This is a cross post from my running blog at Run, Kimmy, Run!
I did it! I am officially a half-marathoner! I ran the 2014 WDW half-marathon last Saturday, January 11th. The race itself and the days before and after were truly magical in many ways. To conquer the distance and to do it at Disney made it even more fun than I imagined it would be. It wasn't just about my journey. It was about seeing those I traveled with, and even complete strangers, achieve their goals and experience their own personal triumph. The sheer number of times I was moved to tears by what I saw spoke to the emotional impact of running Disney, not only to me, but to countless others.
In other news, now that I have drunk the Run Disney Kool-Aid, I am hooked. What an amazing experience! I fear I've embarked on an expensive hobby! Run Disney races really are about the experience, not just the mileage. They say every mile is magic for a reason! If you have ever dreamed of running Disney, I highly recommend it! That said, preparing and planning for it will make your experience all that much more magical.
As I prepared for this race, I scoured the interwebs looking for as much information as I could about what to expect from this WDW Marathon Weekend. I'm a planner and an information junkie. It was harder than I thought to find the information I wanted to know. Run Disney publishes shockingly little detail of it's races and most of it is in the race program available to runners about a month prior to the race. Even then, it's logistics, and not terribly practical for the new runner. There are a few videos on youTube and some Facebook groups and blogs out there, with more to come, I'm sure, as the popularity of these races skyrockets. They were helpful for sure, but I wanted more. It is part of my inspiration in writing this blog, so that it might help others in their preparation for a Disney race and learn from mine. It most certainly was a learning experience!
One of my favorite sources of information as I've prepared for this half-marathon has been the Mickey Miles Podcast. They deserve a huge shout out! I highly recommend it to anyone who plans to run a Disney race. They have a wealth of information, wonderfully knowledgeable guests, and really helped to answer many of the questions I had and help me prepare for the unique experience of running a Disney race. I even had the wonderful opportunity to attend a Mickey Miles meet up at the Beach Club the day before the half-marathon and meet the co-hosts and some other Mickey Milers. It was great to put faces with names and make some new friends! I even joined their running team to benefit Give Kids the World! If you don't know what Give Kids the World is, take a moment to visit their Web site. They often host wish kids and their families for the Make a Wish Foundation and they are amazing!
Here is my recap of the race itself. I opted to write about the Pasta Dinner, Expo, chEAR squad and spectating, and post race recap as separate blog posts.
The wake up call came from Mickey Mouse himself at 2:15 am. "Time to wake up, Pal!...." The reality is, despite trying to be in bed and asleep by 10 pm, none of us slept very long or very well. We *might* have gotten 3 hours of sleep. Between the excitement of it finally being race day and the fear of oversleeping, it was almost far too easy to be awake that early in the morning.
Race day was warm and humid. 68 degrees when we woke up and 68% humidity! We have been training in very cold, dry, weather here in the northeast, so it felt hot to us! It was cloudy until late morning though, which helped keep the temps from skyrocketing until after the race was over. There was a yellow flag warning for moderate heat and a cautionary statement to take it slower than ideal conditions and hydrate well.
We had all laid out everything we needed for the race the night before so it was just a matter of getting dressed and getting out the door. Here is what we looked like at about 2:50 am.
The buses started running at 3 am and were dedicated from each resort hotel directly to Epcot. Disney contracted with coach bus companies to provide race weekend transportation and it was fabulous. We did not have to wait for the bus at all. They ran them continuously and our bus was not even full. There were buses dropping off people at 3:20 am that were full, presumably from the bigger or value resorts. We were dropped off in the parking lot and walked across the tram way to the staging area. I noticed that at that time, people driving to Epcot for the race had prime parking, although spaces were limited. If you plan to drive, plan to arrive at 3 am when the lot opens!
We first went through security bag check. There were several stations set up. At that time (about 3:25 ish) there was no wait and we quickly made our way through. Even running belts had to be checked. We walked across the parking lot to where the gEAR bag check tents and pre-race staging was set up. There was a DJ playing LOUD and very upbeat music and even a few folks dancing to warm up. Water was available for purchase from carts. There were plenty of porta potties. There were picture stations set up with the WDW Marathon logo backdrop if you wanted to take a pre (or post) race picture. There were flags set up (alphabetical) for the family reunion meeting spots post race. It was a time where teams gathered for their pre-race meet ups and photos, runners sat around and ate, drank, and did their pre-race stretching and warming up. For those who opted for race retreat, the tent was set up for them as well. I'm not sure it would be worth the money given how quickly the time passed. Of course if it were 35 degrees, I might say otherwise!
Cattle call. Otherwise known as the Corral Crawl.
Soon, they began calling the runners to their corrals. Although you could check your bag at any time (which needed to be the official Run Disney large clear plastic draw string gEAR bag given to you at the packet pick up), they preferred that you checked it and continued through the bag check tent to the corrals rather than back to the staging area. The tent was arranged alphabetically. Bag check was quick and easy on both ends of the race!
Once through bag check we began the long, slow walk to the corrals. I felt like we were a herd of cattle. Everyone was walking deliberately slowly. I'd guess it was close to a mile walk from the bag check tent to the start line and was easily a 15 minute walk. Corrals were labeled with big colored balls and signs and volunteers directed you to your corral. Plenty of porta-potties and bins for trash, recycling, and clothes (Disney donates 'warm up' clothing runners leave behind) lined the route to the start. It was a nice opportunity to chat with others around you and make some new friends.
When we finally reached our corral, cast members checked our bibs to be sure we were entering the right corral. I hugged my sister and wished her luck when we parted as she was in a different corral. I was in the "I" corral. We were ideally positioned in front of the jumbotron they had set up for us a bit back from the start so we could see and hear the happenings on the stage at the start line. In between announcements, a DJ keep the energy high. We warmed up to the 'Cha Cha Slide', 'What the Fox Say' and a rousing sing along of 'Don't Stop Believin'. In the corrals there was more sitting, stretching, snacking and hydrating. As the official race start of 5:35 am neared, we began to inch closer to the start. Then, Donald counted it down, fireworks exploded from the start line, and the wheelchair athletes were off and rolling!
Corrals were sent off every 2 minutes with Donald counting it down and fireworks sending off the runners. I was shocked at how quickly we shuffled our way to the start. Next thing I knew it was time for our corral. I gave my friend Mel a high-five, wished her luck (she runs faster than I do), and waved to Donald as the fireworks sounded for our corral and we off and running! Our long awaited WDW half-marathon was happening. What a thrilling moment! My sister later told me she actually saw me start on the jumbotron from her corral behind me. That was pretty cool!
The cheering spectators across the street on the left rang their cow bells, clapped and cheered. Cast members and volunteers clapped and waved Mickey hands as we passed. As we made our way down World Drive, we could hear the fireworks going off as each corral left behind us. The road was dark but there were flood lights set up to lend some light. We were greeted by marching bands, cast members, and various characters along the way. Around mile 2-3 we saw the wheelchair athletes and the first runners making their way back toward Epcot for the finish. They were probably around mile 9 or 10! We cheered for them as we ran! They were fast!
The on-course entertainment and characters
I had not planned to stop for characters along the course unless I saw one I really wanted to have a picture with. I tried to take photos of some but my little camera did a poor job in the dark and dim light and my hands were shaky. I took a few photos but wish I had taken more. Most were of disappointing quality. I found the mile markers did not come out well in the dark for me. I was sad, because I did want to take a photo at each mile. Because I was using my phone to run Runkeeper, my music and my interval timer, I didn't want to use it for pictures too as I was concerned about battery life or dropping my phone, although it probably would have taken better ones than my little Canon point and shoot!
The mile markers were all movie themed and had a song from that movie playing continuously. One of our chEAR squad members, the fabulous Wendy, was directly across from the mile 4 marker themed to Beauty and the Beast. I think if she ever hears 'Be our Guest' again it will be too soon! The mile markers displayed gun time (official race start) so you had to be tracking your own time to know your pace rather than rely on the signs. Run Disney also recorded kilometer splits at 5, 10, and 15K which were transmitted to anyone who signed up to track your run. You should send it to yourself so you'll know your splits, if not during the race, you can see them afterwards!
Some of the on course entertainment and photo ops I recall included several marching bands and DJ's, including the best rockin' DJ ever with the giant Mickey Hands just before the Magic Kingdom, the pirate boat and Jack Sparrow (accessible from both sides of World Drive so wait till you are heading back to Epcot, shorter lines!), the Nightmare Before Christmas, a Lamborghini and stock car from the Speedway, Darkwing Duck, Buzz Lightyear (Tomorrow land), Alice and the rabbit (Tomorrow Land), the WDW Steam train, Prince Charming, Cinderella and the mice, the Reedy Creek Fire Truck, Golf Mickey and Donald (by the Grand Floridian), Lilo and Stitch (by the Polynesian), Disney Cruise Lines, the Toy Story Army Guys, Cheerleaders, the amazing gospel choir just before leaving Epcot and, of course, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Goofy at the finish line. I know I'm forgetting a few and may have missed some as well. Overall, there were not as many characters as I expected there would be and they were not really evenly spaced throughout the race course.
The Magic Kingdom!
This is why so many people run these races. For the experience of mile 5-6. The castle! To run through the parks before they open, sometimes in the dark, to see areas you don't normally get to see like 'back stage', and to go through cast entrances is something Disney fans love to experience. Running through the Magic Kingdom is surely the highlight of the half and full marathon for many runners, especially first time Disney runners.
As I ran under the 7 seas Lagoon and under the bridge where the awesome DJ was spurring us on to Main Street, we emerged in the shadow of Space Mountain. It was beginning to get light out now. We were directed through a cast traffic security gate and toward the cast entrance to the Magic Kingdom. We entered through the gates between Tony's Town Square and the shops, directly across from the Emporium. I distinctly remember getting a bit teary eyed as I approached, largely because I was quite warm, recovering from my earlier blood sugar crash, and from the emotional impact of imagining this moment for the past year, hearing the roar of the crowd on Main street and realizing I was about to do this!
There were a few cast members cheering the runners as we approached the entrance to Main street. One of them yelled, "You're at the best part! Welcome to the Magic Kingdom princes and princesses, and to Main Street USA! Now go, run to that castle!" I high-fived them and ran through the gate, misty-eyed and full of awe and happiness . It was what entering the Olympic stadium must feel like for those athletes. Spectators lined the entire length of Main street several deep. There were cheers, cow bells, clappers, amazing signs, hands out for high-fives, and cast members on the right clapping, cheering, and taking photos of runners if they asked. It was loud and high energy. It was amazing. What a boost of energy it gave! I was disappointed the castle icicle lights were not on as they were for the full marathon. I get that the marathon is 'the' event of the week and they get the 'best' of what Run Disney has to offer, but I was looking forward to the castle being all that much more beautiful. Everyone seemed to slow down to savor the experience, some looking for family and friends in the crowd, others stopping for photos. My sister was looking to see if anyone taking video caught her and found this one. It captures the spectator experience at the start and Main. St, and at about 1 minute in, they caught me running on Main St. near the circle in front of the castle toward Tomorrow Land!
We ran toward the castle and into Tomorrow Land, past the tea cups and between the Carousel and Fairy Tale Princess Hall toward 'it'. Cinderella's castle! Photographers were stationed pre and post castle to capture the runners. I was fortunate that I was able to slowly jog through the castle. My sister said when she got there later it was a dead stop and they had to walk through slowly. Lots of cheering from the runners, hands in the air, as they emerged to the cheers of the spectators and offering a view of Main Street with the runners streaming in toward where you now were. Another photo I wish I had taken! I knew my family was on this side of the castle and began to scan the crowd for them. They saw me long before I saw them! I was directed to my photo op in front of the castle. This was well-orchestrated. I didn't even have to wait. They had several photographers and a mark on the pavement where to stand. Strike your pose and then you were off and running again in no time! Finally, I saw my family. I ran over for hugs and a quick picture and then I was off. Right to Liberty Square and a REAL bathroom! Turns out I did a really good job hydrating! Note: Managing running outfits/costumes that are wet like a wet bathing suit adds time to bathroom stops! Another advantage of using a park bathroom is the ability to splash water on your face/arms/neck if you are hot or make necessary costume adjustments!
The Long Road Back to Epcot...
As we ran toward the parade gate to back stage, the WDW railroad train was there, steam engine blowing. Runners with a sense of humor lay on the tracks in front of it for a photo op. I feared if I lay down, I wouldn't get up! Back stage was a parade float with Cinderella, Prince Charming, the mice, and a very long line. I waved, took a poor photo and kept going. My sister noticed on the other side were all the logs from Splash Mountain which was being refurbished! Mile 6 is just outside the Magic Kingdom. There is still half a race to go!
This is the part of the course most runners dread. The combination of the let down of leaving the Magic Kingdom, the lack of characters, and the limited access for spectators to cheer you on when you need it most can make for a long, lonely stretch, especially if you are running alone. There are opportunities for spectators at both the Grand Floridian and Polynesian. There were precious few at the GF and they were all asleep! No noise! There were many more folks at the Polynesian, including our great ChEAR squad mama, Wendy, who went back and forth between mile marker 4 at the TTC and the Poly for all 3 of us runners! She was amazing! We really needed it and her cheers really helped us along!
Entertainment in the form of characters is sparse in this stretch although there were a few. There were bands and DJ's and even just a speaker system set up to play the official race songs of "Roar", "Don't stop Believin" and "Let it Go" in a continuous loop at mile 7- ish. This is where my playlist came in very handy! I was able to get back into my intervals and find my groove, and I actually ran the second half of the race faster than the first half. First time in my life I actually ran negative splits! Still, I ran significantly slower than training pace. I didn't care. I wasn't running for a PR. I was running Disney!
Hydration, Nutrition and Medical Assistance
There was Power Aide and Water about every mile to mile and a half along the course. Big long tables on both sides of the course with tons of amazing volunteers handing cups to passing runners. Power Aide was always first and in blue cups and water was always second and in yellow cups. The Clif nutrition stop was about mile 8.5 and all they offered were a variety of clif shots. I thought there would be bananas but there were none. I carried water in my water belt although I actually never drank it. I did take water at every stop and at times took a cup and splashed it over my body to cool down. I also carried clif shots and Snap sport beans in my pockets. Our chEAR-er Wendy handed me my chocolate coconut water at mile 4 and I drank that instead of Power-Aide (lemon-lime was the flavor given at all stops).
There were also medical tents along the way. They had ample band-aids, bio-freeze and Vaseline along with ice and the ability to assess and treat minor to more severe injures. When they were not assisting runners, they were cheering. Ambulances were on stand-by if needed.
The volunteers deserve a huge shout-out and thank you. They are often up even earlier and out there on the course far longer than the runners are and they work hard to make our experience magical. I made a point to say thank you all of the ones I came in contact with or shouted and waved a thank you as I ran by others. They rock!
Miles 10-12 are the 'heartbreak hill' of the Disney Half-Marathon. The ramps! While not a problem for me since I train on hills and these were long, gradual 'hills', the fact that they come at the end of the race is a challenge to many. It's actually pretty cool, as you can see the runners both ahead and behind you and your destination comes into view. Spaceship Earth becomes visible! So close! At the bottom of the last ramp was a DJ telling us that mile 12 marker was around the corner. We were almost there!
As I ran toward the cast entrance to Epcot, there were both spectators and those waiting to enter the park for the day, as it was not yet open. Some seemed quite put off by the crowds as they had no idea there was a race going on! It sort of surprised me how many visitors to the park, and even cast members we talked to in the days prior to the race, had no idea it was Marathon Weekend! You'd think Disney would have at least educated all their staff it was Marathon weekend! The spectators here were kind of quiet. No, really quiet. I know they were probably tired of cheering an hour or two or waiting for their runners, but we were tired! It was the last mile! I sure needed that energy boost. To run by all those people and hear pathetically little in the way of encouragement was almost discouraging! I yelled to them "let's hear it, we're tired!" and made gestures to encourage them to make some noise, which several did respond to. I actually ran up to a bunch of strangers and said, "Holy crap! I'm going to do this!" and they woke up and cheered. Thank goodness! Even though they probably thought I was nuts.
Just inside the cast gate was the last water stop. Cast members and volunteers welcomed us to Epcot and the last mile. Many cast members ready to start their day were out cheering for the runners. You could feel the energy pick up again, and runners pick up their pace as they headed for the World Showcase turn around and then, to the finish.
Just before exiting the park was quite possibly the most unique and best part of this race. The Gospel choir! Yes. A full gospel choir. They were fantastic! People stopped to take photos, dance, and sing right along with them! Then it was out of Epcot and the mile 13 marker! Then, the finish line! It didn't even occur to me to take photos! Spectators lined that last tenth of a mile, cheering and encouraging runners to the finish. The announcers welcomed finishers and upbeat music played in the background. I got my pixie dust ready and Donald, Daisy and Goofy were there when I crossed. I got to high-five Donald and Daisy just before I crossed! Then I threw my pixie dust into the air in honor of my Meggie and once again became teary eyed. I did it! I ran a half-marathon! Yay me! Yay everyone that did it!
The Finisher Chute
It ain't over till it's over! Crossing the finish line is an accomplishment but you have to keep moving. There are lots of people right behind you! It is a well-organized and well-oiled Run Disney machine! After you finish you proceed in the chute and get your medal. There are many volunteers on both sides handing out medals so you don't have to go to the first person you see. Having that medal put around my neck was a dream come true. The guy who gave it to me was pretty cute, too! ;-)
From medals it's on to get your water and then your snack box and banana. Along the way the official photographers take your photo. Then it's your official finisher photo against a Run Disney Finisher backdrop. I looked a bit spacey for this one. I wish I had the forethought to strike a more fun pose! From the photo you are back to the same area we began in. The medical tent is on the right and then a massage tent. Massages are cash only and I had planned on this so I got an immediate post race massage and it was awesome. I also got to keep the Run Disney mylar blanket I lay on for the massage, which came in handy because I got chilled. To my knowledge they were not given out anywhere else but the medical or massage tent for the half.
If you opted out of medical or massage, then you went back through the bag check to retrieve your bag which was quick and easy once again and the bag check staff clapped and cheered for everyone who came through that door. Then, it was back to the initial staging area to meet your friends/family. Note: Plan where you will re-connect with your friends and family before you run. Much easier that way! It's crowded, you are tired and post race 'dumb', at least I was, and cell phone batteries might die. I found my friend Holly and her family here, too! This is us!
Buses back to the resorts were also accessible from this area. You could also walk to the finish to see others finish. We were able to get back to the finish in time to see my sister finish. I love this photo I took of her just after she crossed the finish line! I am so proud of her!
The DJ was still rockin' it and characters were available for photos.
There were vendors, porta potties and meeting tents for groups as well as a place to have your medal engraved. We hung out for a while, got some photos and had cupcakes from the amazing Wendy who spotted the Yum Yum cupcake truck! Then we got a bus back to our resort. All in all, we left our resort about 3 am and returned at about 11 am. Staff at the resort congratulated us and some applauded.
What an amazing day!
Advice from a Newbie
- Don't walk the parks the day before the race, at all! Maybe even save all of your sightseeing for after you run. We thought we'd 'take it easy' with 3 hours at Hollywood studios the day before the race but we still logged almost 10 miles of walking that day, as well as the two days prior. It made for tired legs! We all ran much slower than we had in training runs, this being one of the reasons I am sure. In retrospect, I would save the parks for after I run next time. Oh, and my Fitbit said that I logged nearly 20 miles that one day of the race! Granted, we also went to Epcot for a few hours in the afternoon and for dinner but that's a lot of mileage!
- Savor the expo. We were in and out pretty quick. I don't like crowds or shopping, but again, in retrospect, I do wish I took the time to really survey what was there, truly experience what the Expo had to offer, wait in line to meet Jeff Galloway, and attend some of the free seminars they offered. If I do it again, I will plan to spend more time at the Expo and meet Jeff. He is my running hero!
- Remember your training! I totally got off my intervals from the start. I ran the entire first mile without walk breaks. Then I was all messed up with photo stops and not being able to hear through my headphone due to the noise around me so I stopped when I thought it was time to, which had me running longer intervals than I usually do. I just wasn't mindful until I started to feel tired.
- Don't expect to PR or even to keep your training pace. Enjoy the experience that is running Disney. I wish I took more photos. I wish I was more mindful of certain experiences. I wish I remembered to have my snacks! I ran slower than I expected (and I had already expected to run slower than my training pace by about 15 minutes) but that's OK. The weather was humid and I made newbie mistakes. Live and learn. Most of all, have fun! For what it costs to travel to and run at Disney, you should savor every moment!
- Be mindful of your race nutrition needs! This one really got me. With all the walking we did at the parks, we forgot to compensate for the extra calories we burned doing that. Despite eating well, I think I did not eat enough pre-race. I was so focused on hydrating, I wasn't hungry and didn't think to over-compensate. I trained with and expected to have clif shots and sport beans at regular intervals during my run to manage my blood sugar. I got thrown off by the early start, the adrenaline rush of the experience and the excitement of the first 4 miles that by the time I hit mile 4 I was already crashing and it took me a while to figure out why I felt so crappy already. Yep, low blood sugar makes you dumb. I had been hydrating well but had forgotten all about my sport beans! It took me a while to realize I needed my clif shot which I usually take at mile 3. The lack of sleep, the 10 miles a day of walking for the 3 days prior, and the adrenaline rush of running Disney almost did me in before I even got to Main street!
- Don't forget to eat post race. I carried my snack box and banana for far longer than I should have instead of eating it! Again, low blood sugar makes you dumb! I also know I'm just not hungry after I run, so I usually force myself to eat. I was so distracted by the goings on around me at the finish and the excitement of it all that I totally spaced on eating! Those cupcakes saved me and they were soooooo yummy! Have I mentioned Wendy rocks?
- Be a spectator for the races you are not running! Even just for a little while. It's wicked fun and gives you a whole new perspective and appreciation for what it's like to be on the other side of running. Our chEAR squad was the best!
8. Where you medal everywhere! Where else can you wear your bling for days afterward? You earned it!
Needless to say, the experience was amazing. You only run your first half-marathon once. You only run your first Disney race once. To have two amazing opportunities wrapped up into one was more than I ever imagined. To do it with my sister and friends, and to have my parents and aunt there to cheer us on made it even more special. You know what the icing on the cake was? The heart cloud I saw after the race. I had seen several that day, but this one was a huge one. Moved me to tears. Again. For those who don't know the story, ever since my daughter died 9 years ago, I see heart clouds at significant times in my life. I think this one was a big "Way to go, Mommy!" from my own little Tinker Bell.
In fact, I have my sights on the Tinker Bell half in 2015. Seems appropriate. :-)