03 February, 2015

A Tale of Two Races in Two Cities

Time must have gotten away from me.  I failed to do a proper recap of the Run Like a Diva Half Marathon in December, and then "marathon mania" took hold in my world.  Go figure!  Anyway, it turns out it's a good thing I waited because now I can do a comparison of two very different races in two very different cities.

Why compare the two?  Thank you for asking!

Divas is a series of races that take place in cities across the country, offering two distances (5k and half marathon), and is geared to women.  With gimmicks such as volunteers handing out tiaras and feather boas before the finish line, a rose and glass of champagne after the finish line, and shirtless "hotties" handing out sparkly pink medals, there are a lot of really fun things to get you to sign up for a race.

Hot Chocolate is also a series of races taking place in cities across the country, offering two distances (5k and 15k), and has more female participants than male.  Hot Chocolate offers a jacket instead of a standard race shirt, various treat stations on the course, and a massive hot chocolate mug at the end.  Plus it has awesome medals for the 15k.  Much like Divas, there's lots of incentive to register!

Divas Mini-Recap
I "ran like a diva" in St. Augustine the weekend after the Space Coast Half.   The race organizers required packet pickup at their expo in advance, which wasn't possible for me.  Luckily, Jackie was willing to drive up to St. Augustine and pick up my "swag bag" with hers.  She also invited me to spend the night at her place so we would just have the 45 minute drive up the morning of the race.  (in exchange, I drove up and back) 

Upon arriving at the race site (which required parking remotely and riding a school bus), I was immediately amused by just how girly one race could be.  They had pink port-a-potties for goodness sake!

Going into this, my goal was pretty much just to NOT SUCK like I did at Space Coast.  Physically and mentally I was in a much better place.  It was really cold, but I thought that would speed me up.  That's usually how I roll...  And for the first few miles, we were actually on somewhat of a PR (for me) pace.  Unfortunately, the sky got darker and the wind picked up, and instead of motivating me to go faster, I had ZERO desire to run into a ridiculous head wind.  We ended up walking most of the last 3-4 miles, though even then we kept a sub-16 pace each mile.  Our final time was 3:13:41, which was technically worse than my 3:09:11 time at Space Coast, but I still consider it a moral victory because I felt so much better during this race and actually enjoyed myself.  (seriously, after Space Coast I was worried I'd totally lost my race mojo)

Performance aside, Jackie and I were pretty underwhelmed by the race itself.  Though I didn't attend the expo, I heard that it was sparse and disappointing.  The course itself was not great.  There wasn't much fun stuff to look at, aside from some semi-deflated inflatables.  The sum total of on-course entertainment were a handful of DJs.  In fact the the most memorable moments during the race had nothing to do with the race organizers:
1. A man in a tutu loudly singing "if you're happy and you know it" at multiple points on the course.  I have no idea whether he was a volunteer, was out cheering for a family member or friend, or was just a wacky local, but the last time we saw him I took his picture and high-fived him.
2. A man with a box of Dunkin' Munchkins.  I said he was the sexiest thing I'd ever seen, and Jackie asked if he was single.
3. Three little girls in the driveway of a house, performing their own cheerleading routine.  They were adorable and so much fun to watch.

The course itself was mostly through nondescript roads and neighborhoods.  It certainly wasn't picturesque.  I was also furious at one intersection pretty early on when I realized that the cops were stopping runners to allow traffic through.  The race wasn't cheap, and part of the cost of a road race is road closures.  Not actually closing the roads?  Kind of an unforgivable sin.

That said, give this girl a feather boa and a tiara, and she just might jump for joy! (special thanks to Jackie for catching the amazeballs photo on the left)  From the finish line on, I was quite impressed.  Medal? Pink and shiny!  Champagne?  Bubbly! Rose? Red...and it lasted a week!  Food?  Plentiful!  Seriously - you walked through this pavilion, and there were cases upon cases of all sorts of individual snack packs of pretzels, dried fruit, cookies... And Jackie is a pro at stocking up on enough for both of us when I stop thinking clearly!  I know I've said it before, but this girl is a rock star, and my favorite person to spend 13.1 miles with!

So although I got some great photos at the end of Divas, and although 2015 race registration also includes a tutu, I doubt I'll run it again.  The lackluster race itself just doesn't live up to the fun gimmicks.

Hot Chocolate 15K Mini-Recap
Sarah and Carlie and I decided to take a whirlwind trip up to Atlanta to run the Hot Chocolate 15k, in part because one of my co-workers ran the one in Phoenix and said lots of great things about it.    This was definitely an "all about the bling" race for me.  A medal shaped like a chocolate bar? Yes please! 

Atlanta is about 6.5 hours from home, so we left bright and early and made it up to the expo in plenty of time to pick up our swag bags and take some ridiculous selfies.  We also had to walk the entire length of the convention center, surrounded by thousands of cheerleaders (and cheer moms) participating in "cheersport" championships.  Oh the curlers...and eye glitter... 

The expo was small, but incredibly well-organized.  Unlike every other race I've ever run, bib numbers weren't pre-assigned.  You walked up to any volunteer table, handed them your photo ID, and they printed out a sticker to attach to the next bib on their pile.  The computer linked the bib number to your name, and voila!  Somehow this one tiny thing made a huge impression on me, and I wondered why all of the other mega-races (I'm looking at you, Disney and Space Coast!) don't adopt a similar strategy.

There were also chocolate samples.  After being in the car for so long, that was a wonderful touch!  After the expo, we got to our hotel 20 minutes south of downtown, checked in, and walked over to IHOP for dinner.  I think we were all asleep by 9pm - I know I was!

Race day was cold - like hovering around 40 degrees cold - which meant wearing 2 pairs of pants and 3 shirts for this Florida girl!  I paid for a parking spot at Turner Field, which turned out to be my best investment of the race.  We got there super-early (the pre-race emails all said to be there by 6, though the first wave didn't start until after 7) and sat in the car 10 spots from a row of port-a-potties, enjoying the heater and listening to the entire Book of Mormon soundtrack.  We went down to the starting area, realized our corral wouldn't even be lining up until long after the first wave set off, and went back to the car to enjoy some more heat and sing along to more showtunes.

I could say this a dozen more times, but I think the race start would be the best place to mention it: the people who run this race have it down to a science.  Volunteers manned the entrance to each corral checking letters on the bibs.  Waves started on time.  We weren't tripping over other runners in the first mile (a major rarity in a race this big).  Aid stations were well-staffed - err, well-volunteered - and well-stocked, with the exception of the missing Tootsie Rolls.

Missing Tootsie Rolls aside, I got such a kick out of the treats handed out during the race.  We had chocolate drops, strawberry marshmallows, and then chocolate marshmallows around mile 8. 

Sarah took the lack of Tootsie Rolls pretty hard, so when we passed the last marshmallow volunteers and rounded a corner to see an unattended table piles with bags of the treats, she sprinted toward it.  I thought for sure she was going to grab a bag and stuff it down her jacket, but instead she tore it open and started handing them out to other runners until Carlie and I caught up.  That look on her face... Oh man, it was one of the highlights of my race!  Plus, I ended up having had a total of 4 chocolate marshmallows.  Who needs GU when you can have pure sugar??

The after party, though kind of deserted by the time we finished, was also really well-run.  Pick a line, wait in the line, hand them the ticket off of your bib, and get handed the most epic post-race food ever: a giant mug containing hot chocolate, chocolate fondue, a banana, and a bunch of other treats to dip in the chocolate.  We sat on the pavement enjoying the fruits of our labor, and then hobbled back to the car, drove to the hotel, showered, and left for the long drive back to Florida.

Umm... I seem to have forgotten to mention the actual race.  See?  Give me chocolate and everything else is immaterial!  Atlanta, as it turns out, is a helluva hilly city.  I became aware pretty quickly that the hills were going to be a challenge.  They didn't disappoint!  They didn't break my spirit, but I knew there wouldn't be a PR coming from this race.  The course went through some suburban neighborhoods, through part of downtown (past the CNN Center and we saw the aquarium from a distance), and there was plenty to look at.  Also, I have to give kudos to the Atlanta police doing traffic control.  They were at every single intersection, and were friendlier than most police you encounter during races.  In fact, Sarah asked one for a high-five and he said he gives hugs too.  So we both got a hug from a random cop...and I think I heard some people behind us getting in on that action too!

The only negative for me was the race photos.  They advertise free photos, but the only photographers were at or near the finish line.  Even that wouldn't have been so bad, but my photos were are partly obscured.  But, you know, I try to not complain about anything free...especially when the rest of the race swag (did I mention the jacket? it's awesome!) was so great.

I certainly wouldn't drive 13-14 hours in two days for another 15k.  That was a stupid amount of travel for a race.  I would, however, do this race again in a heartbeat - either in Atlanta or another city - if I could piggyback it into a short vacation.  You know, throw in a day at the aquarium in Atlanta, or family visit in Philly, or a full vacation somewhere I've never been like Phoenix or San Francisco...  It sure was an awful lot of fun, especially with friends!