Vote with your Feet…and Don't Drink the Sand

When I was blogging about events as they unfolded at the Hot Chocolate 15K/5K last Saturday, I had no idea the race would evolve into such a meltdown. I am not going to catalog everything that went wrong; plenty of participants have blogged about their experiences and WTOP wrote an excellent article that I recommend reading if you haven’t had enough of this disaster.

Having said that I had no idea the race would be a catastrophe, I obviously had my reasons for not signing up. When the race was announced, people immediately started signing up, excited about the venue, the jacket, the chocolate, the whole hoopla. As is the case with such events, the more people that mentioned on social media that they were doing Hot Chocolate, the more others were encouraged to join. I sat on the sidelines, watching and listening. After my experience at Wine Country Half Marathon I was cautious of gimmicky races. I didn’t sign up for this reason. I was afraid it would be another disappointment.

I am not feeling smug about my decision. I am feeling sad for all the racers – many of whom were first timers – who had a frustrating, costly experience. BUT, there are valuable lessons to be learned from this experience that I hope racers will put to use when they consider what race to sign up for next. After all, this isn’t the only race of such magnitude that has experienced problems. The same weekend, the Rock’n’Roll Las Vegas Marathon and Half Marathon hosted 44,000 runners in a crowded event that left racers stranded at the gridlocked finish, many of whom were sick from drinking the on-course water (that apparently came from fire hydrants) and needed medical assistance.

While race organizers are, in these (and other) well-publicized cases, failing to ensure the safety of their participants, there are many more races, big and small, that are well organized, safe, well-supported, and fun. As racers we have a choice. No-one sticks a gun to our heads and says “you must do this race.” I urge every one of you to vote with your feet. Do your research on races. Ask people who’ve done the race before. Google the race and see what people say about it. If it’s a new race, do your homework. Is the parking adequate? Can I take public transportation? What’s the race route? How many participants are allowed? Is this the kind of race I like? Some races are more about the pre/post events, less about the racing. Some races manage to keep everyone happy with the pre/post fun as well as emphasis on the race. I think the mid-size Shamrock Marathon and Half Marathon is one such race. There’s a small expo where people can satisfy their cravings for race memorabilia, a cool medal and nice shirt as well as a finishers hat, but it’s also a well-organized race that doesn’t get congested. The marathon is limited to 4,000 while 10,000 are allowed in the half marathon. On the small race front, one of my favorites is the Greasy Gooney 10K. I love this race for many reasons – beautiful location, tough course, cool trophies – but mostly because it’s a race for runners. You show up, sign up, and run.

In the DC Metro area we are spoiled for choice when it comes to races. A quick glance at Run Washington’s race calendar or, for nationwide events,  Active, shows just how many races there are in this area every weekend. There are big local races that are very successful, that accommodate 15, 20, even 30 thousand runners without incident. There are races that I will never do again based on my own experiences. That’s my choice. After an 11 year hiatus due to the difficulty finding parking nearby and the long porta-potty lines, I entered the Cherry Blossom lottery this year. I know what to expect. I also ran Army 10 Miler this year after a 5 year hiatus. I knew the race would be crowded. I knew I had to drive down early to get parking relatively nearby. Know what you’re getting in to.

I wonder if people sign up for these big spectacles because they aren’t aware of the other options out there. That reminds me of one of my favorite movie quotes, from The American President:

Lewis: “People want leadership, Mr. President… They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

The President: “People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

It seems to me that the people are “drinking the sand” because they don’t know there are other options. Some races have huge marketing campaigns. The good ones don’t need it. Word of mouth is enough. Some races fill up within hours. I call this the feeding frenzy. People sign up because they’re afraid of being shut out. Social media networks go crazy with people telling each other to sign up before it’s full, and each year these races close earlier and earlier. Some people can’t even get online to register fast enough. Truth is, you don’t need to. There are so many other options.

If you’re new to racing, how do you find out about races? Ask people. Instead of using social media to push race signup, use it to ask people to suggest races they’ve run and enjoyed. If you’re thinking about a marathon or half marathon, look at reviews on Marathon Guide. Slow Twitch has forums where people provide input on triathlons. And of course a simple Google search for the race name will bring up more information than you ever needed. For trail races, check out VHTRC or Trail Runner. Check with your local running or triathlon club or group. Racers are very loyal to the races they like, and will do them again and again.

At the end of the day, it’s your money, your time, and your hard work. So it’s worth doing a little digging before you sign up.



  1. I absolutely agree with you about doing research. Unless a race is in its inaugural year, you can often find blogs with race reports. These often provide the most useful and honest reviews.

    I didn’t run the Hot Chocolate race because I didn’t enjoy my last experience with National Harbor with a smaller field and a much more organized race company. I honestly wasn’t the least bit surprised by the debacle. Every once in a while I run one of the really big races, but I’m just not a fan of having to deal with major logistics.

    I’ll definitely be checking out the Greasy Gooney next fall!

  2. I haven’t relied on race reviews before but will certainly consider them for future races. Location, course, packet pickup convenience, cost, and thoroughness of information on the website are what I consider before I register. When I was researching Hot Chocolate as an option, I couldn’t get as much information as I’m accustomed to, so I decided to not run it. I do feel bad for the runners who went in with such high expectations only to have them dashed so miserably.

  3. I think you definitely need to do your research and be choosy about the races you run. I also think you need to be careful about running brand new races, I ran the RnR 10K in NY and it was disorganized, my friend took a wrong turn because there was no direction and crossed the finish line only after completing a few miles. Thanks for sharing a great topic!!!

  4. Awww a great reminder. My whole Vegas experience put me in a bad place. (I also came down with food poisioning or stomach flu Saturday so my whole weekend was ruined, not just the race itself.) I almost wanted to swear of races – but then I remembered I am registered for 6 more halfs, a duathlon and a 2-day relay between now and next September. So… I made the decision not to sign up for anymore for the time being. I’ll remember to stick to close to home races that support good causes – which is why I started running so many 5Ks to begin with. I just ran a fabulous small 10K Turkey Trot and was on cloud 9 – then Vegas brought a dark cloud.

    I have to admit I’ve been sucked in by the media like you mentioned – I signed up for the lottery into Nike Women’s this year on a whim and got in. (I felt bad for those that try year after year to no avail.) I thoroughly enjoyed my San Francisco trip but the race was not one that I feel I need to do year after year.

  5. Entry fees cost so much these days that it’s really beneficial to research events/races unless you have a plan B if things start to go downhill. Some races have hit or miss years, like the time the Army 10-Miler was re-routed at the last minute for a suspicious package, or when temperatures were abnormally high at Chicago and also the Army 10-Miler; but, generally, these races are reasonable. Running new, large-scale races is a tricky proposition – I blogged about my experiences with participating in inaugural events on Sunday after fortuitously (it seems) not having run the Hot Chocolate 15K.

    • Oh yeah, I remember the Army 11 Miler! Of course suspicious packages and heat are things that RDs can’t control, although anticipating them and having a plan of action are essential.

  6. It is so important to do research before signing up for a big/important/expensive event. If its a local $10 5k it probably won’t matter, but I would never go into an expensive event blindly. As for the Hot Chocolate race, the amount of marketing really turned me off from the beginning. I didn’t sign up because it seemed way too big and trendy, which just always seems like a red flag to me. I do feel bad for all the runners who were sucked into it. 22,000 people signed up for this event, and from the sounds of it only half showed up and STILL it was a mess.

  7. Well said. And the poor newbies have no idea they even have to worry about things like this. It’s a shame.
    I ran MCM again this year after a 5 or 6 year break and it was WAY more crowded, so much so I am not sure I’d do it again. I thought the same thing about Army 10 miler 2 years ago. A fun running event, in both cases – but not great for racing with all the shimmying required.
    Race fees are getting really pricey, yet everyone seems to be into running these days and price doesn’t seem much of a deterrent. It makes me sad for those who can’t afford it, though hopefully they can find smaller races that are cheap or free.

    • Great points about entry fees. Maybe I should start promoting some cheap/free races like Fat Asses and such? Metro Run and Walk Springfield just announced their 2012 schedule of races that are $10 or less to enter!

      • Great idea! I think fat asses are the best invention ever. And always fun with no pressure to finish if you aren’t having a good day.
        Love that there are small, cheap/free races still out there!

  8. All very true points. I was out of town last weekend, but even if I was in town, I probably would not have done this race. I knew it had been oversold based on the fact that EVERYONE was doing it. I try to find smaller races that are well organized and I love the runwashington race calendar!

  9. Great post! I knew the race would be crowded when I signed up and I really knew better, but it was a girl’s weekend type of thing. After that experience, I’ve vowed to never run a gimmicky race again, especially not one put on by RAM racing. There are plenty of great small races instead! The bonus of small races is that they are cheaper, especially if they are put on by my running club!

  10. Races like that are rough! And like you I’ve become weary of races that are gimmicky or too big for their own good. For me it’s all about the race, and the other stuff that happens isn’t enough to justify a bad or crowded racing experience! Thanks for sharing! (Came from the Brooks Fanatics FB page!)
    Amy N. recently posted..Brooks Pure Project Prize PackMy Profile

    • Racingtales says:

      Hi Amy, thanks for your comment! Yes, definitely steering clear of what I called “race spectacles” these days. Good thing there are still plenty of races centered around running!

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