Saturday, December 3, 2011

Race report: Hot Chocolate "15K", December 3, 2011

I ran the "Hot Chocolate 15K" this morning.  The time's not relevant here (61:35 for a tempo effort of 9.19 miles, if you care).  I ran it simply to experience a "RAM RACING event".  And I was not disappointed.

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.

And then I had a revelation of a sort.  This wasn't a race anymore, but an adventure.  The Washington DC running community's version of the Hindenburg was in the making.  I had the opportunity to witness history of a sort, and return with a running war story to be passed down for years to come.  Heck, I couldn't miss this.

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.


Splits were
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!


  1. Love it!!! ahahahaha-what a disaster!

    Congrats on a great run!!

  2. Possibly the greatest race report ever. The big joke at the start (okay, One of the many) was we're now running the Bitter Chocolate 15k/5k.

    Also, I was told the other event they were having was childrens madagascar on ice show at 9am, which may have been why they lost the parking spaces.

    Kudos for you for weeding through it all and putting us in the right direction. It was definitely an adventure race and I'm actually glad I didn't bail! Plus I have already classic video footage, which will probably be buried with me (but not the jacket).

  3. I was there this morning too, but ended up being one of the DNSers. It was disastrously awful. Great post.

  4. I've never been so happy NOT to sign up for a local race. What a nightmare! Nice speed though.

  5. Just a correction to make sure discredit goes where it's due - it's G-h-i-r-a-R-d-e-l-l-i. As it says on their packaging, "Say GEAR-AR-DELLY." Glad I stayed away from this event masquerading as a race.

  6. Heehee! I love it! Even though I did really want to come out and cheer for you all at a race, I also wanted to be witness to the disaster. I worked in the event/tradeshow planning biz for years and key details that people expect to hear were missing in pre-race communications, as you mentioned. No doubt these folks are marketing geniuses. But success in marketing equals a repeat customer.

    I was spectating up by the cyclists who ride with the leaders and 5 minutes before the start they were still waiting for clarification regarding the course. They had not heard from event management. Finally, no joke, 2 minutes to start, a manager came up to review a course map with them. Then, I was looking at the course map on my phone from their website. (Silly me) It shows the Start and Finish in the same place. I was waiting and waiting at the Start/Finish after you guys went down the hill at mile 6 for you to come back up only to find the Finish was somewhere else. I missed seeing everyone cross the Finish line. Bummer. I even asked several volunteers and every single one gave me different answers.

    I was witness to course cutting, I am sorry to say. You were definitely in the top 10 at mile 5+. You still ran an amazing race! Great job. You looked tough out there!

  7. Very entertaining writeup!

    Also, nice fast tempo in pretty bad conditions.

  8. This is fantastic. Thanks for telling it like it is and not riding the "we didn't know it would be this bad wave!" I mean seriously, like you said, it was doomed from the start. Now that I've read this, I might have to stay away from twitter and FB for the next 12 hours so that I don't have to read any more about the drama :)

  9. 1. You are fast!
    2. Nice recap including all the issues leading up to race day
    3. I agree the hairpin turn at the start was unnecessary. There was no opportunity for the runners to thin out at all before needing to round that tight corner.

    That's too bad people were cutting the course. The moved Start Line might account for the race coming up short. While walking from the parking garage to the race start, I didn't even realize that I was walking on the race course until after I had gone under the overpass and started up the hill. Also, I didn't understand why we had to wait for people to finish the 5k until we could start the 15k when the races started in different directions. Probably didn't need to wait 45+ min in between start times.

  10. the pictures are great, and I love how you now associate Ghiradelli with "delayed and ultimately unsatisfying gratification"!

  11. Worst. Race. Ever. And I've put up with a marathon in the pouring rain, sitting in a parking lot at 3:30AM at Disney World and waited three hours for a start, and the infamous Army 11.4 Miler.

    Great post, and I'm glad you enjoyed it, but EVERYONE around me in the corral was furious.

    (Oh, and my Garmin came in at 9.12 miles too, so I don't think you're far off.)

  12. Hilarious, fair, well-done... and you clearly kept your sense of humor intact despite the colossal mismanagement! Nice pace, too!

  13. This is a wonderful recap. The photos really support what you are saying. Way to make the best of it. The sad part is that my comment does not include chocolate.

  14. Thanks for the fantastic recap! I was there myself and suffered through it as my own post will attest. I wish I had known ahead of time what I was getting into, I am so beyond bitter today. What a total shit show. Congrats on a great time and making the best of a bad situation!

  15. I live in the Chicago area and have YET to be impressed by any of the RAM racing events...If I run one now, it is only because the date and distance fit my training schedule. Last year the NS Half had a wrong map, when I pointed it out, they did not seem concerned or appreciative. They take forever to post results, slower than a local 5k race! The 15K/5K had major problems yet again here in Chicago.....I hope that you sent them your detailed review of the race and if so, I hope they have the decency to respond! They could really have a good thing if they could actually get the logistics down!!!

  16. This whole recap is both spot on and hysterical.

    Regarding the "short" course, I wonder if some of our garmins crapped out on the 6+ hairpin turns.

    Anyway, this experience will be like a bonding event for all runners from Baltimore to Richmond, and at all future area races, we'll be in start corrals talking about "that time we wasted 8/10/12/16 hours to run a stupid 15k."

  17. P.S. love the "5k" timing mat on the wrong side of the road. Now I have a 20:xx 5k split on the books. right...

  18. Brilliant post and I put a link to it on my Facebook page. The are looking to blame everyone else but themselves. The USATF bib transfer thing is ridiculous and totally made up, just like the traffic accidents. Kudos to you for finding the humor!

  19. Great race report!! I heard it was a disaster - glad you confirmed! :) You ran a great race, despite all of the BS. Congrats!!

  20. Thanks for the details on the race! I know SOOOO many people who signed up for this, but I could never get past the difficult logistics of getting to the starting line. Looks like I was justified. I hope to keep reading your adventures!

    Can anyone comment on the chocolate? That was the only enticement. Was it there? Was there enough? Was it worth it?

  21. Great race report. So glad I opted not to sign up for that debacle.

  22. Great race report! I'm glad you still managed to have a good tempo run despite all of the craziness.

  23. this is an awesome race report. what a crazy race - in every way possible it was absolutely nuts. i'm so glad i found your blog and look forward to reading more!

  24. Great recap of a crazy race! I felt like such a jerk all week when I kept saying "Guys, I think this race is going to be the worst ever." It was strangely satisfying to be right even though the race was really worse than I could have possibly imagined.

  25. I wish I had been there. I would have had such a blast. Thanks for writing such a detailed but non-whiny recap of the day!

  26. What a great race report. Found your blog from RunningAhead. Can't imagine staying so positive when you know everything is going to sh*t around you.

  27. This is absolutely the best HC15k race report I've seen. That thing had SHITSHOW written all over it from the beginning and I'm glad to see it lived up to its full potential. I feel bad for all the people who got sucked in and couldn't find the humor in it like you did.

  28. This was fantastic. I have to give you a lot of credit for actually seeing (and running) this in person.

  29. Thanks guys - I've made two updates:

    1) correcting the spelling of GhiraRdelli (thanks to Lizard42195)

    2) adding in mention of the person I had to hurdle in the middle of the course. I normally dislike making substantial modifications to a post once posted. However, I deeply regretted omiting that point from the report, and I think it really helps capture just how dangerous parts of the course were -- a point that gets overlooked due to complaints about traffic and delayed starts.

  30. You finished right behind me (I finished in a little over one hour) and yes, the results are totally off for women- I was told by friends who saw me at the turnarounds that I was 6th or 7th woman but I ended up showing up much farther down. I checked some of the bibs of top women (check out 5th, 6th, 8th, 12th for example) against Marathonfoto and you will find men running with womens bibs, as evidenced by the cursive name on the front. I wrote RAM and amazingly they wrote right back saying that they are fixing the results, so we will see.
    Great race report- I had the exact same experience as you agree with everything you said. Only a fun experience because it feels like we lived through something quite historic!!

  31. OMG, this was great in a horrific, fascinating way. You definitely got a great story out of it, if nothing else. Amazing how they straight-out lied about things. Never heard of such creepy doings from a race before.

  32. Some photos to go along with your wonderful commentary.

  33. It is nice to see a description of how this race was just objectively poorly organized as opposed to the WTF U OWE US A REFUND I WON'T BE RETURNING bullshit that is all over the facebook. No doubt the screwed up big time, but few sources there I'd trust to tell it.
    Pretty impressive workout under the circumstances.

  34. I know I'm late to this party, but this post is awesome. And I love that once you realized what a cluster f*ck it was going to be, your reaction was "how could I not go???" I appreciate that you did, and wrote such a great race report as a result! Thank you! Also, I ran the Hot Chocolate 15K in Chicago last year, and while it wasn't nearly as bad as the DC race, it wasn't good enough to convince me to shell our another $65 and run it again in 2011, despite the "improved race course!" which moved the race from the too-narrow Chicago lakefront path to the streets of downtown Chicago, which from what I read on other blogs were also too narrow for their poor corral system. Oh RAM.

  35. I seriously wonder how RAM Racing is still allowed to put on races? They are always way overpriced and much too crowded. They appear to just try and make as much money as possible without a care for runners' safety. I ran the 5k this year and there were quite a few issues (despite the "without a hitch" proclamation in the half-assed apology), and I don't plan on running another RAM sponsored event ever again. Glad you walked away uninjured despite the odds against it!

  36. Thanks for this information. It is a very detailed one. Great pictures by the way. I've heard many people signed up for this. Your adventures did help a lot.

  37. I stumbled across this fantastic race recap after remembering that Atlanta's annual Hot Chocolate 5k/15k was yesterday. I don't know how to feel about these races. Well, personally, I hate them because they are clearly for-profit events produced by non-running people for the purpose making as much money as possible. But hey, that's capitalism...buyer beware. The people love it, so good for RAM.

    So much about a race can be learned by looking at the results.
    9,357 people finished the 5K yesterday.
    Roughly 50 people, 0.5% of the field, were sub-7:30 mile runners.

    There's an audience wanting it, so by all means, let RAM make their money...but I think after 5+ years, the Hot Chocolate series is well known as a fun-run, not a race. It's a really expensive really early morning party you over-pay for to get a sweatshirt, medal, hot chocolate, etc...