Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Temporary Urbanism?

"Temporary Urbanisms" was the name of a cool course in grad school taught by one of my favorite professors, Margaret Crawford. I actually didn’t take it so can’t claim to be any sort of expert, but the jist was to give serious analysis to the time-based urban phenomena that transform everyday places into completely different spaces of encounter (say parades, Burning Man, flea markets, protests), and how what we learn about how people behave in and use space during those events might inform how we plan, design and program the more permanent elements of our cities.

So yesterday I ran the half portion of the New Las Vegas Marathon and Half Marathon, which begins and ends on the infamous Strip. It fit the definition of a temporary urbanism well, with its major influx of a population that is usually "other" to the place they're in, a mix of planned and ad-hoc layers of spatial organization for crowd management and information delivery, and lots of extra trash, port-a-potties, cops, and volunteers. While we were waiting at the start, I relished taking in the main public space of my new home city from this perspective, part of a crowd that had temporarily colonized a street typically suited for debauchery with our obsessive pre-race stretching, banana eating, and general rule-following behavior.

Even the casinos were slightly altered. At a hotel bar the night before the race I stopped at one glass of wine and could tell by the vague flash of resigned disappointment on my waitress’s face that it wasn’t the first time she’d had that happen that night. The next morning, just like the evening before, the hotel port cochere queues were dominated by freezing, fit, scantily clad girls giggling while climbing together in packs into taxis, but this time off to the starting line rather than the clubs.

Just as the event had temporarily transformed the city, the city had also transformed the event. I've run in a lot of organized races before and know what to expect - the annoying runners' personalities, the questionable fashion choices, the rituals, the overall air of healthfulness with a splash of dorkiness. But Vegas left its imprint for sure. Early on in the run an older couple blitzed by me, she in a pinned-on veil and he shirtless with a bow tie. A few miles later I passed them making a quick stop to renew their vows in the “run-thru wedding chapel” that had been set up on the course. Later a pack of running Elvises, followed shortly thereafter by a crew decked out as showgirls.

For me, the race was a bit of a bust. Having been thankfully injury free my entire running career (which admittedly only started about two years ago), the particularly hard pavement and not insignificant hills around my condo complex where I run have taken their toll, and several times in the past year I’ve been running happily down a hill then took one step that led to sudden and excruciating pain in my left knee, the kind that’s made me need to stop running and take a few weeks off. Said knee issue surfaced on a short run about a week before the big day and though I rested all week I went into the race fully aware I’d likely have problems. And at mile 5 of 13 there it was, the sudden pulse of pain that screams at me to stop running immediately. I was just far enough out that the idea of dropping out and walking back 5 miles against the crowd seemed just too pathetic and not all that much easier than staying on the course and walking towards the finish in hopes that the soreness might go away and I’d end up able to run a tiny bit more.

After about a mile of increasingly irritated walking, watching so many back of the pack runners blow by me, I got to the Fremont Street Experience, the turnaround point for the half-marathon. I love it there and love that the Las Vegas Marathon course goes through it. It’s the heart of old Las Vegas, where none of the casinos got the memo that neon signs are no longer considered classy and you can still play $2 hands of blackjack and wonder if the dealer and her pit boss might be up to no good. At the first corner I decided to jump the fence separating runners from spectators (except there was no one there – another way this race was very different than New York) and hop into the sundry shop off the lobby of the Four Queens casino to buy the largest dose of Advil I’ve ever swallowed. Another half mile of goofy-looking attempts at speedwalking later and I was dosed enough to suck it up and start running again, and finished slowly but uneventfully save for the stiff and sore knee that I really hope I didn’t do anything to permanently harm.

The only-in-Las-Vegas moment was when the lady who sold me the Advil said, “honey, I can’t believe you’re running a goddamn marathon with a hangover!” I also liked that I wasn’t the only runner hopping the fence at the Fremont St. Experience, though all the others were jumping off the course to play slots.

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