Each year, the first weekend in January sees more than 50,000 people descend on Walt Disney World during what would otherwise be a very quiet time of year. It’s an interesting time to be at the resort. Christmas is over, but it is not gone yet. The trees are still up, lights still shine at night (although the famous dancing lights are silent), and much of the atmospheric music is still the holiday medley.
Of course, this is not the reason for the mass migration to the resort. Runners of all levels come down to take part in the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend. This ever expanding event has become a yearly experience for many Disney fans of all fitness levels. This year I experienced both my first Disney running event, as well as, my first full marathon.
Like so many of my fellow participants, I would never have described myself as a runner until very recently. About two years ago I started running regularly in an attempt to lose some post college weight. After cheering on a friend in the NYC Marathon in 2009, I signed up for my first race later that month. It was a four mile run, a daunting distance for me at that point in my running experience. I had the idea of tackling the 26.2 miles in the back of my mind, and I decided what better place than my favorite place, Walt Disney World, to try. I signed up for the 2011 WDW Marathon. Over the next year, I ran five half marathons and almost 1000 miles in preparation for the race. I went from someone with no athletic ability whatsoever to being a full fledged runner.
The weekend is not the marathon alone, but consists of several running activities for nearly every age group and level of fitness, as well as the expo (which all runners must attend to pick up their numbers and goody bag, as well the requisite merchandise opportunities.) For younger runners, there are two days worth of kids races, including the Mickey Mile. Friday morning features a family 5K race at Epcot. I used this race as my final warm up and I could run with my partner. We finished in just over 27 minutes, a very nice finish especially considering that he is not a runner. The 5K is a great way for those who are not runners to introduce themselves to the sport.
The weekend continues with the half marathon on Saturday morning and the full marathon on Sunday morning. For those of you who are not satisfied tackling one of those alone, the Goofy Challenge offers you the chance to run both races, and receive a special medal to commemorate the achievement.
If you are going to run either of these races, know that you will be waking up early, very early. I was on the monorail from the Contemporary at 3am. As a special bonus for marathon weekend, the Contempo Cafe had 24 hour service offering running staples like bananas and bagels. Disney says they want you there early and you definitely need to be as the walk from the staging area to the start corrals took almost an hour. I got in place with about half an hour to go. The start is on the highway behind the Epcot parking lot. In true Disney style, the race begins with fireworks and other pyrotechnics.
There were thousands of spectators at the start. If you do intend to go to the start to cheer, know that you will not have a clear view of what is happening at the start, as spectators are not permitted at the start corrals. But stick around for mile four, as the race will pass the same point again, this time on the near side of the highway, giving you a better opportunity to see your runner.
I normally wear headphones when I run, but not for this race. Disney has entertainment set up all along the course. Entering Epcot at mile two we were treated with several floats, and of course the music, from the Main Street Electrical Parade. After Epcot, it’s off to World Drive and the Magic Kingdom. It was here at about mile seven that the sun finally came up. Thousands of spectators lined up at the Transportation and Ticket Center. The first major hill occurs just before the Contemporary, when you run under the water bridge. You may not have realized it from riding on a Disney bus, but that slope is steeper than it looks.
The high point for so many runners (other than the finish line) is at mile ten as you enter the Magic Kingdom. Main Street is completely packed with spectators. It’s almost a surreal experience as you run toward Tomorrowland and cast members cheer you on rather than asking you to slow down. Long stem trumpeters play as you come through the Castle.
After exiting Magic Kingdom behind Splash Mountain (and getting a great backstage look at the actual working structure of the attraction) it was on to the next stretch of roadway. The halfway point occurs just beyond the Polynesian, before the course turns off on to Bear Island Road, a road which most WDW guests will never have traveled down before. This leads to the recycling and water treatment facility, and then to Animal Kingdom. The course is full of music, and one song that stuck in my head for weeks after the race was at mile fifteen. A hot air balloon was in a perpetual state of takeoff with “Up Up and Away” by the Fifth Dimension playing in the background.
The road into Animal Kingdom was a long one, passing the large and numerous security fences that are out of the view of any guests in the park. Cast members stood by with goats on leashes at the entrance to the park. After running past Everest, it was into the parking lot and on to Osceola Parkway.
This was the most difficult part of the course. This is the point where many runners will begin to feel very tired and “hit the wall.” As the sun rose higher in the late morning, the lack of tree cover here was quite noticeable. This section of the course also contains the largest change in elevation, with hills on the overpasses breaking up what had been a mostly flat course to that point. The worst of those hills being over the front entrance to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The Studios had the distinction of being the only park that was fully open and operational as I ran through. Animal Kingdom had opened for the day as well, but most guests were still arriving. The crowd was an interesting mix of those cheering loudly, and those who had no idea they were walking into mile twenty three of a marathon course. Crosswalks were provided and staffed by cast members. If you ever find yourself in the park on marathon day, follow cast member instructions. I nearly took a small group out who crossed without waiting for instructions.
You would think knowing that the finish line was three miles away would make things easier, but those last three miles felt longer than the first ten. Thankfully those cheering in front of the Yacht and Beach Club were among the most enthusiastic. Many of them cheering for runners by name (it is printed on your race bib.)
Finally, entering Epcot again, hours after starting at the park, runners take one loop around World Showcase, through Future World, and into the parking lot where a wall of cheering blasts from the bleachers. Finishing the marathon was a truly emotional experience. I will admit to getting quite teary-eyed as I finally completed the course in five hours and fourteen seconds.
Two years ago, I never would have thought I would be able to accomplish something like the Walt Disney World marathon. With the right amount of training and determination, you can add a Mickey medal to your list of Disney collectibles.
Registration for next year’s Marathon Weekend opens March 15, 2011. There are other opportunities to run at Disney during the year. The Princess Half Marathon is held in February (a women focused event, but men may run as well), the Champion 5K in March, the Expedition Everest Challenge in May, and the Wine and Dine Half Marathon in October. Disneyland also hosts it’s own half marathon over Labor Day weekend. If you complete the WDW Marathon, Half Marathon, Princess Half, or Wine and Dine Half in the same calendar year as the Disneyland Half Marathon, you will receive the Coast to Coast medal in addition. More information and registration for all Disney running events can be found at www.rundisney.com.