I started running about four and a half years ago, in the interest of losing weight and getting healthier. For motivation purposes, I ran in a couple 5k races, a distance of 3.1 miles. That being done I opted to double that and I ran a 10k race. I then signed up for a half-marathon the next spring but a medical condition sidelined me that year. When I was able I continued running. After we purchased a funeral home, my runs became less frequent as I committed my efforts into making a go it. In time, things settled down and I started increasing my runs in preparation for the local Fourth of July 5k race. This got me back into the running habit on a more frequent basis, leading to an occasional 5k. As time went by I regretted not being able to run half-marathon a few years earlier and set my eyes on completing one after my sixtieth birthday. I trained for and completed the Kentucky Derby Festival Mini-marathon this past April.
There were times while I was training for that race that I doubted my ability to accomplish that goal. But, I could remember at the end of that race thinking that I could have run farther and started thinking about the possibility of running a full marathon. Four months later, in August, the thought of taking a family vacation to Walt Disney World came to mind and coincidentally about at same time someone mentioned having run in a Disney race. The gears in my brain started turning and I came up with the idea of combining a family trip with a race experience for me.
I looked into it and found that Disney had a race weekend the week following New Years Day. More investigation into the family's schedules led me to believe that this once in a lifetime trip might be possible. I then checked into the RunDisney website to find out about the race weekend and found they offered a 5k, a 10k, a half and a full marathon on four successive days, Thursday through Sunday.
After checking the family’s schedules, I determined that the best days for our trip would be to leave on Tuesday and return on Sunday, giving the family a day in each of Disney's parks. This ruled out running the Marathon since it was on Sunday. So when I started looking into the other races I found that they were already sold out, four months in advance. That's when I realized that running Disney was a big deal, a really big deal. I found that there were limited openings available through private travel agencies and started looking into those possibilities only to find all of them were sold out except the last one I contacted who had an available opening for the half marathon which I took advantage of. The agent was helpful in making all the arrangements for all the family’s accommodations. While she did make one mistake in booking travel, we caught the mistake in time for her to fix the problem but that's a different story.
My race was scheduled for Saturday morning starting at 5:30 a.m. Since these races include running through Disney theme parks they start them early so it doesn't impact their normal daily activities. I had watched the Orlando weather forecast for two weeks prior to know what type of weather to expect at that time of day. I went prepared for temperatures in the upper forties, expecting somewhere in the fifties. As time drew closer, the forecast for rain entered the picture with a chance of thunderstorms. Races go off rain or shine but lightning is a different matter. This concerned me but being the optimist that I am, I thought, “What's the chance that the race would be affected by a thunderstorm?” I guess at many races a storm might cause a delay or postponement but in the case of Disney, that's not an option due to schedule constraints.
I had booked a dinner reservation at Mama Melrose’s, an Italian restaurant at Disney’s Hollywood Studios so I could pig out on pasta the night before the race. The meal was great and I would recommend it if you travel to WDW. During dinner I received an email from the folks at runDisney saying that they were monitoring the weather since there were thunderstorms forecast for Central Florida. They would keep us informed of any developments. My original thoughts were that I would leave the family at the park right after dinner and head on back to get a good night’s sleep. I would have to get up around 3 a.m. to make sure I made it to the bus that would take me to EPCOT where the race was to start at 5:30 am.
After dinner, the rest of the family was planning on attending the 7 pm show called Fantasmic. My sister had told us it was a must see show so I decided I could put off going to bed as early and attended the show with them. As soon as the show was over, I worked my way through the crowd as quickly as I could and got to the bus terminal to catch a ride back to the room. If all went well I could be in bed no later than 8:30. The bus came right away so I was onboard when I pulled out my phone to check for messages. The email read, “In an abundance of caution, the Walt Disney World Resort cancelled all running events on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017 due to weather conditions. This includes the WDW Half Marathon. . . ”. I’m sure if anyone was watching me they would have seen my chin hit the floor in disappointment. All the training, running in the dark and in the cold to prepare to run where it was warm through the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Thus far this week, we had enjoyed a great time doing Disney all out but now this was going to put a damper on my spirits.
The email went on to explain the options. First, they would refund the race entry fee in the form of a Disney gift card. Great, Disney would still ultimately get the money. The next option was to run in a future Disney event within the next 24 months. That would mean another chunk of change to get back to WDW in the future. I had already spent my inheritance to get here to run this one. Third they would give you two One Day Park Hopper passes to WDW which would mean spending more money to take advantage of that offer. The last option was to register for a limited number of openings for the full Marathon on Sunday. We were due to fly out early Sunday morning which meant I would have to extend my stay one day. I considered the options. I was already in Florida, what if I could work it out to stay one more day. I texted my travel agent that had taken care of our arrangements and explained my situation. She told me she would work things out if I could get in the marathon.
Since I was in Florida, extending the room one more night shouldn’t be a problem, then I could catch a flight on Monday and rent a car to get back to Campbellsville. I texted the travel agent, asked her to do her magic, registered for the race and finally was about ready for bed when the rest of the family got back to the room. They did their best to console me as I told them my plan. I went to bed not knowing how things would work out. I didn’t hear my phone chirp with an email during the night and was up early to check it out but to no avail. I had no news of being registered. I went back into the site where I had registered for the race to discover that there was one final screen where I should have clicked COMPLETE and I hadn’t. I thought COMPLETE meant that I was finished with the registration. I clicked COMPLETE but figured that I had probably missed out on one of the limited number of slots. But it wasn’t long before I received an email saying that I was registered to run in the Marathon. Whew! I’m in. All I had to do was go back to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Center on Disney grounds between 11 am and 4 pm to get my credentials.
The rest of the family got up and before long we all headed to Disney’s Animal Kingdom adorned with ponchos as the rain had come. I’m not sure the thunderstorm was ever as severe as forecast but it had passed. We were there to do Disney rain or shine. My plans were to take in a few things with the family and then catch a bus to the resort so I could catch another bus to ESPN Wide World of Sports. In my mind that shouldn’t take too long but it got to be somewhat stressful when things weren’t moving as fast as I had hoped. Back at the Pop Century Resort while waiting for the next bus I started hearing others talk about the low temperatures and high winds forecast for the next morning. Hmmm! I was used to running in the cold but didn’t bring the hat and gloves I needed for that. I also heard about the traffic jam over at the Wide World of Sports complex as runners descended on the place to collect whatever form of reimbursement they had selected. Reports were that some had stood in line 4 hours to get their reimbursement gift card. I hoped that it wouldn’t take me that long to get my credentials since I was to meet the family back at Animal Kingdom for dinner at 5:15. Fortunately it didn’t take that long once the bus finally got there to get what I needed and purchase a hat to keep my ears warm the next morning at the Runner’s Expo. Gloves were a scarce commodity in Florida and had been sold out earlier. A pair of socks would have to suffice as a pair of mittens to keep my hands warm the next morning.
I returned back to Animal Kingdom just in time to meet the family for dinner at the Rainforest Café. I probably ate too much but what the heck, I was going to run 26.2 miles the next morning. Twenty six and two tenths miles, what was I thinking? The farthest I had ever run at one time in training for the half was just over 17 miles. How could I make an additional 9 miles? Time would tell, I just knew I had to pace myself. My wife and daughters were concerned about my ability to go the distance and I assured them my life insurance was paid up. That didn’t go over too well. After dinner, I went on back to the room to get as much sleep as possible and yes, the wind had picked up and it was getting colder.
I have gotten good at knowing how many layers to put on for a certain temperature so I readied my things so they would be ready to slip on the next morning. I checked my gear, set two alarms and went to bed. I hardly knew when my wife and two granddaughters came into the room from their evening at Animal Kingdom. It had been a long week and were out of it pretty soon. They had to get up early also because of an early flight but not at three o’clock when I did. I got up and had my typical pre-race breakfast of Cherrios and a banana and was off to catch the bus to Epcot. One of the advantages of staying at a Disney Resort is the fact that they provide transportation.
As I walked to the bus stop I could feel the coolness and the stiff breeze. I know that many runners will wear sacrificial clothing that they will discard along the way as they warm up but I just never anticipated needing anything more than what I had with me. There was a motorcoach awaiting as I got to the bus stop and I climbed right on and settled into the comfortable seat. I noticed someone walking up wearing a cheap poncho and I wish I had thought to pick up one that we used the day before. At least it would have helped block the wind and hold the heat in. Others showed up with garbage bags pulled over their heads. Anything to help block the wind while waiting.
Shortly the bus pulled away for the ten or so minute trip to EPCOT. I was just trying to clear the cobwebs and prepare myself, thinking about how to manage the run so I could survive 26.2 miles. My seat mate made small talk about the cancellation of the half and we were soon there. I had studied the maps in the race guide and knew there was a hike to the starting corrals. I wasn’t anticipating passing through the tents where you could check your gear. I had taken the advice in the race guide, and didn’t bring a gear bag to be checked. I followed others, and there was a lot of others, between these tents on to the road leading to corrals. When I picked up my credentials the day before they told me to just go to the same corral that I would have started in the half. I guess they didn’t have time to reclassify those transferring from the half so this meant I was starting in corral F, 6 corrals from the front but 10 from the rear. I didn’t expect starting this close to the front and I anticipated running at the back of this pack.
On the walk to the corrals which was probably over a half mile away, I noticed many cardboard trash bins with plastic trash bag liners. Many of them had blown over and there were workers gathering loose bags, trying to put them back in the trash boxes. With the stiff breeze, they were fighting a losing battle. I noticed several bags had blown free of the boxes and were entangled in the bushes lining the road and took advantage of one of them. I tore a hole in the end to stick my head through and used it to block the wind since it was still several minutes until the start of the race. I spent some time stretching and doing some slow jogging back and forth in the corral. The last real running I had done was Tuesday morning on a treadmill in Cincinnati prior to flying out. Treadmill running tends to cause sore feet and ankles for me. Couple that with a week of walking and standing in lines and my feet were feeling the effects. I just was trying to get loose and get the blood flowing. As the start drew nearer, the corral started filling up and men were jumping the temporary fencing to run off over the bank to relieve themselves. I was thinking about the alligators that frequent the area and how it would a bad time to meet up with one. I opted to wait.
I was paying limited attention to the large screen video boards and big speakers blaring music and interviews from the stage. Finally, the time was at hand and with a blast of fireworks the first corral was on its way. Every few minutes, another round of fireworks and another corral was off. We continued to advance toward the start line and I ditched my trash bag, checked the Runkeeper app on my phone and made sure my Garmin watch was ready to start.
Flash, boom and off I go past the stage on the left, across the start line and out into the dark. I’m positioned on the right side of the corral about mid pack and we are running at a comfortable pace. I just didn’t want to go off too fast since pace was going to be such an important part of surviving this. We come to the first mile sign and I was just under a 10:30 pace. Was that too fast? Not if I was running a half but this was twice as far. I was running comfortably, the soreness in my feet was gone and I was warming up. We were on open road and it wasn’t as crowded as I remember experiencing in my first half marathon in Louisville.
I run on easily in the dark, trying to remember to pay attention to my Garmin that was set to remind me to slow down for a minute after four minutes of a steady pace. We draw closer to the parking lot entrance for the Magic Kingdom and I wonder how many cars have gone through this entrance over the years. We run through the monstrous parking lot toward the Magic Kingdom and descend into a tunnel and come out in front of the Contemporary Resort.
We continue into the Magic Kingdom and make a right turn onto Main Street with Cinderella’s Castle all lit from top to bottom in front of us. It was quite a sight as Disney cast members stand out in front of the shops cheering us on and giving high fives. We hang a right at the end of Main Street and head on over to Tomorrowland where I took the opportunity to make a pit stop before moving on to Fantasyland. It was neat running past the ques where I had stood in line with the family just days before at the various rides. Our trek lead us through iconic Cinderella’s Castle and then a right to Frontierland and out of the park on a service road.
Once runners leave the Magic Kingdom they get one of many chances to rehydrate with PowerAde or water. I can remember Jeff Galloway’s advice over the PA system before the start to not to forget hydrating just because it was cold. I’m glad I finally got the hang of drinking while running without drowning. Runners soon run past the Grand Floridian then the Polynesian Resorts on the left and a golf course on the right. Before long we leave the wideness of the main road onto one of the parks service roads. Even through this area occasionally we’d run past some Disney characters stationed on the side of the road for those frequent photo ops along the way.
We got to see areas of Disney that most don’t get to see. Facilities that are necessary for the operation of such a massive place hosting so many people. There were service areas where they tended to their fleet of vehicles, warehouse facilities, greenhouses and even the wastewater treatment plant as we cover miles 8 through 12. I started seeing some substantial fences behind the vegetation and I realize that we were nearing Animal Kingdom.
About the time I entered Animal Kingdom and mile 13, I started feeling something in my shoe other than my foot. Under my right heel was a grain of sand or something larger that I knew I could not ignore with half the race yet to come. Fortunately, as we get into the park I see a bench right on the side of the road where I could set down and lose this irritant. It wasn’t nearly as large as it felt but I was glad to get rid of it. I proceed and check my Garmin as I go past the half way point and see that I am a few minutes behind the time that I had completed a half marathon in April. That just meant that I was being successful in pacing myself. I recognized the surroundings that our family had visited the day before in the rain. We run past the big tree that stands in the center of the park as Disney cast members cheer us on. We exit the park as guests are arriving for a day of adventures. They cheer us on but I wonder what they are thinking about us as they see hundreds of runners go by. I am thankful that I am not as cold as they look.
Time for more open road work as we run past a marching band as we leave the parking lot at Animal Kingdom. As we run toward the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, I am nearing my longest run distance. Overall I am feeling good, my pace is staying steady at just over 11 minutes per mile as I continue running 4 minutes and walking one. There’s a time when we were running into a stiff head wind that I could feel the cold as the sweat evaporated. I even pulled the socks out of my pockets and put them back on my hands to get them to warm back up.
The ESPN Wide World of Sports complex is a sprawling collection of soccer fields, baseball diamonds, tennis courts and the like. We weave in and out of the fields as marching bands play. We take a lap around a running track. Why couldn’t the whole course have this cushy surface. We continue along and start hearing a recording warning us of a sharp turn ahead and we soon take a hard left and are on the warning track of the baseball field where the Atlanta Braves play spring ball. A lap around the field, serenaded by another band in the stands, and we are back out on the road. At a nutrition stop I am handed a CLIF gel which I didn’t look at before I torn the top of and sucked it down. I found that Mocha is not a flavor I will ever buy and I will always look at what I am ingesting in the future.
As we run away from the complex we are meeting hundreds running at us from the other direction. I am coming up on mile 21 and I am thinking I can do this, only a 10k to go. We run up an on ramp which was the closest thing to a hill that we encountered. A couple more miles brings us to Hollywood Studios and we enter the park near the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. We head up Hollywood Boulevard which has hundreds of yellow cones down the center separating us from the crowd of park goers. It’s hard to let all these people see me walk though my body would really like to.
We clear the Hollywood Studios grounds and it’s back to the run walk regiment with some of my runs being 3 minutes with 2 minute walks. With every run period, another muscle makes itself known but the pains pass only to show up elsewhere later. It’s not far until we are running past the Swan and Dolphin Hotels which I know is drawing me ever closer to EPCOT and the finish line. I go past the 25-mile marker as we enter the EPCOT World Showcase and run through the countries. If you’ve been there you know what I mean. As we go past Norway I wish I had the Fast Pass that we used on the Frozen ride to get me to the finish faster, but I knew it wasn’t much further. As I near the big EPCOT sphere I’m inspired to speed up but my legs feel like they are about done. I keep running to the 26-mile marker but I can’t see the finish. Finally, around the corner I see it and I will myself to cover those last two tenths. There’s Mickey standing there with his hand out. He gives me five as I cross the line and I breathe that sigh of relief knowing that I had finished my first marathon.
I did it, I had run Disney! Take that, Bucket List!