By Mollie Zapata
December 3, 2011
National Harbor, MD
For the Washington Running Report

This event certainly had some problems. WRR plans to follow up on these in our upcoming Jan/Feb issue.

More than 15,000 runners competed in the Inaugural Hot Chocolate 15K and 5K at National Harbor just across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Washington, DC on Saturday, December 3. The Hot Chocolate race series, tagged as “America’s sweetest race” already exists in five major U.S. cities and made a chocolate splash at its 2011 DC debut. Runners’ packets include racing jackets. The post-race party promised Ghirardelli hot chocolate and a chocolate fondue fountain for all competitors in both the 15K and 5K races.

But before the chocolate party could commence, the runners had to complete the beautiful course, located along the Potomac River at the National Harbor.

First place out of 10,150 total finishers in the 15K went to top local Stefan Kolata, 30, of Washington, DC who led for most of the race and finished in 49:25.

“The course was good, very hilly, but it was nice having so many people cheering,” commented Kolata on the switch-back format of the route. Dustin Whitlow, 25, of Arlington, VA took second place in 51:24, and Mark Torres, 36, of Chevy Chase, MD finished third in 5:38.

Lisa Thomas, 35, of Alexandria, VA handily won the women’s division of the 15K race in 54:50 and it was also fast enough to place her 10th overall.

“It was tough, that’s a killer hill at the end,” said Thomas who is training for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials in Houston, TX this January. She described her race strategy as, “staying strong on the up hills and pushing it on the down hills.” Behind her, Felicity Brower, 22, of Cincinnati, OH took second in 57:21, and Barb Fallen-Wallace, 38, rounded out the top three in 57:36.

The only downside of the day was due to a combination of bad luck and race logistics. A traffic accident blocked the main route to the start, causing race organizers to delay both the 15K and 5K start times. Due to limited parking, race organizers provided a shuttle service from Crystal City Metro Station and required carpools for anyone parking at the National Harbor.

The 5K, which was scheduled to start at 7:30 a.m. went off at 8:15 a.m., which caused the scheduled 8:00 a.m. start for the 15K to be pushed to 9:00 a.m. Runners huddled and shivered and jumped and jiggled to stay warm as they waited for the gun on a brisk December morning. Despite the logistical setbacks, spirits remained high among many participants and an enthusiastic DJ kept the crowd excited.

In the 5K, 5,293 runners and walkers completed the course. Bert Rodriguez, 32, of Arlington, VA won the men’s’ race in 16:54, and Kelly Swain, 26, of Washington, DC won the women’s competition in 18:46. Both noted problems with course markings. “I didn’t feel really warmed up until a mile and a half in,” commented Swain. “I wasn’t quite ready to race a 15K, but maybe next year if they get the logistics figured out I’d do it.”

While there were a portion of runners disgruntled at the delayed start, one runner noted, “You had to look on Facebook, they actually did notify us of all the important information.”

Though 15K (9.3 miles) is not a common race distance, runners embraced it as a comfortable mid-way between 10K and Half-Marathon. Both races started on a downhill and ended with an uphill, adding an extra challenge to the event. “It’s probably the hilliest race in the area,” noted Swain.

“Once we got started, the course was beautiful and it was actually perfect running weather,” commented DC runner Cristina Burbach who competed in the 15K. “I wanted to get a good training run in,” she said.

Her sentiments were echoed by many of the runners, most who came with the goal of running a fun and pretty race. The entire morning was festive, with competitors running in costumes that ranged from cups of hot chocolate to Santa hats – “Why not? It’s fun and functional for the cold!” said 15K runner Patrick Kelly of Washington, DC.

One team of four particularly enthusiastic high school runners from the Osborne Park Cross Country Team ran the race in matching decorated T-shirts to celebrate the end of their racing season. “We loved it. It was a really fun time and people loved our outfits!” said Rachel Labella.

And, of course, the post-race party provided a well-deserved sugar high for all. Runners meandered around tents, enjoying fondue platters, and sipping hot chocolates. Most agreed that it was worth the effort, “It was the first year, so next year the logistics should be better. I’d definitely do it again,” concluded Burbach.


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