Sea Level is for Sissies, This Race Was an “11"

02/25/2017 - 18:32

By Art Zimmerman, Mt. Pleasant, SC.

Art Zimmerman -2017 Red Rock Canyon Half Marathon.jpgWhile running the Bolder Boulder 10K a few years ago, I noticed someone wearing a T-shirt at the start of the race poking fun at us coastal runners saying “Sea Level is for Sissies”. In less than a mile from the start, I wasn’t smiling anymore as I was already breathing harder than usual. The altitude effect was alive and well.

As a senior runner now in my 70s, I knew when I signed up for the 2017 Red Rock Canyon Half Marathon, held in Nevada’s scenic Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the higher altitude was going to be a real factor. But that was just the beginning of the challenges in the hardest of my 32 half and full marathons, including the tough Big Sur and Nashville full marathons. Red Rock was an 11 on my 1-10 difficulty scale.

The annual Red Rock Canyon Marathon, Half Marathon, and 5K are one of several distance and endurance races organized and run by Calico Racing ( and their fantastic race director Joyce Forier ( The Red Rock Half Marathon course loops around the Red Rock Canyon Park’s scenic 13-mile paved road, while the full marathon does the same loop twice in the opposite direction.

The Red Rock Canyon race location is only about 20 miles from the Las Vegas Strip and Joyce had round trip bus transportation well-organized and available at Bally’s on the Strip and the Suncoast Casino Hotel a little farther from downtown Vegas. There were staggered early starts for all three races, with the full marathon off at 6:15AM, half marathon at 7AM, and the 5K at 7:45AM.

On race day, the altitude wasn’t the only obstacle faced by the runners. The morning temperature hovered around 40 degrees, which would have been fine except for the record-setting steady and cold rainfall. When it became apparent that it was indeed going to be raining on race day, Joyce emailed all the participants the afternoon before the race that of the 84 local races she had organized previously, she never once had rain on race day. Lucky me.

The 5:30AM bus from Bally’s arrived at the course around 6:15AM. There were 45 minutes to kill in the cold rain. Fortunately, there were small but heated men’s and ladies restrooms near the start area that provided a periodic break from elements. At 7AM sharp the Half Marathon started.

Having been surprised at how hilly the Nashville Marathon was when I hadn’t bothered to study the course elevation map before the race (my bad), this time I knew what I was in for. The first five miles were uphill with a 1,000 ft. elevation rise to the top. Altitude and a starting 5-mile climb in a cold rain felt more like an Xtreme Sports competition than a scenic run in the park.

With about a half-mile flat before the start of the climb, I was already feeling the altitude as my breathing was becoming more labored. It was starting to feel like I may have bitten off more than I could chew. But there were plenty of water stations along the entire route manned by incredibly dedicated volunteers in the nasty weather, and I also carried a small water bottle just to make sure to stay hydrated.

Around mile 3, I ran a bit with three guys from the Midwest, two of them helping their brother make it through his first half marathon. Tough track for his first half! A little farther up the hill, a young couple said they had also run the New Orleans Marathon recently, flat as a pancake and about as night and day as it gets from Red Rock Canyon.

With about a mile to go to the top, I started feeling a little light-headed, no doubt from the altitude, so I slow-walked for a while and, thankfully, it subsided. At the top of the climb, the view of the valley below was spectacular despite the relentless rain and cold numbing my fingers.

While most of the remaining 8 miles were downhill with a few uphill stretches in the switchbacks, the long slog home was underway. With clothes soaked miles ago, I pressed on slow and steady. A lonely porta-potty was a welcome sight around mile 10 as the road flattened some and the finish line felt within reach.

A back spasm at mile 11, no doubt the result of hunching my shoulders into the rain and using my light jacket sleeves pulled over my numb hands as wet gloves, was concerning but subsided after another mile. At 12.4 miles into the half, just as Joyce had warned all the runners, a 50 ft. stretch of the road was flooded with about 4 inches of running water, well over shoe-top level. The first couple steps into the cold water were a bit of a shock to the system, but soon enough I was out of it and almost home.

Over three hours into the mission, I finally crossed the finish line to loud cheers from my wife, Kathy, and our good friends the Davids and the Kays, who sometimes travel with us, depending on the destination. Las Vegas fit their criteria nicely. After a few photos, Kathy asked me to take off my two wet jackets for a warm and dry sweatshirt she brought. My fingers were too numb to get the jacket off without some assistance as I started to shake for about 20 minutes when the cold and rain finally got to me. Hot coffee and chili were life-savers at the finish line while waiting for the next bus back to town.

Despite the tough weather conditions, the Red Rock Canyon Half Marathon was a great experience and one I will definitely never forget. There were just two of us in the 70-79 age group and I came in second to the younger guy by around 20 minutes. No problem, this sea level sissy felt like I had just won the X Games!

(Art Zimmerman of Mt. Pleasant, SC, is a member of the Charleston Running Club. He can be reached at

Photo: Art Zimmerman at higher altitude.

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