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.