Commentary

Running to remember: Thousands take part in emotion-filled Vegas marathon

Updated: November 13, 2017, 4:01 PM ET
By Kevin Van Valkenburg

Jacob Kepler for ESPN

LAS VEGAS -- It's not an exaggeration to say that no city in America pulls off an organized, over-the-top spectacle like Las Vegas. The Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon, now in its ninth year, has always been a shining example of the city's exuberant, decadent spirit, with runners flying in from all over the globe to pound the pavement with their feet, and party afterward. It features some of the best race costumes of any event in the United States, and it might be the one athletic event in the country where you can spot runners in Elvis jumpsuits keeping stride with Playboy bunnies and Hulk Hogan. It has always been a party as much as it is a race.

But when tragedy struck the city on Oct. 1, when a gunman killed 58 people and injured another 500 from the window of his Mandalay Bay hotel suite, the running community and local law enforcement were faced with a series of hard questions: How do you throw a running festival in a city that's still in mourning? How do you protect 40,000 people on a course that stretches the entire length of downtown Las Vegas? Should the event be postponed? Or canceled? No one was sure.

"It almost felt selfish to think about running a race in a month [since the tragedy]," said runner Marisa Hird. "You're thinking about the families, and the city, and racing is such an afterthought. How do you even begin to think about the importance of a marathon when something like that happens?"

Determination, however, is part of every runner's ethos. Fewer than 50 runners called to cancel, according to race organizers, while hundreds more signed up to show support to the city. In total, 40,000 runners from 73 countries attended the three-day event. Many runners saw their presence as a symbol, a sign they would not cower in fear.

The first 2 1/2 miles of the race were labeled "an extended moment of silence" in tribute to the victims, and for the most part, the only sounds you could hear during that section of the route were sneakers hitting asphalt and the heavy breathing of the runners. It was peaceful, but somber. There would be music and mirth later in the race, but in that moment, just a surreal silence. Many runners couldn't keep from glancing up at the hotel windows on the 32nd floor, where the gunman once stood as they ran past.

Hird, who won the women's race, was among the runners who took a moment to reflect before pressing on. Being in Vegas, running unafraid, felt like reclaiming it from the tragedy.

"It was more like, 'Hell, yeah, I'm going to run.'" she said. "'Vegas Strong' couldn't be truer words. But maybe not even 'Vegas Strong,' maybe it was more like 'Runner Strong' and 'Marathon Strong' and 'Walking Strong' and 'Wheelchair Strong,' and whatever you can do. It never crossed my mind to not be here."

The starting line

The race usually begins outside Mandalay Bay, but, as part of an added security measure for the event, race organizers pushed the start line up a mile north. More than 30,000 runners competed in the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon and Half-Marathon on Sunday, the only day of the year the entire Las Vegas Strip is closed to cars and open to pedestrian traffic.

Jacob Kepler for ESPN

Remembering and honoring

A handful of memorials lined the race route, including Greg Zanis' hearts tribute, which was taken down before the start of the race to be placed in a local museum.

Jacob Kepler for ESPN

Jacob Kepler for ESPN)

Jacob Kepler for ESPN

Increased security

Race organizers and the city officials also upped overall security for the race, the first major outdoor event on the Strip since the gunman carried out his attack on the night of Oct. 1. Around 350 officers watched over the race, including snipers perched on the roofs of casinos along the Las Vegas Strip.

John Locher/AP Photo

Free to run

Runners paused during the national anthem before the start. Several of them carried American flags during the entire race.

Jacob Kepler for ESPN

'Extended moment of silence'

Competitors ran by Mandalay Bay, the site of the Oct. 1 mass shooting. The first 2 1/2 miles of the race were labeled "an extended moment of silence" in tribute to the victims.

John Locher/AP Photo

'Yes, we can!'

Lisa and Ed Caccavale didn't know each other before they each recently joined a running club in Northwest Indiana, but they soon bonded over the fact that they were each grieving the death of a significant other. They fell in love, then decided to get married. Wanting their ceremony to reflect how running brought them together, they were hitched during a special ceremony before the marathon. "Our world revolved around running," Lisa Caccavale said. "We ran our first marathon together in Chicago on my birthday, and Ed just started joking about how we should get married during a race. I said, 'We can! They do that in Vegas.'"

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'Cameron can't run, and I can'

Esther Reincke didn't want to run the half-marathon after the Vegas shooting. It felt like it was too soon; she had too much to process. One of her friends, Cameron Robinson, was killed in the attack. They had worked together in City Hall and had been members of the same running club. "He was one of those kids who was just wicked smart," Reincke said. "Everyone is still so in shock." But as the event drew closer, Reincke knew she'd be there for one reason: "Cameron can't run, and I can." She said it felt surreal to jog past Mandalay Bay and see the broken windows, but running was also an act of defiance in her mind. "If you stop going to events and stop living because you're afraid, he's claimed another life. You can't let that happen."

Kevin Van Valkenburg for ESPN

'It's still surreal'

Fourteen months after Steve Martin lost both his legs below the knee during a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan, he was running again. Slowly, he says, but he was running. A police officer before he started doing contract work for the U.S. State Department, Martin eventually returned to active duty with the Arizona Department of Public Safety and became the first double amputee police officer in the United States. He's now retired, and competes in races and climbs mountains to stay active. Running in Las Vegas was tough because he was still healing from a broken leg, but it was something Martin wanted to do -- an officer in his old department was injured in the Oct. 1 shooting. "It's still surreal," Martin said. "You can't help but look up at those windows [at Mandalay Bay] as you run by."

Kevin Van Valkenburg for ESPN

Strength in numbers

Erin Little, right, has run more than a dozen marathons with her parents, Tony and Eden Capsouto. They are part of Team Hoyt, a club started by Dick Hoyt and his son, Rick, that focuses on helping people with special needs compete in athletic events. "They get to experience what it feels like to be athletes, which is really great," Eden Capsouto said.

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The race, and the cause

Dana Bowden and Jenn Bodily from Utah, and Sarah Callender from Washington, were part of the 12,000 runners who wore "Vegas Strong" T-shirts during the race. The shirts were sold for $20 each, with all of the proceeds going to the Las Vegas Victims Fund, which has raised $11 million so far, according to Clark County commissioner Steve Sisolak. The goal is to raise $30 million.

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Vegas, and beyond

Runners, many of whom came from all over the globe to compete in Las Vegas, passed through historic Fremont Street. All told, 73 countries were represented during the three-day event.

Jacob Kepler for ESPN

Vegas, Rock City (for one night, at least)

The event wasn't without that famous Las Vegas spirit, including a Kiss cover band that performed during Sunday's race.

Jacob Kepler for ESPN

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