Monday, December 5, 2011

Nothing Sweet About the Hot Chocolate 15K - A Redux

Rohan and I survie this debacle.
Nice legs, right?
I'll be the first to admit, I was lured in by the race schwag. And in fact, I used it to sucker others in as well. It went something like this:
"We signed up for the Hot Chocolate 15K. Oh, you haven't? You get a jaaaacket."
"Take my money."

And so it would go from runner to runner, like some sort of nefarious chain letter, until the race reached its max at 20,000.

Let me say this up front: No jacket is worth what we went through on Saturday. If I'm going to work this hard for a jacket, it better say B.A.A. on it.

The early warning signs were there. To request a corral, I had to find old race results, take a screen shot, highlight my time, and e-mail it to the race. Last time I checked, an online form was pretty easy to create.

Then came packet pickup. You couldn't pick it up on race day. Somewhat inconvenient but certainly not out of the ordinary, particularly for a race this size. But let me set the scene for the non-DC-ites. The Virginia, Maryland, DC area has the distinct honor of having the country's worst traffic. The Beltway, i.e. the road that loops through all three areas is particularly nightmarish during rush hour. The race is located at this place called National Harbor, which sits just outside the beltway on the shores of Maryland, staring across the Potomac at Virginia. National Harbor is a contrived city center that, as Andy Dufresne said in Shawkshank, "has no nearly earthly business being in a [Maryland] hayfield." It's so isolated (how isolated is it?), hey let me tell you, it's so isolated that no metro stops are nearby. It's a two lane exit with only one way in. So, in order to pick up your packet, you have to traipse out to National Harbor. During rush hour. On a weeknight. 

It took my two friends and I 3.5 hours roundtrip.

On top of it all, we had to pay $10 to park at the "race site" on race day. You'll understand the quotes in a minute. Or we could park and take a shuttle in. We opted to park.

Ok, enough setup. 

It's 6:20 a.m. on race morning. Five of us pile into my CRV and we begin our trek out to National Harbor. Traffic is sparse and we hum along as the sky begins to lighten through the windshield. We pass the exit about five miles from Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the bridge that will lead us into Maryland and ultimately to National Harbor. At least that's the plan. Megan, Alejandra, and I point out to our other two passengers that this is the exit where traffic stopped on Wednesday night at packet pickup.  We ooh, ahh and recount how unfortunate it was. Two miles later, we are no longer recounting. We are living it.

Red tail lights glow in the pre-dawn light, not such an uncommon scene in the D.C. area but certainly odd at 6:45 a.m. On a Saturday. The car sighs all at once. We eye the clock. We eye the traffic. We have 75 minutes until the race starts and 2.5 miles to go. Our breakfast club mates who are running the 5K, which starts at 7:30 (pretty good idea to start the shorter race first), text us and say they've been on the bridge for 45 minutes. My friend, Rohan who is on a bus, says he will never run this race again...if he gets to run it at all.

At 7:15, our friends on the bridge bail. We lookup the race site and it's Facebook page hoping for a delayed start or some sort of information, but it's empty.

We discuss alternatives and finally settle on bailing on the traffic jam, getting off at the last exit before the bridge, cutting through Virginia, into D.C., and over to Maryland the back way. 

This is Alejandra's first race. Ever. And we try (not very well) to stay positive so that this experience isn't ruined for her. The following exchange occurs:

"I don't mean to be Debbie Downer," my friend Joe says, "But I'm not sure we're going to make it on time."
"Well, I'm going to be Reality Rita," I say, "And tell you that this blows and we're never going to get there."

Miraculously, we arrive at National Harbor at 8:00 on the dot. We are part of the ant line being led toward the hill, which at this point could also be taking us toward an ant trap and certain doom. Either way, we park and start to get a jog on toward the starting line. Because the starting line is a mile away from the parking garage!

Since we're already late, we frantically search for a place to go to the bathroom. It could be a store. It could be a porta-potty. It could be that we pretended to jog past the cop car and down a trail, then dart into the woods where the barren trees do little to hide what's actually going on here. These were all viable options.

As we make our way to the start, there's a blast and that all too familiar scene of a dam breaking and a wave of runners tumbling out of it. We think we've missed the start, but it's only the 8:15.  

Finally we arrive at the 15K start. I say good bye to my friends as we go our separate ways, because, yes, I took the time to send in my race results to get a better starting position, and I'm glad I did.

I use this delay to take one more trip to the woods, err, bathroom, that's even less discrete than the first stop. 

In my corral, we mill about like cattle awaiting the drive. It's cold and the announcements are few and far between. When Mr. Cheesy DJ voice finally comes on, he tells us it'll be five minutes to the start. Sarcastic cheers go up. Five minutes passes and we're told it's another five minutes because there was some mishap with the 5K, which we later found out was that the lead cop took the leaders the opposite direction around the course. Seriously. I couldn't make this up. Then we get DJ gems like, "Heeeeey, I assure you there'll be literally tons of chocolate waiting for you at the finish line. Take your face...and dunk it. Then stay there." To which I thought, take your microphone and...never mind. He also continued to say that the course starts as a five mile out and back, which in my head registered as 10 miles, and I wondered what sort of DJ math he was doing since the entire race was 9.3 miles. It wasn't until the three mile mark that I figured out it was 2.5 out and 2.5 back. Anyway.

At long last, the gun goes off at 9:00. We bottleneck through the impossibly small starting arch, which I'm sure at one point seemed like a good idea for 20,000 people to squeeze through.

There was a race. It was fine. I heard from my wife and friends that the course was too narrow and the lanes choked. I had to grab cups from the water stations because the volunteers (at least at the first one) were too lazy to actually hand them to us. I covered the 9.3 miles in 56:25, good enough for 20th overall and 6th in my age group.

By the end, it was nearly 11:00 a.m. We got back to the car. Waited another 45 minutes to get out of National Harbor (20,000 in through two lanes, 20,000 out through two lanes), which we passed by reading aloud the Facebook posts from the brand new page "Hot Chocolate DC Epic Fail" (what did we ever do without social media?). And met up with our friends -- the ones who wisely bailed on the race -- for some much needed pitchers of beer.

Look, I'm not a race director. I understand that most races have to be logistical nightmares behind the scenes and a maddening amount of work goes into them to pull off a successful event. But someone didn't do their homework for this one. There's no shortage of races in DC, and large ones at that (Marine Corps, Cherry Blossom, Army Ten Miler, National Marathon). Somebody should have tapped into that knowledge. One of my colleagues today said as I recounted some of this to her, "Boy, you runners are picky." I gently explained that we're not picky. We simply have raced many events and we know enough to say this works and that won't.

The race tagline was "Will run for chocolate." I will never run for chocolate again.

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