From the very first promotions, I had a hunch that this race would be....special. The promotions were ubiquitous and glossy: "it's finally here DC! The Hot Chocolate 5K/15K is coming! America's Sweetest Race!"
To which I thought, "huh? Never heard of it."
Several acquaintances posted the promotion on their FB walls. And I'd respond, asking what the big deal was. As far as I could tell, there wasn't much of one. And no one could really vocalize what was so cool about the race, except for a few comments to the point of "they have chocolate." Which wasn't a selling point for me (acid reflux plus dairy sensitivity makes most forms of chocolate off limits to me).
And yet, like a sheep, I registered. I've never run a 15K before, I've never raced in National Harbor before, and I love racing in November and December -- I run my best in 30-45 degrees. And so many of my friends were doing it that it'd be fun for that reason alone.
I was a bit concerned by the way the promotions focused on the swag (chocolate and a jacket) rather than other details, such as a certified course, description of the type of bib, disclosure of cut-off times, etc. But I thought all the race details would come.
They didn't. When I checked in late October, the course still did not show up on the USATF website as certified. Course certification is not a MUST for me; I've run plenty of $5 local races on uncertified courses and had fun -- in the end, it's a race, and what truly matters is that everyone runs the same distance. However, for larger races (and this one had over 20,000 bibs), I see course certification as an indication that the race has its act together. And I had no such reassurance here.
That was the first trouble sign. The next came in early November, when our weekly update email informed us that we had three options for parking: a) park on-site (you needed to pay $10 and to carpool); b) park at a remote location and take a shuttle (no cost, but needed to carpool), or c) park at another remote location and take a shuttle (no need for carpool, but did need to pay). You had to register for one of the three options ahead of time.
As a friend of mine noted: "The NYC Marathon has simpler logistics." He had a point. DC is home to several large races - Marine Corps Marathon (30K runners); Army 10 Miler (20K runners), Cherry Blossom 10 Miler (12K runners). None of these races involve anywhere near as much difficulty in getting to the start line as this race. Runners tolerate logistical issues for races like Boston or New York Marathon because, well...they're Boston and New York. But for a first time race cum debacle? Not so much.
As the emails continued to come from the race organizers, continually clarifying the parking situation, I grew more concerned for another reason. They appeared to have a plan for parking (albeit a complex one), but if they were dedicating so much thought to parking, did they have enough resources for all the other aspects of race management?
My guess was, probably not. And I came close to not running this race. And then I decided that I wasn't going to let these guys profit from their own incompetence -- I'd paid my money, I'd make them deal with me, and potentially my post race wrath.
As we approached the last week before the race, it became clear that this was a disaster in the making. The official race Facebook site posted conflicting information on whether the roads to the race start would be closed by 6:30 am, and how far "on site" parking was from the start finish. (I had mapped it out before, and determined that "on site" parking was a bit disingenuous - the parking lot was a bit over a mile from the race start).
There were other issues too. The race repeatedly refused to answer the question of how many runners were registered, and mis-cited USATF rules as the reason why bib transfers weren't permitted. If the race won't allow bib transfers, then that's fine, and makes sense from a logistics standpoint. But don't lie about the reason why. Especially when the USATF rules are available to anyone with an internet connection and Adobe Reader.
Let us also pause here, in recognition of the irony of a) mis-citing USATF rules as the reason something can't be done, while b) running a race on a course that is not USATF certified.
The FB complaints on the website kept coming. Some would be pruned (I wish I had been faster with the screen caps) while others would get a constant refrain: "yes, problems...but, CHOCOLATE".
This race was leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
My biggest concern, besides the obvious clusterfuck in progress, was the fact that the race was apparently being run on roads that weren't completely closed to traffic. I am NOT a race director, but even I know that a race on partially open roads is risky for the participants, and even more so when it's over 20K runners on those open roads. Once again, I was sorely tempted to bail.
I also considered the fact that my coach has been pushing my running group to take some time off during this time of year,. Though I don't want to take a complete break (I have a half-marathon in mid-January), it made sense to take this week for recovery. So, I'd skip my tempo and progression long run workouts, and instead simply run this race at something like tempo effort, while enjoying the show (and taking care not to be hit by a car or get injured). And if the race ended up so completely screwed up that I didn't even race, no big deal. It'd just be a rest day during a rest week.
I was set. And I was looking forward to it, with cackling glee.
At this point in the report, I'd say something like "race day dawned crisp and clear," but the truth is that the sun was a long way from rising when my carpool group met at 5:50 am (for an 8:00 am race start for a race 16 miles away). My carpool (down to three from the original planned five -- did I mention that of the 25+ people I know who were registered for this race, about 8 ended up running it? The rest gave up in disgust) departed in timely fashion and arrived at the race site a scant 40 minutes later. I'll take the credit for this, due to some masterful planning on my part that I won't describe in detail (I need to keep some secrets). As we sat in the relatively short line for parking, we saw the glittering lights of stopped traffic on the beltway, extending for miles and miles from Maryland across the Potomac into the Virginia distance, as the cars one by one were allowed in the parking lot from RAM RACING's recommended route.
Interestingly, RAM RACING claims that the massive back-up on the beltway was due to a major traffic accident on the beltway. Curiously enough, there was NO mention of this "severe accident" on any of the local traffic coverage stations or sites....
Once parked, my car convened to discuss bag check strategy. We decided that, given our experiences with this race so far, there was NO way we were trusting them with our stuff - we decided to use my car as bag check, and hung out there until 7:15, when we left to jog the mile+ to the start line as our warm-up.
It was a brilliant plan. Or it would have been, had the race started on time. But it didn't. We were delayed, and delayed, and delayed some more.
To explain in more detail -- this race was scheduled to run as a 5K starting at 7:30 am, and a 15K starting at 8:00 am. However, in a spectacular example of poor planning, the 10 thousand plus 15K runners walking for their 8:00 am start were directed to walk down the 5K course. Which meant that the race scheduled to start at 7:30 am couldn't start until the racers for the 8:00 am race were near the start of their race....
Am I the only one who sees the problem here?
So, the 5K was delayed, and delayed. And, all runners had to be cleared of at least the first two miles of the 5K (minimum 15 minute pace, so 30 minutes after last runner starts) before the 15K could start.
And thoughout it all, the refrain, ever more shrill. "Yes, we know the raceisdelayed/you'refreezing/etc, but....CHOCOLATE". I am willing to bet that most of the runners will never see Ghirardelli (the sponsor), in quite the same way. For my part, I now associate Ghirardelli with delayed and ultimately unsatisfying gratification.
The 5K finally started a bit after 8 am. Of course, with thousands of runners in that race, just clearing the start line took significant time, delaying the 15K even longer. Finally, at 9:02 am (yes, 62 minutes late, and a LONG time to be standing in the corrals in sub-40 degree weather) we were off.
[I'll briefly note another possible screw-up here. Generally, major races have two timing mats at the start and finish -- the first of each which counts, while the second 10 feet later is a back-up. However, at our race the starting corral extended OVER the first timing mat to the second, with many runners standing on or in front of it. For that reason, I made sure not to cross either timing mat until the gun had gone off. I did start my watch when I hit the first mat, not the second, and my Garmin time matches my official time, so....I'm guessing some other people are going to be WAY unhappy with their reported times].
The course itself was... a course. Not a great course for a race with 20K plus runners. The starting corrals and first 5 miles were about 17 feet wide (WAY TOO NARROW) and the race featured a 180 degree hairpin turn within the first half mile (and two more within the next five miles).
The race also started with a SCREAMING downhill. That, after a hour of standing still in the cold (so all muscles were tight).
|Yup - that's a downhill.|
Mindful of the elevation profile, and of my primary goal DON'T GET INJURED, I took the turns very slow, and kept the first 3 miles to near-easy pace (which was still 6:5x -- REALLY downhill). Then I picked up the effort to tempo level, and started to pick off people. From there I just cruised.
The first 5 miles of the race were on Indian Head highway in Maryland -- a six lane major highway (three lanes each way) frequently trafficked by tractor trailers and the like. For the race, two lanes on the southound side of the highway were closed, while the third was used for traffic.
The downhill of the first 2.5 miles was mostly on one lane of the highway, the side that bordered a grassy shoulder. That was followed by a 180 degree turn, and then returning up that same hill. On the return, we ran in the middle lane. The occasional cone separated a) oncoming runners from each other and b) runners returning up the hill from the open road on the other side. The painted lane lines on the road were our main shield from the oncoming traffic on our right (which was fortunately backed up). I chose to run in the very center of the lane, to minimize my chances of colliding with either an oncoming runner or oncoming car.
At one point, I suddenly had to hurdle a runner lying on the course, stretching a hamstring. I wasn't shocked at all that his hamstring had cramped. Standing in the cold for an hour, followed by downhill and then uphill, is prime territory for cramping. What did surprise me was that he had chosen to lie in the center of the course to stretch it out. I cursed him out as I leapt over him.
And then I realized, he had nowhere else to go. On the one side of him was oncoming vehicular traffic; on the other was oncoming runners (these were the slower runners, and so more tightly packed).
The center of the race course was literally the safest place for him to lie down and stretch his hamstring.
Besides the hills, the large parts of the final two miles of the course were also on a) a narrow 10 foot bike path and then b) a gravel and sand path, 8 feet wide. Did I mention that this race had over 20 thousand runners? Luckily, I had started in the front corral, and was pretty much by myself, so the narrowness wasn't an issue. But wow.
I was continuing to pick off women, while running well within myself. I saw 2 more women about 50 feet ahead as we approached the 9 mile mark, apparently struggling. I got a bit competitive, and decided that I'd go ahead and start kicking a bit past the 9 mile mark (a 15K should be 9.32 miles - which would give me plenty of time to catch them, and I had a ton in the tank). And then we turned a corner, and the finish line was RIGHT THERE (*profanity*). I went into 200m repeat mode, but ran out of real estate. Sigh.
Mile 1: 6:25 (.93 miles - 6:54 pace)
Mile 2: 6:52
Mile 3: 6:51 (1.02 miles - 6:43 pace)
Mile 4: 7:05
Mile 5: 7:08 (1.01 miles - 7:03 pace)
Mile 6: 6:29 (1.03 miles - 6:16 pace)
Mile 7: 6:56 (1.01 miles - 6:50 pace)
Mile 8: 6:28 (1.03 miles - 6:16 pace)
Mile 9: 6:42 (1.03 miles - 6:29 pace)
Final .12 - 41 seconds (5:49 pace)
Overall 61:35 for 9.19 miles - 6:42 pace - extrapolates to 62:27 for a full 15K, had I been able to hold the pace a bit longer - and there's no doubt in my mind I could have.
[Yes, I'm relying on the Garmin for paces and distances -- the course appears to have deviated in parts from the posted race course -- for example, there were small extra turns in the path we actually ran that do not show on the posted course. The Garmin ain't perfect, but my other alternative is to believe that I tempoed a hilly twisty turny 15K race at 6:36 pace. I'm in really good shape, but not that good. Not yet.]
And that was pretty much it. Grabbed a bottle of water, skipped the chocolate, reconvened with friends to grin at the insanity some more, and then returned to car and drove home, laughing all the way. It was a satisfying tempo, and I definitely got the show I had so anticipated. I also had hopes of an age group award -- by my count (counting women at each turnaround), I was in the top 10 women. However, the results so far show me as 23rd female and 6th in my age group. I strongly suspect that this was due to the MASSIVE bib swapping that happened during this race, as everyone bailed (there were also reports of women seen cutting the course...). I'd love for RAM RACING to take the simple step of checking photos to confirm that the top female finishers were actually female -- naive hope blooms like a rose eternal from the Ghirardelliesque feces fondue.
So no, they probably won't. Not like they gave out good prizes anyway (supposedly top three women got free finishers plaques with their pictures as their prizes for finishing tops in a $65 entry 20,000 runner plus race).
But I finished, and had fun and didn't get hurt, and have great stories to tell. And that's what it's about. And heck, I didn't even come close to the chocolate.
[did I mention I can't eat chocolate, due to acid reflux? No, I'm not bitter about this at all]
|Disaster of horrific proportions, but they don't care...CHOCOLATE!|