I ran the Allstate Hot Chocolate 15K on Sunday, logging my first 15K (in a race setting) in the process.
Like I said a couple of weeks ago, there are multiple reasons why I had never run Hot Chocolate. Timing was a big one, since the race falls soon after the Chicago Marathon. The bigger reason, though, is Hot Chocolate’s reputation for royally screwing things up. It’s been years since the debacle that was Hot Chocolate D.C., and while that was likely Hot Chocolate’s biggest screw-up, when I was more actively involved in the behind-the-scenes part of the Chicago running world, Hot Chocolate Chicago was also notorious for having nightmare packet pickup situations. I have very little patience for races that can’t get their act together, and even less patience for races that can’t get their act together when they’re put on by a for-profit company whose only purpose is to put on races (i.e.: RAM), so I thought it would likely be in my best interest to stay away.
However, I am not immune to the siren song of cool race swag. I started toying with the idea of running Hot Chocolate last year, and started taking that idea more seriously at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago expo when I saw the race’s sweatshirt for the first time.
I LOVED it, so at that moment I decided if I could make it through the marathon in one piece, I’d sign up for Hot Chocolate.
I have no idea how the expo was this year, because my cousin was in town at the end of last week for a conference at McCormick Place and offered to pick up my packet for me to save me the trip. He didn’t seem to have any complaints, though, so I guess it must’ve been fine. The contents, however, were less than helpful:
That is a zip tie that has already been zip tied. Good luck getting that to attach your gear check tag to your gear check bag!
Another small detail that was perhaps not messed up, but certainly confusing? My packet came in an plastic, opaque white drawstring bag. Additionally, other participants did get clear plastic bags for their packets. I also saw some people with black plastic packet bags. What gives?? The gear check rules online specifically indicated that I needed to use a clear plastic bag for gear check. If you’re going to require that I use a clear plastic bag for gear check, then you need to provide a clear plastic bag for gear check, like every other race that has that requirement.
Please note the line at the end about the zip ties, too.
The forecast had called for rain on Sunday all week, so I was pleased to wake up to dry skies. It was fairly chilly and quite windy, though. I donned my Goodwill throwaways and headed out the door around 5:45 for the 7 a.m. start.
I know Hot Chocolate usually has oodles of participants (there were 29,702 timed finishers on Sunday. For those of you keeping score at home, this year’s Shamrock Shuffle had 20,899 finishers. Based on that, I would like to reiterate my belief the Bank of America should sell the Shuffle to RAM: a company much better suited to put on a race like the Shuffle.), so I wanted to arrive with plenty of time to check my gear and use the portapotties. As it turned out, there were ample portapotties for the size of the race, and I waited less than five minutes to get into one (a non-smelly one, no less!). I will certainly give Hot Chocolate credit for that. If I had to pick between an unusable zip tie and plenty of portapotties, I’d pick the portapotties every time.
15K gear check was quite a hike from the Wave One start corrals, but I got to my corral with 15 minutes to spare. I found myself a nice spot on the leftover blue line (not that it mattered, since this obviously wasn’t the marathon) and watched the pre-race ceremony on a video board they had right by the start line. The race supports Make-a-Wish, and they had a couple Make-a-Wish kids up on stage with their parents to talk about what the foundation means to them. One of the kids wants to skate with the Blackhawks, so they brought Tommy Hawk up on stage and had Jim Cornelison sing the National Anthem! That was really cool. They also used the board to display race etiquette, both for runners and runners with children, and to show how the 5K would split from the 15K. I thought it was excellent use of technology, and something other large races should definitely consider using.
And then we were off! Hot Chocolate involves a lot of running in the Loop (if you do the 5K, you run almost exclusively in the Loop) and used a different course than the usual Loop-based races, which I enjoyed as a nice change of pace (heh puns). While we’re on the topic of the course, though, I would like to air my biggest grievance with Hot Chocolate: the online course map.
This is what was provided in the online participant guide: the only place I could find a course map for the race. At first glance, it looks just fine. Shows you the start/finish lines, shows you where you’re going to run, shows you all the race courses, even includes a detail with the 5K/15K split: what more could you want?
I don’t know, maybe mile markers? And while we’re at it, aid station locations?
COME. ON. I complained about Rock ‘n’ Roll’s bizzaro map issues back in July, but this makes Rock ‘n’ Roll look like they had their act together. I’d rather have misplaced mile markers on the course map than no mile markers at all! It especially bothered me that they didn’t put the aid stations on the online course map. I fuel every five miles for runs seven miles or longer, which meant I needed to fuel during this race. Because no one at RAM could be bothered to give us any information on the location of aid stations, neither in the participant guide nor in the course map, I had to carry my water bottle for the whole run to ensure I’d have water to chase my chews at mile five. As it turned out, there was an aid station at like mile 4.8, which would’ve been MORE than sufficient for my fueling needs.
Did this completely screw up my race, a race I only needed to finish to PR? Of course not. The miles were all marked on the course, which is all I really needed. It didn’t put in me in danger or anything serious like that. But like I said after Rock ‘n’ Roll, the devil is in the details when it comes to these sorts of things, and when you combine it with the other detail-related issues (a pre-zipped zip tie, an opaque bag), all of those little problems make RAM look sloppy, especially when there are other event management companies that get every detail right, every single time. If all you do is organize races, you should be getting every detail right, every single time. Period.
As it turned out, the primary challenge of Hot Chocolate was not running blind in terms of mile markers or aid stations, nor was it having a pre-zipped zip tie, nor was it having to find a clear bag for my gear: it was the wind. Holy cow, the wind. There were 18 mph winds out of the southeast for the duration of the race, and you know the only two directions you run between emerging from Lower Wacker around mile one all the way through mile 6.a little change? South and east. Oof. Hot Chocolate marked the first time in my running career where I saw used aid station cups before I got the the aid station, because the wind was so strong downtown that it blew the cups up the course. It was nuts, and I was very thankful that we only had wind to deal with, not wind and rain.
The course was definitely one of the more unique ones I’ve run in the city. Not only did it not follow the typical Columbus-to-Grand-to-State Street route, but it was hilly by Chicago standards?? That’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d write, but there were a bunch of inclines on the course: up to get off of Lower Wacker, up to get onto the 35th St. pedestrian bridge at the southernmost portion of the course, up to get off the Lakefront Trail onto Fort Dearborn Drive, up from a dip around Soldier Field, up to get back up onto Columbus for the finish. It was quite the experience for a Chicago race!
I finished in 1:34:33, which was perfectly fine by me. I hoped to run close to a 10:00 pace and ended up averaging a 10:09. No complaints here. I’m ran a steady pace for most of the race (my 5K and 10K splits were both 10:14 exactly) and felt like I ran comfortably hard for all 9.3 miles.
The real highlight of the event, of course, is the post-race chocolate (there was also candy at the aid stations, but I skipped most of that). The finisher’s mug is really something else:
It started to rain a little after I got my mug, but it didn’t seem feasible to travel with it, given the chocolate fondue situation. I certainly wasn’t about to let any of my treats to go waste, so I chowed down while watching the awards ceremony. Everything was just as delicious and wonderful as I hoped it would be!
I don’t expect that I’ll do Hot Chocolate again, mostly because I don’t expect that it’ll be as convenient for me as it was this year moving forward. I’m glad I gave it a shot, though, and that I got a super comfortable, well-fitting zip-up sweatshirt out of it 🙂