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.

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