I’d heard about these hot chocolate races all around the country, but a few months ago when they announced an Austin 5K/10K race the first weekend in September, I was skeptical. Aren’t these winter events? I know winter in Central Texas is kind of a moving target, but there’s really no scenario in which September qualifies. But then I realized they planned to give out frozen chocolate. I was still not convinced this idea would turn out well, especially since even the best ice cream doesn’t hold up under triple digits, but several of my running friends persuaded me to sign up for the 10K with them. And being a sucker for a medal, I did. Even though the Zilker Relays were the night before. Even though I’d have to leave my house at the crack of dawn to drive 30-some miles out to the Circuit of the Americas Formula One track. Even though running in the scorching sun is not high on my list of things to do.
Friday night after the relay I didn’t get home until around 11pm. So I did not particularly enjoy the early alarm.
I’d been to the track once before, and I remembered the line of cars snaking down the two-lane road and and out of the complex. Thus at 6am, three-fourths of Friday night’s relay team, sleepy to the point of unfinished sentences and prolonged yawns, climbed into my car and headed out.
We missed the exit the first time, but made it in reasonably easily. There was plenty of parking, so with that out of the way, my next task was to exchange my race shirt. Again, I’d ordered what I thought was an appropriate size, but like Zilker, they’d used tiny-people sizing. My companions left their stuff at gear check, but since the whole enterprise appeared to be in the parking lot itself (we could hear motorcycles racing around the track inside the gates), I just dropped mine off in the car as we made our way to the starting area. Which was not actually inside the racetrack like we had been led to believe. In hindsight, I can tell you this was a huge red flag.
The 5K was set to start about half an hour before the 10K, which sounded illogical to me since we had twice as far to go. And then they announced a delay. The 5Kers finally took off about ten minutes later than scheduled, and once they were gone we milled around the starting area for a while. We’d met up with some other Rogue friends–some of us were assigned Corral C and others Corral D. Considering the small crowd, corrals seemed wholly unnecessary (and only served to delay us further, the temperature climbing each minute we waited) but we reorganized ourselves based on corral assignments–R joined us while her friends moved up to Corral C, so we became a quartet again.
At 8:20, it was finally our turn. Once we were underway, the course made a right turn out of the parking lot and followed a paved road around the outside of the track. We plodded along slowly, a stark contrast to the high-pitched whine of the motorcycles. The road was a bit hilly, but not unmanageable.
Until the first mile marker. We made a left turn, and suddenly the paved road stopped, turning into a rocky caliche track. Not gravel–rocks. We started walking, unwilling to sacrifice our ambitious fall running goals for this race that was quickly losing its luster in our eyes.
The next 1.25 miles, we hobbled along this unpaved disaster. How had we gone from “Enjoy the sights and sounds of an incredible course through CoTA” to rocky unpaved trail on the road to nowhere while (an ever-increasing distance away) the track itself held motorcycle time trials sans spectators? Not exactly what we were expecting from the race description.
Finally about 2.25 miles into it, the dirt road spit us back out onto asphalt. The sun blazed overhead as we plodded along an out-and-back segment on the asphalt road. Much cursing ensued. Around 3.5 miles, we turned left, climbed a hill, and encountered yet another rocky road, and not the chocolate kind either. It looped around what appeared to be additional F1 parking for the folks who didn’t spring for the closer (paved) lots, and the far reaches of it backed up to residential back yards, complete with trailer homes and barking dogs. More cursing. At one point, we behaved like people stranded on a desert island, visualizing what beverage we’d make later. Liquor played a prominent role in our oasis fantasies.
The description implied the course ran inside the facility in the middle of glitz and glitter of F1. The reality was that the first half of the race took place on what can only be described as the west-side road leading to the Back 40 and then the Back 40 itself, while the second half we ran outside eight-foot fences surrounding the far eastern side of the property. At no point did we run “an incredible course through CoTA.”
The website also promised “Cooling Stations and decadent Chocolate Stations.” There were two misters along the 10K course, and the water/Gatorade stop volunteers were fantastic. But chocolate stations, plural? Not a one.
It’s funny how each of us took turns, alternating between loud bitching and quiet encouragement. For much of the middle part of the race, my vocabulary consisted of pretty much just one word. S played optimist, getting us to run to the next light pole, the next water stop, whatever. She pointed out a patch of sunflowers while P and I scowled. But then when P struggled up a hill because of her ankle, I cheered her on. Other times, she did the same for me. We were pissed off, hot, and miserable, but we still looked out for each other. I can’t imagine how hellish this experience would have been without my friends.
Finally we escaped the unpaved road … just in time for more hills. After picking our way along an unstable surface for half the race, and with the sun beating down on us, we moved slowly. At one point it felt like we were walking in place. But eventually, finally, mercifully we reached the top, and the end was in sight. We passed a few people as we ran down one last hill, then across the finish line. S and R finished together, and P and I crossed the line a minute or so later.
After we slogged through what R called an “unfun” race, did the frozen hot chocolate hit the spot? Well, I think on an ordinary day, I would have enjoyed it. But I was hot and pissed off and there was nowhere to sit (and virtually no shade) so I kept getting chocolate on myself and they didn’t give out napkins.
The medal was nice, but not the one they originally advertised either–it was supposed to have a Longhorn symbol on the front, but I heard they got busted by the UT copyright department.
This was my slowest 10K by nearly 30 minutes. I can live with that, especially since I raced five miles the night before and I’ve been dealing with an injury. But even someone who wasn’t there can guess that a personal worst by that much time probably means some other factors played a role. And since the results page shows about 50 people finished after us, clearly we weren’t the only ones struggling this day.
What made it so awful? Half the course was rocky unpaved road that made it dangerous for some people to run. I saw one woman trip and fall on the uneven surface. And it was hot. There’s a reason Austin hosts its distance races in January and February. Anyone putting on a 10K in September should start it before 8:20am. And even the promise of frozen chocolate couldn’t combat the heat and the ridiculous course. A race with a $60 entry fee shouldn’t surprise runners with three miles of off-road running and shouldn’t mislead participants about what to expect on the course–everyone I talked to had thought this was a road race in and on the track itself, not through the parking lots and on unpaved rocky trails outside the facility’s fences.
It turns out, I was right to be skeptical and I won’t be doing this one again. Ever.