BATHED IN FLASHING NEON LIGHT THAT THE KING HIMSELF CROONED ABOUT, WE HIS DISCIPLES MADE OUR WAY DOWN THE STRIP, AN ARMY OF ELVI, PAST THE SPHINX CROUCHED OUTSIDE THE LUXOR AND UNDER THE "ZUMANITY" BILLBOARD WITH THE NAUGHTY SCHOOLGIRL, BENEATH WHICH STOOD A SOLITARY MAN HOLDING A SIGN THAT IMPLORED US TO "SEEK THE LIVING JESUS."
We were seeking, just then, the starting line for the Zappos.com Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas half-marathon, the full marathoners having taken off some 90 minutes earlier. In all, 30,000 seekers had signed on for this event, a boisterous moving block party on the Strip on the night of Dec. 2, with live music at every mile marker. Who would win? Who cared? The idea at these Rock 'n' Roll events isn't so much to log a great time as to have one. If the point were for everyone to get a personal best, there probably wouldn't have been a run-through wedding chapel outside the New York--New York casino, at Mile 3.
History is shaped by vast migrations of people. So it made sense to join one such wave of humanity as the race approached—but only after waiting for my Elvette-costumed migrating partner, Gina, to finish taking selfies on her iPhone with Nikki Reed, who plays Rosalie Hale in the Twilight saga and who was also doing the race.
Taking our leave of Reed, we fell in step with a mass of Elvi, men and women in form-fitting jumpsuits, oversized aviator sunglasses and wigs best described as Blagojevichian. They included Jonathan and Steve, from York, England, who would run with inflatable guitars while taking turns pushing a stroller bearing a poster of Fat Elvis. Then there was Jorge, whose Elvis costume was actually a sailor suit because, he said, "the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is close to this day."
Pearl Harbor Elvis was joined by a half-dozen Santa Elvi—they'd warmed up the day before with a 5K romp called the Great Santa Run—plus Black Elvis, who was, while handsomely tanned, decidedly Caucasian. Bob Babbitt is of Polish and Russian extraction but prefers to be called Black Elvis on account of his daring black jumpsuit, tastefully accessorized with a leopard-print sash and zebra sunglasses.
As we milled before the start, listening to Heartbreak Hotel on the boom box Babbitt was pushing on a baby jogger, gusts of wind kicked up, buffeting wigs and lifting faux sideburns until they were horizontal, like hairy little wings. "Nice thing about the Elvis costume," noted the 62-year-old Babbitt, who's been racing dressed as the King for going on 20 years, "it keeps you warm."
One of Babbitt's other wigs, or hats: He was a cofounder of Competitor magazine, which was purchased in 2007 by Competitor Group Inc., a sports-marketing-and-management company that has injected a major dose of fun into endurance events—and profited handsomely in the process. "Come run with me in Vegas," Babbitt had urged. "You dress up like Elvis, and you spend the whole race high-fiving people and saying, 'Thankyou, thankyouverymuch.' You'll have a blast."
He was right. The beauty of running as Elvis, it turns out, is that it gives you an excuse to be slow—a point Babbitt drove home just before we started trotting. "Don't think of it as a race," he advised. "Think of it as a catered workout."
THERE WERE Elvi and Santas and brides in truncated gowns. Where, pray tell, were the Serious Runners, the gimlet-eyed, nipple-taping, heart-rate-monitoring, sub-6%-body-fat fanatics? They were much closer to the starting line, as far from us as possible, talking about target splits and compression socks and antichafing unguents. It's possible they were feeling a little lonely. The Serious Runners have never been more outnumbered—at this Rock 'n' Roll event, in which a full third of the folks around us were running their first race, and in the nation in general.
"If we define a frequent runner as someone who runs a hundred or more days a year, I don't think that number has gone up significantly since the '80s," says Rob Klingensmith, vice president of media and marketing at the race-technology company ACTIVE Network Inc. "And yet participation in these events has unquestionably boomed." So has the number of events themselves.