With visions of chocolate ahead, nearly 600 runners braved windy, mid-winter temperatures Feb. 3 during the sixth annual Chocolate Rush 5K and Half Marathon.
Sponsored by the Patriot’s Run Running Club, the race takes place at MidAmerica Nazarene University’s Olathe campus, wrapping up with a post-race chocolate extravaganza inside the school’s Cook Center.
It was the brainchild of Patriot’s Run Running Club board member Bryce Wiltgen, who “came up with idea for this run to be held close to Valentine’s Day and have a chocolate theme,” race director Layne Whitehouse said. “He thought runners needed something fun to do in the middle of winter here.”
Whitehouse called 2018 the races “biggest year to date,” with runners from ages 11 to 81 who represent 16 states and even include two runners from Australia.
Through the years, the Chocolate Rush has had to be refined, according to Whitehouse: “We’ve had to figure out what the runners wanted and didn’t want, such as chocolate milk and other chocolate items.”
Theses days, race organizers, along with a team of 70 student volunteers, appear to found a way the sweet spot.
After running the 5K or half marathon, about 600 runners were treated to a chocolate fountain — complete with marshmallows, rice krispies treats, pretzels, strawberries, and bananas for dipping — along with hot chocolate, chocolate kisses, chocolate donuts, Oreo cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate cotton candy.
Olathe resident Jessica and Jeff Lewis typically run seven or eight races a year together. They’ve made the Chocolate Rush a regular event for the past four years.
There’s no doubt that the chocolate serves as a sweet magnet for the Lewises and others who enter the race.
“Chocolate is the only thing that can get us out of bed at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the middle of winter,” Jeff said.
Jessica added, “This might be the fastest 5K we’ve run to date. The chocolate is really motivating.”
Lindsay Podrebarac of Tonganoxie, who ran the race for her second year, agreed.
“I bumped up from the 5K to the half marathon for 2018, because I was feeling more daring with the warmer weather this year,” she said. “I’m a chocolate lover, so a sporting event geared around chocolate gets me out. I’m going to come back every year just for the chocolate cotton candy.”
Served with flair by Mickey Levey, “The Cotton Candy Man,” the chocolate cotton candy was a clear favorite for the runners among the wide selection of chocolate offerings.
Levey, known by followers and fans as “The Sweetest Guy in Town,” donned a chocolate-kiss hat and treated long lines of runners of all ages.
He got his start in the cotton-candy business years ago, selling the confection during Theatre in the Park in order to raise money for the drills team his daughter coached in the Olathe School District.
Levey quickly became a big success. After retiring from a party business in 2008, he wondered if there might be a wider audience for the sweet-spun confection.
“I’ve always been a networker,” Levey said. “I started marketing and the business grew. Now, I do 175 to 200 events a year. Normally, I make pink and blue, but they asked me here if I could do chocolate. I said yes and I’ve been coming every year.”
The Chocolate Rush serves as a fundraiser for MNU’s business department and also funds scholarships for students in the sports management program.
“The race is growing because it’s organized,” said Jack Jones, Patriot’s Run Running Club board member and an assistant professor at MNU. “Layne does great with social media and contacting racing clubs. Runners like to come because of the atmosphere, facilities, and our student volunteers.”
He added, “It’s also a great opportunity for our students to be involved with this event and to experience what service learning is all about.”
That dedication keeps the event fresh and fun for runners.
“We want to make sure this is an event runners want to come back to and a staple race people want to do in the middle of winter,” Whitehouse said.