Monday, January 10, 2011

Of Mice and Men: Walt Disney World Marathon Race Report

The medal - yes I am aware that it is
covering my super cool Punk Rock Racing shirt
The name Walt Disney conjures up many thoughts to many people. Some are good. Some are bad. For me, Disney means animation. And Disney means Mickey Mouse - my favorite cartoon character.

I LOVE Mickey Mouse. Some might say I'm OBSESSED with Mickey Mouse. My poor husband Jim was the unfortunate witness to said obsession in 2009 when he took me to Disney World. I dragged the poor soul through three theme parks in search of the ultimate prize: my photo with Mickey Mouse dressed as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from 1941's masterpiece "Fantasia." Not only did he have to facilitate my ultimate photo op, but he also had to put up with my nerve-wracking borderline-insane fanatical behavior. I suspect it was terribly embarrassing at the very least (Mickey's assistant was charged with the task of calming me down when Jim had had enough). The ONLY thing I DIDN'T do that day was cry.

The first time I met The Mouse.
No, I saved my best Mickey Mouse "cry" for yesterday.

Yesterday, I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon, a race I've wanted to run since the year it was created. But I never wanted to run it for the same reasons most people run marathons - the challenge, the sense of accomplishment, the performance, the course, etc. No, I ran it for one reason. The medal.

The medal has Mickey Mouse on it.

Getting into the Disney Marathon was almost an accident. Jim had a conference in Orlando the first week of January. I planned to fly down and spend the second weekend with him and meet up with my great (and generous) friend Kris who works at Animal Kingdom. I had not even considered running the marathon on Sunday, January 9, because it was undoubtedly sold out.

Or so I thought. An email from said otherwise. Upon finding out the race was 98% full, I signed up immediately. My friend Jess jumped on the bandwagon and entered too. After having to drop out of the Detroit Marathon with an injury, she decided that Disney was the next best place at which to become a marathoner. And what northerner could argue with going to Florida in January?

Only after registering did I realize the marathon was a mere five weeks away. Was I even ready to attempt a marathon? Time for a crash course in marathon training. In those five weeks, I ran three or four times per week, with a few 8- or 9-mile speed sessions on the treadmill and two long runs of 2:10 and 2:30. In addition, I had started building up swim yardage and bike mileage (on my trainer) for Ironman St. George in May.

Jim & me at Harry Potter "World"
at Universal Orlando
In terms of training and racing, I decided to treat the Disney Marathon as a hard long run. To force myself to take it less seriously, I only tapered my running for a week. Then, four days before, I did a (previously-scheduled) bike time trial on my CompuTrainer. I didn't even take it easy in the the two days leading up to the Marathon. On Friday, I did a swim workout at the hotel, then we visited Disney's Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom, and on Saturday, we spent most of the day at Universal Studios (did you really think I'd miss the new Harry Potter ride?). All of the walking and (not so balmy) fresh air, along with two glasses of wine with dinner, took care of the one thing that usually plagues me before races: sleep.

I slept like a rock -- right up until the 2:00 a.m. alarm. The Disney Marathon starts at 5:30 a.m. Yes, I said 5:30.... A.M. Jim has probably still not forgiven me.

The Walt Disney World Marathon runs through the four Disney theme parks: Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. If you're planning on going just for the race, it's almost a logistical nightmare for spectators. To see your runner from somewhere other than the parking lot, you'll have to purchase park tickets. Families with "park hopper" tickets will make out best.

For us, the logistical nightmare actually began at check-in and packet pickup. I had to go on a wild [mouse] chase to track down my pre-purchased commemorative pin, the one with Mickey Mouse on it. Two buildings, an expo, several volunteers, and a help desk later -- followed by an incredulous outburst (by me) -- finally landed the pin in my hands. (That's the prepaid pin with Mickey Mouse on it that was supposed to be included with my number and chip when I checked in.)

Jess & me before the start
(our smiles give no indication how cold it was)
We arrived at the race start at Epcot early enough to avoid traffic and parking issues. Although, the second logistical nightmare came in the form of very bad driving directions in the race packet (judging by others making U-Turns, we weren't the only ones who made the mistake).

Then came the next logistics problem. Runners need to be at the starting line by 5 a.m. and spectators cannot accompany runners to the corrals. It was close to 40 degrees F and I was very glad Jim insisted on buying me a cheap throw-away paper shell at the expo. Even with gloves, my fingers were numb well before the start.

As we walked to the start, Jess and I laughed at the irony that they call the start line "corrals" because we felt like livestock being herded towards them. With over 17,000 participants, the start would be in waves. Luckily, my previous marathon performance landed me in the first wave.

Jim actually got a photo of the start fireworks.
(He missed the photo of the giant flame throwers!)
Disney does everything big, including the marathon start (and the size medium tech shirt that was so huge it comfortably fit my 6-foot 4-inch husband). Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy were on stage in track suits. The starting line had huge pillars of fire and fireworks.

And finally, in a flash (literally), we were off and running, or at least shuffling. It was still cold. And dark. In fact, we covered two theme parks before even a hint of sunlight appeared on the horizon.

After over a mile on the parking access road with quite a few spectators lining the course (where did THEY come from?), we entered Epcot. The entry and run through Epcot, despite its brevity, is nothing short of breathtaking. The crowd was very supportive and before I knew it, we were five miles into the race, and looping back on the start to see the final wave go off (with just as much fanfare and firepower as the first).

I can't say I was feeling great for those first several miles. My legs were fatigued but after a 7:33 first mile, I managed a 7-7:10 mile pace through mile 8 when, just like in Detroit, disaster was on the rise. I realized a portajohn stop would be necessary (but, unlike Detroit, not urgent).

Around mile 9, I heard Jim yell to me from a crowd on the sidelines. I saw him and waved. Then came the pitt-stop. I ducked into a portajohn right before the next water stop. Thankfully, unlike Detroit, my colon cooperated, and I made it out in record time - mile 10 in 7:45!

I was so busy trying to get back on pace, i almost didn't notice we entered the Magic Kingdom (it should have been obvious by the humongous white gloves of Mickey Mouse that someone was waving from an overpass). I looked up from my watch to see Cinderella's Castle all lit up right in front of me as we ran down "Main Street USA."

Cinderella's castle at night
(photo taken the day before)
The run through Magic Kingdom was truly THE magical part of the race. I felt like a kid again as we ran into Tomorrowland and past Space Mountain, then around the back of and THROUGH the castle and then through Frontierland -- with cheering crowds throughout the park. But it was over quick, and we were back on the access roads and spectator support dwindled once again, except for the occasional costumed characters, performers and marching bands (who were AWESOME but sparse). The most fun I had when the crowd thinned was watching the occasional runner in costume, for instance, a guy from Japan dressed as Minnie Mouse stopped to take a photo of each and every mile marker. I am NOT making this up. He was in front of me for a WHILE, which is how I know that.

After running through Magic Kingdom, I caught up to the 3:10 pace group. In retrospect, it may be the single most important thing that happened to my race. They were holding an almost dead-even 7:10 pace. My comfort level with the pace came and went, but I hung with them through the half (1:34), through Animal Kingdom -- which was entirely too brief -- and through Hollywood Studios.

Besides the theme parks and the AMAZING volunteers at the water stops (which might very well be the best I ever experienced in a marathon), some of the highlights of the course during my stint with the [self-declared "Boston bound"] 3:10 pace team were the following: two different performances of "Sweet Caroline," accompanied BY the men of the 3:10 pace team, an appearance of Captain Jack Sparrow ("look it's Johnny Depp... Damn! No it isn't"), Chip and Dale, a run through the movie costume production area, high fives from the Richard Petty Driving Experience, Ballou, King Louie, various faries, Phineas and Ferb, Donald, Goofy, and Minnie in safari digs. At one point, we were greeted by an overly peppy Peter Pan ("runners, go to your happy place!"). When I declared (out loud), "I'm gonna strangle that guy!" it drew a round of laughter from my fellow runners.

The finish (note I was just about to high-five Goofy & Donald).
At mile 23, I got cocky, picked up my pace (to 6:54) and shook off the 3:10 pace team. I chased town three women on my way past Disney Resorts and back through Epcot. But I soon became aware that I surged too early, and the 3:10 pace team was eventually back on my tail by the finish line.

Similar to Detroit but not as agonizing (or debilitating), the last three miles of the race were marked by a sharp stabbing pain in my left hip. It slowed me a bit (to 7:25s), but I ran hard right to the finish line to cross in just under 3:10 (official chip time 3:09:42, for 15th overall and first in my age group). When they put that big gold Mickey Mouse medal around my neck, I could only think of one thing to do. I cried.

Volunteers came up to me hugging me and congratulating me. I started to think I had missed the fact that people in Orlando were overly friendly and not respectful of my personal space. Then it hit me. By my behavior, they mistook me for a first-time marathon finisher -- which, I might add, Jess actually did become that day (read her race report). Little did they know I was no more than a sap. A sap who ADORES Mickey Mouse.

FINISHERS! (check out the medals on those chicks!)
Jess's smile was worth the trip.
The Ultimate Prize.


  1. Another amazing performance in what appears to be a “disaster-free” event. Sure, the pre-race logistics were an inconvenience but hardly a disaster and the potty breaks appear to be minor inconvenience thanks to a perky colon.

    True story – When I was looking for your results online I didn’t know your bib number so I just looked at the top of the AG results and there you were. Even without (what you would call) proper training you managed to be the fastest runner in your age group and only 14 others seemed to manage a faster morning.

    I do feel a bit cheated that there are no disasters to report. No lost luggage? No cancelled flights? No return home to find that families of raccoons had made their way into your house and established a raccoon hierarchy that centered on the television remote and a cookie jar?

    Oh well, this was still a great report.

    All the best,


  2. The disaster did come the next day when we tried to get home on Delta via Atlanta in the middle of a freak (but becoming more common) southern U.S. snowstorm. A whole day of travel and four airports later, I was back in Cleveland to find that my cat had fended off a colony of raccoons that broke in and tried to eat the peppermint bark currently residing in the cookie jar.

    He said he was glad it wasn't mice.