RUSSVEGAS HALF MARATHON
Earlier in 2023, I traveled to Las Vegas in February to run the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon, and I thought it would be funny to run a Las Vegas-themed race in the same year, in a different state. I began my 7 hour drive to Russellville, Arkansas early on the Friday morning of April 21, 2023, the day before the RussVegas Half Marathon. It would be my first and last chance to run this race, as it was announced that this would be the 10th and final year. This was going to be a quick and exhausting turnaround in one weekend: 7 hour drive, run a half marathon the next morning, then a 7 hour drive home the day after the race. If I could survive this all in one weekend, I could survive any shorter driving distance with a half marathon sandwiched in between long drives. I filled up my suitcase with compression socks and was fully prepared to be sobbing all the way home by the end.
I knew the earlier I started my drive, the less likely it would be that I'd run into tornados or severe weather on the way, since April marks the peak of tornado season in the Midwest. Prior to this trip, I had never been to Arkansas, and before beginning my 50 states journey, I likely never would have had a reason to visit The Natural State.
The bulk of my drive was through Missouri, and because the spring pasture burns were in full swing, most of my uneventful view of the interstate was of scorched earth. As I crept up on the Missouri-Arkansas border, my view suddenly changed, and I was flanked on either side by towering walls of bright reddish sedimentary rock, which served as a sort of unofficial welcoming gate into Arkansas. Once I passed the "Welcome to Arkansas" sign, I was greeted by a spectacular lush green view of the Ozarks and surrounded by towering pine trees along the interstate. I was awed by how drastically my surroundings changed from one state to another, and how different the landscapes were between Missouri and Arkansas. I almost expected Arkansas to be brown, dry, and mostly treeless like Missouri is along Interstate 70, but I was completely wrong.
I never would have appreciated the transition of the landscapes in the same way if I had flown instead of making this a road trip. I drove the winding roads through the Ozarks and the The Ozark–St. Francis National Forest, already planning to shoot my Medal Monday photo with my race medal against the backdrop of the pine trees, at the Missouri-Arkansas border, to commemorate the road trip. I continued down Interstate 40 and headed into Russellville, which to me uncannily resembles Fort Wayne, Indiana, based on my visits to Fort Wayne with my husband. Although they have drastically different population sizes, the architecture, suburbia integrated with industrial complexes, and friendly small town charm are similar — and both cities are the county seats of their respective counties in each state.
When I arrived, I stopped at The Old Bank for lunch, which is a bank-turned-restaurant in a beautiful century-old building that boasts the original bank vault in the entryway of the restaurant. Since it was relatively early and I beat the lunch rush, I was one of only a handful of customers inside, which filled my introverted soul with relief after my long drive. The menu consisted of gourmet classic American comfort food, and because I knew I needed to start building up the glycogen stores, I ordered a big bowl of chicken parmigiana with spaghetti and a side salad.
The Old Bank sits on the corner of Main Street, right at the intersection that happened to be the location of the race start and finish. Volunteers had already started putting together the start/finish line structure and blocking off the road in preparation for the next morning. I was too tired at that point to be excited, but I knew my excitement would bubble to the surface once I headed over to the expo to pick up my packet later that evening. I had a few hours to unpack and relax at the hotel before I ventured out to the expo and then have my customary pre-race dinner consisting of pizza. I had decided on La Torcia Brick Oven Pizza.
La Torcia, formerly known as Brick Oven Pizza Company, had gone through an ownership change and was renamed "La Torcia" which means "the torch" in Italian to honor the legacy of the restaurant over the years. I ordered a personal pan pizza loaded with veggies, and a small order of some of the best breadsticks I've ever had. While delicious, I am sorry to say that Arkansas pizza does not hold a candle to New York or New Jersey pizza. You can learn more about the specifics of my pizza elitism in this post. After running a race in 10 states thus far, I am rethinking visiting the 50 states solely for the purpose of running a half marathon in each state... I think I need to add trying pizza in every state to my goal.
Russellville was such a sweet, welcoming place with the friendliest people, and my entire visit was extremely low-key. I loved the idea that I'd disappeared into this tiny suburb in the middle of the wilderness for a few days, disconnecting from my daily reality of non-stop work. I was ready at any given moment for the entire town to burst into a flash mob and sing "Bonjour" from Beauty and the Beast. Overall, the food was excellent everywhere I went, the customer service was top-tier, and it was evident the heartbeat of this town is small businesses. Even though I was preparing to run a race that was Las Vegas-themed, and the locals affectionately referred to Russellville as "RussVegas" during the weekend of the event, this sleepy little city couldn't have been farther from the city that never sleeps.
T-Shirts/Swag & Expo/Packet Pick Up
Packet pick-up was held at the Downtown Russellville Expo, which took place at the Missouri-Pacific Depot, a historic railroad station at South Denver Avenue and West C Street in Russellville. It was a relatively quiet and no-frills affair, with volunteers organized alongside the train depot at tables, handing out packets and T-shirts. There were a couple of tents set up with more assorted race shirts and merchandise for sale, and because it would be the last year this merchandise would be sold, any "RussVegas" shirts from that day forward would be considered historic collectible items in every runner's race swag wardrobe.
In our race swag bags, I was pleasantly surprised to find two garments: a black technical T-shirt with "Viva RussVegas" in gold on the front, and "We Had a Good Run" on the back, and then a red cotton hooded long sleeve with the RussVegas logo and "We Had a Good Run" on the sleeve. I thought the "We Had a Good Run" slogan was catchy and clever, but it also made me sad, because this was the race saying goodbye to us. Both shirts fit well and were very comfortable. I wore the short sleeve shirt on my drive home after the race, and I saved the long sleeve for a rainy day. Also pictured here is the race medal, which honestly is one of the coolest medals I've ever gotten from a race and I'm fairly certain it's a top contender for my favorite in my collection thus far.
The train depot was built sometime around 1910 by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, and in front of the depot sits a very gentlemanly bronze statute that I couldn't resist learning more about. Mr. Conductor is a symbol of Russellville's thriving downtown market, and it is said that he is posed with his arm raised to call any last passengers to board the train. Although the watch in his hand does not tell hours and minutes, it is representative of the passing of time. That day, Mr. Conductor was sporting a RussVegas T-shirt, calling all runners to run the race for the last time. It was endearing and pulled at my heartstrings a little bit.
RussVegas Half Marathon Recap: A Lot of Work For a Free Banana
April 22, 2023 marked the 10th anniversary and final year of the RussVegas Half Marathon, which could not have been a more fitting choice for my 10th state on my 50 states quest. That morning, as I sat drinking my coffee in the hotel lobby, I checked the weather. The temperature was going to start out in the high 40s, and by my expected race finish time, the temperature was forecast to be in the mid-50s. Wind speeds remained consistently 1 – 5 mph. My ideal race conditions.
The humidity was about 90% to start, and waned to about 50% by the end of the race. The Race Weather Gods had been extremely kind and generous that day, considering the Midwest can experience anything from tornados, flash floods, severe thunderstorms, hail, and even snow on any given spring morning. After breakfast, I headed over to one of the designated parking areas at Russellville City Hall and walked over to the start/finish line on Commerce Street, at the intersection of Main and Commerce.
I was at least thirty minutes early, and we were scheduled to kick off at 7:30 A.M. Even as close to the start time as we were, I took note of the sparse amount of people within the start corral. I was reminded of the Fort Collins Human Race, which had similar vibes attributed to waning participation following the COVID-19 pandemic. My hope was for the Human Race to make a comeback, as it was a very popular local race in Fort Collins before the pandemic, so I expect in future years there likely will be more participation. Ten minutes prior to the start of the race, participants and supporters tricked down into the start corral area, and the corral filled out with a healthier number of participants.
When the race kicked off, I eased into the first mile, and we ran through the neighborhood with little fanfare and lots of focus. There were 7 water and Powerade stops along the course approximately every 2 miles, with wonderfully enthusiastic and supportive volunteers who cheered us on as we passed through. In between aid stations, the atmosphere was calm and quiet, with most of Russellville seemingly still asleep. The course was relatively flat, with some barely imperceptible rolling inclines and declines, until we reached mile 12.
Mile 12 was an absolute beast of a hill, which I could only describe as an incline that appeared to be nearly vertical. As my calves screamed in protest, I focused on the photographer at the top of the hill, and despite the searing pain after the previous 11 miles of high intensity interval training, I was determined to smile for the photo. Volunteers had funny cardboard signs of encouragement on the other side of the hill which read things like, "It's all downhill from here," and, "That was a lot of work for a free banana." When I crested the hill and began the downward slope, I let gravity take the wheel and coasted down to the bottom. My Garmin logged that as being one of my fastest miles, even though I knew that to not be the case.
By the last mile I was spent and barely had anything left after conquering the hill. I was satisfied with my finish time, which was exactly the same result as my previous half marathon in Virginia Beach a month prior, even after I'd run a 10-mile trail race the weekend before RussVegas and took the risk instead of doing a proper taper. There were post-race snacks and refreshments at the finish line, so I snagged a bottled water and a banana, and I waited longer than I care to admit in a lengthy queue to have my photo taken in front of the giant inflatable RussVegas sign. For a "party on the pavement," it was a cute little celebration of the final year of this race.
I finished just in time to walk a couple of blocks down the road to The Pasta Grill, where I had a delicious and well-balanced post-race meal. The restaurant was empty and I was the only customer, having been the first to arrive after their doors opened. I chatted with one of the waitresses, who complimented my medal, and we discussed the history of the race and she explained that at one point the race got really big, and the race directors decided five years would be their limit, and then it got bigger each year, and it went past five years, and finally, COVID slowed things down and they decided the 10th year would be the final year. I am not entirely sure when my path will cross with Arkansas again, but I suppose if I'm planning to extend my goal out to 100 half marathons in 50 states, I'll be looking for recommendations for another good Arkansas race. I did end up stopping at the Arkansas-Missouri border to photograph my medal with the backdrop of the trees, checking off my final goal for the trip before making the 7 hour trek back home.
Holiday Inn Express Russellville
300 East Harrell Drive
Russellville, AR 72802
Happy running and safe travels,