Fortunately, my decision was actually made for me: my running bestie Mary has been sidelined for some injury rehabilitation, and she graciously gifted me her entry to the race. I took this news with mixed emotions, since running with her would have been most of the fun! But of course, a little rest now prevents a much worse injury later, so I was happy that she is looking out for her health. Plus, as my network of running friends is growing rapidly, I had the feeling I wouldn't be totally alone come race day.
It's always fun to run into the heart of this beautiful city!
I had to wake up pretty darn early to get there for the 7am start - or so I thought. It was a very cold morning, so I was glad I had laid out my clothes the day before, including extra layers, so I wasn't in panic mode at some ungodly hour. Even leaving with what I thought was enough time, I was still rushing (thanks Chicago traffic) to get to the start corral in time. I rushed through bag check, and hustled straight to my assigned corral, which was advertised to close at 6:45.
And then, I waited.
Not just the 15 minutes to the gun, but for an additional half hour after the first runners had crossed the starting line. I watched dozens of people just push straight up to the front, many of them slipping into earlier corrals, but somehow I was never able to find those holes in the crowd. Well, "crowd" is maybe the wrong word. "Massive throng of people" is the best way to describe this starting chute. Goodness gracious, it was sheer insanity! But there were massive video screens showing live footage as well as highlights from Twitter and Instagram - and MY PHOTO was featured on the big board! It was pretty cool, I totally felt like a celebrity! Having some friends with me would have helped make the mess seem a little less crazy, but as it was, I amused myself and chatted with other people around me until I finally got to start running!
That's the second half of the first wave of corrals. I was
in the very last corral. Yikes.
Boy was I cold. Had I even bothered to warm up, it would have been completely wasted anyway in the long wait. I did my best not to get caught up in the race atmosphere, trying to go easy until I warmed up, but I was just too excited to finally be moving. I nailed my first 5k, all of which took place amid the buildings of downtown Chicago. And amid the smells of downtown Chicago. PHEW, there were some moments when I seriously thought I was going to hurl. But I also got to take in the route's scenery, much of which felt like a trip down memory lane from when I used to actually live down in the city.
Then we passed the end of Grant Park and continued down the less-famous stretches of Michigan Avenue. The streets were plenty wide to accommodate the mass of runners, but as the surroundings got less interesting, I started to focus more on my body - and it was NOT HAPPY! I haven't had much time to actually train in the past few weeks, and in fact hadn't run at all since the Thriller trail run two weeks prior, so I knew I'd be off my game. The day before the Hot Chocolate I tried to run for an hour around the neighborhood, but had to stop about fifteen minutes early because my hips were incredibly sore. Well, I ran into the same problem during the race, and chose to listen to my body.
Fancy feet and pompoms helped me get through the arduous course!
I took a lot of walking breaks. At first, I was upset with myself for not pushing, but then I realized I had a LONG way to go still, and it was important to ease up when the pain started. Taking the opportunity to enjoy course amenities, I got some great footage of one of the several cheerleading groups throughout the race! They added some excitement and fun to a course that was rapidly growing stale. After recovering a bit, I was able to run a couple more miles before taking another short walk, then I finished strong with a quick stride across the finish line! My realistic goal was to finish in two hours (knowing my hip might act up) and my stretch goal was 1:45, so I was VERY pleased with my time of 1:50, which is my 15k PR. Not just from my first actual 15k race, but also from my extrapolated predictions, taken from my two previous longer races. So, yay despite the walking!
After the race, I met up with Nancy, who I met at a previous race, and we hung out in the post-race festival for a while. The temperature kept dropping, especially as the wind picked up, so it wasn't the most enjoyable setting, but we still enjoyed each other's company! Our friendship is blossoming and I was so happy I had the chance to find her in the post-race craziness. And it really was crazy - even worse than the pre-race! Swarms of people trying to keep warm, trying to get their goodies, trying to find their friends... All of the photo opportunity areas had massive lines, as did vendor booths and the massive merchandise tent. We chose to wait for the backdrop photo spot, and while we were waiting a course photographer snapped a shot of us with the big screen in the background, which was a cool bonus.
Photo courtesy of the Hot Chocolate organization!
So how does the Hot Chocolate 15k experience break down?
Organization: For the hordes of people this race pulls in, they did a remarkable job of keeping things moving and communicating clearly. Gear check was a snap, they had TONS of volunteers (here and throughout the event) which kept lines virtually non-existent. Corrals were well-marked and easy to understand, and the announcers throughout the day were very clear-spoken, which eased a lot of potential confusion. Aid stations were well-staffed and easy to access, the course was very clearly marked, and despite the massive amount of people moving through it, the finish line area and medal hand-out kept some momentum with only minor clogging. The post-race area was a bit of a mess, but that was because they labeled areas for runners to reunite with their friends after the race - really a pretty nice idea. The hot chocolate lines moved quickly and efficiently as well, once you were able to wade through the giant crowd in the runner meet-up area.
Can EVERY race have a Tootsie Roll Aid Station? Pwease?
The Course: Starting in Grant Park and heading straight into the heart of downtown is a great opening stretch for any course. It's almost entirely wide roads, though some of those roads go through some tunnels that smell awful! Once you're back out on the upper streets, though, the scenery is gorgeous, and having the full street closed made a high-entry event much less congested. After about two miles, though, the race hits Michigan Avenue near Grant Park, and travels south for a few miles. This got very boring, very quickly. Thankfully, the return path went down the lakefront - but NOT on the Lakefront Trail, thank goodness! There's no way this many people would ever have fit on that narrow thing. Instead, the course stuck to driveways around McCormick Place. The worst part of the course, though, was going UNDER McCormick: it was almost pitch-black, especially after coming out of the bright morning, and the terrain was gravelly, uneven, and full of hidden potholes. Dangerous much? I'm very surprised (and fortunate) that I did not sprain an ankle down there... Anyway, overall the course was fantastically well-marked, spacious, and despite a lack of interesting scenery, I'm very impressed with this route in this situation.
The Swag: I can't actually speak to the big selling point on the swag - the hoodie. Mary's only condition for gifting me the entry was that she get to keep the jacket, and from what I could see (and hear) that was a pretty good choice. I got to keep the medal and any little freebies I could snag, plus she sent me the drawstring bag from the event as well. The bag was a little on the cheap side, but the hoodies looked lusciously warm and well-fitted, and the medal is a pretty sweet piece of bling! I was disappointed that the post-race party was so... not full of freebies? Maybe I am just too spoiled after the #Run10Feed10 a few weeks ago, but I kinda expected to see more sponsors with cool giveaways in the party area, especially considering the cost of the race.
The medal is SHINY. Oooooh, shiny...
The Bottom Line: I'm glad I had the experience, but I wouldn't pay for this race in the future. WAY too many people, especially in the start corrals and the post-race party. It's just too much to take, especially as one of the first truly cold weekends of the year. Definitely worth experiencing once, just not worth the price for a repeat.
Since about 90% of Chicago runners were likely at this event, let me know YOUR thoughts! Did you love it? Hate it? Find the massive crush of people simply too maddening? TELL ME!