assume that heaven is just a swimming pool full of this stuff.

We walked through the hotel eating our ice-cream and chatting and we thought we spotted Mo Farah standing at the bar having pictures taken with a fan.  It turns out it was his training partner and best friend, Abdi Abdirahman, who had finished third in the New York Marathon.  Looking at his body shape and physique and comparing it to mine (99% stuffed on pasta, steak and sugar infused ice cream) I was pretty sure that my training plan needed a review.

As we waited for the group to get back as one, we noticed at the top of the escalator there was a 6 foot white plastic model of a rabbit.  We had probably walked past it two or three times, but it was only when you stopped to look at it did you realise that the red pattern going through the middle of its face and body was, very obviously, designed to look like a ‘ladies downstairs area’.  We had to explain to a lady that was taking a picture of her 10 year old child in front of it what it was and she said ‘yeah, it’s very clear what it is meant to look like’.  Nowt so queer as folk.

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It was at this point I realised that it wasn’t all about numbers as I had thought earlier in the trip, it was all about big ideas.  I am sure that we have all been in an ideas meeting and the chair has said, ’shout out what you’re thinking, no bad ideas, just say what you are thinking’.  Well in Vegas they collect all of these ideas and do them.  But bigger.  We need something to fill this space at the top of the escalator, any ideas guys?  ‘How about a 6 foot rabbit/vagina hybrid?’  Sure, here is $20,000, make it happen.

Even the ice cream place was in on it.  You can buy a container filled with all the ingredients that you need to make ‘cereal milk’ for just $5.25.  Can you imagine that meeting?  OK, we need to increase sales, any ideas?  Yeah, lets sell a small plastic container full of crunchy nut cornflakes and let people pour milk in it to make their own cereal milk.  Erm, is that not the stuff that you get in a bowl of cereal and you can get it much cheaper by buying a box of cereal?  Shut up and make me a logo, we ship this shit on Monday.

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With those thoughts going through my mind, mixed with thought of the race tomorrow, we decided to have an early night and got our guy to give us a lift home.  Unfortunately, the strip was already closed off for the preparations for the race and we were totally blocked into the car park.  It took us over an hour to make the 15 minute trip and I didn’t get into bed until well past midnight.  I was assuming that Abdi would have better prep than this?

What happens in Vegas

I wrote up the first part of the blog in the crazy early hours of the morning sitting in my hotel’s Starbucks while trying to work out what day of which week I was in.  I didn’t know at the time that I would be in that very same state of mind for the next week or so.  I have been making notes and writing memories down in note form with the honest intention of writing the notes up each evening or over breakfast.

I am now sitting in the departure lounge with 2 hours to go until we board, the crazy timing not all my fault this time, and this is the first time I have had the space to sit and think and ‘work’ on this.  I have been averaging 3 hours per sleep before the run and 5 hours after it. Some days splitting a night’s worth of sleep between a night time sleep and an afternoon snooze, like I am in an old folks’ home.  I’m looking forward to embracing old age, I can feel its cold fingers tapping on my shoulder already.

I woke up at around 5am on my first full day in Vegas and had some problems to solve.  I had not brought the right cables and attachments to charge my phone and so I needed to find a US plug to USB converter.  I set off for a walk to see if there was a shop in the hotel that could help, but nothing was open and everyone directed me to the Walgreens store a few minutes down the road.  I decided it was too early for shopping and I wasn’t ready for the outside world so I settled down in Starbucks and wrote up my notes from the journey to Vegas.
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I drank my bucket sized cup of coffee and nibbled away at my pecan muffin and watched the world come and go.  There really was a huge contrast between the people that were in their athletic gear having come in from their morning walk or run and the people that seemed to be trapped inside the building and magnetised to the slot machines that they seemed to be hanging on to while trying not to slide off them.  It was if they were melting away along with their hopes and dreams as they had ‘just-one-more-try’.  Nothing sums up the American dream better than that hope that this next chance could be the one that changes their luck forever.

I chatted to a lady who had ordered some nutritious shake or other and sat next to me; she was clearly in Vegas for the run.  I doubt that she said the same about me with muffin crumbs hanging off my beard and crazy coffee eyes.  Like all runners, she was there and would do her best but then went on to explain all of her niggles and ailments and training problems that meant that she wasn’t sure if her time would be what she hoped.  It’s the same the world over.

I went back to the room and showered and then headed back out to Walgreens to get in some provisions. I got the power supplies and some Jolly Ranchers for my boy child, that was two things ticked off the list already!  As I headed back up to the room to charge my phone and plan for my day, it was very clear that Vegas was going to be a very weird old place.

Just one block away from the Stratosphere tower and all of the flashing lights, glitz and glamour of the hotel there is abject poverty.  Vegas is so magical, aspirational and wonderful but it is just a very thin veneer hiding a really shit place. You don’t even need to scratch the surface and it’s there, literally in there shadow of the tower you can see people sleeping in the street.  Misery and broken dreams literally lying in the street. It is like the whole place is a mental illness desperately trying to show the world that it’s fine, but actually broken and screaming inside.  It doesn’t fool me.

C had arranged a morning at the shooting range for me and his father and told me to be at the pick-up point for 9.30am where I would be picked up in a Hummer.  I was there for 9am just to make sure I knew where I was supposed to be and chatted to the concierge about how cold it was and if temperatures were due to pick up as the day progressed.  He was talking to a lady in military fatigues and they agreed that it would be warmer as we were in the shade of the building and the day was young.  The lady pointed out that it was indeed cold based entirely on how hard my nipples were showing through my t-shirt.

That didn’t make the journey at all awkward when I told them that I was waiting for a Hummer to pick me up and she said, ‘Oh, that’s me, I’m your ride!’

I jumped into the open sided old style vehicle and she whisked me a few blocks down to Battlefield Vegas.

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With my obsession with WW2, the only package that I was interested in was the D Day experience where I could shoot 15 rounds of a Colt 1911, 24 rounds from a M1 Gerand and 50 rounds from a Thompson machine gun.  All of this was $133 but it was to be an amazing experience.  I had spent years watching second world war films and always wondered what the sound and power of firing the guns would feel like.  We were taken through a secure area and asked to put on ear and eye protectors before being selected one by one to fire our choices of guns at the paper targets hanging by bulldog clips down the range.

Everyone in my group apart from myself and C’s father (who also shot a WW2 shotgun, as his father had on his journey as a tank driver in the European theatre of WW2) was firing modern weapons.  I think C’s Grandfather would have been very pound, watching his son fire his shotgun so badly that it missed the target completely but destroyed the bulldog clip holding it up above the range! The power and noise was frightening. God only knows what it would be like to be involved in a live combat position.  Terrifying to even think about it.

When it came to my turn to shoot, the power and noise was nothing in comparison but, with the advice from my instructor taken on board, I was able to get all of my shots on the board with just three shots missing the target….one of them shooting the guy on the logo on the top right of the sheet right in his gentleman’s area.  I pretended that that was on purpose.
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C was the last member of the group to fire as he had chosen the .50 calibre sniper rifle.  Just to be clear, this thing was like a cannon.  The instructor readied him to fire and shouted across the range ’50 calibre, one round, ready to fire’ which took me by surprise as no other firing had been pre-announced.  C set himself and squeezed on the trigger and BOOM.  The whole room shook with the power.  How that bullet didn’t fly through the back of the range and half way across the Pacific I do not know.  Dust and plaster dropped from the ceilings and walls and empty casings lifted and danced along the floor.  The noise seemed to hang in the room like an angry guest that no-one wanted to confront.

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Apparently, the range of the weapon was over a mile and could be used to fire through walls and armour.  The noise alone would have been enough for me to surrender, I’m not afraid to admit.  C had shared a ride from his hotel to the range with a group of guys from Dubai.  They had been chatting and made friends and, as we walked to our lift home, they were walking towards the military museum in the grounds of the range.  One of the chaps, a rotund little fella, suddenly shouted Allahu Akbar and danced across the car park.    Now, I’m not the smartest of guys, but doing something like that at a gun range probably wasn’t the smartest of moves, all be it that it was clear to me that he was just joking around.

When we told the former policeman who was giving us our lift, about what he had said, he confirmed this by saying that if he had heard what the man had shouted it would have ‘ended very differently’.  America is not the place to mess about.

We headed back to C’s hotel with his father and father’s friend and arrived in the parking area of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.  It was very obvious that we were indeed at the wrong end of the strip as this was a different kettle of fish all together to the Stratosphere.  For a start, the place was clean and smelt nice.  And when I say nice, I don’t mean that it didn’t smell bad, it smelt like someone with lovely aftershave or a lady with lovely long hair and fancy shampoo was constantly walking about 5 metres in front of you.

C took me up to his room for a look and it was spacious and trendy with erotic but classy art on the walls and a hot tub next to the balcony overlooking the strip and mountains as his backdrop.  We headed back down to the craps tables and C patiently explained how things worked, what his strategy was and the table etiquette, it was all fascinating.  A guy came and stood next to me on my right hand side.  I was about to mention to C how ridiculous and blingy the guy’s dollar sign necklace and huge comedy bejewelled watch were when C asked him, ‘Are you who I think you are?’.  As he replied ‘It depends on who you think I am’ it was clear this guy was a player and that his jewellery was in fact real (but still ostentatious) and that I was standing next to someone famous.  I assumed a rapper or musician of some sort but I wanted to play it cool and only found out later that it was Xzibit from the TV show Pimp My Ride.

I’m sure he is looking up who I am right now.

C continued playing with his father and Billy Bling off the TV while I took it all in and tried to work out the odds and maths of the game.  Clearly there was a bias to the house. You don’t make hotels and buildings as fancy as this without making a shit ton of money. The huge extravagances that I could see everywhere I looked made it very obvious that all of this was being paid for out of the money that was being thrown down on the tables and slots left right and centre like a form of stupidity tax.  I have to say that C was fully in control and approached it as a maths problem rather than using emotion and chasing the big prize.  He wasn’t there to show off, he was there to work the system the best he could and was good at what he did.

When N and J arrived at the hotel after their relaxing morning, we went for lunch on the second floor.  We had deep fried chicken at a food court from a place called Hattie B’s.  It was very good quality, but the portions were bloody huge! It’s not often that I don’t finish my meal in full but this had me beat.  As full as a gun, we said our goodbyes to C and spent the afternoon walking through the hotels and taking in the sights of the strip.  I had my first turn at gambling on the slot machines.  I pushed a nice crisp $5 bill in and pressed the button and won about $7 back, a net profit of $2.  I cashed out, happy to have broken the bank.

We decided, as we had time to spare, to walk back to the Stratosphere which seemed to be ‘just over there’. The thing that came to mind as we walked through the casinos was that the whole place was very cynically designed to squeeze every spare dollar out of people’s pockets.  The nice casinos, not the one that we were staying in, smelled absolutely amazing and had very clever light settings and no clocks so that you never had any idea what time of day it was. All designed to make you stay at the tables or slots for hour after hour. I could imagine a team of experts sitting in a room designing every last detail of the space to maximise their profits, the temperature, the smell, the shade, the direction of air flow.  You don’t get to build hotels of this size and grandeur by leaving anything to chance.

As we walked through the fake Italian streets with painted skies that made it look as if you we outside while being very much inside, we passed every high end shop that you can imagine: Boss, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Kors etc etc etc.  All of these right next to old ladies throwing their hard-earned money down suction pipes looking to win their fortunes.  It felt wrong, it looked wrong and it didn’t make me feel great.
We seemed to be walking for hours but the hotel didn’t seem to get any closer. It really did make me think about this half marathon on the horizon.  I was getting bored walking around 5k, god knows what running 21k was going to be like.  The contrast to the smart shops that we had seen was vivid as we came to the end of the nice part of the strip and past Circus Circus and the druggies and vagabonds towards downtown Vegas.  I was happy to be back in my room for a nap and shower before heading out again.

J, N and I jumped into an Uber and headed to the Las Vegas convention centre for the Rock and Roll marathon Expo.  Essentially, this was split into three parts. First, you picked up your race bag containing your t-shirt and bib number, then you had the opportunity to buy a million and one Rock and Roll marathon themed items from hoodies and vests through to hip flasks and bobble hats before finally moving through to the last section where you were sold anything and everything related to running and fitness.

We took around two hours to get through this and it all started to feel very real. It was like no other race I had ever been a part of, it felt special and big.  The bags were sorted by race number and the lady that I picked my bag from had a name badge on which I was sure said Bnana.  Like Banana but with an ‘a’ missing.  I asked her how she pronounced her name and she looked at me with a puzzled look on her face and said Briana.  The ‘r’ and the ‘I’ had merged.  I said ‘nice name’ and walked off quickly.

The only kit that I needed, possibly, was a new pair of running socks but I don’t think you should ever run a long distance race wearing any new kit in case it doesn’t work well for you and causes you problems. So that, plus the $20 price tag for a pair of socks, meant I left that second section empty handed.   There were some great touches that made it feel very personal.  Every runner’s name was printed on a chart on the wall where you could have your picture taken and it was also printed on the back of hoodies and running gear.  It was all very impressive.

As we moved into the third section we were offered a spray tattoo and picked up a new pair of sunglasses and a load of other free stuff from various sponsors.  I checked out my bib number and spotted that I was in corral number one.  I was terrified that some terrible admin error had occurred and that I was going to be up front with the professionals, just getting in their way.  I could make a quick sprint off the line of course, I could imagine the sound system:
“Paul, who finished 135th in the Whitley Bay park run 2 weeks ago currently leads this race, oh, he’s gone off to early and is now last”.

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I chatted to the guy at the help desk and he confirmed that I was OK. I was slap bang in the middle of the departures but at the front of the green section.  My chance to shine had gone!

J and N headed back to the hotel as they were knackered and so I was dropped off at the Mandalay Bay to have dinner with C, his father and his father’s friend.  With the battery on my phone close to death, I had that exciting twinge of trying to sort out a meet up point before my phone died.  It turns out I should have thought more about a meat up point (clever eh?) as they were just sitting down at Strip Steak, voted the best steakhouse in Vegas.  That was very impressive but as I had seen about 6 other places all boasting the same accolade, I was holding off on judgement.

I ordered the 16oz NY strip which, at $62, was towards the offal end of the menu, with a 40oz tomahawk steak coming in at $165.  I have no idea how good that must have been as my saver menu steak was incredible.  Perfectly cooked and accompanied by an amazing peppercorn sauce, this was a bit special.  The conversation was excellent, the company was superb, the food was perfect and the setting was second to none.  I liked Vegas.

I can’t help but feel I dragged down the quality of the evening when the waiter asked me if I wanted a drink.  I asked if I could have a lager and he asked which sort.  I said ‘you pick’ which scared him so he brought me the menu.  I spotted Stella on there and so asked for a bottle and the waiter said ‘of course, a European lager’.  I explained that it is often called ‘wife beater’ in the UK as, when mixed with a summer BBQ and warm weather, it often ends up in a little bit of domestic abuse.  It didn’t go down well, they have a very different sense of humour in the US.

I know that some of you running professionals may be judging my pre-run meals, but I didn’t have a pudding or a side and restricted myself to one beer and then moved to water.  You will see how this impacted my race time later on, but for now, I was happy, and I didn’t care!  All fed and happy, we walked back to the Cosmopolitan and I watched the guys play pontoon until 1 in the morning.  I didn’t play myself, I just watched and learned and worked out the rules of the games.  Vegas was all about numbers, working out patters, working out odds, working out the chances of the dice or cards falling in your favour and working out when to stop or go.  The size and scale of the buildings that people were housed in made it very very clear that most people were not great at working out the odds properly as the odds were always in favour of the house. People were then further exploited through clever lighting, smells and tricks to mess with your mind.  It made no sense to me.  The more glamour and glitz around you, the better the house was doing and the more money you were likely to lose.

I had no idea that there was such a social side to the table; between the croupier and the players in particular.  I split my time between trying to work out what was going on, second guessing what the players would do in each situation and good old-fashioned people watching.  The table was close to the door and so I got to see everyone coming in.  There was everyone from close to the very top end of society right down to people that didn’t have two pennies to rub together and there was no-one trying to stop the two mixing.

It was so unusual to see people walking around the casinos with open bottles of beer, bought outside, and being allowed to smoke indoors.  I had been looking outside and it looked to be light. I had been conned by the casino as it was past 1am by the time I went out to get a taxi.  When I got outside and looked up there was nothing but stars in the sky.  When I got back to my hotel room and I took off my shirt, it smelt like I was coming in from a nightclub in the 90’s, it was quite the flashback.

On the way to Vegas

On the way to Vegas

As you may remember from earlier posts, I signed up to do the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Vegas at the start of the year and, after 6 months of very little training other than buying a pair of running shorts for £45, using two energy replenishment gels and refusing one bacon sandwich at an event two weeks ago, I find myself on the 8th floor of the Stratosphere hotel in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada writing a blog post this morning.

As I look out to my right I can see a US flag flying over Vegas with the mountains off in the background with orange and dusty skies beyond and not a cloud in the sky.  Jet lag has me up at 5am and so I will attempt to write up my thoughts from the near 24 hour door to door journey that I undertook yesterday.

The story actually starts the night before with my usual last minute packing.  I am travelling alone which put Titchy in tight spot; she wasn’t going to pack for me or force me to pack in good time as she isn’t pushy and overbearing but I think leaving things until around 2 hours before bedtime before even thinking about packing was pushing her OCD a little too far and she ended up running through a checklist to keep me on the right tracks.  We had a great system going, she would shout out what I needed to take, I would take it out of the wardrobe and throw it in the suitcase and she would take it out, fold it up and put it back in nicely.  I hate packing, I hate the structure and organisation and forethought required to do it, I am glad she is around to manage me.

All packed up and taxi ordered, my overriding feeling as I went to sleep was one of fear mixed with excitement. Fear of the half marathon I had coming up in the dry desert heat and excitement of travel and the adventures I had coming up, all be it without Titchy.  I was travelling with a work mate and his wife (I will call them J and N) who I was sure would be great companions as they are such warm, kind and thoughtful people and then meeting a friend from the US in Vegas (who I will call C) who would be my guide of sorts as he was a Vegas veteran.  As a very tight accountant, I wasn’t sure that the hedonistic Vegas lifestyle was going to be my ideal home but I was looking forward to seeing the sights and soaking in the feel of the place.

My taxi arrived at 6.45 am and with tears building I said goodbye to Titchy and the cats and with a wave and heavy heart, the trip was underway.  My taxi driver was superb, as they usually are from East Coast Taxis; as chatty as could be and a fellow runner.  He spoke just like the Geordie handyman helper from Alan Partridge’s hotel and told me how he once ended up with bib number 97 and was four rows back from the elite runners at the Great North Run despite being an average runner.

I checked in and was through customs in about 5 minutes, it really is such an easy process now that technology is available to do the grunt work. Regular readers will know that I hate being late and had arrived a little before the recommended two hours before departure time.  I was stunned to find out that J and N had beaten me to the airport by a good half hour and, after I had taken the customary photograph of the view from departures, we had a potter around the shops for two hours.  I shared with them my ‘Cheapest-sandwiches-in-UK-airports-are-always-at-Boots’ top tip but they weren’t impressed and so we smashed out the Nintendo switch and had a quick run around a Mario world to kill some time.

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I will never get bored of watching people race to get into the queue for their preallocated seats on an aeroplane, always fun.  We were flying KLM for the short hop over to Amsterdam and were in the third row from the back of the plane.   I watched out of the window as the familiar sights of Whitley Bay, Newcastle and the North East passed underneath and then the boats and windmills in the North Sea, working away without fuss or consternation in the background.

We were a few minutes late and had a sprightly walk through Schipol to board the Delta flight to Detroit, Illinois.  The relief as I took my seat and plugged in a USB charger and recharged my phone was palpable as I had dipped below 25%.  I’ve said it before, whoever controls the power supply controls the world!  I had a blanket and a pillow on my seat and this tiny space on a metal smarties tube flying through the air was my space on the planet for the next 10 hours.

The metal tube was an Airbus A330-300 registration number N802NW.  Isn’t it amazing what things you will look up when you find yourself disconnected from the world for such a length of time and all you have for fun is an in-flight touch screen display?  In my section of the plane there must have been 100 seats and I would guess at only 20 were taken.  People were laid out across 4 seats and fast asleep and, I have to say, it made for a very comfortable flight.

It was weird going back over the North Sea and Newcastle again so quickly.  A huge part of me would have loved to have spent a while looking around Amsterdam and Europe for a little while before setting off, it felt weird to be in and out of a place I love so much as a passing through point.

A million thoughts go through your head when you have the time for contemplation and rest on these journeys.  Don’t judge me, but I spent a long time trying to work out quite why so many camp people are attracted to the airline industry in particular.  I couldn’t think of anything.   Not quite as controversial was whose idea was it to serve a red hot fajita wrap on an aeroplane at the very same time as giving you a mini magnum ice cream.  The pressure to eat something that was hotter than the surface of the sun at the very same moment you have a melting ticking time bomb almost literally on your lap is some sort of sick game invented in a Delta airline office by someone that hated travellers.

My top travel tip, which I will no doubt forget before the return journey, is to get up and have your ‘comfort breaks’ before the team bring out drinks and dinners or else you end up stuck in your seat holding a part finished drink that you either need to take to the bathroom with you or risk spilling all over the place while you’re away.

We were well looked after and the food and service were superb.  I watched three films on the way: ‘15.17 to Paris’, ’12 Strong and In Bruges. ’15.17 to Paris’ and ’12 Strong’ both had a backdrop of terrorism which made for an exciting journey! ‘In Bruges’ was a welcome and dark humoured blast from the past.  I once read something telling you that you never move in with anyone until you have seen what they are like when they have a slow WiFi connection.  I would like to extend that to seeing what someone is like when they have a faulty in-flight entertainment system on a long flight. My films would randomly, without the screen being touched at all, pause, fast forward or skip.  I saw most of the end of the film before the start, all be it without sound and in high speed, but it was weird that it seemed to stop at key plot points where spoilers were given out.  Again, some disgruntled employee in an office laughing at me no doubt with ruined films and melted ice cream being used to soothe fajita burnt chins.

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After what seemed an age, we landed in Detroit which looked to be just as flat as Amsterdam and looking lovely with its autumn colours.  My Costa Rican friends were worried about getting through customs in time to catch our transfer flight.  They had no reason to worry at all as they got through customs faster than me with my NESTA paperwork that should have made things faster.  I had a good chat with the immigration team and they advised that I took the time to people watch at the Bellagio fountain show and warned me that gambling was a risk game that only the house wins at; my kind of people!

We got from one side of the terminal to the other on their indoor metro system, which was cool, and I stole some Wi-Fi to let those at home know I had landed safely.  Like a huge fish.  I chatted very briefly with Titchy but as soon as she showed me the cats on the video call I got very excited and animated. I had not realised but an American lady next to us in the departure gate was laughing away at me and I ended up introducing her to Titchy and my cats and we went on to look at a picture of her dog back home.  Americans were very friendly.

It seemed like one minute I was looking at a glorious sun floating over the airport and then, like the flick of a switch, it had dropped out of the sky and it was dark.  I had no idea what time it was on which day in my time zone or my original time zone and tiredness kicked in.  We had a quick scran stop at a place called Popeyes.  I was very confused as it seems to sell mainly chicken with not a hint of spinach in sight.  The meals were served with a biscuit, which seems like a very weird way to spell ‘scone’, but you have to love the Americans bless them.  No jam, no clotted cream and no butter, just a shed load of salt instead.

The flight to Vegas was in the dark and four hours of how I remembered longer haul flights being.  We were crushed into a full flight and there was no space to move or get comfortable by straightening your legs out. It was a good job I was far from being a serious athlete!   There was a lot of black space that we flew over with odd outcrops of bright lights and stadiums that you could make out every now and then.

The pilot announced that we were starting our descent and hoped that we had enjoyed the free onboard WiFi.  I had no idea such a thing was available until then and so messaged home to say I was nearly there and was annoyed that I had missed free connectivity!  As the engines throttled back and the nose of the plane dipped, like a white light shining out of a crack in a door, you could see Vegas off in the distance as if someone had ripped a hole in a black out curtain.  I tried to make out any recognisable sights but couldn’t. It wasn’t until the plane taxied to our gate and the plane turned around did I realise that the runway feels as if it is pretty much ON the strip.  I could make out everything and the excitement began to grow, all be it curtailed by the creeping tiredness that was catching up with me.

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C had organised a driver to pick us up and we met him in the baggage collection zone which, weirdly in my view, was open to public access after customs.  Seemed very risky and, if I ever have a downturn in fortunes, I will go back to Vegas to become a baggage thief I think.  Our driver, Lionel, was a six foot ten square of a man with the happiest smile I had ever seen.  We had a quick chat as we walked to the car and each stride of his was like two of mine so I was running to keep up with him.  He asked us what we were doing in Vegas and my friend told him that we were there for the half marathon and 10k races.  He took one look at J and said ’Shit, you ain’t in shape for that’.  I couldn’t stop laughing at his honesty!  He dropped us at the hotel and warned us that we were at the very edge of downtown Las Vegas and so warned us to watch ourselves if we went outside the hotel after dark.

With that warning rising in my ears and tiredness muting my senses, I made my way to check in, my room and then bed.  I had no idea what time it was or what time it was meant to be, but it was time to catch up with some rest after 24 hours door to door with maybe two half hour snoozes.  A sleep that was made tougher by the sudden realisation that, once I had unpacked, I had no way of charging any of my electrical appliances…..to be continued!

Last day in Italy

Last day in Italy

It was a 2 hour drive plus checking in 2 hours before the flight plus I demanded 90 minutes extra for rush hour traffic around Rome and car hire return so it was a very early start.  We emptied the bins into the recycling bins in fear of losing a hefty deposit, took in the view from the mountain side one last time and said our final farewells to the cat club.

We didn’t get more than 500 meters down the road and, as we turned the corner, my two old lady friends jumped off their barrier and came running over to the car to say hello.  They stroked Titchy’s face and waved into the kids in the back of the car and smiled, waved and ‘bella’ was shouted more than a handful of times.   They then pulled out a gift bag from their shopping bag and handed it to me.  They had bought me a beautiful picture frame.  We said our good byes and waved them off.  I watched them in the mirror with my eyes filling up as they got smaller and we made our way home.  I was broken.  To have had such an impact in such a short frame of time with no common language, it was so moving.  As I type this I am welling up just thinking about it and when I sit on the Metro coming into work on a cold morning I think about those two lovely ladies sitting, chatting and laughing on the side of that mountain and everything is fine again.

 

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As we got to the outskirts of Rome, the traffic backed right up to a stop and I had never been so happy to have built in a buffer for travel times.  In true Italian fashion, some people decided that the hard shoulder would be a great alternative to waiting patiently.  Peak Italy.  Eventually, as suddenly as the traffic came to a stop, it all started again and off we went.  The directions from the sat nav were excellent and we got back no problem at all, the only problem being the total lack of petrol station for the 10 miles prior to the airport.  It was as if the airport car rental companies had a deal with the oil companies to stop cars being returned with full tanks and so they pick up the penalties. Literally 100 meters outside the airport was a petrol station, but I missed it on the way in so had to turn and go back and fill up on the way out and then drive to the next motorway junction and come back.  All the while the clock was ticking.

Once again, facing the right direction, we were back in the airport and looking for the right multi story car park for our hire company.  Helpfully we had nothing from the hire company to tell us which car park we should be in and the signs that they had outside the car parks has about 40 companies listed on them all in signs the size of a box of matches.  With a choice of two car parks to pick from yes, you’re right, we picked the wrong one and had to get out and do another lap.  I have never been happier to have a 90 minute buffer in my plans as we walked into the check in desks exactly, to the second, at the perfect time.

We checked the bags in only be told that the flight had been delayed for 1 hour 55 minutes due to technical difficulties.  Typical. I mentioned to the lady on the counter that that was a very precise delay time, very exact, and asked if we could get vouchers for food or drink for the delay.  ‘Oh no’ she said, ‘that only happens after two hours’.  It all made sense now.  We took our time getting through customs and security and then wandered through the shops and had a drink before playing the best airport game that there is.  Can you spend your loose change exactly without needing to carry any coins home?  I looked in the Vatican shop, I’m not even kidding, and there was nothing in there that you could buy with loose change.  It felt like the perfect mix of religion and capitalism.

Eventually we were allocated our gate and made our way to what seemed like the other side of Rome to get there.  As we walked through the terminal, I heard a weird noise from the bottom of the escalator, a yelp.  I looked up to see an old lady starting to overbalance backwards and, almost in slow motion, topple over.  The motion of the escalator going up and gravity pushing her down meant that she was starting to roll down the metal steps like a piece of dough in a food mixer.  I dropped my bag and rushed in to hold her up and stop the falling.  I was now about half way up the escalator and was reassuring her that I had hold of her and wouldn’t drop her while frantically trying to work out how the heck I would get her back on her feet before she got dragged into the steps at the top as I couldn’t lift her dead weight.

Luckily my brother was sharp enough to hit the emergency stop button and give us the chance to take a moment.  We got the lady up on her feet, I still have no idea what language she was speaking, but she was in tears and her shirt was covered in grease from the mechanism and blood was showing through the white fabric.  Nothing serious, but she was in a right state.  I helped her over to the seats and made sure that she was comfortable before leaving her in the hands of the security man that had been alerted by the emergency stop.  As the doors of our train to the next terminal closed, the lady looked up and I got a thumbs up from her.  It was only then that my little boy asked why she was carrying a large picture frame with her and does that mean that she was an art thief.

It was an exciting end to a perfect holiday.  I couldn’t recommend Italy highly enough for a family holiday, it was everything that we had hoped it would be and a little bit more.

Day 7 – Italy

Day 7 – Italy

This was it, already, our last full day.  It always feels like the hardest day of the holiday as you feel like you have to make the most of it whilst simultaneously preparing to pack up and go home!  I decided to start the day with a bang and went for a run before breakfast.  I did a slightly longer route around town and ran past my two old supporters who were there cheering me on.  When I saw how happy their little faces were I could have cried, they patted the concrete barrier at the side of the road they were sitting on and asked me to sit with them and chat.  Well, I think that’s what they meant any way, it was impossible to tell.  I showed them photographs of my family, my home, my cats, my life and they reacted with smiles and ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Bellissimo’ and pats on my knee and rubbed my cheeks.  I asked them to come and stay with me in Newcastle and they laughed and smiled.  Without being able to speak a word of Italian or them English, we had managed to connect and touch each other.  It was a wonderful feeling and a memory I will not easily forget.  I took a selfie and jogged off down the hill with them cheering and clapping my departure as if I was finishing in the Olympics.

The kids wanted another rest day but that wasn’t going to happen.  We agreed to swimming and relaxing but at the beach in Latino rather than our pool and so, once again, we headed down to the flatlands below.  It looked to be ‘just there’ as we looked off the veranda, but it was a good 30 minute drive.  As we looked from the veranda there was one building that stood out a mile as it must have been 40 floors high while everything else around it was no more than 4 or 5 even in the centre of town.  I couldn’t leave Italy and not know what this was!  It wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped, it was just a residential building called Torre Pontina.  Why they needed to build houses in the sky when there was so much land below that was untouched will forever be a mystery to me.

With a car full of confused faces, four wondering why we had stopped to take a look at the front door of a tower block and one because I couldn’t work out what they had built it for, we pressed on to the beach.  Before we dipped our toes we popped into what looked like a hotel canteen for a spot of lunch.  It was as bland as could be, after the good food we had enjoyed all week it felt like a microwave meal, but we were filled and that was all that mattered.  We headed on up the stony beach to find a quieter spot in view of the car and jumped in.  The sea was warm with gentle waves lapping on the shore.  You reached a deep spot about 10 meters out and then about 20 meters out you were back up to ankle depth on a sand bank before the sea slowly sloped off…the next land probably being Corsica which I had no intention of plodging out to.

As we came out of the sea a group of lads were playing football and acting like young men do, showing off, being loud and posing for any women that were on the beach giving them sideways glances to see if their efforts to look manly were paying off.  The only eye that these boys seemed to catch was that of an older gentleman that seemed to be suggesting they should move on and let people enjoy their day at the coast without being bothered.  At one point, one of the lads kicked a ball to his mate but it was flying at great pace towards us.  Instinct took over and I raised my foot up, took the pace off the ball and brought it under control perfectly at my feet. I am not sure who was more surprised, me that I had controlled a football or them that this old English guy had the moves still!

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We stopped for an ice cream and a coffee before heading home and the guy that owned the cafe had a son that owned a restaurant just outside of York so we chatted and I tried his own invention which was, effectively, a Mr Slushi laced with espresso coffee.  An ice cold slap followed by a caffeine bang and wallop.  I am not sure if it will take off or not but he can use that in his adverts if he likes.

We had an early start in the morning, with my desire for getting to airports and stations in good time we wouldn’t have any time to think never mind play in the pool.  We washed the sea salt off with chlorinated water and spent the rest of the afternoon lazing by the pool throwing fallen lemons at each other in the pool and letting the sun kiss us for one last time.WhatsApp Image 2018-10-27 at 22.10.26

The landlord had recommended a local restaurant called Chichibio which sat on the other side of town.  It had a terrace so you could eat your meal with a view of the mountains behind us and it was heaven.  Dressed in our finest we ate good food, drank, laughed, joked and watched the world go by and the sun drop out of view and the changing colours that come with it.  We would miss this place so much.  One last walk through town, one last ice cream in the piazza and one last meow from the cats outside the house and that was it, our last day was complete.

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Italy Day 4

Italy Day 4

After the previous days exertions, it was time for another rest day.  The plan was to potter around the pool for the morning and head out just after lunch to visit the castle at Sermoneta, a plan that we executed perfectly.  We dragged our pruned and rosy bodies up the cobbled streets, hopscotching between the bored cats stretching out in the intimidating midday sun, for a short walk to the castle gates.  Despite our obvious lack of Italian language skills, we worked out that we could only get in as part of a guided tour and that that guided tour was only going to be in Italian.

Again, we couldn’t come all the way to Sermoneta and not see the castle and so we paid our money and joined in the tour.  We were so fortunate that one of the other visitors was a Romanian lass who had married an Italian guy who worked for HP in England and so was fluent in English, Italian, Romanian and probably another half dozen languages on top.  At the end of each stop on the tour she translated for us and brought the place to life with the stories of the past.  She was incredibly kind to spend the time making the visit so much more enjoyable for us, what a difference to Pompeii the day before and a great warning that you have to make the most of opportunities as they come your way.


We spent around an hour listening to the stories and picking our way around the castle from the servant quarters and kitchen, through the master bedrooms and all the way through secret battlements and the super view from the roof.  By this time the kids were getting bored again and the tour was done.  They got their rewards/hush money of ice creams in the town square and then back to the villa for splashing and swimming.  Around the pool area were a number of citrus trees that were in full fruit.  We used the lemons and limes to bounce off each other’s heads and play piggy in the middle.  Simple fun, but a perfect way to relax.  As boy child helped to try and get the limes out of the pool using the pool cleaning net he, in a style that only he could have mastered, managed to loosen the net from the end of the pole and it shot off over the terrace and into the garden of the house below.  It was a task that you couldn’t get him repeat in a million years even if he tried his hardest, but that’s what he has in his locker, just like his dad!  I spoke to the landlord and explained what had happened and it was returned the next day without fuss.
With all the excitement of the pool winding down, we washed and showered and headed into town for dinner.  We ended up at the Trattoria de Elena.  It was another local restaurant that was not your basic pizza and pasta you would expect from an Italian restaurant in the UK.  There was a focus on local meats and products but no pizza or “spag-bol’ type meals.  I had the mixed grill and it was nothing short of lovely and at €106 for seven heads, not too shabby at all. We stopped for ice creams in the town square on the way back home and ticked off another successful and happy day.