December 4, 2011

Hot Chocolate 15k Race Recap

There are three words that I can use to accurately describe this race: clusterf*ck, sh*t show and disaster.

The Hot Chocolate 15k, organized by Ram Racing, should be used from here on after as a model for race organizers everywhere on how not to organize a race.

There were a lot of things that went wrong with this race that were completely out of the hands of the race organizers, but the way they handled every aspect of it was completely unacceptable. 

If you'd like, you can visit the Facebook page here to view the 600+ comments that people have made in response to the race. Or you can grab a cup of hot chocolate that you didn't have to suffer for and continue to read my recap. 

Before I go into detail, there are a few things I'd like to point out:
  1. It's sad that Ghiradelli put their name on such a disaster of an event and I really hope they pull their sponsorship from future Ram Racing events.
  2. While everyone in Social Media is demanding a refund, I can't say that I need one. Despite all of the hiccups, they delivered on producing a timed race and providing unlimited amounts of fondue and hot chocolate afterwards (which were, in fact delicious).
  3. The few volunteers they had were awesome. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to volunteer at a nightmare like that but they were great. 
Now, let's go back to 3 or so months ago when I decided to sign up for this race and @HotChocolate15k was incessantly tweeting me, Christine and Emily about registering. Never one after we registered, did we ever hear from them again including when I tweeted questions such as: Is the race Metro accessible?

When the race was advertised, it was advertised as a" downtown course in The Nation's Capitol." There was no course map but that led me to believe (stupidly) that the course would involve some kind of 9.3 mile through the monuments, Mall, etc. After and only after the course had reached its capacity of 20,000 runners did the Course Map get posted as being in National Harbor...aka in Maryland (I think), not in DC and not Metro accessible. I won't bore you with details of the 500 emails I've gotten over the course of the last month requiring us to register for transportation options and information about parking, shuttles, etc but let's just say they were excessive.

I had planned to stay in a hotel with Emily the night before and Andrea offered to come pick us up. The race had an 8am start time and we agreed on 6:30 as a pick up time to give us 45 minutes to drive the 4.9 miles to the race site. After all, we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time. 

4.9 miles, 13 minutes according to Google Maps
Within 5 minutes of getting in the car, we got slammed into gridlock traffic that was not moving. Apparently, there was an accident which, according to Facebook and Twitter, was false. As the minutes rolled by and we looked around us, we realized that the entire traffic jam was runners with very worried looks on their faces and none of us knew what was happening. So, we turned to Social Media. 

Well, considering we still had 2 miles to go and weren't moving, that didn't help. Then they posted this:

Right. We finally got off the bridge around 9:15 or so and had no idea if the race had started, what was happening, anything. It took us forever to find the parking garage because there were no signs, no volunteers, no anyone. People were walking in all sorts of directions asking everyone what was happening and no one had any update. We finally found a sign that said 'Starting Line Path This Way.' The path was about as wide as 3 people and tons of us were making our way up hill up this narrow, gravel path toward the start. Then, we got to an intersection where a race volunteer was trying to direct the flow of pedestrian traffic through the flow of 5k runners who were already running their race. Yea, we had to go through the 5k to get to the start...which would have happened regardless of whether there was a traffic delay or not since the 5k was scheduled to start 30 minutes before the 15k.

The traffic jam vvia
After making our way the mile up hill to the start, I left Andrea and her friend Kelly to go find my corral since I was seeded into Corral B. I saw the signs for the A and C corrals but there was no B. Then I realized that everyone in the C corral wasn't seeded so I just jumped in. Everyone was standing around waiting for the race to start. There were no announcements, music, nothing and then all of a sudden, people just started running. No gun, no announcement, nothing. They just let 20,000 runners stream through the starting line all at once. So much for corrals. I literally walked the first 3/4 of the race because it was so jam packed there was no way to get around. We made a small out and back and then we merged onto a highway. With live traffic. Yup. The first 4 miles of this race were on a three lane highway with one lane open to traffic. Runners were dodging cars, cones strewn across the road, oh and each other. It was so unbelievable tight, you couldn't move. I actually saw someone get hit by a car. They were fine but it was really scary to see. The high way was 2 miles out and 2 miles back and it was like that the entire time. I started to feel nauseous from breathing in the exhaust fumes and my knee was starting to hurt from running on concrete. I decided...I'm supposed to start training for a marathon in 4 weeks, I'm not doing this, it's not worth it. So I started looking around for someone to stop so I could say, I can't run this race anymore. I didn't see a volunteer on the course until Mile 7. 

When we finally got off the highway, we made our way up hill to the first water stop which had something I've never seen in a race: self serve aid stations! That's right. They had about 3 volunteers and people were literally grabbing water gallons and drinking right out of them because the cups were still stacked in plastic bags. I skipped that one. At this point, I had been running for close to 5 miles and awake for 4 with nothing in my stomach but a granola bar, I was starving. I could have really used some Gatorade but I wasn't about to fight my way through the mob of people trying to pour their own water. For about a mile, the course opened up as we made our way down a long, winding hill before it crowded up again through a narrow path around the National Harbor...not through it, around it. Mile 7 brought another hill that brought us onto a dirt, sandy, gravel path which was kind of difficult to run on and then onto another dirt, sandy, gravel path that was about 6 feet across and opened onto about a 4 1/2 foot drop onto the water. Runners were shoving their way through one another and on more than one occasion, someone teetered dangerously close to that drop. When I finally made my way up the last hill to the Finish Line, I barely crossed the Finish Line because traffic from those who had already finished was so backed up because they were handing out water approximately 3 feet from the Finish Line. From there, we had to walk about a half mile up hill to the Finishers' Festival. 
See that narrow sandy beach? That's where we were running.
I do have to say, the Finishers' Festival was fantastic. They definitely delivered more than enough chocolate fondue with dippings and hot chocolate, a great DJ with fun music and an overall nice ending to a pretty terrible race.

I finished in 1:26:17. I feel pretty 'meh' about my finish time. I couldn't have gone faster if I tried because of the congestion and the fact that I was starving through most of the race didn't really help. The course was actually short. My Garmin read 9.09 miles and I knew something was off when the Finish Lines for both the 5 and 15k were the same but the signs for Mile 3 and Mile 9 were in the same spot.  It's a shame that the race was so terrible. No, Ram Racing couldn't control that there was an accident, however I'm grateful that they held up the race. What I do have a problem with is that from what I read on Facebook, the organizers never let the people who were already at the race know what was going on so they stood outside, lined up for over 2 hours waiting for an update. A lot of people just left. Social media is a gift and a tool, making an announcement on Facebook and Twitter would have been helpful. Instead of simply delaying the race, they should have postponed it to a certain start time and made that information clear so that people waiting around could have gone somewhere warm to wait and people stuck in traffic could have made it. 

These are things they could have controlled. They also could have controlled mapping out a safe course and limiting the amount of participants. This course probably couldn't have handled more than 3,000 without staggered start times never mind 10,000 starting all at the same time. 

Someone posted this on Facebook and it was too good not to share. 
A lot of people are demanding refunds. I'm not. They delivered, badly, but they delivered. They provided a race, gave everyone the opportunity to run that race despite the set back and didn't skimp on the endless amounts of chocolate that were promised. 

Yesterday they announced that an official statement would be coming soon from the race organizers but that hasn't yet happened. I had heard terrible things about the Hot Chocolate Chicago race so this frequent occurrence is a warning for me to stay away from future Ram Racing events. I love the idea of a will-run-for-chocolate type event but this was just poorly organized on all levels from the time I registered through the time I crossed the Finish Line. I'm disappointed but hey, what can you do. It was my first 15k and I learned that I like that distance, I'll definitely tackle it again. I'd probably PR by something like 10 minutes because I'd actually be able to run the race.

Somehow, I stayed surprisingly calm throughout the traffic incident and didn't let the race frustrate me. I think it was because I just didn't really care. I've said it before but I'm so burned out from racing this year that I just didn't let it bother me too much. 13 races is a lot to do in one year and my next race isn't for 3 months which I'm thrilled about. I love racing but I don't want to race nearly this much next year. One thing I do know is that I had a fantastic time with Andrea, Kelly and Emily and a great trip to DC. There were some hiccups involving the race and the reason I was in DC in the first place but you all know how much I love DC and that I look for any and every excuse to get down there and this trip provided me with awesome friends, new and old, an adventurous run and a 2 day trip away from working on my final papers which I need to get back to. 

So tell me: Have you ever run a race this terrible? Do you think Ram Racing could redeem itself from something this disorganized? I'd love to hear from you. 


  1. OH MY GOODNESS!!! I do not know what I would do if that happened to me! I already get sooo nervous at the start of the race this would have made me wants to run far far away! I feel sorry fr all the people that this was their first race!!!

  2. That sounds terrible and frustrating....sorry!

  3. The race was indeed frustrating, and the safety factor was the worst part. I can only hope they will take into consideration all of the critiques they receive, and fix the issues for the future.

    Beyond the negative aspect of the race, congrats on a nice time! I can only dream of running that fast one day. I finished in 1:39:45, but it was my first race above 10k, so I was just happy to finish.

  4. I ran, too, and there was a fully manned water stop on the highway. You passed it on your right,not long after the turn. Tons of tables, maybe 10? To hit that stop after turning around,you'd have to cross. In front of other runners. But it was there, with lots of Volunteers. Maybe in the congestion they were hard to see, but there.

  5. yikes! I can't believe they had you run a highway that wasn't closed to traffic! I'm impressed you stayed so calm, though-- I know it must have been frustrating!

  6. I just finished reading your post and right as I finished I got the email from the race. I was so frustrated with this race. I hated the course. Of all races to give up my music, this was NOT it! I noticed the race was short around mile 2 when my watch was beeping at me way after the mile marker signs. It doesn't make sense to have a race for 20,000 people in a place that has ONE way to get to it. Epic fail. That said, I ran my fastest race today. I have never done a 15k, but my pace was amazing!

  7. That sounds so awful! I'm trying to decide on a race to do in the new year- I'll definitely be staying away from them!

  8. I was excited to hear about this race. I'm sorry it was such a Charlie Foxtrot!!

  9. This is such a bummer to read about because I ran the HC in Chicago and it was flawless! I cannot even imagine dealing with the array of problems you faced. I don't think I've ever experienced that much for a larger race - although I've definitely seen my fair share of smaller races gone amuck!

    At least you got some chocolate?!?!?! :)

  10. Great race recap! Despite all the chaos,I had a great time with you, Emily, and Kelly. The chocolate was delicious and plentiful, but it didn't make up for the pre-race confusion and bad course. I bet it's a while before RAM is back in DC, and I hope that National Harbor never hosts a race again.

  11. What a nightmare!
    My boyfriend has a nightmare full marathon last week.
    Nothing to do with the race, more to do with running low on gas on the highway, the gas station we went to being closed and not opening until 7am, not having enough gas to get to the next one, and having to sleep in the car.
    He still managed it in 4.10 though!

  12. I JUST read about this race on another blog and they felt as you did. The one race that I did that was truly awful sent a letter to everyone later apologizing. I didn't mind no race fee back because it was for a charity but I haven't run it again. It was poorly marked and several people got lost. Volunteers didn't let us know we were going the wrong way.

  13. The worst part about this race? You were in DC and I missed seeing you AGAIN.

  14. I'm sorry to hear that it was such a disaster! But at least it was good post-race with the food. We need to plan a get-together soon!


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