The Lucky 13 Virtual Ultra Endurance Challenge was put on by Desert Dash (desertdash.com) and consisted of running a half-marathon every day for 13 consecutive days. I learned about it when my friend, Monique McNeil, posted the registration link on my Facebook timeline and suggested it was right up my alley. I don't know whether to thank her or curse her. I was intrigued by the challenge and signed up a few days later.
At the time that I am writing this, I can unequivocally say it was the most punishing physical endeavor I have ever undertaken. I failed the first time I tried it, so this was my second attempt. A few weeks back, I pulled the plug after two-and-a-half days because it was clear to me I was too exhausted from a 24 hour run the week before to actually complete the challenge. What follows is a recap of my journey. Enjoy!
Day 1 (June 10, 2020)
I happened to be in Northern Nevada. Because the weather was significantly cooler than in Las Vegas, I made a last minute decision to kick off the challenge on the morning of June 10th, a day earlier than I had intended. I thought it would be worthwhile in the long run to at least run one in cooler weather.
I had to overcome a few obstacles. First, the day before (June 9) was primary election day in Nevada. Although I was not on the ballot, many of my friends and legislative colleagues were and the election results were majorly delayed, so I didn't hit the sack until almost 2am and even then I did not sleep well. I kept waking up wanting to check the latest results, which were supposed to be updated on a periodic basis. I was exhausted when I woke up.
Second, I may have consumed a few cold Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stouts (one of my favorites) the night before while waiting for election results so that was less than ideal for an early morning run. In my defense, I consumed them BEFORE I decided to run a half-marathon the next morning. And I stopped consuming and switched to water once I decided to run. I also didn't have much for dinner besides a couple of leftover donuts from Donuts to Go in Carson City, also one of my favorites. I did, however, take down an entire pepperoni pizza from the Union in Carson City for lunch, so I was relatively carb loaded, despite being hungry.
Lastly, I had not packed any running shoes for my trip because I intended to take a few days off from training. I did, however, have an extra pair of snazzy, brand new Saucony Dunkin' Donuts Boston Marathon shoes in my legislative office in Carson City. I had planned to take them back with me to Las Vegas, break them in, and start using them. Once I decided to run the half in the morning, I knew I had to break them in or they would be torture to run in. I walked around my hotel room as much as possible, but they weren't properly broken in when I started the next morning. To make matters worse, I had not brought any of my Injinji toe socks so I had to go with the standard mitten socks, increasing the risk of blisters, which could quickly derail my planned 13 day effort. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
I hit the pavement at 5:44am with the temperature a blissful 54 degrees. I headed east from Grand Sierra Resort until I found a really nice path that led into Sparks and followed the beautiful Truckee River. I believe it is called the Truckee River Bike Path. I had it mostly to myself and the run was peaceful and flat, with only 141 feet of elevation, the least amount of elevation of the entire series. My goal pace was between 11 and 12 minutes miles, not just for day 1, but for the entire 13 days. But I felt great despite being tired. So I finished in 2:04:27, averaging 9:29 per mile. And no blisters!. The weather was so mild that I didn't need to hydrate at all during the run, which is unusual for 13+ miles.
With half-marathon number 1 in the books, I headed back to Las Vegas and hotter weather for the remaining 12 half-marathons, crossing my fingers that I could get it done this time.
Day 2 (June 11, 2020)
Back to Las Vegas and the heat. Fortunately, my legs weren't feeling too bad when I woke up on the morning of day 2. I set out from my house at 5:44am, with the temperature already 73 degrees, nearly 20 degrees hotter than the day before. I told myself I would take this one slower and I was true to my word, clocking 2:10:35, averaging 9:58 per mile over 427 feet of elevation. On to day 3.
Day 3 (June 12, 2020)
I knew day 3 would be a mental hurdle because I did not make it through day 3 the first time I attempted this challenge. My legs were definitely sore from logging the combined mileage of a marathon the prior two days. I again set off from my house, starting at 5:40am, opting for a different set of neighborhood roads than I ran the prior day. It was already 76 degrees. I repeatedly told myself I needed to run slower to be able to actually make it to and through day 13. This challenge was a marathon (or, quite literally, 6.5 marathons or 13 half-marathons), not a sprint. I succeeded in slowing down, running 2:12:19 with an average pace of 10:06 per mile over a not too shabby 453 feet of elevation.
I certainly enjoy the convenience of starting any run from my front door, but it is challenging to find a flat course in South Summerlin, the part of Las Vegas where I live. Not that 400-500 feet of elevation is overly difficult, but you definitely notice it when fatigue sets in.
I felt good with day 3 behind me but I was plenty nervous about what was still ahead of me because my legs were feeling 3 days of half-marathons. Yet I had 10 more days to go, which amounted to 5 full marathons of distance, or over 131 miles. As I finished day 3, I finally began to appreciate just how difficult this challenge would be. And I wasn't at all certain I could actually do it.
Day 4 (June 13, 2020)
I ran the Union Pacific Trail out in Henderson for Day 4. I previously ran part of this trail and really enjoyed it. My legs were feeling pretty beat up, but the surroundings were nice and it was a very overcast 70 degree morning, which is unusual for the Las Vegas area in June. This trail starts at Acacia Park (which has bathrooms and drinking fountains!) and meanders all the way out past Nevada State College. Part of the trail has a really nice canopy of trees, making for shade and cooler weather. Another bonus is periodic drinking fountains along the way, which eliminates the need to bring water.
I woke up early because this trail is about a 20 minute drive from my house. I was out running by 5:38am. Although I intended to run slower, the unexpected overcast weather made for a faster run. I finished in 2:06:06, with an average pace of 9:38 per mile over 449 feet of elevation, which is pretty much all in the first half of the course, making for a very pleasant second half. I will definitely be back to run this course again, hopefully to take the trail all the way until it ends.
Day 5 (June 14, 2020)
I chose Sunset Park for Day 5. There isn't much shade out there, so I set the alarm even earlier and was out running by 5:13am. I lucked out with another 70 degree morning. I would be lying if I told you I felt good. My legs were sore and my lower back was starting to feel it too. I just wanted to rest and sleep in, but finish lines are not reached from the comfort of one's own bed.
I left the park for a few miles of the run to try to find some shade (I did!) and was delighted to learn that Carl's Donuts was just a stone's throw away from the park. For those that don't know, I LOVE donuts, like really LOVE them. So I determined to stop there afterward and the thought of those delicious delicacies motivated me to get this one done.
I finished in 2:10:27, at an average of 9:57 per mile over a very comfortable 226 feet of elevation. And, yes, the donuts were glorious! First the pain of running, then the pleasure of donuts. Not a bad day 5.
Day 6 (June 15, 2020)
Day 6 began 3 straight days of self-inflicted torture. Sometimes I can be a glutton for punishment. I am not sure why, but I opted to run the 215 beltway path heading west, starting at Parkway Tavern, just a couple miles from my house. I have run this path dozens of times and I often regret it. There is no shade and the first 6+ miles from the start are all uphill. There are no drinking fountains or bathrooms along the way.
Because of the heat, I was running at 5:02am. The temperature was already 73 degrees. I didn't want to wear a backpack so I opted for a waist belt with two nine ounce bottles. The belt started to slip down around mile 4 and, for some reason, it really pissed me off. I tightened it as much as possible, but it still wouldn't stay in place. I ripped it off in frustration and hid it on the side of the path, grabbing one of the bottles to take with me, resolving to grab the other on the way down. My anger made me run faster, much faster than I wanted to, much faster than I should have. I was running mad, letting my emotions get the best of me. It happens to the best of us.
As bad as the first half of the path is, the second half is pretty damn great because it is almost all downhill. I decided to open it up and see what I could do. It really hurt. I was cursing at myself by mile 10 because my legs were on fire, I was overheating, and I just wanted to quit. But I didn't.
I finished in 1:57:13, average 8:57 per mile over 607 feet of elevation. I was beat, not even willing to go back for the gear I had left behind (it would be several days before I retrieved it, somewhat surprised it was right where I left it). So what did I do? I rewarded myself with Pinkbox Donuts of course, all the while resolving to stay off the 215 beltway path for awhile.
At that point, my personal record for the half-marathon was 1:50:27, at the Saints & Sinners Half Marathon in February 2020 on an entirely downhill, very fast course out in Boulder City, Nevada. I had run 3 or 4 other half-marathons in under 2 hours, but those were years ago when I was in very good shape. I knew I would likely regret such a taxing effort a mere 6 days into this 13 day adventure. The tasty donuts took my mind off of what was still ahead of me, but I was right. I definitely regretted running that fast the next day.
Day 7 (June 16, 2020)
I decided to start waking up earlier to beat the heat and the sun, which was taxing me in a serious way. The sun rose around 5:15am in Las Vegas at this time of year. I was out running on day 7 by 4:44am and it was already a frustratingly balmy 80 degrees. My legs were totally shot from the prior day's effort, but I chose more torture in the form of a bike path named Stardust Drive. It is a paved path between two very exclusive housing communities that heads towards the mountains for 1.3 miles, where it turns into dirt. I had run the path many times before, but I would just turn around and run downhill when I reached the dirt path, for a roundtrip of 2.6 miles on the pavement.
It would take 5 laps to make a half-marathon. I had done 5 laps once before and made a mental note to never do it again. Yet, here I was. Stardust Drive is very popular for bikers and it is not unusual to see dozens of cars in the very small parking area where the path begins. But I was the only one there this early on a Tuesday morning. The path is not lit. It was dark. But it was peaceful too. It was nice to be out running before the sun made asserted its dominance.
I don't really enjoy hills, but they motivate me. I appreciate the challenge of the uphill and the reward of the downhill. I ran hard. Harder than I should have, clocking in a 1:56:26 effort, for an average of 8:53 per mile over 791 feet of elevation. This was the most elevation I would run over the 13 days.
One bonus was that I ran into a friend, Dan Musgrove, who was biking on the path. It was nice to catch up with him for a few minutes as I finished up. He offered words of motivation and encouragement, having run quite a bit when he was younger. I rewarded my exhausted body with Glaze Donuts. They were as amazing as they look. As I savored the last one, I contemplated what the next day would bring. Anticipation. And terror. But mostly terror.
Day 8 (June 17, 2020)
I felt like a corpse when I awoke on day 8. Against my better judgment, I chose Las Vegas Boulevard for my run. Not "the Strip" portion that the world had come to know, but a segment further south of the cluster of mega resorts. I started at the M Resort & Casino and headed south at 5:11am, with the temperature reading 72 degrees. I had run this course a couple of times before, but only a few miles out and back. I would be going much further this time. You basically run on the shoulder of a decently busy road, but I would often just run in the road when there wasn't any traffic. The grading was more consistent there and you could more easily avoid the rumble strips.
I must have forgotten both how windy it is out there and how much elevation there is heading south. The wind was brutal and made running much more difficult. I had to ditch my hat before it became a victim of the vicious wind gusts. This was the first run of the series where I listened to music because I knew I would need the extra motivation. Music was both good and bad. Good because it took my mind off of how much my body was hurting. Bad because it caused me to run faster than I intended to.
At the turnaround point, out past Sloan, Nevada, I decided I just wanted to be done so I picked up the pace. The wind was now at my back, but the sun was also now directly in my face, so I started to quite literally heat up. I actually relished when big rigs drove towards and past me because they at least created some artificial wind to cool me down (though I had to hold on to my hat to prevent it from flying away).
Over the next 6+ miles, I hit several walls, but just kept going and luckily broke through them all. It was a great overall effort, with a time of 1:54:03, an average pace of 8:42 per mile with 538 feet of elevation. This was the second fastest half-marathon I had ever run in my life. My last mile was 7:14 (tied for the fastest of the whole series) and I felt pain and fatigue every step of it. Without the upbeat music, there is no way I would have run that fast.
I was now past the halfway point of the challenge and felt both hopeful and dreadful at the same time.
Day 9 (June 18, 2020)
I felt destroyed and demoralized when I woke up the morning of day 9. Running was the last thing I wanted to do, let alone running 13.1 miles. My body had gotten to the point where I didn't need to set an alarm. I would just wake up when it was time to run. My body must have known the pain was imminent and just wanted to get it over with. In fact, I never woke up to my alarm any of the entire 13 days, which is really crazy because I was getting up very early and I wasn't getting a lot of sleep, probably averaging between 4 and 5 hours a night.
I chose to run the Pitman Wash path in Henderson. I had never run it before, but had heard good things about it. It is 4 miles long, with a nice parking lot at Pecos Legacy Park close to the halfway point. I was out there running by 4:44am. The mercury read 75 degrees. Had I wanted to run fast, I don't think my body would have cooperated. So I took it as slow as I could tolerate and clocked in at 2:14:11, which was 10:14 per mile over 364 feet of elevation. It would be my slowest half marathon of the 13 days, but boy did I need it.
Mile 9 is always a bit of a mental hurdle for me in the half-marathon because, on the one hand, I have run 9 miles already, which represents nearly 70% of the race but, on the other hand, I still have 4 to go and I am usually quite fatigued at that point. I felt the same way about this challenge. It felt great to have 9 half-marathons (nearly 118 miles) under my belt, but I still had 4 more (52.4 miles) to go. I had to find a way to break through the wall. To make matters worse, the rest of my day was punctuated with muscle spasms in both hamstrings. They were threatening to seize up but thankfully never did, at least not for more than a second or two. I tried to stay off the stairs at my house. When I did have to use them, I held on to the handrail for dear life, like a frail old man (which was how I felt at the moment).
Day 10 (June 19, 2020)
I woke up exhausted and emotional, not wanting to put my running shoes on, but knowing that I could not give up now. I headed out to the M Resort again, where I would catch the St. Rose Parkway Trail, another that I had only heard about but not yet run. I would need to add a bit of distance to make a half-marathon, so I caught the Amargosa Trail heading east at the end of the St. Rose Parkway Trial, before turning around at the 6.55 mile mark.
I was running by 4:50am. The temperature was a very nice 66 degrees. It was difficult to get started and my first mile was the slowest of the entire series: 10:48. My legs just did not want to cooperate. It was going to be a long morning. Two things of note. One, a bird pooped on my backpack. Second, not many folks know there is a Lion Habitat out in that part of Las Vegas. This is where the lions that used to reside at the MGM Grand on the Strip now live. I heard you can hear the lions roaring, but I doubted that to be true. So I took a detour to find out for myself. YES, you can hear them roaring and it is amazing (video below)!
The sunrise was utterly spectacular and I had a chance to see a new Las Vegas Raiders facility as well. There are also various wildlife sculptures along the path. I enjoyed it and will definitely be back for a run out here again in the near future.
My time was 2:10:48, with an average mile of 9:59 over a modest 279 feet of elevation. I was now done with day 10, but still had three more to go. Could I do it? Yes, I believed I could. But I shuttered to think too much about how much it was going to hurt.
The highlight of this run was definitely hearing the roar of the lions at dawn. Be sure to turn up your volume for the video.
Day 11 (June 20, 2020)
The temperature was beginning to seriously heat up in Las Vegas, with highs of 105-108 degrees in the forecast for the last three days of the Lucky 13. I had to get up earlier. To be honest, I was getting pretty tired of putting on sunscreen and thought it might be nice to run early enough where I didn't have to. I was out running at 3:18am, when the temperature was already 79 degrees. My body felt like it had been in a rather serious car accident. My head was cloudy and hurting. I was in desperate need of a day off, but my day off would not be today. Off I went.
I chose a course close to my house because I was tired of driving 20+ minutes to start running. I parked at RC Willey, a furniture store a few miles away, and covered the first half mile of my run by doing a loop in their parking lot. I banked that information for later because the loop was almost like a track, just twice the length, and was relatively flat.
I didn't have a set course in mind after that, just hitting some of the local roads. As I passed Parkway Tavern, I saw folks leaving the bar to head home. We have no last call in Las Vegas so people are often out late, especially on Friday nights. It seemed odd to see them leaving the bar and they looked at me oddly as I ran by. I was also surprised to see a bicyclist on the 215 pathway at 3:30am. He had a light on his bike, but I wasn't wearing a light and he looked shocked to see me as we passed within a few feet of each other. Kudos to him for getting his ride in so early!
About 4 miles in, my stomach started to become upset. It was rumbling and I felt queasy. This caused me to change my route and run back to my house for a quick bathroom break. These things happen on occasion. I was just happy to not be too far away from my house at that point on my run. There is no worse feeling than being in desperate need of a bathroom with none in sight.
I finished half-marathon number 11 in 2:12:02, with an average pace of 10:05 per mile over 469 feet of elevation. The good news is that I had just two more days to go. The bad news is that I still had two more days (or 26.2 miles) to go.
Day 12 (June 21, 2020)
I hobbled out of bed very early for my penultimate run because I wanted to be done before sunrise. I again woke up several minutes ahead of my 2:45am alarm. I whispered to myself "Let's go." I headed out my front door at 3:01am. It was 79 degrees. I really enjoy night running. Yes, I worry somewhat about safety and bad drivers, but the risk seems worth the reward of cooler temperatures and the solitude of the night. If you haven't tried a night run, you should. Just be safe about it.
For this run, I headed east on Tropicana Avenue, alternating between the sidewalk and road, depending on the traffic, which got heavier as I got closer to the mega resort casinos. I didn't see many people on the sidewalks at that hour other than a few who looked to be homeless. They seemed intrigued by this random person running at 3am.
The run was all downhill until I hit the halfway point and turned around at Decatur, heading west on Hacienda Avenue. Although the way back was uphill, there was virtually no traffic, which allowed me to run on the road. To say I was hurting would be an understatement. I was dying and wanted nothing more than to quit and catch a ride home. But, of course, I didn't. I just blocked out the pain and discomfort and continued to put one foot in front of the other until the job was done.
I finished in a respectable 2:02:23, for an average pace of 9:21 per mile over 361 feet of elevation. And I beat the sunrise. Just one more day and one more half-marathon to go! The end was in sight. And boy was I relieved.
Day 13 (June 22, 2020)
Time to finish this thing. I debated between two courses. My initial thought was to try to run the Las Vegas strip, but I knew I would have to go really early to avoid tourists. There are also a lot of stairs leading up and down the pedestrian bridges, so the run would be slow and painful and perhaps more taxing that I could handle. But the photos would be great and perhaps the scenery would be distracting.
The other option was to find a relatively flat course and try to set my personal record for the half-marathon, which would require me to run faster than 1:50:00. I ultimately chose the later for a couple of reasons. First, I am competitive and some of my supporters were encouraging me to run a fast one to close this thing out. I was intrigued by the challenge of that. Two, my friend James Zygadlo noted that you really can't beat the Rock and Roll half-marathon that takes place on the Las Vegas strip so why run the Strip in any other fashion. He was right.
Upon getting out of bed, my legs were throbbing and my lower back really hurt. My calves were on fire. But I did what I had to do because I couldn't quit now, so close to the finish line. I got up, got dressed, put my running shoes on and headed out. I felt sick and nervous in anticipation of the kind of effort I would need to expend to set a personal best. I had butterflies in my stomach the way I sometimes do the morning of a race. Did I have it in me? What if I failed? How good would it feel to just be done?
I recalled the RC Willey parking lot and how it was similar in some ways to a 1/2 mile track. I decided to head there and put in most of the miles in the parking lot, with the final mile and a half planned for the downhill portion of the 215 path, ending at Parkway Tavern. I started running at 3:59am. It was already a brutal 83 degrees.
I was mindful that it is difficult to set a personal best if you go too slow at the beginning, so I didn't want that to happen. But I definitely started faster than I wanted to. I would need to average 8:20 per mile to set my personal best. My first mile was 8:04 and the second was 7:57. I had set the tone and would just try to stay at this pace and hope I didn't lose stream in spectacular fashion as the miles wore on. Man, did it hurt. The miles went by slowly but I was able to maintain a pretty consistent pace, my effort level, heart rate, and exhaustion substantially increasing as I racked up the miles.
I took up residence in the pain cave the last few miles, trying my best to just embrace it, knowing it would all be over soon. I don't know that I will ever be able to go back to the RC Willey parking lot without experience some form of PTSD from my excruciating 23 laps there. I also slightly miscalculated the distance so I had to run the last 0.15 back uphill on the 215 path. That was not fun. But you know what? I did it! I clocked in at 01:43:26, an at average pace of 7:53 per mile over 318 feet of elevation. It was the fastest half-marathon of the series by more than 10 minutes and a personal best for me by more than 7 minutes. And I felt like I earned every second of it.
As I walked the mile and a half back to my car, the sense of accomplishment overwhelmed me and I became very emotional, finally feeling the full weight of the physical strain on my body and the mental strain on my mind. I had done it. And it had been significantly harder than I thought it would be. I also felt a sense of sadness that this was the end of the line for this challenge. Sometimes it is more about the the experience rather than the finish line. You learn to live with the pain and the burden and know you will miss it to some degree. But mostly I felt excited about the opportunity to take a few days off and about eating some breakfast. I felt fortunate that I was able to take on and complete this most difficult endurance challenge.
13 days. 170.3 miles. 5,423 feet of elevation. 26 hours, 54 minutes, and 21 seconds of running. Average pace of 9:29 per mile. Average completion time per half-marathon of 2:04:11. 20,384 calories burned. 1 hell of a ride.
As you might imagine, the week of June 15-21 was a pretty good one for my Fitbit stats (see screenshot below). My Fitbit came out of retirement just for that week to see if I could set a personal record for steps and miles in a week. I did.
I honestly thought my chances of completing this virtual ultra endurance challenge was 50/50 at best. I was pleased that there were moments throughout where I felt great and seemed to get stronger the further I went. Those were, of course, followed by moments of utter despair and exhaustion. As this ultra progressed, I felt all of those emotions on and off through every single run. I am utterly amazed at what our bodies are capable of and it makes me wonder how many other artificial limitations we place on ourselves. We sometimes sacrifice greatness for comfort. We ought not to do that.
You don't accomplish something like this on your own. There are many people to thank. Thank you to Joshua Eddy and Desert Dash for putting this virtual event on and for personally delivering the t-shirt and finisher medal to my house. Thank you (I think) to Monique McNeil for bringing this race to my attention. Thank you to my wife, Bita, who is literally a saint and not only puts up with but also actively supports my shenanigans. She made sure I was eating enough to power me through each day. And she also tolerated me consistently waking up in the middle of the night to go running. Who does that?
Thank you to all who supported and encouraged me along the way: James Zygadlo, Crystal Martinez, Brian Yeager, Sally Yeager, Sandra Jauregui, Brittany Shipp Walker, Ben Saxe, Dan Musgrove, John Bemis, Diane Thornton, and Pete Eliason. I would not have been able to complete this without all of you. It brought me a lot of joy to sending you the screenshots of the results each morning.
I recently began using Sword hydration and caffeine products (drinksword.com) in addition to my coveted lemon-lime Gatorade. Sword is the real deal. I recommend it. Also, I would not have finished this ultra without daily rolling out of sore and tired muscles, icing my swelling feet, and using biofreeze cream on my neck and lower back. You have to spend time preparing to succeed the next day or you risk failure.
So what challenge is up next? Rest and sleep for sure. And a couple glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Then we'll see.
Thanks for reading and stay safe out there!
Steve Yeager is an aspiring ultra runner who rarely turns down a challenge. When he is not out putting miles on his shoes, he practices law and serves in the Nevada State Legislature. Steve lives in Las Vegas, Nevada with his very understanding and patient wife, Bita.