(I’m going to start this like any other race report…but fear not, I’ll get to my ‘suggestions’ section later on. It’s probably better to just sit back, and let it all unfold – rather than going straight into rant mode.)
Friday afternoon after I had finished up work my wife and I, along with a friend of ours made the short couple mile trek over to National Harbor. For me, this location is actually downright awesome from a convenience standpoint. On any given normal day, I can make this trek in about 7 minute by car, 8-9 minutes if I get the stoplight wrong. Just keep that in mind for later.
On Friday, we completed the journey in about that amount of time – arriving at the massive tents where packet pickup was being held.
Inside the tents they had a very quick and well thought through process – not at all unlike visiting Ikea where you’re somewhat herded along step-by-step by partitions to ensure you hit all the required areas…including merchandise.
First up is picking up your bib:
From there, you swing on down to pickup your included race jacket. While there have been complaints about the cheapness of the jacket (and that’s true), I can’t say I expected much more. I was lucky however in that I got the correct jacket. Apparently they were short on DC jackets, and mixed in some Chicago jackets to give it a more unique flavor.
Now, the sign above jacket pickup said ‘Goodie Bag Pick Up’, but in reality – the only thing in my goodie bag was a $1 off coupon for the grocery store when buying a big bag of smaller Ghirardelli Chocolates. So really, it was just the jacket. Oh, and a sheet of paper with some general timeline information and local stores that offered (non-existent) discounts. At this juncture, I should point out (again) there was no chocolate. For a race that’s all about chocolate, I’d think just a tiny little square of chocolate might have been kinda nice. And it turns out – there was…it’s just that they had already run out. No chocolate for me. We compensated by eating a massive fudge brownie later on. I win.
After picking up our packets, we wandered through the maze of merchandise from a local retailer.
The setup was actually well thought through from a retailers standpoint, and the prices for the branded Hot Chocolate items were surprisingly reasonable (far better than WTC Ironman prices). So I can’t complain here. $20 for a hoodie is a pretty good deal.
The last item was picking up the parking pass. In order to buy the $10 parking pass you had to prove you were going to have two folks in the car (supposedly checked the next morning). For us, we’d end up carpooling five folks in total – so no problems there. With everything set, we headed on out – ready to return about 15 hours later for the race.
The Morning Of:
The packet pickup sheet had warned us that due to potential road closures, they recommended that you arrive by around 6:30AM (for an 8AM 15K race). Given we’re only about 7 minutes away, we ended up leaving at 6:15AM – allowing us plenty of time to relax in the (warm) car. After all, the temperature was between 32*F and 34*F – and we’d have 90 minutes to burn.
After jumping on the highway for the couple mile jaunt over the Potomac river, we near immediately found this:
It’s understandable to see occasional traffic on the highway. However, 6:15AM on a Saturday is not one of those times. Further, this is on I-95, arguably the US’s most important thoroughfare up and down the East Coast. And – it’s on a section just completely done – one that can now easily handle without traffic everything rush hour can throw at it (quarter of a million cars a day). Yet, this is the result:
Yes, somehow – the race parking situation had managed to completely shut down Interstate 95 Northbound – functionally stopping all traffic attempting to cross over the bridge from Virginia to Maryland and beyond.
We moved at sub-walking speeds. So slow in fact, that a number of folks that were likely being dropped off – just got out of their cars and walked across the bridge (again, on a freeway where normally cars go 70MPH):
All in, we spent over an hour getting to the race site. I could have run faster from my house to the race site…and probably even speed walked faster than driving.
Upon arriving, we were pretty close to our expected race start time, so we got a movin’! It turns out, the race start is actually a mile from National Harbor. I’m sure it noted this online, however noting it in the packet pickup materials might have been useful. Nonetheless, we got a nice warm-up run in.
Once we got there, we found the 5K race still hadn’t started yet. It should have already begun and been well on its way. The race organizers had decided to wait – due to the logistical traffic nightmare that kept the majority of the field from reaching the race site.
To make a longer story short, both races (the 5K and our race, the 15K) were delayed about an hour. Though, no information about the exact time of the delay was given, it was minute by minute. Thus all of us were standing out there in the freezing (literally) conditions, with running attire ready to race (our warm stuff back in our car). There were many very cold minutes standing around. But, we used that time to take pictures of ourselves. Here, for example – is my group…I know…the tough life – hanging out with
five four lovely ladies:
Eventually, the race did start though. The Girl and I were running it together, at just an easy conversational pace. We were mostly there for the chocolate, not to set any time goals.
The course itself was far from beautiful. The first five miles were on a highway of sorts, with a traffic situation that virtually everyone agrees was dangerous – and the roadway far too small to support it (something even the race company admitted after the fact). Note the moving traffic to our right. Also note that there are runners crammed in going both directions.
The turnarounds were just too sharp to support the 20,000 racers involved. You simply can’t make a 180* turn around a traffic cone given how packed the crowds still were. If you were 20 miles into a marathon – sure, but not in some cases 300 yards into the race. Just not functional.
Eventually we worked our way back to the National Harbor area, which was fine – relatively touristy, nice (I’m going to temporarily stay out of the debate on the value of National Harbor as a whole).
(Yes, while the path above looks great and clear for me towards the front, it became a nightmare for the 20K behind us…)
We even got to run with a handful of Team-Z folks, and I also gave a few shout-outs to DC Tri folks as I saw them. I think most everyone was just out to have a good time, and not really worry about PR’s. From a course design standpoint, you’d be crazy to try and PR, given the significant hills. It’d be extremely difficult unless your previous PR was significantly slower than your expected time.
Eventually, about 9.2 miles later, we found the finish line:
I had been using both the FR910XT and the new Soleus GPS 1.0 watch (that’s the $90 one). This was my first run with the Soleus watch…but I think they’re onto something. It’s simple, works well, accurate and easy to use. It’s got autolap and some other basic features, for $90 – it works really well. Note you can’t download to a computer, but if you don’t care about that – you can’t go wrong.
We waited a few minutes for the rest of our group to come along, and spent the time cheering on runners:
After the race, there was only one thing to do. Arguably, this thing was far more important than running the race itself…as this was the chocolate part.
Included on your bib was two tags – one for Hot Chocolate (Hot Cocoa), the other for Chocolate Fondue). You can see them at the bottom of the bib:
(Btw: Small side note, while the writing of my name is appreciated, the font and size used made it unreadable for anything more than 12 inches away – let alone someone bouncing while running at speed.)
So we headed up the hill (quite a ways actually) to the place of chocolate. Here’s the view from the hill, looking across the parking lot to the finish area…all those people are walking toward chocolate.
This is where the goods were. Inside you picked up your tray of things to dip (and you could ask for more pieces…which we did):
Then after that you got to the chocolate delivery folks:
And, I’ll give them credit – the chocolate was pretty darned good!
From the point of the race completion – there wasn’t anything significant to complain about (other than the 1 mile walk back to the car). The chocolate pieces and the little festival area was well done, and there was a ton of port-a-potties. All good there!
There’s been a TON already written about the race. Obviously, when you have 20,000 people as mad about an event like that, you’re going to get a lot written – and in some pretty big places too. There’s also many issues I didn’t cover, since they just didn’t impact me. But, I’ll just add a few final bulletized thoughts:
1) Many people have said that having a race of 20,000 people at National Harbor was the problem (Side note: National Harbor has essentially no public transportation to it, hence parking and/or shuttles was the only option). And while I agree with that in theory, it’s actually the execution that was the problem. Take for example, the Maryland Polar Bear Plunge – an event held 2 months from now about 30 minutes away in a much worse location as far as crowds go. Yet, through significant planning and taking a ‘everyone takes a shuttle’ approach, it works out great for a roughly equal number of people. The same could easily have solved the problem here. Or, they could just go into the district and have Metro open up early. 20,000 people is no different than the Army 10-Miler. The event noted some sort of accident causing the delay, but nobody seems to find any evidence of such accident. Even without that, any local would have told you that you can’t get that many people into that venue in that amount of time without going to 100% shuttles.
2) The course left lots to be desired, primarily from a safety standpoint. I suspect that the race organizers were effectively fighting with the state and local authorities over roadway use. Had they fully taken that one side of the highway (and forced traffic to split the other side with cones) – it would have been perfect. But, compromises likely had to be made, and ultimately in my mind, those were compromises that shouldn’t have been made. In fact, I see the general trend here is that the race had to make many compromises with local officials and business parties (i.e. National Harbor). Somewhat of a death by a thousand cuts.
3) National Harbor is well known for trying to woo out of town conventions/events, and in this case – they did so well (after all, that’s pretty much the entire purpose of National Harbor – local don’t really go there). However, what they failed to do is properly plan the event layout. See, the goal of National Harbor would have been to attract people to shop/eat there before/after the event (spend money). But with the event start/finish over a mile away – that completely killed that idea. By time you finished at the chocolate festival and walked a mile back in the cold, nobody cared to sit at National Harbor. Had the start/finish area been in the giant parking lots where we…parked…then it would have probably been a great start/finish area. The parking lots where the event ended could have then been used for parking. One giant switcheroo!
4) Looking at the start delay situation – I can’t say I disagree with how they handled it. Given that crap had already done downhill, the best solution at that point was indeed (in my opinion) to delay the start. I think people on the whole would be more ticked off outright missing it, than being cold. But, opinions differ. I could have hedged my bets better on clothing, many did. It’s just a part of cold weather racing.
5) Finally, there’s been some discussion around this being an example of why the planned Ironman 70.3 race for next August (2012) at National Harbor won’t work. I don’t agree with that. First, on the swim – National Harbor has actually been awesome with local triathlon groups this past summer on allowing weekly organized swims. Something that no other location with the DC area has done. Period. Secondly, 2-3K racers for a race such as a 70.3 is a breeze compared to 20,000 racers. In fact, there’s a 4,000 runner half-marathon that’s been running there. Third, with a 56 mile bike ride, you’re only going to see National Harbor for the first and last mile – the rest is out to suburban Maryland. The run will be hilly, but there are TONS of great running options in the area, none of which require anything more than a simple bike path to execute an M-Dot 70.3 run (I’ve raced plenty of Ironman 70.3’s that had runs on bike paths, looped ones no less).
Finally, I thought it would be worthwhile to post the e-mail that was sent out to all runners Sunday night. I think the response is well done, frank, and takes responsibility. There are certainly areas I could disagree with – but overall, I can’t ask for much more on the honesty front – sometimes it’s better to just accept and move on. Here’s the apology, direct copy and paste:
“In trying to formulate what to say in regards to yesterday’s events, I realized that what I said over and over to the folks I helped get on returning shuttle buses was exactly what should be said to all. While it became repetitive, it was no less from the heart in any one time from the other:
I am the owner of RAM Racing. Please allow me to tell you how deeply sorry I am for the way yesterday’s race went. I am terribly sorry that the race did not go off anywhere close to as planned, and I feel terrible that your day and experience was not a good one because of that.
We have been putting on races for 10 years now, producing over 100 races. In fact just a month ago we put on the Hot Chocolate race for 40,000 people in Chicago without a hitch.
With that being said, yesterday was a nightmare for us, to say the least. Whether it was auto accidents on the highway causing insane traffic or a terrible choice of venues that couldn’t support this race, there are no excuses, in the end, I am responsible. Again, I am terribly sorry.
I want to share just a portion of the manner and the extent to which we planned for this event and the series of incidents that ensued, in an effort to be transparent, not to offer excuses. Over the past year:
-We worked extensively with, and paid a great deal to, the county and state police to handle traffic. While that is always the case when putting on races, the efforts here, and the involvement and control required by the county and state police was significant. There is an element of trust inherent in this process.
- We were assured that the National Harbor could handle parking 5,000 cars in a short period of time
- We devised a comprehensive parking plan, again at a great expense, including additional parking lots and shuttle buses
- The course mandated by the municipality, in the end, while narrower than desired was to be handled with an equally narrow starting line. Something we have had to do many times before and that works well if executed properly, something that we have had great success with.
What went wrong:
- Two pre-race reported traffic accidents stopped all traffic on the inbound highways
- The parking company hired by the National Harbor to park cars in their lots was not even close to sufficient to handle the job, adding to the traffic issues as cars backed up on the highway waiting for access.
- This in turn left the 75 shuttle buses we hired, stranded in traffic as well, delaying the delivery of waiting runners.
- In an attempt to wait to allow the bulk of the runners to make the race start, we delayed the start. We considered starting the race after only a brief delay, but the continuous stream of late arriving runners would have crossed the course and that was an unacceptable safety concern.
-Finally, we start the race! What happened next defies belief, absolutely inconceivable!!! After planning with the police for months, the lead biker for the 5K was misdirected by a police officer at the first turn of the 5K, literally not allowing him to follow the course as planned and as approved by the local authorities!
- This action directed the 5K in the opposite direction from the way it was supposed to flow, insuring that the runners would run into themselves. Horrifying!
- Our race director quickly came up with a contingency plan, real time, on the spot, in the horror of what could have been a disaster.
-We had to open up the start line much faster than we would have liked, in order to avoid returning runners from running into outbound runners, which would not have been a problem if the lead runner was allowed to follow the planned course.
-This worked and while the 5K course was too crowded, everyone was able to run the entire course and no one was injured!
- From there it was a matter of putting out fires that all developed due to the initial course reroute, as the 15K had to flow through the same area as the 5K race near the end of the 15K course.
- To finish it all off, after the race, there was another traffic accident on the beltway delaying returning buses, as well as we believe the buss company appeared to significantly under-deliver the number of buses we contracted for. We had to find buses immediately and get all the people returning to Crystal City and Old Town on their way.
The above are not excuses, merely an explanation. We are experienced race organizers. We didn’t come close to showing you the terrific race event that should result from the tremendous talent and work ethic of our staff. DC did not get to experience the great race event RAM Racing is known for. I understand, and again, I am deeply apologetic. I am sorry from the bottom of my heart!
As for my staff, I have never been so proud of a group of people in my life. No business, and no race organizer, should ever have to experience the unfolding events of Saturday. Yet, these talented professionals adapted on the fly, kept their cool, and never took their eye off of trying to give our racers the best experience possible under the circumstances. I am deeply in debt to you all and have the utmost respect for your efforts.
I would like to thank the vast majority of our racers who, while justifiably upset with the way the race experience unfolded, took it in stride, completed the race, enjoyed the post-race party, participated in the Expo, and persevered to get the most out of the day as possible, your example is inspiring. For those of you that have publicly or privately shared your frustration and anger, we appreciate your honesty.
What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, and we intend to learn from this experience and use it to make the next race better and hopefully more insulated from these kinds of circumstances.
When we make it back to the east coast, I would pray that you give us a second chance. We have an amazing team that puts their heart and soul into their work. They are unquestionably among the best in the business. It is terribly unfortunate that you couldn’t see that yesterday, as they are amazing!
Again, I cannot apologize enough for the way yesterday’s race went and I hope the rest of your weekend is much more enjoyable.
Keep running and racing!
Thanks for reading everyone, and have a great week! I’ve got a slew of cool review items coming this week. I sit here writing five concurrent reviews at once – yikes! Good stuff coming!