2013 Disney World Half Marathon

I started alone, like I do for most races, except this time the alarm went off at 2:30am in a hotel room. My wife lay beside me, my children in the next room at the Art of Animation resort. (gotta love those family suites) I tried my best not to wake them as I ate a quick breakfast and gathered my gear.

Getting There

As I left our building around 3:15am, I saw another runner walking toward the main entrance where a bus waited to pick us up. Then a couple emerged. No one was out there except the crazy people who chose to get up ridiculously early to run this race and pay ridiculous amounts of money for the privilege of exercising. It feels less crazy when I know I’m not alone. The lobby revealed several more runners, all surprisingly awake and seemingly resolved to do great things.

I emerged from the lobby and saw a line of over 100 runners waiting to board at least four busses to the starting area. I had no idea so many of the guests at our resort were running this morning. The lure of the race drew us out like hipsters to an Apple sale. The wait to board wasn’t long thanks to the plethora of busses, and soon enough we arrived at the staging area outside Epcot.

Staging

The staging area was massive, and soon I learned why: about 25,000 people were running the half marathon that morning. The American Airlines Center only holds around 20,000. Disney must have secured every bus and every port-a-potty in Central Florida to support this race. I’d never been involved in a race anywhere near its size. The sheer numbers produced lots of energy but also lots of logistical challenges. First we mingled in one holding area, and then they moved us to another holding area lined on two sides with perhaps 100 port-a-potties. Even with that many, they still had a line to use them. After waiting there for a while, we began a trek to the starting corrals of at least half a mile, maybe more. With that many people and a few narrow points in the path, that short trek took about 45 minutes. The noobs in the crowd like me didn’t know whether there were any port-a-potties at the starting line, so I was starting to kick myself for drinking that extra bottle of water before the race. Numerous men and a few women did the Walk of Shame to the edge of a nearby forest where they could pee one last time before the start. I might or might not have been one of them.

Start

Finally we reached the starting corrals and get into position. Mickey, Donald, and Goofy wore running gear on a distant stage next to the starting line. I stood in the first corral (this race had lots of walkers and run-walkers, apparently, because I’m not terribly fast at this distance), and I was still maybe 100 yards from the line. Did I mention this race was huge? Fireworks lit off as each corral started, which was a really nice touch. After a couple of minutes, I finally reached the starting line around 5:35am. Game on.

As usual, the first mile was really crowded and slow. As with any situation with lots of traffic, such as a busy highway, it’s difficult to go much faster than the people around you and a bit dangerous to go much slower. But unlike other races I’ve done, the congestion remained to some extent for the rest of the race, especially in a few sections where the course narrowed. Plus the organizers placed numerous Disney characters along the course, and many people stopped for pictures. Disney races are about fun and the experience of running in the parks and seeing the characters, not about posting a personal best time. So I expected to finish 15-30 minutes slower than my previous half marathon (Cowtown in Feb 2012).

Here are some of the pictures that definitely make up for my significantly slower pace in this race:

Pictures from my 2013 Disney World Half Marathon

First Characters

The first characters I saw were Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean. They even had a ship. Those who wanted to pose with them formed a line. Then we could have a Disney cast member take a picture with our cameras or simply let the official Brightroom race photographer take it. To keep the line moving, you only got one picture and then had to move on. I don’t remember waiting more than a few minutes for any character. Next came Chip and Dale next to the speedway along with a race car and a beautiful yellow Lamborghini. I decided not to wait in that line. A small but significant detail hung over me throughout the race: I had to finish soon enough to get back to the hotel, shower, change, finish packing, check in for our flight from the hotel, and get to the airport shuttle by 10:00am. So I would have to skip a few of the characters.

Patches of fog hung over various parts of the course as we ran, adding both beauty and spookiness to the atmosphere. (or maybe I’d just spent too much time in The Haunted Mansion that week) I stopped periodically for pics of the runners and the course as well.

Around mile 5 or 6 we reached Magic Kingdom, the highlight of the race for me. Rather than being quiet and deserted like I’d expected, the course was lined with cheering spectators with cowbells, clappers, and signs along with Disney cast members who were happy to take a picture for you. Running in the park so early in the morning with so much support was indescribably cool. The rides weren’t running, but everything was lit up including Cinderella’s Castle. I stopped for pics with Buzz Lightyear in Tomorrowland, Ariel and Belle and Beast in Fantasyland, and Jessie and Bullseye in Frontierland. I also saw Aurora and the Prince from Sleeping Beauty but didn’t stop for a pic. The course took us down Main Street, through Tomorrowland, back through the castle, through Frontierland, and then out through a behind-the-scenes area. Except for a brief stretch through Epcot at the end, this was the only section of the course that’s actually inside a park. Most of the course is on the various roads that connect the parks and hotels to each other.

The Toll

During the first half, I felt pretty good with no pain and decent stamina. But the second half was a different story. I’d spent the week prior at Disney World with my wife and two preschool-age boys, an interesting experience that I’ll blog about separately. (looking back, planning this race for the final day of our vacation wasn’t my brightest move) I was physically and emotionally drained, and I’d only gotten about 3 1/2 hours of sleep Friday night. Plus I hadn’t been able to train as well as I’d planned due to injury and illness. The temperature was in the 60s, which isn’t terrible for running, but with the high Florida humidity made it difficult to perform at my peak. All of these factors caught up with me in the final 6 miles of the race. I kept going, but moving fast became harder, and little aches started popping up in various parts of my legs. It wasn’t as bad as the final few miles of my first half marathon, but still enough to slow me down.

The End

As I reached the final few miles, I stopped for pics with a Green Army Man from Toy Story and Phineas and Ferb, two of the boys’ favorite characters from Disney Jr. I passed by Mary Poppins and Jafar from Aladdin and maybe one other. I stopped for a few more course pics. Some of the local schools sent their bands to play for us on the course, which added some nice music and energy to the race. Enthusiastic spectators continued to pop up in various places, particularly the ones that were easily accessible. Even though they don’t know your name, it’s still nice to have people cheering you on.

We climbed a loooooooong on-ramp and and a loooooong overpass. Finally, the giant golf-ball-looking thing at Epcot called Spaceship Earth came into view, and I knew that, barring a very poorly timed injury, I was going to make it. The miles grew harder and harder, but I pressed on. We entered Epcot through a behind-the-scenes area (I think) and then emerged in Future World to see dozens of cast members cheering us on. The last mile went through the middle of Future World, around Spaceship Earth, and around the fountain, stopping just short of the lake and World Showcase before turning back toward the giant ball. At this point it hit me – I had survived our vacation (it was fun but difficult) and survived this race. This was only the second time I’d ever raced this distance after years of battling asthma as a kid and and leg problems as an adult, and I was about to cross the finish line. A beautiful gospel choir sang for us just before the finish. We weaved through another behind-the-scenes area, came out onto a parking lot, and then saw it – the glorious banner at the end. I tried to pick up the pace for a sprint finish but didn’t have much left in the tank. Finally, I made it, finishing in 2:26:26. Mickey was there giving out high-fives as runners crossed. After that an army of volunteers passed out the finisher’s medals.

Verdict

Overall, I am very glad I ran the Disney World half marathon. The novelty and fun of the race made it worth the high cost, very early start time, and trouble of getting out there. It was a blast. I got some great pictures of the parks, the course, and the characters, including some special ones such as Jack Sparrow and human Ariel. However, right now I probably won’t do another Disney race anytime soon. It was just too big and too early for my taste, especially for a destination race that requires travel. I’m used to local 5K and 10K races that have maybe a few hundred people, races where you can visit the port-a-potty 10 minutes prior to the start with no problem. Those are nice and easy and let me run as fast as my body will allow. However, they don’t let me run through Disney parks and pose with characters, either, so I’m not completely closing the door on RunDisney yet.

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