Monday, November 10, 2014

Hot Chocolate 15k 2014 Race Recap

Since I didn't start running 15ks until a few years ago, the annual Hot Chocolate 15k gives me an opportunity to use some of my residual marathon fitness for a potential PR. However, approaching this year's race, I had run barely any training miles, which made me less confident that I could PR.

The Expo:
The expo for the race is somewhat inconveniently located at McCormick Place. This means I need to drive 22 miles round-trip, through city traffic to get my packet for a race distance that amounts to an extended 10k. But since the Hot Chocolate 15k/5k is such a popular race (the 5th largest race in the nation in fact), "The Hot Chocolate People" could probably hold the expo in another state and they'd still get people to come in droves.

Anyway, as background info, the expo in 2012 was a disaster as people were waiting for up to three hours in the bitter cold in a parking lot just to pick up there race bib and hoodie. Last year, the packet pickup was indoors at McCormick Place, and it was spread out over three days instead of two. This year's expo, was even better. They used the closest exhibition hall to the parking garage, so it was an easy in-and-out.
At the expo with the marshmallow people
Want chocolate-related wear? This expo is for you!
After picking up my bib, I needed to find a race official so I could change my assigned corral.  I was assigned corral C, which is pretty far back for this race. Luckily, I found a booth at the expo where I could plead my case to a race official for a corral change. Unfortunately, the woman in charge of corral change requests said that no one could not move up corrals, only back. With 14,000 15k runners and 20 corrals, I'd estimate there were 700 people per corral. Last year I finished in the top 150, so theoretically, I would have to pass about 1,000 runners to get to run with people my speed. So, unless I got lucky and was able to sneak up a corral or two, I would be stuck in "C" and have to do some major weaving early in the race.

Pre Race: 
I was all set to take the 45 minute "L" train to the race, but was running slightly behind schedule, so instead, I hopped in my car, and with LSD completely empty, made it to my $15 garage just north of Grant Park in just over 15 minutes. I exited the parking garage and took this picture:

Looking down at Columbus Drive before the race
I then met up with a random woman from California who was lost, and we chatted for about 10 minutes as I walked her to the race entrance to the race in Grant Park. Once we parted ways, I used one of the thousands of porta-potties they had set up. Seriously, this is the most porta-potties I've ever seen at a race! Why so many? My guess is that due to past foibles, the race organizers have now gone out of their way to make the race weekend as pain-free as possible.

With ten minutes before the corrals closed, I made my way over to the "C" corral. Apparently, lots of other runners had the same idea, and unfortunately, there were just as many runners headed towards us, perhaps headed to bag check. So, everyone stopped moving completely, no one wanting or able to let the other go the way they needed to go. It was a complete cluster. So, as the announcer said "five minutes until the corrals close" and the urgency built for us to move, people behind me were shouting "push, push!" because they were afraid they'd be locked out of their corrals. Pushing in a large crowd is never a good idea and luckily no one did. Finally, a race official with a bullhorn saw the massive log jam and somehow expanded  the passage way just enough so that we could head slowly, in single file towards the corrals and the other people could go the other direction. Disaster avoided. Whew.

I entered the "C" corral and made my way to the front to see if I could "sneak" up to "B". As luck would have it, a course marshal lifted the rope for me and I was soon in "B". So I made my way up to the front and another marshal lifted the rope for me and voil√†! I was in "A"!  I knew Lynton was running and figured he was up front somewhere. I spotted him right away and we stood and chatted for the 15 minutes before the horn sounded. I spotted a few runners who climbed over the eight foot fences to break into the "A" corral. Coincidentally, it was in the exact same spot that I saw people jumping over the porta-potties to crash Lollapalooza this summer!

Race Strategy: 
I averaged 15 miles/week of running over the last four weeks. I did not run at all for the previous 10 days due to a sore Achilles tendon, so I had little idea of how to pace myself, or even if my Achilles would even hold up pain-free for the 9.3 miles. I figured if all was well physically, I could at least average 7:00/miles for the entire race, so my strategy was to run 21:xx for the first 5k, see how I felt at that point, then either maintain that pace or speed up for the remainder. I thought it would be nice to break my 15k PR of 1:02:38 (6:44/mile), but I would not concern myself with hitting that pace. My only goal was to run an honest pace and see how I would hold up over the distance.
Did I mention how massive this race is? src
Mile 1 to 3.1 (First 5k):
I've said this before, but the main thing I love about the Hot Chocolate race is that it's a chance to revisit parts of the Chicago Marathon course only a few weeks after the marathon. So, while the memories of the race are still crisp, and the painted "blue line" from the marathon hasn't completely faded on Michigan Avenue, you get to line up at the same start line, run along the same 3 mile stretch of Michigan Ave. and then end up at the same finish line. For me that's a huge bonus. Anyway, the national anthem was sung and I chucked my disposable clothing and we were off! Lynton took off ahead of me, and I ran up Columbus Drive to Lower Wacker by myself. This is the least exciting (and darkest) part of the course. I let all of the fast 5kers speed by me and chilled. We ran up on Clark St. and through the middle of the Loop where the first "aid station" were kids handing out bags of chocolate. I saw one guy take a bag, I guess he had to carry it the rest of the way or throw it on the ground when he tired of holding it. Then it was over to Michigan Ave. where after we parted ways with the 5kers at Mt. Roosevelt, I found the "blue marathon" line (that follows the tangents) and decided to run on top of it for awhile. My Achilles was feeling okay and would remain so for the rest of the race. 21:15, 6:49/mile.

Mile 3.1 to 6.2 (Second 5k):
I continued running on the blue marathon line for as long as possible, until we veered off onto the eastern edge of Michigan Ave and the line veered off to the west. As we ran on MLK Drive, we did a sharp turn north again for about a half mile, then did a hairpin turn around a pylon and headed south again. This is different from last year, but I think the crazy hairpin turns were created so they could avoid having us run on LSD. During this stretch, some woman who had apparently forgotten her headphones, had turned up the music up on her phone speaker! This was a quiet part of the course which was ruined by her music. Everyone around her could hear whatever crap song she was listening to. Way to break the chill race atmosphere in an uncool way! Please people, if you must play music, wear your damn headphones. No speaker phones on the course! 20:55, 6:45/mile.

Mile 6.2 to 9.3 (Third 5k):
As we headed eastward at the 10k mark, the lake appeared. Then the course heads north again along the access road along LSD. At this point, I was completely sick of hearing the music blasting from the runner's phone, so I decided to speed up by doing a mini-surge. Within a few seconds, I could not hear her music any longer! Whew! We did another short hairpin turn (apparently to burn up more miles), right before the McCormick Place tunnel. I took my sunglasses off for the trek through the "Smelly Tunnel" and then headed down the hill. I glanced at my watch and realized a PR would be within reach, so I started to slowly lower the hammer and speed up. One more hairpin turn and a hill was to be had before heading back up to Columbus for the homestretch. I heard Ken yelling "Go Pete", but had already run past him before I realized it was him. I sprinted full-tilt down the hill, towards the finish. 20:05, 6:28/mile.

 They posted videos of the race finish and I took some screen grabs:


PR accomplished by 29 seconds!
Basking in my PR by a huge mug of hot chocolate!
Note, the cool "candy bar" medal

Time: 1:02:09
Overall: 102/14,178
Age Group: 5/384
Official Pace: 6:41/mile

 5k Splits:
1st 5k: 21:15
2nd 5k: 20:55
3rd 5k: 20:05

If there is one thing that the Hot Chocolate delivers for me is PRs! This might be my only PR for the year, so I am happy to take it home. I had little expectations from this race since I haven't really run much over the last four weeks and I was not sure how my legs would hold up with my injury. Anyway, I am hopeful that with a little more strengthening and a resumption back to normal training, I can at least get a decently speedy time at the Schaumburg Half Marathon.

I searched in vain for Lynton in the finishers' chute. He had run a sub one hour race so he was likely long gone before I finished. I collected my gear and could hear the announcer say, "last call for 15kers to start the race"! So, there were still people starting the same race I had just finished! Anyway, I waded through the thousands of people in the after-party area...
Thousands who ran for chocolate get my fondue and hot chocolate:
Finisher's Fondue Mug
The chocolate fondue was nice and messy and there was chocolate all my face and jacket, so I won't be posting any pictures of my slovenly ways. Note to self: For next year's race, I should bring a flask of Peppermint Schnapps to help "flavor" the cup of hot chocolate. Anyway, after throwing out my mug, I walked back to my car and and left Lower Wacker, just as they were starting to unload the trucks for yet another Batman vs. Superman filming.

Again, this is one of my favorite races of the year. Easy parking, thousands of porta-potties, beautiful finisher medal, and a chance to run through downtown and Michigan Ave. are huge bonuses. However, the new course with the several hairpin turns near the end, leaves a lot to be desired. It's like the race organizers can't figure out what to do with the runners after they get south of the Loop and so they just run us in loops! Also, they need to figure out how to prevent the mob scene cluster of people trying to get to/from the corrals. If this happens next time, and it turns into a shoving match, things could get ugly. Anyway, the majority of the race was awesome, so I'm looking forward to next year's edition and another PR (hopefully)!


  1. Great recap and congrats on the PR!! I'm glad you had a good experience.

    I ran this one a few years ago, the year it grew from 3000 to 30000 runners. It was a DISASTER. The 15k runners were lined up with the 5k runners and walkers. I had a terrible time weaving around everyone. That year they had us run on the south lakefront path, which was under construction. It is also, as you know, quite narrow in spots and people were running in the grass trying to get around walkers and slow runners. Lots of rolled ankles. And when I got to the finish line, no chocolate left, as the 5k runners got it all. I know they've made changes to the race but I'll never run it again. And stories like putting a fast runner like you in corral C (seriously!) and those crazy hairpin turns just reinforce why I stay away from these novelty races!

    1. Thanks! Yes, I'm lucky that I avoided the early years of the race. I probably would not be running it now. I think they've gotten most of the logistics before and after the race ironed out, they just need some tweaking to the race course and getting people into the (correct) corrals without a shoving match! That would stink if there was no chocolate left! Womp, womp.

  2. Congrats on your PR! I ran this also. I had heard so many horror stories that I was worried it was going to be a nightmare,but ended up being a nice race,due to those seeded corrals. You definitely deserved to be in the A corral. I did see some people that got their corrals moved up,and you could tell they shouldn't have. Wonder what kind of story they told.

    1. Thanks! Glad to hear you thought it was a nice race. The woman I met at the corral change booth refused to even listen to an excuse or look at her computer when I talked to her. Maybe if I had gone Thursday to the expo instead of Saturday things might have been more open.

  3. Holy negative split! Way to go!

  4. Smokin' fast, Pete! Congrats on a nice PR! I've never run this race because of all the bad it received years ago. Not sure I'd haul all the way down there for 15k but your el cheapo parking garage sounds kind of appealing...

    1. Thanks Marcia! It is kind of an event where lots and lots of non-runners participate for the chocolate. Yes the cheapo parking is a big plus! :)

  5. Sounds like RAM is figuring out how to do this race right! Maybe I'll actually consider it next year, haha. Congrats on the PR! Great idea on the Schnapps! (Or Rumple Minze ... )

    1. RAM's "performace" is now hitting about 80% in my book. Hopefully, they will keep on an upward trajectory next year. Yes, please run next year I'll bring the Rumple Minze! :)

  6. Woo hoo! Congrats on your PR! How is your Achilles now? Still good? :)

    The medal is SO cool! I love it! And is this the first year with the blue line for the marathon? I know they've done it for a long time at NYC, but this is the first year I heard about it at Chicago (and only read part of that thread).

    At the MKE Marathon, I passed someone playing music like that and it didn't bother me. But in a race like this? Come. ON!!!!!

    1. Thanks! Achilles is still good, thanks. I had switched to new shoes and kept running at normal speed in them and that's how the injury happened. I need to figure out how to slowly break in new shoes. Anyway, I think it was the first year for the "blue line" in the Chicago Marathon. I only found out about it after the race, but someone told me that when they saw me during Chicago, that I was running right on top of it! Yeah, a marathon with music is one thing since there is so much other stuff going on, but with a quiet race like this (hardly any spectators) it ticked me off. :)

    2. Dang! That is from breaking in a new pair of shoes of a style you already wear?! That stinks it's so hard for you to break them in! Do you rotate through multiple pairs throughout the week or stick to one pair at a time?

    3. I was so paranoid of injury during my CM '14 training that for the 14 weeks prior, I never switched shoes. I wore the same pair everyday and for the race. Then once the race was over, I figured I better try a new pair (same style) and was fine for a week, but kept the pace speedy as usual. After a week my Achilles go quite sore and both of my feet went numb. Maybe the old pair's sole had been worn down and had a wear pattern that my legs got too used to. Anyway, after that I took about 10 days off and did calf raises and balance exercises to strengthen my ankles up until the race. I need to be better in the future about rotating in new pairs of shoes so it won't be too much of a shock.

  7. Way to go with the PR! I wrote off Hot Chocolate after the 2012 fiasco. Haven't had a desire to deal with the crowds or the cold since. Ok that's not true. I'll deal with it for stuff like the NYC marathon haha.

    1. Ha! Yes, the longer the distance, the more hassle I'm willing to tolerate pre-race. That would especially be true for NYCM - my favorite race! :)

  8. YAY!!! Congrats on your PR, Pete! How is your Achilles now? This race sounds so much better than past years. I actually might want to run it.

    1. Thanks Sara! Achilles is better, still some slight pain, but not bad. Thinking about doing easy training for the rest of the year and then ramp up in Jan/Feb. Anyway, you should run it. It is quite the "happening thing". :)

  9. Yeah, no Hot Chocolate race for me. I think I ran it once and said no more. Did not care for it nor the price. I do like the medal though. :-)

    Congrats on your finish time!! I've ran in races in which I can also hear the music because some idiot is not wearing headphones. So annoying.

    When is your next race?

    1. Yes, I've heard that "no Hot Chocolate race for me" from lots of other people. I probably got luck in that I missed the "not so good" years and only see it for what it is now. Thanks! I guess I don't understand why people just can't enjoy the sounds of the race, and if they can't do that, why they can't keep their own music to themselves! Maybe I'll run the Lincolnwood TT on Sunday, but I am already registered for the Schaumburg Half. How about your next race?

  10. Awesome job!! Congrats on that PR. Man, you are fast! :)