1. In Praise of the Mouse
If you’ve been following my journey to run at least a half marathon in all fifty states, you will have noticed that I’ve already done Florida. In fact, I’ve run four races there already, so why spend more time and money on a state that gets me no closer to my goal? Because the Walt Disney World Marathon has been on my bucket list since even before I became a runner. I knew about Chicago, New York and a few others, but the day I realized there was a race that took you through the Disney theme parks, I thought, that sounds
insanely hard why would anyone do that so fun. This was before I had even finished my first 5K.
See, though I may be 30, I never became immune to the veil of wonder that theme parks drape over their guests as they cross the turnstile. I’ve been visiting Disney parks since I was an infant and can’t imagine one day entering one of their parks with a cynical scowl. In fact, whenever I see kids crying at Disney, I want to ask them, how awful is your life that you’re sad in here? Or maybe it’s the opposite – they live the best lives imaginable, eating brownie skillets for breakfast and lobster mac ‘n cheese for dinner, that anything else is a daily waterboarding. Or perhaps the parents are the culprits. You got your kid to cry in here? In the words of Chris Farley, what did you DO?!
Because Disney World really is the happiest place on earth. Sure, you have to wait for hours in line and there are many more cost-effective and altruistic ways to spend the cost of admission, but once you’re inside Brer Rabbit’s Laughing Place or feeling your stomach drop just waiting for the Tower of Terror’s initial lurch, the world is different. Disney goes a long way towards making you feel like you’re somewhere else and that talent is made manifest from the minute you step in line. But it’s not just within the confines of the resort that the Mouse tries to achieve the company goal of making people happy. Having run both the 2010 Disneyland Half Marathon and the 2011 Wine & Dine Half Marathon, I had learned that this magical feeling goes beyond the park experience.
I knew it was only a matter of time before I finally signed up for the Disney Marathon. I had considered it a few years back, but I kept coming back to one big snag: training. An early January marathon would mean a 20-miler in the middle of a Chicago December, which would be hell. Plus, I’d have to run during Christmas and New Year’s, much to everyone’s annoyance. But the 2013 race was the 20th anniversary of the race, and I’ll have you know that I’m a sucker for milestones like that. Then there was the added decision of whether I would run just the marathon or go hard and sign up for the Goofy Challenge, where you run the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon the next day, for a combined total of 39.3 miles in two days. I honestly wrote out a list of pros and cons, which looked sort of like this:
There was no good reason to sign up for Goofy except, of course, the challenge and eternal glory that comes from finishing it. But given the confluence, I decided that I would enjoy running at full speed for one race than holding back during two. Much to the dismay of my Chicago friend Marissa (who did pull the 39.3-mile trigger), I committed to “just” the marathon. My date with destiny (Disteney?) was on the horizon and my hopes were high for an excellent season. What could possibly go wrong?
2. Speed Bumps
As always happens when anyone writes that last question, stuff goes wrong. Rather than run the conventional 20-miler four weeks before the race, I was in Boulder City running the Hoover Dam Marathon. It went very well and my legs were surprisingly fresh afterward. But three days later, I would go for a run to learn that my left arch was not cooperating with me. A week later, after no running whatsoever, it hurt just to stand. I was very worried about this because I had never suffered such a persistent injury and certainly not one that wasn’t responding to rest. Fortunately, around New Year’s, I went on a successful 7-mile run with Otter and our friend Marla and my worries were put to rest. I wasn’t back 100%, but the progress was very encouraging.
But I couldn’t quite get back into a regular training groove. Even with perfectly sound feet, the constant barrage of holidays eats into my training time. Obviously this isn’t a complaint, it’s just a reality. Like someone building a sand castle too close to the water, the three-punch series of Christmas, New Year’s and a trip with my extended family to Park City made carving out running time a challenge by itself. I ended up covering just under half of my usual training distance prior to Disney because of this (and my longest run was the aforementioned 7-miler), so my confidence was a bit shaken. Additionally, two out of three family members were incubating some nasty colds, to which I was sadly not immune. And just to add a little glitter to this cake of apprehension, this was to be my 13th marathon, held on the 13th day of 2013. If superstition is your thing, then you too would have been a little concerned.
And as a bonus, here is a chart of my marathon times, plotted against average temperatures:
Disney was built on a swamp, so I was anticipating heat and humidity. Given the forecast for Kissimmee, Florida, I was expecting a finishing time just under four hours. When you add up all of these elements, I was basically resigned to running what I would consider a slow time. In light of this I decided: screw this, I’m going to try and have fun. For the first time ever, I would run to enjoy the race, take in the sights and even take a picture or two fifty. I would still bring my Garmin and keep a decent pace, but I wouldn’t delude myself into thinking I could somehow post a competitive time.
3. Race Day
So it was with this mix of reassurance and caution that I entered Corral A on race morning. It was about 4:45 AM and I had already done a considerable amount of walking. It was about a half mile from the runner drop off to the staging area at the Epcot parking lot and then another three fourths of a mile (easily) from there to the start line. I sat down on the pavement and waited for everyone else to make their way, while a DJ tried his damndest to energize the crowd. That’s one thing about Corral A: these people are out to dominate the course and are conserving every last drop of glycogen, which means they won’t do any choreographed dance moves, no matter how enthusiastic the MC is. It was enough of a challenge to elicit a cheerful “yay” from anyone. It was like watching a clown try to cheer up war torn refugees or that much-loathed boss try and rev up the employees that wish him dead. Though I wanted to support him, he certainly didn’t earn any points from me by playing the Cha Cha Slide and the Macarena back to back.
It wasn’t long before the official announcers took the stage just a stone’s throw away from me. I was very impressed with the lineup of running celebrities that Disney had put together for the last-minute pep talk. Among them were Bill Rodgers (Boston and NYC Marathon winner in the 70s, credited as part of what started the running boom), Jeff Galloway (Disney’s official running coach, author of very popular marathon training programs), Frank Shorter (Gold medalist at the 1972 Summer Olympics marathon), Bart Yasso (Runner’s World’s Chief Running Officer and mastermind of the Yasso 800s) and even Joey Fatone (dude from ‘NSYNC who I didn’t recognize until they said his name).
After all the famous people had given their words of encouragement, the true celebrities were welcomed to the stage. Mickey, Donald and Goofy bumbled upwards in black and red track suits, speaking with giant smiles and wild gestures, giving everyone the green light. A few minutes later, I crossed the start line under fireworks with four parks and 26.2 miles ahead of me.
The road to the first park of the race, the Magic Kingdom, felt like forever. We were running on the three-lane road that services the Epcot parking lot and it was lit only by streetlights. There wouldn’t be any buildings until the 5k mark (which I reached in 26:45) and even then it was just the parking lot for the monorail. I had heard this complaint from friends who have run this race before: that it’s mostly running on highways with theme parks in between. Given that most races are run on boring roads, I wasn’t going to complain at all. But those first miles did stretch on longer than I thought they would. I also noticed at this point that I was already drenched in sweat, despite running a slower pace. This didn’t bode well. But what could I do? Slow down? Pass. I decided instead to just focus on other things and let the auto-pilot take over. However, my zen was broken by a sinister staccato, a dark melody that I was too slow to recognize until I saw Jack Skellington and Sally by the roadside. That’s the other thing about Corral A. The majority of us are so hell-bent on getting the fastest time possible that we won’t stop for anything except the essentials. In other words, there was no one in line to get a picture, so I zipped out and gave the Pumpkin King my scariest pose before returning to the course.
By mile 5 we finally reached the outside of the Magic Kingdom and entered through a service entrance right onto Main Street USA, where every building had been wrapped in lightbulbs. Not to be upstaged, Cinderella’s castle had also been draped in a web of light, looking almost ghostly in the distance. I ran through this section with an enormous smile, which widened as I drew closer to the castle and the spectators grew louder. However, instead of running straight to the fairy tale structure, we banked right and took a detour through Tomorrowland. Back in the Disneyland race, Darth Vader had set up camp around here with a detail of several Storm Troopers. I was a little disappointed to discover he didn’t show up to this race. It was more likely that he had gotten zapped to another dimension by Buzz Lightyear. I’m not sure why I decided that the Usain Bolt was the best pose for this galactic ranger, but that’s what happened (not that it matters, the picture was so blurry that you can barely tell which one of us is the guy with delusions of grandeur and which is Buzz Lightyear).
After running underneath Cinderella’s castle, we ran right into Frontierland, where I caught a glimpse of Splash Mountain before leaving the park. Once back on the park service roads, I passed the 10k flag in 53:15, keeping my pace steady. I hadn’t exactly stopped sweating and I was blowing snot rockets every thirty steps, but I felt “good” so onwards I went.
The next stop was a loop around the Walt Disney World Speedway, which organizers had added as a bonus for the 20th anniversary run. Right before entering though, I spotted everyone’s favorite blue commander of phenomenal cosmic power, so I split from the path for a second to rub his lamp get a picture. Once inside, it was like being at the 500 Festival miniMarathon again, except the sun had yet to crest the treetops (and we were running the loop clockwise). Just outside the speedway, I crossed the 15k mark in 1:18:58, noting a slight increase in speed. The next two miles would be run on a two-lane service toad that cuts through the Floridian bog. On the way, I heard “Bad to the Bone” being played off course, a sure sign of a rendezvous with villainy. I leapt onto the damp grass and got a picture with a group of four baddies, which included Gaston, Maleficent, Snow White’s Evil Queen and Dr. Facilier (the voodoo guy from The Princess and the Frog). After a few more turns, we reached the Disney Waste Water Treatment Plant. Lucky for us, we didn’t run through it and were thus spared any potential weird smells. That honor was reserved exclusively for Animal Kingdom.
Walt Disney World Speedway
The smells were honestly the only real memory I have of Animal Kingdom. The occasional waft of wild animal would sneak into my nostrils and then leave, as if notified by Disney officials that such treatment of tourists was out of line. At one point I stopped to get a picture of the Everest Expedition ride, and I remember seeing a giant orange dinosaur towards the end. But just as soon as we entered, we were out, with the 20k mark hidden somewhere inside the park (crossed in 1:45:02). I also got blurry pictures with Rafiki and the notorious Captain James Hook.
Cruising through Animal Kingdom
I didn’t feel as bad as I look in this picture.
The sun first hit my face around mile 14 as we ran through the Animal Kingdom parking lot. I remember trying to keep the pessimism from taking over my otherwise effortless run. Up until this point, the temperature had remained in the mid to low 60s and I had gotten this far without any complaint. But now the sun was out and anything was possible. I had been wearing my sunglasses on my head for the entire run, but when I put them down over my eyes, the combination of sweat and steam had rendered them almost completely opaque. So I put them back on my marshy hair, spotted Pluto on the side of the course, got a picture with him, and continued running.
Despite the sun rising over Orlando, I was somehow speeding up. I’m not sure what gland secreted stupid juice into my system for this. What elusive lesson did I learn in the last three years that taught me to speed up when the sun comes out? Did the roller coasters at Busch Gardens jostle some ossified wisdom out of a deep crevice in my brain? Or did had they instead shaken it out of proper alignment?
Regardless, by the time we reached the ESPN Wide World of Sports (another bonus addition for the 20th anniversary), I was running in the high 7s, comfortably passing many runners. There was a considerable amount of highway running between Animal Kingdom and ESPN, during which I crossed the 25k mark in 2:10:14. Of all the venues in the race, this was the one that took up the most distance. It wrapped in and out of baseball diamonds, around a track, across fields and back onto the highway for the 20-mile celebration. Organizers had lined up huge, dazzling marionettes of Mike Wazowski, Lumière, Sebastian, Genie and Tigger on the side of the road. There was also a large banner with pictures of every single Disney Marathon medal ever given out, including this year’s. If you know my rules for racing, you’ll know that I kept my head down.
But I quickly picked it back up. I was feeling strangely well. Every step was a wet, sloppy mess, but for some reason I wasn’t dying yet. I remembered those two warm Chicago marathons where I had essentially given up by mile 20, wondering how I was avoiding that resignation. Maybe it was the Buca di Beppo I had stored in my stomach the previous day for lunch or the barrel-sized Gatorade I downed over the course of the same day. But I still had the last, worst 10k left, and anything was still possible. So I decided to just go hard until I hit that disastrous wall. There was no way I’d be able to maintain this pace along with my sweat rate for much longer. One of them had to slow down, and I hadn’t yet learned how to stop sweating. But taking it easy was no longer an option. So on I went toward Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
One of the best rides ever, period.
I ran towards the Hollywood Tower Hotel like a moth drawn to a haunted terra-cotta flame. I dashed inside the park, stopping only to pose like a superhero with Frozone (where is my super suit?!), scare kids with Sully and inflict structural damage with Wreck-It Ralph. We ran through the fake New York City and past the Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat, out through the front gates and towards Epcot. Another park, another blur. Except by now I was definitely starting to fade. It wasn’t a sudden weight on my shoulders, but a slow reduction, as if someone had opened a spigot and I couldn’t find a way to close it. Just two more miles, I thought. I can run two miles in my sleep.
Once out of the park, the course continued alongside a pond shared by several Disney hotels. Just before the 40k mark, we were running through the Disney Beach Club Resort, cruising past pool decks and cabanas. The last mile was a spin around the Epcot Lagoon, the iconic Spaceship Earth (more commonly known as the Epcot Golf Ball) in my periphery. I was definitely tired, but not at all dead. My pace was right in the mid 8s, slower than the last 5k, but still strong. My breathing was heavy but controlled, and I was negotiating between stopping to take pictures and attacking that final mile. My current pace was going to put me very close to my Little Rock time … a little too close to it. Sometime in the last 6 miles I had shifted from my original carefree attitude to the familiar grunt of a hard effort. Towards the last few showcases, I was passed by a couple that I recognized. I had surged past them at ESPN, and here they were, making up the distance, almost frolicking past me like they didn’t have 25 miles behind them. That did it. I swung an invisible lasso around them and picked up my speed. On we went, past Spaceship Earth and into the parking lot, where the blue finishing banner awaited.
I didn’t sprint the end, nor did I take any pictures of it. I simply kept going, one foot in front of the other, completely unaware that I hadn’t gotten a single pain or cramp in the last 3 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds. I was simply in the moment, living out an awesome experience put together by one of the most imaginative companies on earth. Say what you will about Disney, but they know how to put an event together. I had just completed the most fun marathon of my life, beat my Little Rock time and fist-bumped Bart Yasso (and Bart, if you’re reading this, I can be your successor). But the best part of the event was yet to come. As I walked into the gear check tent, about twenty volunteers began clapping just for me. It’s in these details, the differences that truly make the event stand out and every runner feel special, that Disney excels. I can only hope that these tireless volunteers managed to keep up the enthusiasm for every other runner that would later pass through that tent.
With the 20th anniversary medal proudly resting on my chest and my 4th fastest marathon in the books, I went to look for my parents. I had a few hours to kill before my flight, so we went to Marlow’s Pub to chow on animal flesh. I ordered the Kitchen Sink burger and a few Magic Hats, which I cheerfully drank. After all, I was pretty happy. I had somehow kept up a solid pace for the entire race, despite sweating enough to soak my shoes. Maybe it was a sign that I’ve improved a little. Or maybe stopping to take pictures of Disney characters kept me from going too fast and bonking hard. Or perhaps I second-hand smoked some of that magical pixie dust radiating off the characters’ clothing with every pit stop, a constant whiff of powdered magic that jolted me the rest of the way. The most likely explanation is that a 5:30 AM start mitigates adverse weather effects … and it didn’t really get that hot.
Regardless, 2013 is off to a great start. Anyone who loves to run should at some point in their lives complete the Disney Marathon, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to “have fun” during these crazy events. It’s not the cheapest race, but you can definitely see where the money goes because every single part of it has that Disney touch that makes you remember what it was like to be five years old. And lastly, since I’ve run both a half marathon and now a full marathon in Florida, I can finally shade another state in red! Onwards!