Chocolate is made up of a complex combination of delicious chemicals associated with mood, emotion and craveability, making it the only reason to voluntarily run a 5k alongside 30,000 Chicagoans on a freezing weekend morning.
Self training started on a quick, weeks-long track after being invited to join the race by a long-time couch potato-turned-marathon running friend who sold the whole thing as an inspiring, chocolate-dipped challenge. And, since it was coming on the coattails of his own amazing wellness journey, I couldn’t really say no. Even if the whole thing felt a little like becoming a real athlete, which I’m not.
Sure, I played varsity tennis in high school (and somehow managed to earn a letter), but chronic asthma always kept me from pushing myself into the realm of long distance running. Then I went to college, set some new goals and got a better inhaler, which ultimately saw me hitting historic South Bend trails hardcore, going as far as enrolling in a sports bootcamp and conditioning myself to run a scenic six miles around the Saint Mary’s College and Notre Dame campuses every single morning for three years. On purpose.
Early 2001 marked what would be my first 10k. Ever. Then, two days before the event, I misstepped during a regular morning run, blew out my right knee, and spent much of the first several months of the year hobbling around in a brace that covered my leg from thigh top to ankle bottom. Very sexy.
And though I continued to run later on, past college, into marriage, and then with my oldest tucked snugly in a jogger – any kind of running, jogging, even power walking, stopped once my daughter was born via complicated C-section. Balancing both kids and pretending to do the same with anything else was hard enough without trying to set aside time to run.
But hey, things change, challenges stir us, and when the Hot Chocolate 5k with its promise of 10,000 pounds of gooey fondue and self revelation was not-so-subtly dropped in various conversations, I decided I wanted in.
Jeff joined too, and suddenly, that fun, freeing aspect that comes with commiserating with like-minded folks who love listening to the soft swish your clothes makes as you hit your stride, coupled with the rhythmic pounding only gym shoes with run-down shock absorbers can make got to me and I was back. Not in my prime, but on the road to getting there.
When we piled into the car in the crazy dark wee hours of the morning to pick up fellow racers, it was on. I was ready to run, pace, sweat, struggle, and hit the finish line strong. I didn’t have a PR in mind. I just wanted to run the whole thing without stopping to walk and keep a consistent pace throughout.
And I did. Under the race name “Coco Dark.”
Because that’s how I roll.
(Jeff ran under “Coco Lite” because we both obviously think we’re hilariously witty).
The course started out in slowly in chilly Grant Park, and it took about 20 minutes to get to the actual starting line. Once I crossed the start, everything took on a thrilling air. Runners started heading south on Columbus to Lake Shore Drive and it quickly became obvious that walkers talking up the entire street would be the biggest hindrance of the race. The course became a mini-gauntlet with runners dodging, ducking and darting around walkers four deep taking up the little available space in the most bottlenecked, impossibly narrow places.
As we headed east on 18th street, then back south to the turnaround point along Ft. Dearborn Drive, Lake Michigan came into view due north in all of its sparkling beauty. It’s always been one of my most favorite parts of the city skyline and gave me the mental boost I needed to power past the steeply inclined two-mile mark just east of Soldier Field.
Weaving around the Shedd Aquarium was the most dangerous, as runners, myself included, threw elbows, jostled as politely as possible, jockeyed into position, and fawn-leaped up onto the uneven, grassy lawn outside its lake-facing windows just to try and keep a decent pace among those walkers who were stopping in the middle of the course to upload photos or simply stroll like an old couple on a Sunday afternoon.
Race photogs perched up high on a platform crane made for some comedic relief as us runners laughed, cheered, and randomly hi-fived each other on our way through the tunnel and up toward the home stretch, back north into Grant Park via Columbus Drive. It wasn’t until I noticed the nine mile marker for the 15k runners that I realized the finish was in sight. I held back for just a second, gobsmacked by the fact I’d made it through to the end, then booked it across the line feeling triumphant, slightly schoolgirl giddy and kind of like a gladiator with way less body hair.
My official race time was 41:43 with a surprising pace of 13:26, since 13:44 was what I was hoping to maintain.
Proof that chocolate wins at all the things.
Photo credits: Hot Chocolate Chicago