Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Hot Chocolate 5K: EPIC FAIL

I won't hold you in suspense, I personally did not have an epic fail at this 5K on Saturday. The race company, RAM Racing, had the epic fail. I've been involved in some not so great races (and have boycotted one racing company for years) but this was by far the worst race ever. I did the race with my BFF, Julie, who is getting ready to move out of the country for the next 9 months so spending time with her is never a fail. We did joke that in 20 years from now, we can have a great story to tell about the worst race ever!
Julie emailed me awhile ago and asked if I wanted to come to DC for a visit and run the Hot Chocolate 5K with her. Sure! My last attempt to visit her in the spring didn't work out (The Pilot and I were trying to non-rev and never made it). I also wanted to meet her baby, who is now almost 10 months old. When planning out the logistics the week before the race, Julie mentioned she sort of regretted suggesting the race because it was in a bad location and getting to the race and parking was going to be a problem. Boy did she ever call it! I was reading an email from RAM Racing that 22,000+ people were registered (split between the 5k and the 15k). That's HUGE! The last 5K I did probably had fewer than 500 people racing.

All was looking great, The Pilot and I successfully made it to DC, did some site-seeing before meeting up with Julie and heading to the expo. We picked up our race bibs without a problem but when I went to pick up my jacket (their advertised goodie bag consisted of a jacket and a coupon for Ghiradelli chocolate, gee thanks.). I was told that they didn't have the size I ordered (well in advance). After the volunteer weirdly flirted with me with The Pilot standing next to me, he gave me the "men's jacket in the equivalent size." It was giant and obviously made for a man. They did have a jacket swap area so I went over there to see about a smaller men's size. The women were all over there trading in jackets. As with most running apparel, the women's sizes were way off with the size small small enough to fit a 1st grader. Whatever. It was a cheap jacket anyways so I will probably end up using it as a throw away jacket at another race. We left the expo and spent the evening hanging out and catching up.

The 5k was scheduled to start at 7:30 am and in emails leading up to the race, RAM Racing made it clear to arrive early because of limited parking. So limited in fact that there were 3 separate parking options, one was an additional $10 and was supposedly at the National Harbor where the race started (I later read on other blogs that this parking lot ended up being close to 2 miles from the start line and the only way to get to the start line was to actually walk on the course.). One parking option didn't make as much sense based on where Julie lives. So we opted to park at Rosecroft Raceway. You had to have at least two race participants in each car, sign up in advance and have a parking permit (which we picked up at the expo). We left Julie's house at 5:00 am for a 7:30 start. Ugh. It was EARLY! But I will say that getting to the start was one of the few things that went right for the rest of the experience. After a brief moment of getting temporarily misplaced, we arrived at the parking lot (where no one verified if we carpooled or if we had a parking permit) and got right onto a school bus that dropped us off near the start. It was a short walk in the dark and we just followed the crowd and hoped we were going the right way. I will point out that we had to walk on what ended up being the 15k course....this is important to know for later.

One of the other things that the race did right was the quantity of port-a-potties. They had plenty of them everywhere and we walked right into brand new potties...we even had to unwrap the toilet paper! We hit up the bathrooms and tried to find a place to keep warm. It was about 30 degrees when we arrived to the start area around 6 am. We bundled up and had on an extra layer which we planned to give to our race sherpa The Pilot right before the race started but it was still dang cold. Julie and I were both wearing tights and probably would have paid for some sweatpants in that hour. We ended up huddling with hundreds of other racers in the merchandise tent. I don't think anyone purchased anything...

A few minutes after 7, we walked down a hill to the staging area and tried to make some sense of the corral signs. They were going every direction and some were for the 15k and it was hard to make sense of any of them. It looked like they had the 13:00 min/mile and slower paces lined up in front of the faster runners. Once we figured out the slower pace groups were in a true staging area and we would be allowed to proceed forward once the faster group crossed the start line, we settled into place and waited. And waited. We couldn't see the start line and couldn't hear much either. We could see a line of traffic in the distance, coming over the bridge that crosses the Potomac over to the National Harbor where the race was. Finally they made an announcement to "pull our sleeves over our wrists to keep warmer and to cover our watches." What?? There were rumblings about a delay and then 7:30 rolled on by. NOTHING from the announcer for what seemed like an eternity. Remember, it was still in the low 30s at this time. Luckily The Pilot was able to stick close to us so we could keep our extra layer on. There was finally an announcement that the race would start at 7:45. Then that rolled on by. People started chanting, "start the race, start the race." I was sure there was going to be a riot. You could still see the line of traffic off in the distance. We were all freezing at this point. My fingers and toes were in pain. But, I was spending time with one of my dearest friends so I tried to remain patient.

Finally, at 8:20, the race started. By this time though, there was mass confusion in the staging area. We were lined up right in front of the 13:00 min/mile sign for the 5k, which would have been accurate. Until I looked behind us and there was NO ONE. All of the 13+ runners/walkers disappeared. Frozen and sick of waiting, we assumed they jumped into the back of the 9:00 min/mile pace group, which was lined up to our left. So doing something I would never ever do under normal circumstances, we crossed over to the corral next to us, which was still at a very slow walk trying to get to the actual start line. Julie was standing up on a curb and I was on the pavement when she made a comment about a bottleneck at the start line. This is not uncommon at a race but when I stepped up on the curb and saw what was going on, I about flipped my lid. The start line was narrower than a one lane road. For a race with 22,000 people registered. Inexcusable. We were already irritated by this point but that really started to send me over the edge.

We started a very slow run/shuffle as we crossed the start line. Even in a large race with a wide enough start line, there is almost always a bottleneck near the start and it can take a little while to find your position in the crowd and get up to your intended pace. Now something I have NEVER experienced in a race is a dead stop after a 1/2 mile. Yup. We made our way down a road only to have to funnel onto a path. For my local readers, it was the same width as the Olentangy Trail or the Hilliard Rail Train. 22,000 on a trail that fits no more than 4 across. So yes, we came to a dead stop. To make matters worse, one of the poorly thought out parking options meant that those who were stuck in traffic and trying to make their way to the start of the 15k (or even the 5k still), were walking in the opposite direction on the same trail. You had racers going one direction and pedestrians going in the other....on a trail that fits no more than 4 across. Guess what else was making this fustercluck worse?! Off to one side of the trail was a drop off into the Potomac River. It was a miracle no one fell in (at least that I am aware of).

Drop off
Stopped at barely 1/2 mile into the race (source).
The trail went from pavement to crushed shells and then to brick and then back onto a road for the remainder of the race. The crowd thinned out a little by the halfway point but there was a monster hill to climb. Ugh. I hate hills. I only made it about 1/2 way up before needing a walk break. As we came into the last mile, we went passed a water station that was yet another fustercluck. The water was mixed in with the Gatorade, water was in Gatorade cups, some of the tables didn't have any volunteers. Luckily I was carrying my own water (which I always slow pokes need to be prepared for races to run out of water) but Julie tried to play dodge 'em to get to the water. I kept shuffling along, knowing she could catch up. She did and she had a cup of water so I guess it went ok! After reading comments from the 15k participants, I guess a lot of the water stops had NO volunteers and participants had to pour their own water. Fail!
The finish line actually went back up through the starting area. Which meant there was a huge hill to climb in the last 1/4 mile. Boo. It was steep and it was rough! I walked up part of it but didn't want to walk through the finish so despite my legs and lungs burning, I managed to run to the finish. The 5k course did seem to be accurate as my Garmin chirped right at the sign for mile 3 which is better than the 15k course which I heard was pretty short. So I went into this race really hoping to have a strong run. I really wanted under 40 minutes. As we got closer to the race and I was sick and I saw how many people were registered, I slowly let go of that goal. And luckily I did. My official finish time was 42:41. Ugh. I honestly could have walked it at about that pace. I guess when I factor in the complete STOP at the beginning and then having to wait nearly a mile and a half for the course to clear out some in order to get up to pace and then having two nasty hill climbs, it could have been worse.

After crossing the finish line, we had to make our way back to the hot chocolate, chocolate fondu and our designated meeting place to find The Pilot. It was a bit of a hike to get back and it was up a hill. Boo. Other bloggers have complained more about the long walk to all of the goodies but it didn't seem that bad compared to all of the other failures of the morning. We managed to walk up to the fondu tent and walked right in to pick up our tray of goodies. It was pretty good except that it was so cold that my chocolate fondu completely hardened before I could dip my last item, a banana. Crap.

Yeay for chocolate fondu! I was so hungry though I could have eaten several trays. By the time we finished, it had been 6 hours since breakfast.
Boo to it being so cold I couldn't finish my froze before I could dip my banana!
Next we hit up the hot chocolate. I was pretty surprised to be honest. We walked right up (no line) and the hot chocolate was scalding! I actually had to put my gloves back on just to hold the cup. It wasn't the best hot chocolate I've ever had but damn it, I paid $45 for that hot chocolate and I was going to drink the entire cup.
We started to make our way back to where the bus dropped us off in the morning. Remember when I mentioned earlier that we had to walk on the race course to get to the race starting area? The 15k started after the 5k so when it came time to try to get to the bus, we were met with the 15k racers coming into the finish chute. There was no other way to get there other than to walk ON the course or in the narrow patch of grass on the side of the road. 5k people were trying to figure out how to get to the buses without darting in front of the lead packs of 15k people. It was a mess. We managed to get to the bus (by walking through a driveway where the buses were trying to leave from) without getting run over by a runner or a bus so I guess that is success.

Overall, epic fail Ram Racing!
The supposed owner of RAM Racing sent an email to all of the registered participants on Sunday afternoon. I'm not really buying any of it...all I see are excuses for things that really would have been in RAM's control should they have exercised a little common sense and race directing 101. I am not a race director but I've been racing since 2004 and have a lot of races under my belt. I'm also an event planner and I could have planned out some of the logistics of this race myself with just a little basic research. Here's the poor excuse of an apology, copied (with my commentary in red):

In trying to formulate what to say in regards to yesterday's events, I realized that what I said over and over to the folks I helped get on returning shuttle buses was exactly what should be said to all. While it became repetitive, it was no less from the heart in any one time from the other:

I am the owner of RAM Racing. Please allow me to tell you how deeply sorry I am for the way yesterday's race went. I am terribly sorry that the race did not go off anywhere close to as planned, and I feel terrible that your day and experience was not a good one because of that.

We have been putting on races for 10 years now, producing over 100 races. In fact just a month ago we put on the Hot Chocolate race for 40,000 people in Chicago without a hitch. I was reading that there were a lot of complaints about this race also.

With that being said, yesterday was a nightmare for us, to say the least. Whether it was auto accidents on the highway causing insane traffic or a terrible choice of venues that couldn't support this race, there are no excuses, in the end, I am responsible. Again, I am terribly sorry.

I want to share just a portion of the manner and the extent to which we planned for this event and the series of incidents that ensued, in an effort to be transparent, not to offer excuses. Over the past year:

-We worked extensively with, and paid a great deal to, the county and state police to handle traffic. While that is always the case when putting on races, the efforts here, and the involvement and control required by the county and state police was significant. There is an element of trust inherent in this process.

- We were assured that the National Harbor could handle parking 5,000 cars in a short period of time Nope, not anywhere close to that. Why you'd allow 22,000 participants register for a race in a location that can only handle 5,000 cars is beyond me.

- We devised a comprehensive parking plan, again at a great expense, including additional parking lots and shuttle buses

- The course mandated by the municipality, in the end, while narrower than desired was to be handled with an equally narrow starting line. Something we have had to do many times before and that works well if executed properly, something that we have had great success with. I can see how this might work in theory but only if you have proper barricades and staff/volunteers to direct people and to manage the corrals.

What went wrong:

- Two pre-race reported traffic accidents stopped all traffic on the inbound highways The local news station did have ANY reports of a
ccidents in the area that morning. Ummm...those local news stations didn't report anything because there weren't any accidents reported in the area that morning. See the Washingtonian's article.

- The parking company hired by the National Harbor to park cars in their lots was not even close to sufficient to handle the job, adding to the traffic issues as cars backed up on the highway waiting for access.
Not our problem, RAM Racing owner. It's your responsibility to properly vet all of your vendors.

- This in turn left the 75 shuttle buses we hired, stranded in traffic as well, delaying the delivery of waiting runners

- In an attempt to wait to allow the bulk of the runners to make the race start, we delayed the start. We considered starting the race after only a brief delay, but the continuous stream of late arriving runners would have crossed the course and that was an unacceptable safety concern.
So instead of those people missing the race, RAM Racing had the majority of the participants standing around in freezing weather. It's been said that up to 20% of the registered attendees never made it to the start.

-Finally, we start the race! What happened next defies belief, absolutely inconceivable!!! After planning with the police for months, the lead biker for the 5K was misdirected by a police officer at the first turn of the 5K, literally not allowing him to follow the course as planned and as approved by the local authorities!
Again, not our problem, RAM Racing owner.

- This action directed the 5K in the opposite direction from the way it was supposed to flow, insuring that the runners would run into themselves. Horrifying! This also caused the race participants and those trying to get to the start from the shuttle drop off area and National Harbor Parking garages to collide on a path that only fits 4 people across.

- Our race director quickly came up with a contingency plan, real time, on the spot, in the horror of what could have been a disaster.

-We had to open up the start line much faster than we would have liked, in order to avoid returning runners from running into outbound runners, which would not have been a problem if the lead runner was allowed to follow the planned course. What??

-This worked and while the 5K course was too crowded, everyone was able to run the entire course and no one was injured! Pure luck, RAM Racing.

- From there it was a matter of putting out fires that all developed due to the initial course reroute, as the 15K had to flow through the same area as the 5K race near the end of the 15K course. Poor planning.

- To finish it all off, after the race, there was another traffic accident on the beltway delaying returning buses, as well as we believe the buss company appeared to significantly under-deliver the number of buses we contracted for. We had to find buses immediately and get all the people returning to Crystal City and Old Town on their way. Again, there were no reports of an actual accident.

The above are not excuses, merely an explanation. Sounds like excuses to me. We are experienced race organizers. We didn't come close to showing you the terrific race event that should result from the tremendous talent and work ethic of our staff. DC did not get to experience the great race event RAM Racing is known for. I understand, and again, I am deeply apologetic. I am sorry from the bottom of my heart!

As for my staff, I have never been so proud of a group of people in my life. No business, and no race organizer, should ever have to experience the unfolding events of Saturday. Yet, these talented professionals adapted on the fly, kept their cool, and never took their eye off of trying to give our racers the best experience possible under the circumstances. I am deeply in debt to you all and have the utmost respect for your efforts. I will say that the volunteers (staff??) we encountered were all very friendly and should be given credit for dealing with crappy circumstances out of their control. From some of the posts on the Epic Fail: Hot Chocolate 5k Facebook page, it sounds like the volunteers had no direction from RAM Racing staff from the beginning.

I would like to thank the vast majority of our racers who, while justifiably upset with the way the race experience unfolded, took it in stride, completed the race, enjoyed the post-race party, participated in the Expo, and persevered to get the most out of the day as possible, your example is inspiring. For those of you that have publicly or privately shared your frustration and anger, we appreciate your honesty.

What doesn't kill us will make us stronger, and we intend to learn from this experience and use it to make the next race better and hopefully more insulated from these kinds of circumstances.

When we make it back to the east coast, I would pray that you give us a second chance. We have an amazing team that puts their heart and soul into their work. They are unquestionably among the best in the business. It is terribly unfortunate that you couldn't see that yesterday, as they are amazing! Nope, I don't think I'll be giving this company a second chance.

Again, I cannot apologize enough for the way yesterday's race went and I hope the rest of your weekend is much more enjoyable. It was thank you very much.

Keep running and racing!

Thank you.
That's it. The owner didn't even include his name. How's that for ownership?

And one last thing that fired me up. The Chief Marketing Officer of RAM Racing made this comment in response to all of the backlash:

"And at the end of the day, it's not about the chocolate, it's not about running your best time, it's about people getting to the start line, getting to the event and getting home safely." I agree that yes, I expect to get home safely from every race I participate in but isn't racing about going out and trying your best?? I realize racing against your best time isn't always the goal but for the majoirty of people who race, getting a good time is the whole point of forking over $45+ to do the race. I know I'm never going to win a race but that doesn't mean I'm not out there to race against myself.

"I think most runners know that races involve a number of logistics. If you look back to the 2007 Chicago Marathon, they had to shut it down. At mile 17, they said, 'Sorry, it's too hot, people are dying,' and no one was issued a refund. That is something that runners know. It's unfortunate that we failed the D.C. running community, but with the fixed costs of this event, it doesn't allow for a refund," Wallace said. Did this a$$clown really just compare the Hot Chocolate race to the 2007 Chicago Marathon (for non marathoners, the temperatures climbed to over 88 degrees and the shut down the race after 3.5 hours)?? What went down in Chicago was out of the race promoter's control and they did the right thing by cancelling the race. EVERYTHING that happened at the Hot Chocolate race could have been prevented.

The only saving thing about this race was that I got to run with Julie. We enjoyed spending time together and even got to have 3.1 miles of "girl talk" (in between cursing the race and dodging people). I felt really bad for The Pilot thought. Julie and I at least got to run to warm up but he spent the entire race being his usual "super spectator." I told him I owed him one and he agreed. It looks like I will have to try out an Indian buffet in the near future. I'll let you know how that goes. ;)



  1. I follow a few other runners that ran the 15K and they had a lot of similar things to share. They even said that part of a highway/road wasn't shut down so runners we along side cars. NOT SAFE.

    I didn't read though the whole race directors comments because i was getting disgusted. It seemed he/she wanted to put blame on someone else.

  2. I love reading race reviews. So thanks for this post!!

    It is awful to hear that the DC hot chocolate race was horrendously planned and executed. I had friends and roommates do the one in Chicago, and there were def. kinks in the planning of that one too.

    Races can be so much fun. It's sad to think that maybe some race directors/companies don't care about the runners as much as they care about the profit they'll make from registering lots of people (even if its way beyond their capacity to accommodate them).

    Keep running and racing!

  3. My friend Alison was signed up for this race but started hearing about what a mess it might be a few days before and bailed out. Sounds like a huge mess!!

  4. I was there also, and I'm glad to finally see a full race report of the 5K. Even for the 15K, by the time we got to that thin part of trail, it was too crowded!

  5. I was at the race too. It truly was a disaster. I like your commentary on the "owner's" letter. Do you think DC/MD will let them every come back?