What if I were to tell you that somewhere:
- a man was arrested for the 120th time in 27 years
- a lawmaker filed a bill to repeal a state ban on dwarf-tossing in bars
- a woman renewed her marriage vows with a Ferris Wheel named Bruce
- a man was shot and killed by a retired police officer for texting in a movie theater
- a man died after winning a cockroach-eating contest
- a man was bitten by a shark, punched (twice) by a monkey, struck by lightning and bitten by a snake
- a woman tried to avoid a shoplifting arrest by throwing her baby at deputies
- a robbery suspect was identified from his “Misunderstood” facial tattoo
- a man known as the “Causeway Cannibal” bit off most of a homeless man’s face
- a man was arrested for giving people wedgies
You’d probably assume I was either making these up, or researching a book on “Life in these crazy United States”. Except that, well, all of them happened in just one state.
Ah, Florida – our nation’s fortress of freakery, bastion of the bizarre and theater of the absurd. As sheer lunacy goes, Florida makes California look like Sunday morning at the bingo parlor.
Luckily though, even Florida follows the Law of Conservation of Crazy – meaning that while most of the state wallows in wacky, the rest of us will always have Walt Disney World. And we runners looking to cross a finish line in all 50 states (even Florida) will always have the Walt Disney World Marathon.
No other marathon elicits such fanatical loyalty and across-the-board glowing recommendations as Disney’s 26.2-miler (as I write this, it’s among the most reviewed events on RaceRaves). Disney holds a series of wildly popular themed races at both its Florida and California parks throughout the year, but only their January edition includes the full marathon distance.
And that’s not all it includes. As a company that’s never shy to give their paying fans what they never knew they wanted, Disney has taken this mindset to the extreme with what they brand as the “Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend”. For those runners who embrace the three M’s – miles, medals and Mickey – runDisney offers a 5K race on Thursday, a 10K race on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday. And while you could run just one of those distances, the folks at runDisney know you better than that. For you the Disney devotee, they’ve created two additional profit-making opportunities:
- the Goofy Challenge, for runners who complete the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday (39.3 total miles), and which includes its own special finisher’s medal;
- the Dopey Challenge, for runners who complete all four distances on four consecutive days (48.6 total miles), and which includes its own special medal as well as the Goofy Challenge medal
Perhaps the most striking example of the loyalty Disney inspires is that while the marathon and half marathon sold out quickly this year, the Dopey Challenge (now in its second year) sold out immediately and was the first “distance” to do so. Never mind that when you crunch the numbers – something visitors to any Disney property should know better than to do – the Dopey Challenge with its six medals costs nearly $11 per mile, a return on investment even the folks at the New York City Marathon (at $9.73 per mile for 2014) can’t claim.
Thing is, I’ve never once heard a WDW Marathoner go all “Brokeback Mountain” on the Mouse: “I wish I knew how to quit you, Mickey.” And I’ve yet to meet a Dopey Challenge finisher who said, “What a disappointment, I should’ve put that money toward four other races instead”. Maybe the pixie dust sprinkled around its parks allows runners to rationalize beyond their wildest dreams. Or maybe, just maybe… that magic is real. And maybe, like their sedentary counterparts, when it comes to Disney hundreds of thousands of brainwashed zealous runners can’t be wrong.
I was about to find out – though in my case I’d be running on Sunday only. Disney World isn’t a place I normally equate with hardcore runners, but I used plenty of air quotes over the weekend in Orlando while talking to Goofy and Dopey Challengers, feeling the need to explain that I was running “just” the marathon.
On Friday evening, within an hour of our plane touching down in Orlando, Katie and I were strolling the halls of the pre-race expo at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Nearly 70 races into my running fetish, I’ve definitely reached the stage where an expo is an expo is an expo. That, coupled with the fact that I’d seen many of these same booths two months earlier at the Avengers Half Marathon, meant that one quick go ‘round and we were out of there.
One thing that struck me about the two Disney expos I visited is that an unusually high percentage of the booths are geared toward looking good. Yes, many runners tend to err on the side of color coordination, but nowhere else have I seen such a diverse collection of blinky, frilly, sparkly, colorful outfits and accessories designed to always keep you looking your start-line best. Even the New Balance booth featured limited edition Disney running shoes. And as in Anaheim, there was the lonely-looking duo manning the Florida Hospital Celebration Health booth – because who among us doesn’t want to talk resort-style, not-for-profit healthcare at a race expo?
Saturday afternoon we spent like all smart runners do the day before a marathon – on our feet, exploring the Animal Kingdom. I’m admittedly anti-zoo, but I figured if anyone would do hostage-taking right it would be Disney. So I wanted to give the Animal Kingdom a chance, simply because I think that if done correctly it has a lot to offer in the way of education and appreciation. Granted I was still saddened and disappointed by the relatively small enclosures afforded the animals to “roam,” but to a man the employees (“crew members”) showed unambiguous awe and respect for their charges while urging environmental conservation. And where else in their lifetime will most Americans have the chance to experience in close proximity the beauty and grandeur of a rare Sumatran tiger or endangered white rhino?
My primary complaint against the Animal Kingdom actually came outside the park itself. As we sat inhaling the sickening exhaust of the tram carrying us back to the parking lot (thankfully this wasn’t a humid 100-degree summer day), it occurred to me that a multibillion-dollar company that preaches environmental protection should probably put its money where its mouth is and invest in some electric trams.
Sunday morning arrived much too quickly, as will happen when you’re staring down the barrel of a 5:30am starter’s pistol. I’d slept soundly for almost three hours, followed by a final restless hour spent trying to convince my mind it was still asleep. Unfortunately, even on minimal sleep the mind knows when a challenge awaits, and so I had no choice but to lie quietly until my iPhone chimed in mercifully with its 3:30am wakeup jingle.
After dressing (“Where – is – my – super – suit?“) and mixing my usual race-day fuel of granola/yogurt/peanut butter, we hit the road for the short drive in the dark to the Disney campus, where after a bumper-to-bumper 45-minute wait on Buena Vista Drive, we pulled into the Epcot parking lot. Assuming I’d have minimal elbow room in the corral, I cycled through an abbreviated warmup routine and then embraced my inner moth, the harsh electric lights in the distance luring me onward.
Passing a jumbo screen on which the start line MC was interviewing Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray, Katie and I parted ways. Then I picked up my pace and jogged the remaining ¾ mile to where the corrals awaited. Along the way I passed a DJ blasting “Gangnam Style” for the migrating masses (presumably to expedite their migration) – topical no, but at least it wasn’t the “Cha Cha Slide” or “Macarena” that Dan reported hearing at the 2013 race.
Then I was sliding into corral “C”, and here my only real competitive fire of the day flared briefly – corral C? With bib #696 and a projected finish time of 3:30? I turned to glance back at the 13 corrals awaiting their turn behind us, the image of which evoked my favorite t-shirt from Friday’s expo:
Why wouldn’t Peter Pan make a good pilot?
Because he’d never never land.
Epcot to the Magic Kingdom (start to mile 7, i.e. the “Happy” miles)
My timing was impeccable. I barely had time to catch the not-so-gentle waft of Ben Gay before the final countdown (courtesy of Mickey Mouse) began, and the first set of fireworks lit up the sky to start the wheelchair race. Moments later we slow-footed corral C types were stretching our legs along darkened Epcot Center Drive, as periodic fireworks continued to light the pre-dawn sky behind us.
One of the coolest details of the race start was the fact that the back-of-the-packers in corral P were given the same enthusiastic fireworks sendoff as the frontrunners in corral A. It was Disney’s unmistakable way of letting every runner know, You matter. And it was one of the small yet significant details that makes Disney… well, Disney.
Across the grassy median on the other side of Epcot Center Drive stood a long line of shadowy spectators, and from their ranks arose Katie’s disembodied yet unmistakable cheer. For a moment I felt more like a professional athlete or a museum exhibit than Joe Schmo runner, with the onlookers positioned so far away from the course.
If you’re looking for a course description, the WDW Marathon can be summarized as plenty of flat, non-scenic stretches of road punctuated by theme parks and character appearances. And while “non-scenic stretches of road” may not sound like a glowing endorsement, what made this race orders of magnitude better than Disneyland’s Avengers Half was that Disney World – with its four parks plus Speedway plus ESPN Wide World of Sports – has its own sprawling campus. Meaning the marathon is run entirely within the boundaries of Disney World, eliminating the OC strip malls, church parking lots and neighborhoods that are a necessary evil of every Disneyland race.
So all the roads on the WDW marathon course are well-paved, peaceful and traffic-free (especially at 6:00am). Not to mention wide open – I can’t vouch for corrals I-P, but throughout the race I had plenty of room to run, only sensing the crowds when I negotiated my way to the side of the road for character photos. Definitely preferable to the constant crush of a Berlin or NYC.
I ran in my comfortable bubble, determined to enjoy the moment while keeping my pace around 8:30/mile. Even allowing for a few photo stops (iPhone in hand), 8:30/mile pacing would leave me in position to finish in under 3:45. And there you have it – my carefully conceived race strategy for this day. Bring on the Seven Dwarfs!
The first 5 miles between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom passed quickly, thanks to distractions from Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz to my left, and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas at the cemetery gates to my right. In between stops my mind filtered out everything but the hypnotic sound of runner footfalls in the crisp predawn air.
During this stretch I may even have sent a text or two to Katie and my brother as I ran.
Then we were entering the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella’s castle lighting the way directly ahead of us as screaming spectators (including Katie – hi Ho, hi Ho!), cheered us along Main Street USA. I stopped to let her take a picture, momentarily throwing her off-guard since I’d never done that before. This was one of the few sections of the course with appreciable spectator turnout, since it was also one of the few convenient dropoff points for the monorail that operates between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.
As we entered Tomorrowland I remarked to the fellow running alongside me, “I expect to come out of here well rested with my medal around my neck”. Across the bridge and through Cinderella’s castle we ran, pausing to pose with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (make it quick, he can’t be late!) before exiting the Magic Kingdom on our way to the Disney World Speedway. Along the way I interrupted Donald Duck and Goofy, who looked to be enjoying an early round of golf at the Magnolia Golf Course.
Why does Goofy wear two pairs of pants to play golf?
He’s afraid he’ll get a hole in one.
WDW Speedway to Disney’s Animal Kingdom (miles 8 to 13, i.e. the “Sleepy” miles)
Shortly before the Speedway at around the 12K (7.4-mile) mark, I noticed the darkness lifting as the first tinge of blue caressed the morning sky. This sudden realization knocked my circadian rhythms for a loop, with mind and body rebelling against the notion of running 26.2 miles on three-ish hours of sleep. Luckily the moment passed quickly (with help from Mary Poppins and her Penguin Waiters), though a general lassitude would maintain its grip on me for the next several miles.
Stopping to show off my finest conjuring pose for Aladdin’s genie, it struck me that I was one of a surprisingly few runners stopping for photos along the course. I mentioned this to the woman immediately ahead of me who was doing the same, and we agreed that we were here with one goal in mind – to fully enjoy the runDisney experience.
For someone whose interest in cars rivals his interest in dustballs (“Cars” was the first Pixar movie I skipped, “Cars 2” was the second), the lap around the Speedway with its classic cars had me wondering “Are we there yet?”. We circled the track as the awakening sun made a brief appearance, before changing its mind and retreating back behind the clouds. Exiting the Speedway I offered words of encouragement to an older fellow sporting a “Dallas Fire Dept” shirt, and settled in for the subdued 3-mile stretch along Bear Island Road leading to the Animal Kingdom. But not before we’d pass (pregnant pause…) the mile 11 Wastewater Treatment Plant!
In true Disney fashion, even this unremarkable landmark was transformed into a course highlight by one of the coolest photo ops of the day, the Disney Villain & Villainess Squad. Fast forward a bit, and who else would you expect to see along Bear Island Road than the Country Bear Jamboree? And where there were no characters, signs positioned at regular intervals along the side of the road shared everything you’d want to know about Disney World’s water reuse programs. I even downed what I think was my first real in-race food ever (a banana), to test whether this would make a difference in my energy levels in the second half.
This section of the course was a microcosm of the WDW Marathon experience – an otherwise ho-hum stretch of road made memorable by Disney’s attention to detail.
Then it was time for my second visit of the weekend to the Animal Kingdom. As we passed the Everest Expedition roller coaster, I was reminded of a blogger who’d gone on the ride not once but twice during the race. Given that its sudden & speedy reverse ascent had nearly caused my stomach to reverse gears the day before, I was happy to keep my feet under me this time around.
The Animal Kingdom also signaled the midway point of the race – two parks down, two to go!
Where does Ariel go when one of her friends is missing?
To the lost-and-flounder.
Animal Kingdom to ESPN Wide World of Sports (miles 14 to 20, i.e. the “Grumpy” miles)
The next three nondescript road miles (sans character stops) were highlighted by “Happy” blasting from loudspeakers on the Osceola Pkwy overpass, just short of mile 16. But as obvious as this setup seemed, I was surprised to find no Dwarf of the same name here – on hearing the music I’d automatically assumed he’d be hanging out to meet ‘n’ greet runners. In fact the entire course was devoid of Dwarfs, one of the day’s few disappointments (Dopey Challenge runners would get to pose with The Man himself in the finish area).
Mile 17 leading to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex featured the only out-and-back section of the course, and here the speedier runners could be seen approaching from the other direction at their mile 21.
The ESPN Zone is well named, because I took the opportunity to zone out as we circled the Complex. Rounding the running track with its cushioned polyurethane surface, my brain did a double-take thinking “Wait, is it time to speed up?” Skirting the Softball Diamondplex and rounding Champion Stadium (spring training home of the Atlanta Braves), I stopped to argue a call with umpires Chip ‘n Dale before exiting the complex just before the mile 20 marker.
Mile 20! Might seem crazy what I’m ‘bout to say, but I’d been looking forward to mile 20 for the giant character marionettes lining the side of the road, expecting a repeat performance from the race’s 20th anniversary two years earlier. Unfortunately that was then, this was now, and hopes are made to be dashed. Nor had the organizers simply shifted the marionettes down the road two years to mile 22. Instead, a giant video screen was set up to let tired runners waste valuable energy trying to get a momentary glimpse of themselves on camera as they rounded the corner back onto Osceola Pkwy.
Chalk up disappointment #2 of the day – though admittedly that’s more a function of me being a thankless, impossible-to-please a**hole than any fault of Disney’s.
Why didn’t the pirate take his young child to the movies?
Because the film was rated “Arrr!”
Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Epcot (miles 21 to finish, i.e. the “Dopey” miles)
The final open stretch of tree-lined road followed. Spectators at the WDW Marathon are sporadic and appear in clusters, due to the difficulty of accessing the course by either car or monorail. So there were few spectator signs of note along the course, aside from:
- the supportive “Blisters are braille for ‘Awesome’ “
- the brutally honest “What were you thinking?” offered by one Disney crew member
- the “Go faster! (that’s what she said!)” sign notable only for its curious incongruity (and the fact that a woman was holding it) – pretty sure that one wasn’t sanctioned by Team Disney’s corporate offices.
But just as every race has to have a winning runner, so does every race have to have a winning spectator sign. And this day’s prize for most clever signage went to the woman holding up a picture of Dory (from “Finding Nemo”) with the caption, “I’ll never sign up for another… ooh, a race!” Few signs make me laugh on the outside, but that one did.
By the time we reached Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the frequent starts and stops were starting to take their toll, and I could’ve used Fix-It Felix’s hammer on my upper quads. Turns out, though, Disney had saved the best for last… and so it was with heavy legs and a light head that I struck a pose with Mr. Incredible & Elastigirl (presumably battling their mile 24 nemesis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) before taking one final detour to visit Sully & Mike Wazowski, the latter being the closest thing I have to a namesake.
By mile 24 I was the only runner around me still stopping for photos. And as we weaved our way past Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat and along Hollywood Blvd, plenty of my comrades looked to be auditioning for the role of stiff-legged zombies. Seeing others stop to walk late in a race is never motivating, so I focused on channeling my inner Dory: Just keep running, just keep running…
And keep running I did, along the boardwalk and past the charming seaside cabanas of Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club. My brain appreciated the fact that this final 5K was run within parks and resorts, to provide a welcome distraction that wide-open roads could not. Despite stiffening quads my stride remained comfortable, and I was passing other runners while still enjoying the experience (though I barely glanced at one final character I didn’t recognize). The first half of mile 26 circled the World Showcase Lagoon before a hard right turn led us off the boardwalk and into the home stretch. There, beckoning in the distance, Spaceship Earth (i.e. the Epcot golf ball) welcomed us home. And then…
Directly ahead, the blue and gold finish arch spanned the road. I straighted up and extended my stride to try to mask my fatigue from Katie and the other cheering spectators lining the final stretch. And I tried to savor those last 200 yards, because the truth is I’m very lucky to be able to run, and to be able to run races like this one. And then, in an all-too-brief 3:41:42, my 26.2-mile tour of the Walt Disney World campus was over. Not bad when you factor in 19 photo stops. I even managed negative splits for the first time ever in a marathon (1:52:52 first half, 1:48:50 second half), though that had less to do with the banana I’d eaten than with the fewer number of character stops in the second half.
Why can’t you give Queen Elsa a balloon?
She’ll let it go, let it go!
Post-race afterglow (fully in-Doc-trinated after one last Bashful moment)
With shiny golden Mickey medal around my neck courtesy of a friendly volunteer, I shuffled through the finisher’s chute where I was handed water, a wet towel and a packet of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol). I’ve never received acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen at a race before, and this struck me as another smart Disney idea – though a surprising one, given the company’s litigious mindset.
One item conspicuously lacking from my post-race attire was the mylar heatsheet, now a standard at most marathons. I may be mistaken, but I do believe heatsheets were reserved exclusively for the Goofy and Dopey Challenge runners. Apparently Disney has decided runners don’t start to lose appreciable body heat until they pass 26.2 miles or $170.
A second friendly volunteer urged me to grab a box of snacks. Then it was out into the Family Reunion Area to meet Katie, but not before we passed through the bag-check tent where a dozen or so volunteers cheered and applauded at the runners hobbling past. This was admittedly embarrassing since I’d done nothing (to my mind) applause-worthy. But like the corral-specific fireworks at the start, this was Disney’s way of creating magical moments and letting every runner know, You matter. And in that sense it was a much-appreciated touch.
As I waited for Katie I tried to do my usual post-race leg swings, only to find that my tight quad muscle refused to cooperate – I had to manually lift my left upper leg, like a parent on the playground pulling back the swing to get their child started. Once the leg began to swing it was fine, but the sensation of not being able to lift it without help was a new one. Luckily, after an ice bath and good night’s sleep the leg was no worse for wear than after any other marathon. And in the end, not getting a leg up was a small price to pay for a camera full of memories.
Not that I’d maxed out on the course’s character meet ‘n’ greets – in fact I’d blown by several photo ops including the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion Gravediggers, two princesses with their princes, Robin Hood and his band of merry men, and the always phreaky Phineas and Ferb. And those are just the ones I remember.
One sound I now instantly recognize and appreciate around Disney finish lines is the chime-like clinking of medal sliding against medal bouncing off medal. RunDisney devotees do NOT mess around when it comes to their bling, and many of them have no qualms about jetting back and forth between California and Florida several times a year to ensure they claim every race medal Disney has to offer. FOMO is powerful, to be sure – just ask Mark Zuckerberg – but the runDisney version is like FOMO on a cocktail of steroids, Red Bull and meth. I’m sure the folks at runDisney will appreciate that loose analogy.
During WDW Marathon Weekend it was possible – for those light on their feet and heavy in their wallet – to collect as many as six different medals. So there were plenty of blinged-out, beaming runners walking tall and looking like Mr T, and I pity the fool who comes between them and their swag.
One of the best things about running is its strong sense of community, its all-inclusive mindset that embraces anyone willing to accept its challenge and to show the discipline needed to meet that challenge head-on. And runDisney embodies that ethic as well as anyone. As silly as this may sound, the Walt Disney World Marathon is a race for the runners, and that’s honestly something I can’t say with conviction about some of the other races I’ve run.
Katie and I hung around the finish area for a few minutes until the first drops of rain began to fall, after which we escaped to our car in time to beat the resulting short-lived deluge. Then we said our goodbyes to Epcot and pondered our next step, though as any American sports fan can tell you, our next step was a no-brainer…
BOTTOM LINE: Speaking of no-brainers, if you’re a marathoner then the Walt Disney World Marathon is one of them. And if you don’t believe me, feel free to read a few of the gazillion blogs dedicated to the runDisney experience. Nobody stages a more entertaining race than Disney, because nobody can stage a more entertaining race than Disney (Th-th-th-that’s a challenge, Warner Bros). Whereas other races rely on “loud and abrasive” for their on-course entertainment, Disney relies on its time-honored characters and theme parks. With a couple of well-timed exceptions (“Happy” at mile 16 being one of them), the WDW Marathon speaks softly and carries a big stick. And if you’ve only ever run a Disney race in California, don’t think this is more of the same – Florida is a completely different experience. It’s one of the very few (only?) instances where I’m willing to concede that Florida trumps California. That and alligator density.
I’ve heard the complaint that Disney races are too expensive – and if price is your sole criteria for judging a race, then maybe you’d be right. But the truth is, the next runner I hear second-guess their decision to run the WDW Marathon will be the first. Disregarding Active.com’s processing fee, my marathon registration was $170 (compared to $255 for the NYC Marathon and $195 for the Avengers Half), which by the time I crossed the finish line on Sunday felt like a bargain. And the fact that their most expensive option – the Dopey Challenge – is also their most popular says all you need to know about the supply & demand at work here. So if your primary concern is the $170 registration fee, I might suggest you focus less on price and more on value.
PRODUCTION: No one produces a race better than runDisney, and they have a whopping 68-page Official Event Guide to prove it. WDW is a race for the runners, as evidenced in every facet of the race organization with the possible exception of the 5:30am start time. While Disney may claim the early start time helps to beat the Florida (and California) heat, it also conveniently helps to clear as many runners out of the parks as possible before the paying customers rise and shine.
There’s a fine line between “flawless organization” and “military precision”… and I might argue that at times Disney’s organization is so good as to make the process feel devoid of spontaneity. Who knows, maybe this is the key to producing a race of this magnitude… I’m just not sure they need quite so many crew members and volunteers directing people every step of the way, from expo to race day. Save the stanchions for Space Mountain, Disney.
That said, my race weekend went off without a hitch. And every volunteer I met was sincerely wonderful, wonderfully sincere and clearly drinking happy juice by the tankard. I don’t plan to run WDW again anytime soon – after two of their races in two months I’m pretty Disney-ed out, and 41 other states await before a return trip to the Magic Kingdom. Then again, when it comes to Disney I’ll never say never, even if does bring me back to Florida…
SWAG: For us “marathon only” slackers, the t-shirt was a nice black Champion tech tee. And the ribbon on the finisher’s medal is fastened to itself by velcro, making it easy to separate ribbon from medal if that’s your preference – one final example of Disney’s unrivaled attention to detail.
RaceRaves rating:FINAL STATS:
January 11, 2015
26.51 miles in Walt Disney World, FL (state 9 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:41:42 with 19 photos stops (first time running the WDW Marathon), 8:22/mile
Finish place: 793 overall, 123/1,760 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 20,048 (9,712 men, 10,336 women)
Race weather: cool and cloudy (starting temp 54°F, light breeze)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 58ft ascent, 54ft descent
2016 WDW Marathon Weekend registration opens on April 28, 2015