My Very Own Comeback – Heather Bray

We all live busy lives. Rushing from one place to the next. Please take a moment and let these next 2000 words take you on a journey..
A journey through the eyes of Heather Bray – World Record Holder – Marathon Winner – mom – friend – NP AMS member – blog writer extraordinaire – and your everyday Hero!

We’re glad you’re here. Veel liefs! X X X

Photo by Robert Johnston

It started with a photo contest and turned into a dream.

In June 2019, my son (also known as Kid X) and I decided to submit a photo for a contest put on jointly by Knockaround Sunglasses and November Project. After an opening voting period, where anyone worldwide could vote on one of the six finalists, we unexpectedly won the competition, which included a round trip flight and accommodation to Las Vegas and 52 pairs of sunglasses. Shortly after winning, I decided to dress as the King and compete for the Guinness World Record for the Fastest (Female) Marathon dressed as Elvis.

In 1969, Elvis Presley began what would later become known as one of the greatest comebacks of all time. If truth be told, I was looking for a little comeback of my own and what better way than to channel a bit of the King’s swagger and lip snaring for 42.2 kilometers.

After months of training, Kid X and I arrived in Las Vegas, ready to experience November Project Summit and the Rock ‘n’ Roll races. We attended the Saturday morning workout, met the co-founders of November Project, Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, participated in the Saturday 5 km race dressed as the Incredibles, and soaked up all the energy of the entire November Project community.

On the morning of November 17, 2019, I woke up after a glorious 8-hour sleep. It felt like any other day, except that it was completely different. Instead of two French Bulldogs and a 5-year-old piled on my bed, I was surrounded by marshmallow pillows and a cozy duvet cover. Rather than racing my kid to school by bike, walking my dogs, and getting to work by 9am, I was less than 8 hours away from the Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.

My right hamstring was sore – a brutal reminder that I should not have carried Kid X during yesterday’s November Project workout. I started to panic. One by one, the race-day nerves started to rudely awake from their deep slumber. They left me second guessing myself. What if I can’t run due to a hamstring injury? What if I fail? What if I don’t finish? What if it’s too hot? What if I am just not fit enough? What if, what if, what if….

I took a hot but short bath and pushed the panic from my mind. I ate an American portion of oatmeal, guzzled water, and sipped on burnt tasting coffee. Afterwards, I lazily sat outside on the hotel terrace and bathed in the Nevada sunlight. I was eventually brought to reality by two former November Project leaders. We chatted about November Project, World Records, and the upcoming Marathon. I started to ask them for confirmation on every last detail; details I had spent months perfecting. I was nervous, and the self-doubt was consuming my common sense. Was it okay that I was wearing a brand-new pair of shoes on race day? Would 3 gels be enough? Should I drink at every water station? What pace should I run? Should I start in the front?

This wasn’t my first race. I have raced hundreds of times. This wasn’t even my first marathon, but it might as well have been because pre-race anxiety was hindering my memory. It was sabotaging my confidence and putting me at risk for forgetfulness. I took a few deep breaths. “Get it together, Heather” I scolded myself. “You can do this” I encouraged.

At 2:30pm, I gathered at the Start Village, located in the parking lot behind Planet Hollywood. I found a small piece of shade created by the extension of a building’s roof and sought refuge from the sun. I wasn’t dressed in my normal race day attire of split shorts and a singlet. I was in a white, high collared, flared jumpsuit designed by Unsanctioned Running, an Amsterdam start-up company that designs recycled and upcycled fabrics for performance sports. I wore a pompadour wig with sideburns, a white belt, and gold vintage sunglasses. I was about to run a marathon dressed as Elvis Presley and it was 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit).  I was already dripping with sweat.

At 3:30pm the Blue Start Corrals opened, and we were funnelled towards the start line. At this point, I met up with JC Clough, a fellow November Project member from Dallas, who shared the same marathon time goal as me and volunteered to act as my witness for the World Record Attempt. We had never met before, but he joked that by the end of the 42.2 kilometers we would be good friends. We were about to go on a physical and emotional rollercoaster together. Things were about to get real.

I spotted a few other runners dressed as Elvis. We nodded our heads at one another out of a sense of comradery. The speaker announced that I was attempting the World Record for the Fastest Marathon Dressed as Elvis (female). The American anthem was sung, the flames soared, and the countdown began. 10, 9, 8…..3, 2, 1.

JC and I had agreed to start slow. We would reassess our pace around mile 18. However, the moment the start gun was fired our agreement flew out the window and we surged forward drunk on adrenaline, bright lights, and cheers. There were thousands of people lining the streets cheering. Music was blasting. The lights were so bright I was momentarily thankful for the compulsory Elvis sunglasses. We ran down the entire length of the strip past wedding chapels and neon Casino lights – from downtown Las Vegas to Fremont Street. We passed the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and looped back around. At this point, we spotted a few other runner’s sporting their November Project grassroots gear and gave each other cheers or a wave.

Photo by Jody Bailey

I felt light, fast, and invincible. I felt great! I was pumped. I’m doing this. I am actually doing this. “Go Elvis!”, “Is that Elvis?”, “Elvis is alive”! The crowd cheered. At around mile 5 or 6, the sun went down, and the city lights grew. At approximately mile 9, we passed through the much-anticipated November Project cheer zone and refueled our adrenaline.

At mile 10, the inevitable happened. My legs felt heavy. Salt crystals formed on my face providing evidence of how much sodium I was losing. I stopped sweating and my heart rate started climbing. At 200 beats per minute, I knew I had to slow down, or I was at risk of heat exhaustion.  I had started drinking water at the first aid station (mile 1.1) and by mile 12 I started taking both water and Gatorade at each of the aid stations (sometimes even taking upwards of three drinks per station).

At around mile 13, we were diverted off the strip and into the darkness. For what seemed like eternity, I ran blindly through warehouse parking lots, dimly lit back alleys, and dusty construction sites. As I weaved through a boring maze-like course, slogged up and down highway overpasses, and raced through endless switchbacks, I cursed the gold sunglasses.

At mile 17 with my pace continually slowing, I said something I never thought I would say. “I am going to drop out of the race” I said aloud. I had been contemplating this for the last few miles and it was time to make the call. I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t see even a few feet in front of me. My wig was itchy and hot. The suit was suffocating me. My underwear was riding up. My heart rate was continually climbing. My pace was consistently slowing.

I was overcome with guilt. What would Kid X think of me? What would I tell my friends back at home? How would I explain this to the November Project community? How many people would I disappoint? How would I ever trust myself again? As the questions swirled viciously in my head, a light appeared. A bright yellow visibility vest came cycling up beside me. He was angelic like. Who was this man on a bike and what did he want from me? Was he here to assist me off the course?

“You are the first-place woman, Elvis” he said in such a matter of fact tone. I kept running. The words rattled in my head. I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. Was he speaking English?  And just like that, the words rearranged themselves and hit me straight on. “Shut up” I yelled. “No way! That can be so. Oh my God” I gulped. The news fought its way through the wall of self-doubt. My legs felt lighter. My mind eased. I was maybe going to win this thing.

And then reality hit. No. I can’t have this pressure. I don’t want this burden. Please leave, sir. Take it back, take it back, take it back. I don’t want to be first. I just want to break a World Record. That is enough pressure for one day. I can’t take on anymore things. At this point, my running companion, JC, told me to just keep running. Don’t worry about the placement. He reminded me why I was here. I came here for one thing – to earn a World Record. So that’s what I would do. I continued to put one foot in front of the other, every step taking me closer to the end.

At around mile 18, JC and I parted ways. I was ready to speed up. I was ready to take this thing home. I recharged at every aid station. I fed off the energy of the spectators and volunteers. They reassured me. They impersonated Elvis. They sang Elvis lyrics. One volunteer yelled “Win this for Vegas, Elvis.” Another volunteer yelled “Get Elvis some potatoes!”. No thanks. Someone else screamed “Elvis needs a beer”. Nope. Elvis most definitely does not need a beer!

Around mile 23, we re-entered the city and I could hear the Elvis Presley lyrics “Rock-a-hula, rock-rock-a-hula …. the way she moves her hips to her fingertips.” I laughed. I thought about how funny I would look running with a hula hoop and dressed as Elvis.  Next up, “Hound Dog” and then “Blue Suede Shoes”. What was going on? Was it a coincidence that Elvis was playing for the final few kilometers of the race? People were singing and thrusting their hips. The bicyclist went ahead of me to clear the traffic of people. I gave high fives to every hand that extended my way.

At mile 25, I let myself for the first time, believe that I could both win this marathon and earn the World Record. With 500 meters to go, the bicyclist told me to finish strong. He was going to hang back in order to not ruin my finish photo. The crowd was so loud that I couldn’t hear my own staggered breathing. I felt sweat on my cheeks and wiped it away. I realized however it wasn’t sweat but tears. I saw the banner, put my hands up, and as I was about to step over the mat into the finish tape, the volunteers pulled the banner away. “Oh, that’s not the first-place woman, that’s just some runner dressed as Elvis” one of the volunteers explained. They thought I was a ½ marathon runner dressed as Elvis that got lost and took the wrong finish turn. There is no way that Elvis could be the winner of the 2019 Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon. Then everyone shrieked, “No, Elvis is the first-place woman!!!!”. “Go back out and finish again” they yelled.

Are you kidding me? I thought. I just ran a marathon. I mustered every last ounce of energy I had and circled back around to finish a second time, this time breaking the finish tape. I saw Kid X at the finish line dressed as mini Elvis. “I knew you would win, Header … I mean Elvis” he whispered in my ear.  

It wasn’t my fastest marathon. It most definitely wasn’t my best race. But this was always more than a race; more than a World Record attempt. This was about running and community. This was about having fun and laughing. This was about sharing something incredible with my son. This was about finding myself again. This was about my journey and my own little comeback.

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