Surrey Bound

Surrey Bound

Having recently quit my job, I needed some time to think and to work out next steps.  No company in their right mind would employ someone in December, unless it was in desperation and I really didn’t fancy an emergency appointment at this time of year.

So I booked a train and headed down to Surrey, via London, to meet up with my good friend from the South that regular readers (both of you) will remember.  He questions me, he challenges me and he understands me and so is the best mentor and life coach that I could wish for, exactly what I needed right now.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I was at the station an hour early for my train and so I was all relaxed and calm.  My man in the South had been trying to pin me down on what I wanted to do but I didn’t want to drive the agenda, I wanted to let him show me around.  No doubt this annoyed him intensely but I wanted to be taken for a journey, do something different and see new things.

He met me with a huge smile and a hug at Kings Cross and we took a walk through Saint Pancras and we had a coffee and a croissant at the British Library.  We were surrounded by intellectual types and bow ties while we caught up and I gave him the lowdown on my jobless situation and my recent travels.

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We then jumped onto the tube and headed to the Royal Academy Of Arts. To say that this was something new and different for me is an understatement.  Left to my own devices I would more likely jump over the moon before paying £18 to see an exhibition about the art of the Oceanic Islands.  I was so glad that we did though.

We walked through a dozen rooms filled with amazing displays that came to life with eh audio books and I think it took us around 2-3 hours to make our way through the whole thing.

 

We walked around amazing art and cultures that had been ‘traded’ from the locals and brought back over the years in exchange for various diseases, wars, beatings and murders that we gave them as compensation.  Incredible but flimsy looking rafts that were used to navigate hundreds of miles between islands that traded with other, I wouldn’t like to go out on a perfect flat waist deep boating pond on them.  Having said that, I am such a terrible swimmer that I am maybe not the best to judge!

The whicker framed pictures above were not decorative, they were maps that showed trade routes between the hundreds of islands and, to the trained eye, could be used to navigate the safe waters and avoid the wrong rocks and dangerous currents.

Their fascination with penises was a fascinating confirmation that young boys never grow up, even over 250 years.

The highlight of the show was a panoramic video called ‘In pursuit of Venus – Infected‘ which is on youtube in the above link.  It really was an incredibly interesting display that had a good hundred people absolutely spellbound on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

Both very satisfied we made out way through some very posh shops and shopping arcades that seemed to be ignoring any Brexit concerns about economic slowdown with thousands of shoppers starting the Christmas rush at prices that made this Northern boy blush.

We had dinner in a fine restaurant called Cicchetti which is a San Carlo establishment.  You order your Italian food with a Tapas feel, sharing the plates as they arrive in any old order.  It was very lively with tables crammed close together and the food was superb.

We got chatting to the two ladies sat next to us, well it was pretty much on top of us the tables were so close, as we had been drawn to their ice cream that was served in a plant pot container that would have fed an entire orphanage.  She was a lively old bird and was on her second 4 week trip of the year from the US where she ate out every night in some the finest establishments in the capital.  You couldn’t tell as she must have weighed about 9 stone wet through.  It’s a tough life for some.

All fed and watered we made our way back to Woking and spend an hour drinking tea and putting the world to rights.

I woke up the next day after a very welcome lie in and lazy morning and headed to Mercedes world which, in my mind was going to be a museum and interactive displays that would get the teenage boy inside me very excited.  I have to say I was a bit disappointed.  The staff looked either bored or down their noses at me, I couldn’t tell which but I didn’t like the idea of either.  It was, in effect, a huge sale room for Mercedes with a massively expensive test track stuck on the side where a legion of London corporate goons were guffawing and ‘yar-yar-yarring’ themselves into their bosses backsides.

My host could tell I wasn’t enjoying it massively and so we headed off.  To be fair, there were some lovely old cars on display and the deconstructed and floating Formula One car was very interesting but, overall, it was worth every penny of the free admission.

We headed around the corner to the Brooklands museum.  Now this was more my thing, gritty, honest and real life.  There were a few different sections from motorbikes, race cars, planes and, most importantly a cafe!

We literally walked through a history of flight that went from the flimsiest of early flying machines through to passenger planes flying over the Atlantic faster than a bullet from a rifle and all of this was within the space of 60 or so years.  It was incredible.

The place was staffed by incredibly eager volunteers that were infectiously excited where they were and what they were showing off.  Every one of them over the age of 65 and without doubt able to repair anything that you put in front of them from a jet engine to a child’s bike.

It was an incredible contract to the ultra sleek and modern Mercedes showroom over the room but a million time more engaging.  I loved every second of being there.  I think it closed at 4pm but the guy that showed us around told us to hurry into the next hanger if we wanted to see the WW2 bomber that was my planned highlight of the day.

We had the place to ourselves and spent a good while exploring the place top to bottom before heading out to car park.  We were pretty much locked in and there was three guys at the gift shop tapping their watches as we gingerly crept out of the gates.  I couldn’t recommend this place highly enough.

We headed back to Woking where my hosts wife had made a delicious meal for us and the conversation flowed and, yet again, we put the world to rights. The most important thing that I learned was that I was to be served a pudding as I was Northern, the lighter and more refined desserts were saved for the Southern types!

I was glad of this as I gorged on a delicious bread and butter pudding with Baileys.  I was so blown away by it I was given a Tupperware put to take home and couldn’t be certain I wouldn’t eat on the train on the way home!

I headed back home the next day after a very wet and miserable walk through London, picking up some Christmas shopping in the London boutiques. My mind was clearer and I knew what direction I was going in, professionally, personally and physically.  I was going North.  I was going home.

Coming Home

Coming Home

I got up and needed to sort out last minute gifts so walked down to the self-proclaimed biggest gift store on the planet.  It was wall to wall with rubbish tat.  Imagine anything you can and write Vegas on it, it was in there.  I picked up the present I needed and wandered back to the Hotel to pack when a guy dressed in an all-in-one pink onesie shouted at me ‘Hey man, wanna hear a joke?’  I couldn’t think of a reason why not and didn’t want to upset the crazy man so I shouted ‘Yeah’ back at him.  “What did the horny frog say?”  I was trying to think of a punchline that involved him shooting, stabbing or robbing me and I couldn’t think of anything so just said ‘ I don’t know’.  He laughed hysterically as he shouted ‘RUBBIT’ back at me.  I’m not sure if I was just happy that he was a wannabe comedian and not a killer but I laughed a little more than I should have while checking over my shoulder to see if he was following me.

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J and N had received a message from the airline to say that they needed to get to the airport early as they had issues with their check-in and so we headed over even earlier than I would usually be for a flight.  I managed to shut my case that was so overpacked it was a worry and hauled it down through the casino floor as I took one last walk through the misery.  It was the last chance I would have to see our driver and so he picked me up with one arm and I had pictures taken with this most amazing guy.  We said our goodbyes at the airport and I went off to check in my king-sized bag.  I think I was allowed 35kg but I was at 50kg.  The lady said that anything over 42kg was a problem and so I showed her a photograph of my cat and we were friends and I was all good.  The next time I would see that case would be in Newcastle, I liked that idea.  Vegas had been amazing but it was a hard slog and distorted your mind and what was normal; you can’t spend too long there.

I split up with J and N in the airport as they had posh passes for the executive lounge.  I had to force them to use them as they didn’t want to leave me but I hated the idea of them missing out for me and so I had to threaten them.  I ate pizza and drank coke at 10.30am and watched the world go by.  The flight from Vegas to Detroit was packed again, I chatted to a lady from Detroit on her way home who had been to Vegas for a motor convention and we shared a common bond over how funny the lady’s voice was in the seat behind us.  We got the giggles and couldn’t catch ourselves until we landed pretty much.  We had to rush off the plane once we landed as we had a very short window until our onward flight to Amsterdam.  We sprinted through the airport like lunatics just to find ourselves standing in a long queue to hurry up to stand still.

It wasn’t like the flight out as it was pretty much full so was a wholly different experience.  There was a family in the three seats behind me that were travelling with a baby and the poor thing was crying for what seemed like forever.  I could hear the mother crying herself and as I returned from the toilet I asked her if she spoke English before telling her not to worry.  The people on the plane who were parents understood and those that weren’t would never understand but maybe would one day,  I told her she was doing a great job and just relax.  I just made her cry a little more.

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The food wasn’t as exciting on the way home. I watched Saving Private Ryan and then I was in Amsterdam.  An hour’s wait and I could hear Geordie voices again.  It was time to take a moment to reflect on the trip.  I had had a fantastic time, but I had missed my kids, missed my Titchy and I had missed, well, normality.  It was like an adult version of Disneyland but with a sinister and sad dark undertone that I couldn’t reconcile.  I had been warned that 3-4 days was enough as it would take it out of you.  Add in a half marathon and the 6 nights and I was a broken man that needed some fruit, vegetables and a quiet night in.

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After a very quick up and down over the North Sea, I was back home.  Annoyingly, we must have flown directly over the top of my house and I didn’t get to see it, but I was back and I was very happy about it.  I didn’t have my front door keys with me and it was 2pm so I was going to have to head into town on the Metro to get a lift home from Titchy.  Imagine my surprise when the doors at arrivals opened and there she was looking just perfect and waiting for me.  I was home, we were back together and we could start to plan the next adventure.

A Grand Day Out

A Grand Day Out

This was our last full day in Vegas and we had decided to hire a car and head on a road trip to the Grand Canyon.  We had gone all in on the American experience and booked a bright red convertible Mustang.  We spent an age waiting for the paperwork to be sorted in the office before walking up to the garage to pick up our car.  It was parked next to a classic mustang and looked amazing.  J started off the drive and, as we had been told that mobile signal was a bit patchy out in the wild, we hired a sat nav to make sure we got there ok.

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Before we got out of the car park we decided that we would have the top down but flashing lights on the dashboard meant that we couldn’t get things moving.  I hopped out and had a look and there was a plastic coke bottle trapped in the mechanism.  Once this was out of the way, the roof collapsed, the dashboard lights went off and we were ready to go.  I went to the ‘recent places’ on the sat nav menu and picked ‘Grand Canyon’ and off we went. Just the open road and a four hour trip ahead of us.  As we drove out of Vegas on the slip road circling up to the freeway above, I looked down and saw dozens of people living in the water pipes in the middle of the roundabout.  Another example of the absolute misery living inside the magic of Vegas but swept away out of view.  It was all a bit sad.

I nodded off after about an hour and woke up about an hour later as our car pulled up at the side of the road.  We had stopped to put the roof up as it was freezing cold and noisy.  Why are convertibles even a thing?  It is always exactly the same; great for half an hour then the reality of cold, noisy trips with flies in your hair hits home.   As I woke up, another reality hit me.  The sat nav was suggesting that we drive another mile down the road, do a U-turn and then head back exactly where we had just come from.

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No matter how many times I reset the sat nav, it always suggested that we needed to turn around.  I felt sick.  I offered to drive the next stage and drove like an idiot back to Vegas, right through Vegas and out the other side for another 2 hours in that direction.  Before we got too far, we stopped for petrol and half a ton of chocolate and confectionary.  I went to fill up the car and a guy at the next pump shouted over, ‘Hey, the green pump is the diesel over here’.  No kidding, I was about thirty centimetres away from filling a hired American sports car with the wrong fuel in the middle of a desert.  I loved that guy and when I went inside to pay for the fuel and take a comfort break, I told him so just as he was in mid comfort break which just seemed to terrify him a little bit.

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We drove over the Hoover Dam but didn’t get to see it. The 400 car traffic jam on the road that we should have taken suggested we had dodged a bullet there.  We crossed over into Arizona and changed time zones which just further added to the confusion in my mind about the day.  That wrong-way Tom Tom made me feel like even satellites were out to get me.  We drove through miles of dusty nothing broken up by the odd rickety farm or motor home surrounded by scrap and broken walls or toys.  We eventually turned off the motorway and drove another 40 minutes to the Grand Canyon National Park Centre.  There were all sorts of options for helicopter or plane tours but that all seemed a bit too much and far too exciting.

We paid our money over and were directed to a bus that would take us around the park.  The first stop was Hualapai Ranch, a Wild West themed cafe and horse stop where you could do a horse trip into the canyon.  My allergy to horses was so bad/silly that we skipped that stop altogether and made for the second stop which was the glass walkway at Eagle Point.  After a brief walk through the visitor centre which outlined the struggles that the First Nations had faced being kicked off their land and then oppressed for generations, you had to hand over pretty much everything that you owned into a locker.  Phones, coins, anything electrical….it was easier to just put everything in there to not get shouted at by the menacing security team.

Once all of your possessions are handed over, you get to step out onto the glass horseshoe floating above the canyon. This is your first real view of the Canyon and it is only when you get out onto the walkway that you get a feel for the scale.  A helicopter flying through the canyon looks like a dot and allows you to work out the enormity of what are you looking at.  As you get onto the walkway, without your camera, you see that the Native Americans are getting their own back after their years of oppression.  They have been handed cameras and no training and then take 10-15 pictures of couples in various positions, arms out like an eagle, pretending to push your friend off the side, funny falls pictures, you get the idea, and then you get back inside and they charge you $100 to get them printed.  The price in no way reflects the quality of the photography as they were so over exposed you couldn’t make out THE most amazing view I had ever seen and it looked like the couples were standing in front of a white screen.

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There was a t-shirt in the shop that showed the scale of the canyon; it was three times the height of the Eiffel Tower.  It was simply stunning and I couldn’t take it all in reasonably. It was too beautiful, too much to take in.  It was called Eagle Point as the rocks in the middle of the canyon looked like an eagle flying down.  I can only imagine how amazing this must have been to the First Nations looking at this for the first time; how inspiring it must have been, and I could understand the inspiration for their legends  in such a magical place.  Can you imagine being the first pioneer on the back of a horse exploring the area, coming across this view and telling everyone else to turn back as there was nothing here to see.  Give me a few years and I will have a visitor centre knocked up and will be charging $75 to get in there….Ker-ching!

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We hopped onto the bus for the short ride to the third and final spot called Guano Point.  I was stunned to hear that someone had had a similar idea to me about money making in this amazing place, just a bit more dangerous and stupid.  Upon seeing THE most stunning vista on the planet they decided to climb down it and take a look at the cave and found it was filled to the brim with thousands of years worth of bat shit, Guano.  Ignoring the opportunity of the visitor centre and photo opportunities, this guy nailed it.  Let’s mine out all of that bat shit and sell it as fertiliser.   This wasn’t in the time of cowboys and the Wild West, this was 1957.  At today’s prices, they invested $31m in mining this, literally, 100,000 tons of shit that was calculated to be in the cave.  It turned out that there was only 1,000 and so at $900 per ton they lost a huge amount of money.

What a testament to human stupidity that someone could lose money in this most amazing part of the world.  We were there at about 5pm and every time you turned your head to look at the view the light had changed as the sun dropped and no matter how many times you looked at each place, it became more beautiful.  Words cannot begin to do justice to how glorious this place is.  You have to see this place at some point in your life, it really is that good.  There were a lot of people there that seemed so inspired by the magic of the place they decided to see if they could fly. That was the only reason I can think of that people were standing so close to the edge of the hundreds of metres deep crater on the Earth.  Tools.

It was getting dark and very, very cold and so we made our way back to the car to head home.  It was by now properly dark and we got a hell of a shock when we opened the car door to find that the wing mirrors cast a horse shaped light on the floor, a very cool feature!  It must have been a 250 mile trip but it was maybe 175 miles as the crow flies from Vegas to the park.  It seemed impossible to believe as there was nothing else it could be, but you could see the glow of Vegas pretty much from the car park onwards.  We watched the glow on the horizon all the way home and we were right, that was all it could have been.  It summed up Vegas, a colossal waste of resource in a huge party of vanity and self-obsessed hedonism.

We dropped off the car and walked back to the hotel for a quick shower and dress for dinner.  We had a buffet at the Stratosphere and it was like the third circle of hell. The food was OK but it was just too much.  You could have all four corners of the culinary planet on your plate at the same time and no one could judge you.  Again, Vegas in a meal, excessive, classless, do it because you can, not because its right. I felt sick but only after my fifth plate and two bowls of ice cream.  I needed to pack but could no longer walk without feeling sick, so I retired and lay like the fat pig I was.  There could be no bigger contrast to the magical day that I had had than the state of me right now!

Sore Legs In Vegas

Sore Legs In Vegas

I woke up at 6am and could feel my legs, that was a good sign.  I gave myself a little while to wake up before attempting to stand and, lo and behold, everything seemed to be just fine.  I had a little bit of pain in my hips but I had been much worse than this after previous races so I was happy enough.  Showered and ready to go, I met up with J and N and N’s family and headed back to the Dennys that I spotted right next door to our hotel and so saved a two mile round trip.

Between the six Costa Ricans and the Mexican waiter, the whole morning was a blur of Spanish and I was the foreign guy for an hour.  Race day over, I went for the banana and toffee pancake WITH the bacon and potatoes.  The coffee and orange juice was a life saver and I felt alive again and very very full.  We skipped over the road and waited for the SDX bus along the strip so we could get our photos taken at the Vegas sign.  N’s sister was a physio and she said that the hip pain I was struggling with was because I walk and run with my feet pointing outwards and so my weight was not properly aligned.  I have never walked so consciously with my feet straight, it actually hurt my mind to concentrate on feet position so much!

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You couldn’t come to Vegas and NOT have that ‘ welcome to Vegas’ shot and so it had to be done, but it was a long way off the strip and stuck in the middle of the road over the road from the airport.  It’s hard to feel like you’re somewhere amazing with cars, lorry and busses flying past you and planes flying over the top of you.
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Boxes ticked, we split up.  Daughter child had requested that I buy ‘everything’ in a shop called Hot Topic.  I walked the two miles out of the strip to the store and emptied my wallet onto their counter and picked up a few other gifts for myself, and others, in a shop that sold rocks and crystals.  Don’t worry, I haven’t turned hippy but I do love geology.  I took the bus from the wrong side of the road, thinking that the circular bus route was non-stop, so I ended up waiting in the terminal for the return journey.   I got asked for directions to the right bus by a lady and we ended up chatting.  It turns out she was a police officer but is now a detective travelling to Vegas for a conference for disabled children in sports.  She was very interesting and the charity work that she undertook was inspiring, it made me feel very lazy in comparison.
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I said goodbye to my new friend and hopped off the bus at the Treasure Island Hotel where I met up with J and N and N’s family. We walked through more shops and saw the sights as we slowly meandered back along the strip.  We stopped for tea at Del Taco and I waited round 40 minutes for some squished up baby poo in a wet wrap; worst meal in Vegas by a long way.  I found my boy child his footy top and a pair of basketball shorts (the closest I could get to the football shorts he wanted) and then we jumped on the bus and headed back to our hotel for our customary afternoon nap.

N and J were taking in a show on the strip that evening and so I was on my own.  A big part of me just wanted to stay in bed and catch up on a nap but I could do that any time at home. This would be my only chance to head back downtown and see what was going on in Freemont Street.  I hopped on the bus (after I was offered some crack that I politely declined) and headed towards the slightly dimmer but none the less bright lights of downtown Vegas.

The original strip is now a pedestrianised walkway which is all lit up as if electricity is free. It has a zip wire all the way down the street so you can ‘fly’ above everyone’s heads.  It felt like an amateur and more innocent version of uptown Vegas. The street vendors are a little more amateur and ‘normal’ compared to the crazy goings on in the posh end of town.  People were still walking around drinking beer in the open but it felt more like Magaluf if it won a big scratch card rather than the full on lottery.  Even the homeless guys were in on it, holding up signs saying ‘Who am I kidding? Give me money for beer, dope and hookers, at least I’m honest!’.
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I wandered up and down the street a few times taking in the sights, including the Heart Attack Grill where you eat free if you are over 350 pounds.  You can only dine if you are wearing the hospital scrubs they provide to help reinforce you are close to a heart attack the minute you look at the menu.  Even I wasn’t tempted by this crazy business. I ended up sitting at the bar in a casino drinking a few beers whilst watching the same game of American football I had watched the previous evening in the burger bar; they don’t half milk their football coverage. I watched watched the barman fight with a group over them drinking wine from another bar in the same casino and continued to observe as the manager appeared to tidy things up leaving everyone (except the barman) feeling happier.  I was tired, and my legs were sore, and the three beers had made things a lot worse.  I jumped back on the bus and headed back to the hotel.  I missed my stop as the bus driver thought we were in the middle of a Speed film and so I had to walk a little way back.

I realised I had missed a meal and so, wanting to get back to rest my old legs, I picked up a family sized bag of cheese crisps and demolished them while watching CNN.  The absolute shame of reaching into the bag to get another crisp and realising they were all gone was bad.  Licking the cheese dust that had clung all over my fingers was a shame I couldn’t take. I had lost my dignity in Vegas, but not in the way most people do!

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.