Race Review: Hot Chocolate 15k/5k (Chicago)

Race Review: Hot Chocolate 15k/5k (Chicago)

I ran the Hot Chocolate 15k in Chicago last Sunday. It was awesome! There was also a 5k and between both events there were over 32,000 finishers making it one of Chicago’s biggest races. Sponsored by Allstate, Hot Chocolate has become one of those kind of iconic races that everyone does. With Shamrock Shuffle which opens the Chicago race season in March, it serves as as a bookend to the season in November.

Hot Chocolate Chicago is part of the bigger Allstate Hot Chocolate 15k/5k brand that is billed as “America’s Sweetest Race.” It involves 24 races across the U.S.

This was my first year running the Chicago event (I have not done any of the others) and I will certainly be back. Aside from some logistical issues getting into our B corral it was a well run event. The congestion getting to the corral from bag check honestly could have been avoided if we had gotten there earlier. It was a 7am start though, and with temps hovering around freezing, we just didn’t want to be waiting around longer that we had to, nor did we want to get up any earlier. Our bad.

The start and finish were on Columbus Drive similar to Shamrock Shuffle and the Marathon. The course then made a left staying on Lower Wacker until the 1 mile mark when we surfaced at Garvey Street. It wound around Lake, Clark and Van Buren and onto Michigan Avenue heading south. The 5k runners split off making the left on Roosevelt heading to the finish back on Columbus. 15k runners stayed straight basically picking up the blue line and following the Marathon course in the opposite direction until 31st Street where it stayed straight to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and south to 35th Street.

It should be noted that in addition to water and Nuun, aid stations along the course also had chocolate. I passed on it in an effort to stay on pace, also knowing there was more of that – much more – expected at the finish. Some additional perks included a quality race-branded zip-up hoodie and free race photos.

Free race photos are great! I wish more races did it. This particular photo was a real keeper. I’m sure there will be never-ending creative captions for this one. Bring them on!

The course highlight for me was going over Lake Shore Drive via the bridge at W. 35th Street to the Lakefront Trail – first for me. From here the course was mostly Lakefront Trail. We stayed on the lake side of McCormick Place (I hate the service road/tunnel!), did a fly-by of Soldier Field and passed back under Lake Shore Drive at mile 9, just past the Museum Campus, heading back to the finish on Columbus. The 15k course might be the best mix of city streets and lakefront of any of the Chicago races I’ve done.



The real fun began at the finish line. There were finishers medals for both the 5k and 15k, with the 15k’s being a large replica of a chocolate bar. The post race party included, of course, hot chocolate, as well as some chocolate fondu and an assortment of fruit, pretzels and marshmallows for dipping. It was delicious! I really have to applaud the organizers for not going cheap here. The hot chocolate was really rich, not the watered down kind often served at events.

Yum! Photo Credit @flglchicago

The Allstate Hot Chocolate 15k/5k is organized by RAM Racing and the Chicago race was included as one of their “Run this Town” series events. In addition to our finishers medal for the day, we also received another medal for completing four races in the series. The other races we did for that achievement included Cinco de Miler (early May), Soldier Field 10 (Memorial Day weekend), and the Bucktown 5k (October).

The final race in the “Run this Town” series is the North Shore Turkey Trot. We’ll be doing that one too (no additional medal for being an overachiever) and then our 2019 racing season in Chicago really comes to a close.

Do mark your calendar for next year’s Hot Chocolate – November 8, 2020. Registration is open now! Click here. You can also feel good about supporting charity partner, Make-A-Wish.

Post-race party with Giant Marshmallow Man. Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois. November 2019.
How Halloween fuels an endurance athlete

How Halloween fuels an endurance athlete

November 1st already. And it feels like winter here in Northeast Illinois. Trick or treating in these parts has been postponed due to the three inches of snow that fell yesterday. So, I guess it’s okay to still write about Halloween.

Having grown up Catholic, the first of November was always a holy day (All Saints Day) and a day off for us Catholic School kids. That meant the opportunity to stay up late sorting and counting our candy haul. For years it was a tradition to sleep over my friend Tracy’s. She lived in the best neighborhood for trick or treating – lots of generous home owners, lots of kids, and streets with only a little traffic.

We grew up in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey – a wealthy suburb of New York City. It’s more recently been the home to The Real Housewives of New Jersey (for the record they are nothing like the people we knew there). It also had one acre zoning. Tracy and I both became endurance athletes, perhaps as a result of being able to navigate that whole neighborhood in just a few hours 40-some years ago!

I didn’t realize what a feat that was until my daughter started trick or treating. We lived in Paramus at the time. The entire neighborhood was quarter acre lots. Theoretically these kids were hitting four houses in the time it took us to hit one! And today’s kids are spoiled! Parents now follow the kids around the neighborhood with a wagon or maybe even the family SUV or minivan stocked to rival an aid station on a marathon course.

Back in the day we just sustained ourselves by eating some candy. I never remember having water. We must have been pretty dehydrated by the end of the night. Thankfully it was cold enough most years that I never remember working up much of a sweat. The one thing I never remember having to contend with was snow.

When my daughter and her friends were finally able to go trick or treating without parental supervision, Halloween (or rather trick or treating) was cancelled two years in a row! The first time for an unusual late-October snow, the second because of Hurricane Sandy. In both cases the area was without power. Understanding, although disappointing.

All ready but no trick or treaters. Vernon Hills, Illinois.. Halloween 2019.

I was disappointed yesterday. I was looking forward to trick or treaters. I didn’t get many at my apartment last year. This year Kurt said I didn’t get enough candy for what he had seen in past years canvassing his development – townhouses, attached, doors that are very close together, efficient.

Since I was home all day yesterday with the candy and no trick or treaters…yeah, we need more candy for the kids expected tomorrow. I made sure I got my run in this morning. Four miles on the treadmill. Fueled with a few Milky Ways and perhaps a half-dozen Reese’s. Some things about Halloween never change.

Although too slippery for running, it sure was pretty. Vernon Hills, Illinois. October 2019.
Why you should embrace age-graded times

Why you should embrace age-graded times

When I turned 40 I started noticing something new on some of my race results: age-graded percents. Interesting. I further investigated and learned that this number represented a percentage of the world-best time for the distance for a specific age and gender. I further learned that using an age-grade calculator (like this one), we can also calculate our own age-graded time for any given race.

Age-graded times can help level the playing field when trying to compare ourselves to other athletes of varying ages and genders. Mostly though, I think these stats are just a better way for us to compete against ourselves as we age. While late into my 40s I was still setting actual personal records, I didn’t pay much attention to the handicaps I was being given. Now at 54, I’ve added a column for age-graded time to the Excel Spreadsheet on which I keep my race results. 

Let’s look at some examples. My personal record set in the 10k (in 1998!), was 46:52. I was 33. The age-graded score was 65%. In 2015 when I was making a real concerted effort to chase it down, the closest I managed to come was 48:47. But now I was 50 and the age-graded score was 70% with an age-graded time of 43:10. So it can be argued that I was essentially fitter at 50, then 33.

I wrote in my wrap-up about the Chicago Marathon two weeks ago that my time for this marathon made it my fastest “age-graded” marathon (3:33:40 vs. 3:34:26 for my actual marathon PR set in New Jersey at age 48). That’s not to say I don’t think I still have an actual marathon personal record in me. I’m still shooting for that, but at some point I am resolved to the fact that I will be slowing down. Keeping track of age-graded times in addition to real times will help keep things interesting.

I have never been a runner that was going to win a race. Although I have managed to pick-up age group awards. Competition is a lot more fun when you don’t care about the men or the twenty-somethings passing you. And it feels damn good when I know placed well among women 50-54. I’m on the high-end of the age group at the moment, so I am looking forward to turning 55 this spring and being a “youngster” again. 

Which brings me to Boston. Well not exactly, to Boston, but perhaps why Boston still eludes me. When I ran the New Jersey Marathon is 2014, I surprised myself by not only finishing in under 4 hours (my stretch goal), but realized I had come within 2 minutes and 51 seconds of a Boston qualifying time. I was 48. Age-graded, that time was 3:34:26 as I stated above. I needed a time (then*) of 3:55:00 (which age-graded for a 48 year old was 3:31:52. 

Now, I am attempting to qualify for Boston 2021 in the women’s 55-59 age group and need a time better than 4:05:00. Age-graded, that translates to 3:22:01 for a 55 year old. And it only gets worse. The qualifying time for women 60-64 is 4:20:00 or an age-graded time of 3:20:06 for a 60 year old. Compare that to the qualifying standard of 3:30:00 for women 18-34. The lesson about age-graded scoring here is that it actually gets more difficult to qualify for Boston, not easier, as the actual qualifying times would have you believe. If you’re still young, work on qualifying now.

If you’re over 40, embrace age-graded times. It’s a great way to stay motivated, competitive and confident, especially when your age-graded times in your 50s or 60s are just blowing away what you were doing in your 20s or 30s.  And keep running no matter what!

Back at it. Deerpath Park. Vernon Hills, Illinois. October 2019.

*The Boston Athletic Association Changed the Qualifying Standards for the 2020 Boston Marathon.

“After the Marathon” signals the end of summer

“After the Marathon” signals the end of summer

“After the marathon” became our plan for almost everything at an increasing degree over the last several weeks. We really need to stop eating out so much…after the marathon. We need to clean the house…after the marathon. I need to get back to my job search…after the marathon.

So it’s now, “after the marathon” and we’re still struggling to switch our focus to the other important things in our lives. For week one post-marathon it’s still about the marathon…recovery. That’s perfectly acceptable, but there’s no more denying that summer is over.

Monday was a holiday. I think that’s one of the things I love about the timing of the Chicago Marathon. While Memorial Day (3 weeks before the real start of summer) is an unofficial kick-off to the season, Columbus Day (3 weeks after the real end to summer) is a nice conclusion.

To be clear, I am not a fan at all of “Columbus Day” and recognize all issues in celebrating Christopher Columbus in this way, but I AM a big fan of having a holiday the 2nd Monday in October. It’s great timing for a long weekend and final hurrah down the shore, by the lake, or wherever one spends the long, warm days of summer.

If you’ve ever spent the second weekend of October at the beach, you know that’s when everything starts closing up for the winter, not Labor Day. For adults anyway, there’s still some warm days to enjoy a more quite vacation time after the kids have returned to school. I tend to hold onto summer for as long as I can.

For those of us who trained all summer, the Chicago Marathon was a celebration of all that we accomplished to get to the starting line. Monday we showed off our medals and began our recovery. Kurt and I got out for a walk Tuesday at the Chicago Botanic Gardens and last night we put in a few easy run/walk miles with our crew in Logan Square, while I began to think about the training plan for the Surf City Marathon in February.

Slowing down to enjoy the fall foliage. Chicago Botanic Gardens. Glencoe, Illinois. October 2019.

“After the marathon” means getting serious about life goals again and letting go of care-free summer days, switching out all the summer gear for winter gear. Getting caught up on laundry and housekeeping, preparing more meals at home, and for me, finding a full-time job so I can continue to pay college tuition and race entry fees, and find fulfillment beyond running.

Until that happens, I’m going to enjoy this “after the marathon” peace, the beautiful fall foliage, and use the self-esteem boost to carry me to my next achievement…in running and life.

2019 in Chicago running. The Shamrock Shuffle to Chicago Marathon. Photo credits: Micaela Bernal and Mike Calabro.
Medal Monday: Gratitude for the 2019 Chicago Marathon experience

Medal Monday: Gratitude for the 2019 Chicago Marathon experience

Well-earned. 2019 Chicago Marathon Finisher’s Medal.

Yesterday, a memory from 2015 popped into my Facebook feed: my reflection on that year’s Chicago Marathon. There were some parallels…

Then I reported that I had completed 5 marathons. 2 faster and 2 slower.  Now I’ve run 9 marathons, 4 faster and 4 slower.  My last Chicago was my first since turning 50. This was my 5th. Using age-graded calculations (like this one from Runner’s World), this could be considered my fastest (3:33:40 vs. 3:34:26 for my actual marathon PR set in New Jersey at age 48). This proves that qualifying for Boston actually gets harder as we age, not easier, as so many younger runners seem to believe. But that’s an analysis I’ll save for another day.

In the 2015 post, I also reported on the results of my fundraising effort.  This year I mobilized 36 people to raised $2,004 for Gilda’s Club Chicago. A huge thank you to everyone who gave and/or shared the link!!!

Four years ago, from back in New Jersey I declared “I love Chicago! Can guarantee it won’t take me so long to get back there (although maybe not to run another marathon).” You all know how that turned out! 

With friends from my New Jersey Club De Novo Harriers in for the Marathon at the 3Run2 Post-Marathon Dance Party. Logan Square, Chicago, Illinois. October 2019.

I also said, “I’m very happy to have shared this experience with friends, from those that shared the training miles, were running other major races this past weekend to those at dinner Saturday night, on the course with me, those I saw along the course cheering and yelling my name, and all of you in FB land that wished me well! Thank you!” The same holds true today x10. Read my other blogs from the past two weeks for more on that (What a difference a year makes and Three reasons this year’s Chicago Marathon is extra special). I don’t think I have ever been more supported on a marathon course, had more people tracking me, had such a celebratory marathon weekend overall, or had such a fun training cycle!

The major difference this year and my last Chicago Marathon is that I didn’t fall short of my goal. I didn’t really have a time goal per se once I was realistic about my readiness to BQ. I was thinking that maybe I could manage a 4:09 finish. I probably started out a little too fast, but kept my heart rate in check all of the way (except a huge spike close to my max as I passed through the 3Run2 Cheer Zone at mile 20). I did manage to reach my goals of running strong throughout and never hitting ‘the wall.” I finished in 4:15:44. 

Passing through the 3Run2 Cheer Zone at Mile 20. Chicago, Illinois. October 2019. Photo Credit: Micaela Bernal


Today I feel really good. I’m tempted to start planning for the next one, but for now I’m going to focus on gratitude. I am grateful for all of the people that supported me this past weekend and in the past weeks and months. I am especially grateful that I am simply able do this. I am grateful to be part of a sport where a women can beat the World Record and 54 year old empty-nesting mom like me can run the same course and cross the same finish line a mere 2 hours and 40 seconds later.  

I also feel pretty fortunate that I can share everything about this wonderful sport with someone I love so much. Thank you, Kurt, for being a big part of all of this!

The Gratitude Wall at the Chicago Endurance Sports Race Day Resort (perk of being a Charity Runner). Roosevelt University. Chicago, Illinois. October 2019.