Runners upset over ‘disastrous’ Hot Chocolate 15/5K

Race participants were still in a mass about halfway through the first mile. (Courtesy Lorna Vargas Vivoni)

Amy Hunter, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Thousands of vehicles sat in a near standstill in Oxon Hill, Md. Saturday as the sun rose over Washington — most of the drivers were confused.

Traffic on the local lanes of the Capital Beltway backed up for hours.

The problem was the Hot Chocolate 15/5K race.

And bad traffic wasn’t its only problem.

It was a “disaster,” “the worst experience ever,” “absolutely ridiculous” and an “epic failure,” say participants.

Many of the 22,000 runners who participated in the event are united in demanding refunds for a race they say was impossible to get to, impossible to park at, poorly staffed, poorly organized and dangerous. But what fuels their anger the most, says Kevin Quinn, a participant, is the lack of accountability shown by the company in charge.

“It was the absolute worst race I have ever run and I requested my money back,” Quinn says. “I can overlook little problems here and there, but this was unforgivable.”

The fallout from the race has been extreme, and has rallied the local running community together in a concerted uproar against RAM Racing, the company responsible for the event.

David Wallach, chief marketing director for RAM Racing, agrees that mistakes were made during the race and says the company takes full responsibility. The company issued an apology on its Facebook page after the event and says that it is committed to making the necessary improvements to ensure next year’s race goes off smoothly.

Race officials had cordoned off two lanes of Md. 210 as part of the race route on Saturday. But at 9:30 a.m., shortly after the race began an hour late, the 22,000 runners took over the third lane of the highway, shutting it down completely along with both of its Beltway exit ramps.

Those living on either side of 210 were forced to travel south of Palmer Avenue to cross the highway, which caused gridlock for hours on neighboring roads, including Oxon Hill, Allentown and Livingston Roads, said Meg O’Rourke, a WTOP traffic reporter who was in the WTOP Traffic Center Saturday morning.

At the race start, the 5K runners were misdirected and told to run the opposite direction of the planned route. Because of that mishap, the mass of runners beginning the race collided with those participants who arrived late due to traffic and were walking toward the starting point, says Nisha Paige, who volunteered in an event booth.

“There was broken glass on the ground, gravel — it wasn’t safe,” Paige said. “Part of the race was on the highway so there were people running in exhaust fumes, and there weren’t enough volunteers for the water so runners had to stop to pour their own water.”

Because of the route mistake early on, officials were forced to re-route portions of the race while it was being run, which led to more confusion, Paige says.

After the race, supplies were short and many participants did not get the refreshments they had bought with their $45 or $65 entry fees.

And finally, many runners had to wait hours after the race for a shuttle bus to take them back to their cars.

Quinn, who ran the 15K, says he thinks many factors were at play, but namely, “I think they just booked too many people.”

“I was able to overlook almost all of this, but the very last thing was the over two-hour wait after I ran to get the shuttle back to the Crystal City parking lot.”

During the race, a Facebook page was created, “Epic Fail – Hot Chocolate 5K/15K,” which has since been inundated with horror stories.

In the days since, Paige says “I survived” T-shirts were made, a petition demanding refunds has been signed by more than 700 participants, the Better Business Bureau has been contacted about RAM Racing, Yelp reviews have been written and countless emails have been sent to the company demanding responses.

Additionally, Ghirardelli Chocolate, a race sponsor, has issued a statement saying it is disappointed with “not only what happened, but how RAM Racing has handled the situation thus far.”

The statement goes on to say the company is evaluating its future involvement with RAM.

Steve Ginsburg, president of RAM, says in his apology letter that the traffic pileup on Saturday morning was due to several unrelated traffic accidents. He says the backward-run race was due to a police officer who directed the lead biker incorrectly, and says the parking problems were due to an “insufficient” parking company.

Many runners have expressed anger at the content of the apology letter, saying it points fingers instead of taking responsibility.

Quinn, who wrote the company to request a refund, got the apology letter as his response.

“I agree this apology was a nice first step, but for something this bad, where you put people in danger, you really ought to give them their money back,” he says. “There are companies that know how to handle a disaster, and I don’t think this company has done that.”

Wallach, with RAM Racing, tells WTOP he is deeply apologetic for what went wrong and reiterated several times RAM Racing is takes full responsibility.

“I’m not going to get into a he-said, she-said with 22,000 people,” Wallach said when asked to address specific complaints.

“But what I will say is that we got everyone home safely. And at the end of the day, it’s not about the chocolate, it’s not about running your best time, it’s about people getting to the start line, getting to the event and getting home safely.”

If participants wish to express their discontent, they are welcome to do so on the company’s customer service hotline, Wallach said.

“I think most runners know that races involve a number of logistics. If you look back to the 2007 Chicago Marathon, they had to shut it down. At mile 17, they said, ‘Sorry, it’s too hot, people are dying,’ and no one was issued a refund. That is something that runners know. It’s unfortunate that we failed the D.C. running community, but with the fixed costs of this event, it doesn’t allow for a refund,” Wallach said.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)


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