I feel like I'm finally ready to write the story of what happened on December 3rd….a cold but sunny Saturday morning….about a little race….or was it a big race…..or was an experience?? What I'm about to tell is a story of survival.
Let's go back in time a little bit first…..one of my co-workers mentioned this race to me many, many, many months before December. I had never heard of it and wasn't really looking for a long race at the time but I checked out the website and thought it looked pretty cool. It was the Hot Chocolate DC 15k and 5k. I figured I could use Saturday morning runs during football season to work up to a 15k….so I signed up and put a training plan together. We started back up with our Saturday morning runs and worked our way up to 9 miles. I felt pretty prepared to join 20,000 runners for the Hot Chocolate DC 15k.
Jump to December 2nd – Packet Pickup. We took the day off/worked at home so that we could go in the middle of the day to get our bibs, timing chips, swag. We made our way over to National Harbor (which is actually in Maryland) and headed to the expo. This was the most organized packet pickup ever. We walked in and tables were set up with bibs sorted by number – no lines – picked ours up and were directed to the next spot which was a timing mat that we walked over to confirm our chips. Then we were directed to pick up our parking passes and finally our sweet jackets. After getting our jackets we saw signs pointing to a location where you could change sizes…..how nice! This almost never happens at races. I'm stuck with some ill fitting swag. We checked out a few other things at the expo and then left so we could grab a quick lunch. We walked away raving about how organized it was and how we were looking forward to running with 20,000 other people.
When I read the information about the parking I noted that the lots were supposed to open at 4 AM!! What!?!!? The race didn't start until 8 AM! But we had to park at a remote location and take a shuttle bus. So we got there early – not 4 AM early but 5 AM early. We saw that there were a plethora of shuttle buses and that most of the people getting on them at that time were running the 5k so we waited and stayed warm in the car for a while. After a while we decided that we should head over to the race site so we hopped out of the warm car into the freezing cold and made our way to the shuttle bus. After a short ride we were dropped off at the site….and here's where things start to get bad.
First we had to find the location of the actual race. Eventually we found tents. It was freeeeezing that morning and we were only wearing our running gear…well I had one extra shirt that I planned to drop at the start line. So we made our way inside of a tent where there were thousands of people huddled to stay warm. We had to just stand there for close to an hour. Then it seemed close to race time so I figured we should make our way out of the tent. When we got out there was an announcement about the race being delayed 15 minutes due to an issue with the 5k …..so we crawled back through people into the tent and waited 15 minutes. After that we decided to do what we had tried to do 15 minutes earlier and make our way to the start line. So we left the tent and the warmth and went to the start line. Everyone was starting to line up. There were actually two lines ….one on the road and one on a trail next to the road. Due to our expected pace we were on the trail which was actually nice because we were in the front of that group and standing next to the people expected to win (they were on the street of course). It also would save us from running up the hill to get to the start. We started to realize that it really didn't seem like anything was about to move.
We were standing there listening to music and trying to stay warm while not wasting too much energy (this is very difficult and pretty much impossible) when finally there was an announcement about a delay and problems getting people there and problems with the 5k. And then more trying to stay warm and then an announcement about clearing the 5k course…..what!?!?! We have to wait for that entire race to finish….why??? We won't even get there until we have run 10k ….the course should be clear by then! What is going on?? No useful information they just keep going on about the chocolate we are going to get after the race. No one cares about chocolate – we came to run and we would like to be able to do that. It will keep us warm….let's get moving. (I'm getting angry just thinking about it.)
I'll spare you the rest of the details about the HOUR that we stood in the freezing cold hearing about delays and chocolate. FINALLY the race started….we had to wait for everyone on the road to pass by before our group could go. BUT as with everything else that day…someone decided to do something stupid and open a small portion of the fence and let some of us go through and start early. So we ended up in a faster group at the beginning but I was sooooo ready to run that it was fine….at least for the first mile which I killed. And then we did some crazy turns and ended up on the highway….a highway that wasn't completely closed. There were 3 lanes on the side we were on and they closed two of them…..which seemed ok on the out part and then became a huge problem when we saw the lead runners coming on the back part. We had to get over into one lane…at this point we were still in the beginning of the race where the pack was huge – 20,000 people! It takes a long time to spread out and one lane was just not enough. After we made the the turn it was the same problem trying to run back – at that point people were still running out. In that 3rd lane…..lots of cars moving very slowly and it seemed like every other one was a dump truck. Yup, big idling trucks sitting next to 20,000 runners. Certainly helped with the breathing…yeah…right. For those of us not running a very good pace at this point ….yeah, that would be me – we were running around the cones into that 3rd lane quite a bit and hoping that we didn't get it hit. Let me just say I wasn't having fun at this point. I was just doing everything I could to avoid getting hit and to find some clean air once in a while.
After we made it through that section we had to fight our way up an ugly hill and back towards the actual harbor. The middle was just long and boring …not much to say about it. Somewhere shortly after mile 6 there was a tough hill with a lot of people. It was hard to keep running through it but once I made it I decided I could really use some water. The tables looked packed with people. My buddy was kind enough to get the water for me so I could keep running. It felt like I was running forever before he caught back up to me. At this point I was tired and felt lost (without him) and extremely thirsty. I drank some of the water and asked what happened……and this it where it becomes unbelievable. He had to pour the water himself!!!! What?!?!!? Every other race we have done ….I mean ever single once….all of them …even the tiny ones have people to hand you cups of water…you can run through….but NO, not this one….he had to pour it himself. UNBELIEVABLE!
After hearing his story we made our way down a hill (woohoo) to the harbor and then took a turn onto a gravel path….what a mess…. a completely junky area that smelled terrible. I thought I had a rock stuck in my shoe and had to stop and check. I was a very unhappy girl at that point. Then we ran along a tiny path along the water. Did I mention that there were a lot of people….seriously who thought this tiny path was a good idea. Really? It was about 4 people wide….it was honestly terrible. At that point we understood (or thought we understood) why they had to clear the 5k course. The people running the 5 minute miles would have been furious when they got to that part and had to pass the people walking at the end of the 5k. It almost made sense.
The section along the water
Finally we got close to the end. And then I saw the big hill that I had to run up to get there and nearly cried. At the end I was barely able to raise my arms as I crossed the finish line but some how I had made it. Even after waiting for an extra hour in the freezing cold. I was insanely tired and didn't run at the pace I had hoped for but couldn't be too mad because I knew I had wasted a lot of energy dancing around to stay warm before the race. I beat my back up goal (I run with two goals….usually the first is a dream that I hope I get close to and the second is something i know I can do so that I walk away feeling like I met a goal). My back up goal was to beat my half marathon pace and I did that. So I'm improving….despite the terrible race.
Here I am trying to raise my arms at the end
As I fell to the ground because I was so tired some amazing runner offered me a bottle of water. I wish I knew who she was so I could send a thank you note. Honestly that was the only thing that seemed to go well that day. After we had some water we decided to make our way to the food and the chocolate that we were hearing about for hours. We were starving. We had expected to be done over an hour sooner and the last time we had eaten was very early in the morning and the only thing I had before the race was one granola bar. I had certainly burned those calories just trying to stay warm before the race.
After the wonderful runner gave me water
Well, like the rest of the even that day, getting to the food was almost impossible. There was a huge hill that we had to walk up and then we had to fight the crowd to get to the tent. Our bibs actually had tags on them for food and hot chocolate. We were only allowed to go through each line once. For a race this size I understand that. We walked to the chocolate fondue line to get our food and were given a plastic tray with our food and then a scoop of chocolate. At this point I was starving and not interested in chocolate. We were given one marshmallow, 1/3 of a banana, 3 tiny apple slices, 1 small rice crispy treat, and 1 pretzel stick. Seriously that's it! We had just run over 9 miles and had not eaten in many hours …one extra due to the delay…and that's what they gave us. All junk to be dipped in chocolate which tasted down right disgusting at that point.
We walked out to an open area to sit down and decided to completely skip the hot chocolate. We were just so angry and uninterested in drinking something warm and sugary. I found a place to sit down and then was yelled at by someone who decided I sat in a bad spot. I was right next to a group of other people who were sitting. Well unfortunately he picked the wrong person to yell at because I yelled back and told him I didn't care if some stepped on me. After everything I had been through I just wanted to sit. I had been on my feet for hours and did I mention I had just run a 15k?
After we ate our food we made our way back to the buses. Luckily on the way we passed where one of the water tables had been and a guy there was kind enough to give me a gallon of water. I almost hugged him. So that was the second good thing that happened. Please note….he didn't work for Ram Racing…he was just a volunteer. So there was a nice runner and a volunteer. Thanks to them I had water after the race.
When we got to the parking lot there was a cluster of people waiting for buses and a process that wasn't making any sense. At this point I was beyond tired and angry. I ignored the line of people and walked to a bus further back in the line. It seemed like forever but we did eventually make it back to the car. And I did complete a 15k despite all of the bad things that happened.
I heard many complaints after the race and stories on the news about how bad it was. I heard many people saying they needed “I survived” shirts. I feel like I survived a terrible event and lived to tell the story.
The race was so bad the owner of Ram Racing decided to send a letter about it. Here is what I received:
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.
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
– 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.
What went wrong:
– Two pre-race reported traffic accidents stopped all traffic on the inbound highways
– 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.
– 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.
-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!
– 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!
– 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.
-This worked and while the 5K course was too crowded, everyone was able to run the entire course and no one was injured!
– 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.
– 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.
The above are not excuses, merely an explanation. 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 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!
Again, I cannot apologize enough for the way yesterday's race went and I hope the rest of your weekend is much more enjoyable.
Keep running and racing!
I'm not sure how much of their story I believe…..but I survived! And whenever I see someone wearing a Hot Chocolate jacket I think ….they survived too.