The cynic in me had this thought as I started to flame out around Mile 14 of last Sunday’s Walt Disney World Marathon: running a marathon is the exercise equivalent to partaking in gluttony. There is the excess in miles, the excess in pain encountered in those 26.2 miles, the excess in sunlight because it’s Florida, the excess in other runners—19,000 of us played bumper cars when the course narrowed through the theme parks and back paths between Disney resorts—and the excess in noise generated by the crowd and whatever deafening music your iPod blasted into your ears. Every part of the body got its own share of damage by the time the bruised, dehydrated, but proud runner crossed/stumbled past the finish line.
Thankfully, I had no notion of just how taxing the marathon would be when I signed up for it in April. This notion of running the Disney Marathon arose after I had run the 2010 Walt Disney World Half Marathon—a frigid affair that began with snow flurries at the start line and ended with me in bed in Gainesville with the flu a week later—but I kept putting off the marathon to get my grades back up at UF and then for job hunting after I graduated. After seeing what happened at last year’s Boston Marathon, though, I decided to finally commit to the marathon and run for Boston. For the marathon, I’d wear the blue and yellow of the Boston Athletic Association, but as a nod to my Florida roots, my blue shorts were branded with the University of Florida.
For the week ahead of the marathon, I kept repeating the following strategy to keep my mind on track for a good finish: take advantage of the cool early morning with a strong 10K to Magic Kingdom; slightly temper that pace as the sun rises until reaching the half-marathon point at Animal Kingdom; continue the conservative approach, until reaching Mile 20 beyond the ESPN Wide World of Sports; then empty the reserves for the final 10K through the Hollywood Studios and Epcot. I knew I had the mental strength to pull this off; I just hoped my early tapering, which began in mid-November, wouldn’t cost me toward the end of the race.
The First 10K: The 6.2 Miles to Magic Kingdom
This is what thousands of runners, most of whom were new marathoners like me and crazy people running the Goofy Challenge (completing the Disney Half Marathon and Marathon for 39.3 miles over two days) or Dopey Challenge (the Goofy plus the Disney 5K and 10K for 48.6 miles over four days), ask about when they have to wait in the last corral before they can start the race: “Are we in Corral P or Corral Pee?”
An hour was enough time for everyone to exhaust their pee jokes and take multiple field trips to the Port-a-Potties (I had three visits), and we finally started our marathons with the sunrise at 6:35 A.M. The first couple miles were just the roads of Epcot Center Drive and World Drive, but the sheer number of runners turned those miles into a cross country meet. Despite my best attempts to control myself, I was running at a faster pace than desired just so I could shift between grass and pavement to avoid crashing into the walkers and slower runners ahead of me. I finally created some space for myself at the Mile 2 marker and was ready to temper my pace, but a few hundred feet later, I could hear a marching band playing “Rock N Roll Part 2.” Seeing purple, black, and gray uniforms ahead of me, I found myself getting excited and sprinting again. That marching band was from my high school, Timber Creek, and to show those whippersnappers I still had spirit, I gave almost everyone a high five and an obnoxiously loud “GO WOLVES!” as I sped by the band.
Another five miles later, which was only notable for exercising my agility and dodging waves of runners as the course severely narrowed at the Contemporary Resort area, I finally reached Main Street USA at Magic Kingdom. Entering the centerpiece of Disney World was initially sensory overload: the sun above starting to fully shine, spectators left and right swarming in front of the Main Street USA facades, those spectators yelling at anyone and everyone who was running, yellow cones narrowing the course, and the glut of runners in front of me.
But then I made eye contact with Cinderella’s Castle, and all those distractions went away. With the clear skies and sunlight draping the castle, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. That castle was a beaut. That castle was a source of renewed motivation for me after those initial miles of just runners and plain roads. That castle was telling me that I’d finish this race.
I snapped myself out of my trance just in time to make a right to run through Tomorrowland and the new Princess area. The course looped me behind Cinderella’s Castle, which my eyes locked on again as I approached it for the sprint through its passageway. My success rate in avoiding contact with other runners was obliterated at the Castle, as we all jostled and brushed up against each other for the limited real estate in the dark throughway. The last bit of contact I had at the castle was created when a woman beside me shrieked and flinched onto my path after a hidden race photographer popped up and snapped her photo.
The Magic Kingdom section of the race closed out with spacious passage through Liberty Square, Adventureland, and a smelly restricted area behind Adventureland where the parade floats are stored. I reached the 10K mark shortly after exiting this float-filled area at around the 1:06 mark, right about on pace to finish the marathon in five hours.
The Half-Marathon Mark: Hitting 13.1 Miles through the Speedway and Animal Kingdom
After surviving another mile of narrow paths and playing bumper cars with the other runners, it was fitting that the next major section of the marathon took place in the Richard Petty Driving Experience speedway.
The mile-long tri-oval race track, with no shade whatsoever, was the most spacious and hottest section of the marathon so far. It also doubled as an auto show; exotic cars and classic cars were parked on the banked track for the runners to ogle at while they ran around the infield of the track. Off the top of my head, I recall seeing a Porsche, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, a couple of old Pontiacs (R.I.P.), a few Corvettes, a Ford GT, that Herbie car, and my dream car, the Deep Blue Pearl Nissan GT-R. If I wasn’t running a race, I would have stopped to take a photo with that GT-R and then found a way to drive off with it.
Upon exiting the speedway, just after the Mile 8 marker, I entered a four mile section dominated by the breathtaking sight of grass and trees. With the lack of exciting scenery and the heat starting to get to me, I finally caved in and broke out the iPod to keep me going. Beyond jumping back and forth between grass and pavement to pass other runners and the two guys dressed (and crying out) as flamingos, nothing memorable happened here.
Passing the Mile 12 marker just outside Animal Kingdom was the first real bit of excitement for me since the Speedway. By that point, the race began to be taxing; to add on to the heat problem, my right knee started to experience a dull ache and foot pain from repeated, heavy impact with the ground began in earnest. In my first real mental test of the race, I kept telling myself that the halfway point was only a mile away; push forward! In what felt like an eternity, but was probably only at the 12.3-mile mark, the course finally took me inside Animal Kingdom. Bolstered by the crowd there and the sight of the imposing Expedition Everest, I zipped past the mountain and the Dinosaur territory into a Cast Members-only section of Animal Kingdom, where the Half Marathon checkpoint laid. Although I labored to this checkpoint, I somehow crossed it in 2:29:31 (time of day: 9:08 A.M.), keeping me on pace for the five hour finish.
The Wastelands: Mile 13.2 through Mile 20 via Highways and the Wide World of Sports
My marathon effort died in this approximately seven mile stretch.
This brutal crux of my race could be summed up by two things: the sun and the Osceola Parkway, the wide open thoroughfare between Animal Kingdom and the Wide World of Sports that dominated this stage. The temperature topped out around 68°F at this point in time, but the body temperature hovered around the high 80s/low 90s; all the running up to this point tacked on about another 20°F.
It was after passing the halfway point of the race that my mind started to dwell on the heat. I employed the mind game of telling myself I was already halfway done, and that the hard part was completed, but the body wouldn’t listen. As the course took me out of the restricted area in Animal Kingdom and into its parking lot, the body did listen to all the cheering from the crowds at the lot. For the sake of my ego, the body let me push on in front of these people.
When the people faded away behind me and all that laid ahead of me was the unremarkable pavement of Osceola Parkway, my will to run began to falter again. The heat hurt. My feet hurt. Fatigue sucks. Heat sucks. I slowed down to compensate for my crumbling psyche, but that only invited the sloppiest and most effortless stride I’ve had since my first four hour training run in October. After passing a tiny sign that marked Mile 13.6, all the negativity that my mind was fending off just overwhelmed me. My laborious jogging became an outright walk and the cynical thoughts rushed in.
My pride was bruised when I conceded and began walking. My pride was crippled as scattered crowds stationed at the highway directed cheers at me, and all I could muster was a nod or applause of acknowledgment as I walked by them. Thoughts that I was letting myself and those cheerers down with this walking only frazzled my brain more, to where I haphazardly alternated between walking and running Miles 14 through 17, which covered the rest of Osceola Parkway and half of Victory Way.
I started jogging again at Mile 17 and with the Wide World of Sports in sight, my mind felt alert again for the first time since the halfway point. Trying to stay disciplined with my pace, I set the bar low; just jog to Mile 18. Predictably, I didn’t listen. My pace accelerated just to get into the Wide World of Sports sooner, and then peaked after I got in and the course took me through the track at the sports complex. I crossed the Mile 18 target a few hundred after exiting the track, where my brain—for the first time—processed that I had fewer than 10 miles until the finish line.
I began thinking of a way where I could finish the race strong—by this point in the race, “strong” just meant “not walking across the finish line.” Although I finally accepted the heat, the pain in my feet limited me from sustaining this current jog; this alternating one mile walk/one mile run thing wasn’t good on my body. Upon seeing a water and banana station up ahead, my mind arrived at the obvious solution: let’s use this station to slow things down. I told myself to savor the banana, Powerade, and water ahead, and to load up on the Gatorade chews I packed in my pocket. I was going to finish strong by sacrificing (read: walking) Miles 18 and 19.
- Walking two miles from Mile 18 gets me to Mile 20: Mile 18 + 2 Miles = Mile 20.
- That leaves 6.2 miles remaining—you know, a 10K. Mile 20 + 6.2 Miles = 26.2 Miles = A completed Disney Marathon.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but this strategy was basically my original race strategy of treating the last leg of the marathon as a 10K. But I felt so smart for supposedly thinking up this solution on the fly, that it filled me with undeserved confidence. Practically speaking, though, walking the two miles would allow my body to recover for the home stretch and my mind to easily psych itself up for the 10K finish.
During this self-imposed hike, I happily ate my food, drank my Powerade/water at each station, dumped cups of water on my head, and smiled and applauded at every group of cheering spectators I walked by. I felt a little bad that I couldn’t run by them like a trooper, but I had to abide by the plan. My mind had conquered the obstacles that held me back in this segment of the marathon, and all I had to do was walk to Mile 20 to begin my second race of the day.
The Final 10K: The Revival through the Hollywood Studios, Boardwalk, and Epcot
At 10:51 A.M., after being on the course for 4:11:48, I finally passed the start line for my Hollywood Studios/Epcot 10K within the Walt Disney World Marathon.
This short six miles was now the only race I was running, but I approached it like a race walker: I shortened my stride and resisted taking high steps to limit the impact of the ground on my feet and the exhaustion of my cardio system. Mile 20 and Victory Way turned into Mile 21 and Osceola Parkway. Mile 21 and Osceola Parkway turned right onto World Drive and to an upward ascent along the road, passing the Medical Tent at Mile 21.8 where a high school classmate of mine was volunteering (Oops, I missed her because I was IN THE ZONE) before guiding runners to the Mile 22 marker.
With my mind IN THE ZONE when I passed Mile 22, I further deconstructed the 10K into a one mile run, as reaching Mile 23 would turn the 10K into a 5K. If I reached Mile 23 unscathed, then I knew my 10K plan for finishing the marathon would be a success. After headbobbing my way through the rest of World Drive and through Buena Vista Drive—thanks for the assist, Marathon playlist on my iPod—I circled past the Tower of Terror through a Cast Members-only area before reaching the Studio Backlot Tour of Hollywood Studios, where Disney provided the greatest assist to me: fruit snacks.
These weren’t just your typical Welch’s fruit snacks. These were movie theater-sized bags of Monsters University fruit snacks, and for some reason, the volunteers gave me two bags of them. All of a sudden, my mind and body didn’t have a concern about running; their attention was on the fruit snacks. Should I open a bag? (Answer: To paraphrase Tina Fey, “say yes!”) Now that I opened a bag, how do these taste? (Answer: they are delicious.) How many fruit snacks could I eat without cramping? (Answer on loop: Well, I ate one, and I’m not feeling anything… I guess I can have another one!) OK, I’ve had a few. Now when am I gonna stop eating those fruit snacks? (Answer: I HAVE NO SELF CONTROL ANYMORE BECAUSE I’VE RAN ALMOST 26.2 MILES AND THESE FRUIT SNACKS ARE MY PLACEBO.)
My run through the Hollywood Studios must have been the dumbest thing that the spectators gathered there saw. There I am, all in blue, earbuds on, left hand holding a bag of open Monsters University fruit snacks, right hand constantly reaching between the bag and the mouth, all the while jogging comfortably as other runners around me looked beaten. As I continued my role of the jogging glutton through Hollywood Studios, my brain processed the following observations and thoughts. I have no idea whether they are the product of the fruit snacks or the sheer loss of sanity from nearing 26.2 miles of motion:
- I wasn’t impressed with the New York streets replica at Hollywood Studios now that I see the real New York every weekend.
- I saw two Dopey Challenge participants actually stop at the ABC Commissary, located right behind the Sorcerer’s Hat, to sit down at an outdoor table and consume a burger and beer before they finished the final 2+ miles of the race.
- I had the energy to obnoxiously shout “GO GATORS!” at any spectator wearing UF gear. It was also at this stage in the race when I wished more people saw my shorts and acknowledged that I was also representing UF.
- I spotted a spectator standing right at the rope that separated the crowd from the runners, only because she was eating a funnel cake. I gave her a grin as I passed her, then took out a few more fruit snacks to satiate the repressed desire to steal her funnel cake and eat it for myself.
- I was impressed with the Hollywood Boulevard replica at Hollywood Studios because I saw the real Boulevard in LA this past summer and it sucked. Give me the watered down version at Disney any day (but I’ll take the rest of real Los Angeles.)
Anyway, I exited Hollywood Studios with about 2.5 miles to go. The act of eating fruit snacks continued distracting me from the act of running, until I ran out of them when I reached a bridge to Disney’s Boardwalk with just under two miles to go. (Revised answer to how many fruit snacks I can eat without cramping: an entire bag!) At the Boardwalk, I counted two discarded, unopened bags of fruit snacks that I WAS SO CLOSE TO PICKING UP, but I decided against it for the sake of just finishing the dang race. The Boardwalk was stocked with people, but unlike the other areas, these folks were more passive observers than actual cheerers.
My mind was blown away when I crossed another bridge from Boardwalk and then found myself at Epcot when I reached the other side. In the 15 years I lived in Florida, I never made the connection that those two areas were physically connected. But I digress—Epcot was the home stretch! This was my favorite park, my home court, my chance to put an exclamation point on the finish of my first marathon. I was IN THE ZONE and found the gear to start speeding up again.
Crossing the bridge landed me between the United Kingdom and France in the World Showcase, where I ran counterclockwise and passed through France, Morocco, Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany, the Outpost, China, Scandinavia, and Mexico to go around the world in 160 seconds. My pace reached its fastest since the initial 10K, partly because of the adrenaline of running in my self-proclaimed home court, partly because I just wanted to finish the damn thing, and partly because I reset my Marathon playlist to listen to Chvrches’ “Gun.” The shuffle responded with a narrow, but energizing, selection of songs out of the 109 I loaded into the playlist:
I kept up the intensity after exiting the World Showcase for Future World, but knowing my time left in the marathon was short, I tried to absorb as much of the spectating, the cheering, the volunteering, and that giant geodesic dome housing Spaceship Earth as I could. My race was nearing its end, and although I did struggle, my fight back for an upright ending was nearing success.
After hitting the Mile 26 marker, I shifted to overdrive, and went all out for that finish line. My mind began to play “Chariots of Fire” as I sprinted past multiple runners ahead of me and charged toward the finish line at the max speed I could muster. Two hundred feet. One hundred feet. Donald Duck is about 50 feet in front of the finish line. My moment is near.
But then I felt a sharp pain strike my left calf.
And then I felt a sharp pain strike my right calf.
Yep, both calves cramped up on me just steps away from Donald. I began to skip so I could regain some semblance of a running stride and give Donald a high five, before jogging past the finish line with my deflated legs. I have no video or images of how silly this scene looked, but this video seems like a decent reproduction of my eventful finish.
The walk to receive the finisher’s medal and take the obligatory photos was a slow and painful one, but after taking one good look at the medal (which reminded me of a Communion wafer when I first saw it), all I could do was smile. The medal not only represented the survival of this fun and physically and mentally exhausting experience, but also the training and effort poured out in 2013 to make it possible for me to complete a 26.2 mile trek at the Walt Disney World Resort in 5:37:18.
The next day, I went to Epcot to celebrate my finish at the marathon. I know, walking around a theme park after running 26.2 miles isn’t the brightest of ideas, but then again, neither is signing up to run 26.2 miles in one day.
It was easy to tell which visitors at Epcot participated in Disney’s race weekend. Some participants just wore their Marathon/Half Marathon/10K/Goofy/Dopey tech shirt (I did that), some just wore their medals, and some wore both. But one thing distinguished the runners from the others: like me, every race participant hobbled through the theme park. Those hobbles were the marks of a true winner.