Posts Tagged ‘50 States Marathon Club’

Walt Disney quote - BlistersCrampsHeaves.com

What if I were to tell you that somewhere:

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.

Florida.

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.

Sorcerer's Hat in Disney's Hollywood Studios

The iconic Sorcerer’s Hat in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (though not for long, they’re taking it down!)

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.

The Magic Kingdom Park collage

Scenes from the Magic Kingdom (clockwise from top): entrance; Tomorrowland; Town Square Theater; one Mike idolizing another; Pete’s Dragon in the Main Street Electrical Parade; Cinderella’s Castle

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?

WDW Marathon Weekend Expo floor 2015

This is where the (pre-race) magic happens

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.

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom (clockwise from upper left): white rhino; western lowland gorilla; okapi (more closely related to the giraffe than the zebra); Everest Expedition ride; meerkats; Sumatran tiger

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.

Epcot's Spaceship Earth aglow with WDW race-day anticipation

Epcot’s Spaceship Earth aglow with race-day anticipation

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:

"In a Corral Far Far Away" Disney t-shirt

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.

Walt Disney World Marathon start line fireworks

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.

Toy Story three-eyed aliens

The starting corrals were the only crowded part of the course (yes Disney, I may have doctored this image a bit)

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.

Mike Sohaskey with Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz

Don’t wreck me, bro!

Mike Sohaskey & Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Unfortunately Jack Skellington bailed just as I reached him and his ghoul-friend Sally

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.

Mike Sohaskey with White Rabbit, Donald Duck & Goofy

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.

Mike Sohaskey with Mary Poppins & Aladdin

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.

Villain squad

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.

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don't wear pants

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don’t wear pants

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.

Mike Sohaskey with Jiminy Cricket

I’d never actually been knee-high to a grasshopper cricket before

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.

Incredibles

Mike Sohaskey with Sully & Mike Wazowski

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…

Mike Sohaskey approaching Walt Disney World Marathon finish line

I even managed to squeeze in a bit of running along the way

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…

Heigh HO!

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.

Finish line confetti for Walt Disney World Marathon women's winner

Disney fires off confetti for every single finisher… just kidding, this is the winner of the women’s race

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.

3:25 pace sign in trash

My 7th grade English teacher might call this symbolism

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.

Mike Sohaskey with Daisy Duck

Watch where you’re putting that other hand, Daisy… I’m a married man!

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.

Us_finish line

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.

Mike Wazowski wearing Walt Disney World Marathon medal

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.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie with Russell & Dug

And they lived UP-ily ever after

RaceRaves rating:Mike Sohaskey's RaceRaves review for Walt Disney World MarathonFINAL 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

WDW splits

For those scoring at home that’s 1:52:52 for the first half, 1:48:50 for the second half

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Paul Butler is to marathons what Ryan Seacrest is to hair — not one out of place.

I met Paul and his wife Sharon on our recent Antarctica Marathon adventure.  Actually, I met a lot of people on our trip, a dizzying array of endurance types with remarkable racing résumés.  Some older runners had completed over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons in their lifetimes, while several less veteran runners were clearly headed down that same path.  As the temperamental ocean swirled around us, so too did stories of marathoning exploits that circled the globe, in some cases more than once.  These were restless minds and bodies forever in search of The Next Big Challenge.

So why, on a ship full of hyperaccomplished running juggernauts, did my focus gravitate to Paul Butler?  After all, Paul — a 61-year-old dentist from Center City, Philadelphia — had run “only” 56 marathons prior to boarding the Akademik Sergey Vavilov bound for Antarctica.  Compared to some of his fellow passengers, whose medal collections could be melted down to build a life-size Optimus Prime, Butler’s own collection of race bling is relatively modest and could reasonably hang from both sides of one sturdy doorknob (my preferred method of showcasing medals).

Speaking of juggernauts…

No, it wasn’t necessarily the quantity of his marathons that attracted my attention; it was their quality.  Because Paul may be, without exaggeration, the most efficient marathoner in the history of the sport.  His pre-Antarctica total of 56 marathons incorporated all 50 states plus Washington D.C., as well as six different continents.  He’s never run two marathons in the same state nor — aside from North America — on the same continent.  He’s run his hometown Philadelphia Marathon only once (although he has competed at shorter distances in the city).  Unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t choose a marathon based on what his friends are running, or its proximity to his home, or because he’s easy prey for modern-day race organizers who promise a one-of-a-kind finisher’s medal to anyone who completes all three races within a series.

So it was that on the morning of March 30, only 26.2 miles in Antarctica stood between Paul and a résumé that would make even the most dehydrated marathoner salivate: membership in both the 50 States Marathon Club and the Seven Continents Club, as well as one of the more compelling personal stories in a sport rife with fascinating characters and amazing accomplishments.  Antarctica would appropriately serve as the coup de grâce to his marathoning career.

At least, that was the plan.  But as we all quickly learned on the Last Continent, sometimes the best-laid plans of ice and men…

Paul’s own best-laid plans went awry at mile 20 when, with 6.2 miles to go in a 15-year journey, his Antarctica Marathon came to a premature end.  And four days later, on the Vavilov’s stomach-churning return voyage across the Drake Passage, as most passengers struggled with the concept of “upright,” I seized the opportunity to chat with him in the ship’s library, to learn more about his meticulously executed racing past, his unexpectedly bittersweet present, and his uncertain post-Antarctica future.  I’ll let him fill in the details.

Paul&Sharon_Vavilov

Paul and Sharon Butler, aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov

(The following conversation took place on April 3, 2013; the original transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity)

Mike S:  What motivated you to start running in the first place?
Paul B:  I was a runner in elementary school, in the 5th and 6th grade, and then I gave it up until I was in the Army, in Germany.  I was married with three children, and I wanted to get myself into shape and be job-worthy before I came back home to the States and looked for a job.  So my wife Sharon and I started jogging around the American base in Germany.  We both lost about 40 pounds and got back in 1980 in great shape.

MS:  So you came back from Germany and settled down in Philadelphia?
PB:  Yes.  And then sort of forgot about running until my youngest son was going to be bar mitzhvahed.  In our congregation, you then do something charitable.  I got something in the mail from the Leukemia Society — you raise money, and they’ll pay your way to a marathon.  So I chose the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in June 1998.

We sent out letters to raise money, and our whole family went — the six of us, Sharon and I and our four children.  I think we raised about four or five thousand dollars for the Leukemia Society.

That got me hooked, to do a marathon.  And I was disappointed – I think I did it in 5 hours 45 minutes.  I expected to finish, but I developed blisters.  So then after that was over, and I was disappointed in my time, I said “I’m going to try this again somewhere.  Hey, there’s one in Las Vegas, let’s go to Las Vegas.”  And I actually finished that in under 5 hours, like 4 hours and 59 minutes.  I really ran hard at the end and all my muscles spasmed, and Sharon had to take me back to the hotel room in a wheelchair.  That’s how horrible it was.

So then I decided, I like doing all this stuff but I’m not going to kill myself anymore, I’m just going to finish.  I had 3,600 frequent flyer miles built up from my credit card, and I took all six of us to Vermont.  And I ran pretty good, just missed five hours by under a minute.

And we said, let’s go to some different places, doing these marathon things.  When I got to about eight or nine, I saw something about the 50 States Marathon Club.  That got me really motivated, and I ran over 40 marathons between 2002 and 2009.  Sometimes I did 12 a year, and one time I ran two marathons on consecutive weekends.

So that’s what I did — I decided just to finish, not to hurt myself, not to worry about whether I finished in five hours or seven hours.  And I just kept doing them.

San Diego, 1998: the race that began a 15-year marathoning journey

MS:  And always used your running as a reason to travel with the family and visit another state?
PB:  Well, the kids went with us to Vermont and then to Alaska — the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage in June.  We made it a family vacation where we did the marathon first and then flew up to Barrow, took the train down to Fairbanks, and did the whole thing for a couple weeks.  It was great.

The trick was planning everything, because I only did one marathon in every state.  My last one was supposed to be in Atlantic City.  So my whole family, all my friends came out… and that year they canceled the race last minute because they didn’t have a sponsor.  Luckily for me there was another race that weekend, the Asbury Park New Jersey [Relay] Marathon.  I’d never been to Asbury Park, so that was a new place to see, and it was their inaugural run.

But the bad news was, there was a nor’easter that weekend — it was 40 degrees, the wind was sort of like this [indicates the lurching ship], and it was raining heavily I’d say 90% of the time.  It was a horrible day to do a marathon.  I wouldn’t want friends and family to come out in that weather, but a lot of them did.  So a lot of my family was able to see me finish, but the odd thing was… less than a minute before I crossed the finish line, two of my kids were swinging my oldest grandson back and forth and dislocated his shoulder.  So when I crossed the finish line hardly anybody was there, they were all worried about him.  Luckily, a family member who’s a physician was able to reset my grandson’s arm, so everything was ok.

After that, I didn’t think about running marathons anymore until February or March 2010.  I had built up a ton of frequent flyer miles to run all these places in the states, and I discovered you could fly from Philadelphia to Dublin for 20,000 miles.  That was a really good bargain, since it was in October during low season.  And the weekend I picked out, the Dublin Marathon was that weekend.

Even M.C. Escher would have been impressed by how Paul made all the pieces fit

MS:  So you hadn’t thought about running the continents?
PB:  No, not until that point.  And I said well, I can do a marathon in Dublin.  On the 50 States Marathon Club website, under “Membership” it has “Conquering the Continents.”  I saw that not many people had done all the states and all the continents, and I said wow, that’d be a pretty neat thing to be one of those people.

We can’t take too much time off work, so we did several of the international races as a four-day trip — leaving on a Thursday night, arriving on Friday, sightseeing on Saturday, marathon the next morning and then leave that night.  We did the same thing with Marathon Tours for their inaugural marathon in the Outback in Ayers Rock, Australia.  That one had an eight-hour finishing time — that’s my kind of marathon, I always try to get the slowest.  Dublin was also eight hours.  So I signed up for that [Ayers Rock] and it worked out great, it was a nice marathon.

And then Phuket in Thailand — I did that in 2011, and that was the worst race ever, ever, ever.  I wear orthotic inserts all day when I work and during races too, and they’d never bothered me before.  But in Phuket, it was so hot and humid that I developed horrible blisters, and the orthotics kept irritating the blisters.  I didn’t really know what was going on the whole race, until I got home and saw what had happened… I kept thinking there were stones in there or something.  But I had blisters — I peeled the whole thing off the back of my foot, from the bottom of my foot, both feet.

The bottom line was that after about 5 miles, I was limping… and I limped the whole way, 26.2 miles.  But I finished, and that was my slowest finish time, like 7 hours 15 minutes.  I crossed the finish line, and I was like the last one to finish.  I knew I wasn’t going back there to do it again — I had to do it.  So that was gratifying, the fact that I did it.

Then I ran Mt. Kilimanjaro the following February, Easter Island in June, and the Marine Corps Marathon [in Washington D.C.] was in there at some point.  And I was done last June, after Easter Island.

I signed up for Antarctica probably three years ago.  I was signed up for 2014, and Thom [Gilligan, President/Founder of Marathon Tours and Antarctica Marathon race director] called me a year and a half ago to ask, “Do you want to move up a year?”  Believe it or not, I trained harder for this race than I did any other race because I knew it was going to be more difficult.  I like to run on a treadmill, and that was probably my downfall — even though I would run 15, 16 miles and elevate it every once in a while to get used to hills, it just wasn’t like this.  You can’t duplicate this on a treadmill. [laughs]  So that was probably my downfall.  This was supposed to be 57 and done, and… now it isn’t.  But I did get a half marathon medal, I did 20 miles, I just… I would never come back here, I would never do this again.

Paul (wearing bib #20) greets the camera during the Antarctica Marathon (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  There are companies that fly into Antarctica, race immediately and fly out again.  Would you ever think about doing that?
PB:  I probably would… because it’s going to gnaw at me for a while, that I didn’t finish it.  I can’t help it — no matter what anybody says to me, it’s going to bother me.  Even though it’s the same medal, and it’s going to be up on my wall, it doesn’t mean the same in my heart.  I know there are two other races that fly in here, so I would definitely do that.  But we can’t really afford to do it this way [by ship] again.  Our house needs to be painted, the bathroom needs to be redone, and we put that off so I could do this.  Who knows, I’m only 61, there are a lot of guys here older than me who finished a marathon, so… I’ll see.

MS:  So then what’s next?  Will you keep running, maybe start over?
PB:  Well, I’m going to still run, but I have no marathons planned.  I signed up for the Broad Street Run in May — Philadelphia has a Broad Street 10-mile run which is the best, most successful and most popular 10-miler.  They have like 40,000 runners, and it’s a lottery like the New York City Marathon.  It’s a nice easy run, and I’ll do that.  And then I’ll see.  I’ll look into… I know I’m not going to not look at the website for those two other [Antarctica] marathons.  But I have to find out, is there a time limit on that one?  I don’t want to go there and get yanked off the course in 6 hours 15 minutes if they’re only giving you six hours.

I’ve been emailing my daughter, who’s a professional trainer.  She’s done a couple marathons with me in Hawaii and Florida, and she was a professional basketball player.  When she was in high school, in the state semifinal game, her team was behind by two, and as the point guard she was dribbling down court for the tying or winning basket with five seconds left.  She was dribbling down, and the ball dribbled off her knee, went out of bounds, and that was the end of her high school career.  She said, “Dad, that haunts me all the time.”  Not every day — she has three boys of her own now, she’s got a nice life, great husband, but every once in a while she thinks about that ball dribbling off her foot, just like I’m going to think about me stopping at the 20-mile mark and not finishing this race.  She says things happen: “You know, whatever caused you not to have the energy to go on, it happened.  Just like I dribbled off my foot, I can’t go back to change it.”  Like the guy who makes the last out in the World Series, you know, or the guy who drops a perfect pass in football.

MS:  So you decided to stop the Antarctica race yourself, you said?
PB:  Yes, it was my choice.  I guess I looked ok, and Thom said “Paul, I’m stopping all the runners after you, and we’re going to monitor you.”  I was on that harder loop [out to the Uruguayan base and back] at the 20-mile mark, and I saw a hill.  At the 20-mile marker there was a big dip right there, and I had already fallen twice, I’d really hurt myself [indicates his wrist].

I said to myself, I’m going to fall if I try to go over that hill, and I’m never going to get back up to go the other way.  And there were still hills beyond that.  I just felt that I was going to hurt myself.  I’d already fallen twice, and I didn’t want to really cause any problem for me or anybody else getting me out of there.  I just didn’t feel confident… I lost my confidence.  Because I wasn’t out of breath, I just didn’t have the inner strength.

MS:  So… you mentioned Phuket, but would this qualify as your most challenging race?
PB:  The course in Phuket wasn’t crazy hard, it was just the feet that got me in trouble there.  I never professed to be a great marathon runner, but this is the first I had to drop out of.  I always finished every race — even if I had to walk it, I always had that strength to finish.  This one just… like I said, I trained for this one more than any other marathon, and I didn’t take it seriously enough, even at that point when Thom sent that email about “You’d better train for the hills.”  The ice and the hills just got to me.

For 18 runners, crossing the finish line in Antarctica secured their place in the Seven Continents Club

MS:  Do you have a most memorable race?
PB:  I like Vermont because it was a tough course that I finished pretty well, for me — a little over five hours.  Actually, that was a beautiful course.  Marine Corps I liked also because I did a pretty good time on that, and once you do that, you feel like you’re a real Marine, you know? [laughs]  Every race I felt really good about because I’m not a super athlete.  I’m sure I’m 20 pounds overweight.  In my mind it’s hard to even walk a marathon, and I usually would run more than half of it, then run and walk the rest of the way.

But I always felt that I was able to pick my races.  I couldn’t pick this one, this was it — this was the one, I couldn’t change it.  I always thought I could do what I had to do with this one.  Because I talked to a few people who had done it, and they said “Thom will let you finish as long as he sees you’re going at a good pace.”  And he did… he was going to allow me to finish.  I made the choice to stop.  And that’s not like me.

Bob [a fellow runner] picked me up when I fell.  He saw me go down the second time, and I didn’t get up right away. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was like in shock, like where am I?  He yanked me up and asked me if I was ok, and I said yeah I’m fine, and I kept on going at that point.

MS:  What’s been your favorite destination, not necessarily for the race itself, just a place you visited?

PB:  Actually, believe it or not, Mount Rushmore.  There’s actually two marathons there, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse [MS note: the Mt. Rushmore Marathon was discontinued after 2008].  I chose the Crazy Horse Marathon because it’s more downhill.  If I can go fast on the first half — I usually walk a lot of the second half — I’ll finish in a good amount of time.  I love that course, and Sharon loved to see Mt. Rushmore.

These races have given us chances to see the whole country.  When we went to do the Lake Okoboji Marathon in Iowa, we took a three-hour side trip and saw the Field of Dreams, from the movie.  Every time we went somewhere we tried to see an attraction.  Even if we had to drive a long distance it was worth it, because you never know when you’re going to go back to these places.

MS:  What’s your PR?
PB:  It’s like 4:59:02 I think, something like that.  That was in Las Vegas.  I figure there’s no way I’m ever going to get under four hours, so that’s fine for me.

MS:  Have you run any trail races, or do you stick to roads?
PB:  No, I don’t do any… in fact, I would consider this a trail race, I think it should be advertised as a trail race.  Whether it’s muddy or icy, it’s still a trail race.

This definitely has the look of a trail race (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  Do you run any other distances?
PB:  I’ve done the Broad Street Run many times, the 10-mile one, and I do a few half marathons in Philadelphia.  But not much lately.  I really just tried to do marathons, and now it’s a new part of my life, so I haven’t really figured out what I’m going to do next.

MS:  Do you do any other sports besides running?
PB:  I played basketball with an adult league for ten years.  When I decided to do this running thing I gave it up, because in this league guys like you – younger guys – would come in and play, and they would play for real real.  I was scared I was going to get hurt… so I decided just to make sure if I was going to hurt, I was going to hurt myself [running].  So I might try that, I might go back and do the basketball thing.

MS:  Have you sustained any injuries through all of this?
PB:  Yes, this happened about two months ago — I switched shoes, I didn’t do it right away, but I did a 15-mile run, and after the run this big toe got totally black.  I had to go to this podiatrist who saved me many times in my running career.  He gave me some shot and had to slice between the nail and the thing, and the thing bled out.  I was able to still run, and it finally eased up, but that sidelined me for a couple weeks about eight weeks ago.  So that’s the worst of my injuries.

MS:  Wow, so no shin splints, no stress fractures, no tendinitis, no plantar fasciitis, nothing too serious?
PB:  I did… in 2001 I had a problem with plantar fasciitis, and I didn’t run for about a year.  I must have bought three or four different gadgets to try to cure that, and the orthotics finally helped.  That was all my injuries.  It wasn’t all easy, but I never had knee problems, I never had shin splints, never really had hip problems.

Yeah, I was pretty fortunate.  And I always say to myself that if I could lose 20 pounds and keep it off forever, I probably would’ve been a really good runner.  Because I had no knee injuries, no problems — but I didn’t have the self-control, I enjoy eating too much.  I’m a vegan, but I eat a lot of that too.

MS:  If you were to start on day one and do this all over again, would you do it the same way?  Would you do anything differently?
PB:  For my whole running career?

MS:  Yes, from San Diego, 1998.
PB:  No, it was such a great run.  I spent so many hours planning to make sure I could get all the states at a certain time to finish up Saturday [in Antarctica].  It was all planned out, and it took so much effort — enjoyable effort.  It was a good part of my life, 15 years.  And who knows what the future’s going to bring.  I swore to everybody this was going to be my last marathon… I said “This is it, I’m not doing anymore.”  It takes up a lot of time; I wake up at 4:00 in the morning on the treadmill, I’m running two hours before I go to work, and then I’m falling asleep at 7:00 at night.  I know if I were to say to Sharon right now, “Let’s not paint the house, let’s not fix this,” then she would go with me, she would do this again… she would.  But it’s not fair.  She’s given up enough at this point, and she was at every finish line, every finish line.

Reunited at the finish: while Paul raced, Sharon provided support as a volunteer (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  As far as advice for other runners who look at you and say, “Wow, 56 marathons, I couldn’t even run one,” or really anybody who’s looking at some kind of daunting challenge, would you have any guidance for them?
PB:  Yes, I would.  I think anybody could do it, could do what I did.  I don’t consider myself a great athlete.  But I bought this book called The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, written by two professors from the University of Northern Iowa who taught a course about training for a marathon as part of their college curriculum.  It was a 16-week course, and they gave you eating advice and training advice so that any non-athlete could get through a marathon.  So I read and followed the training guidelines in that book for the first three or four marathons.  And it worked.  So anybody who’s not a real athlete, buy that book.

MS:  Is there any other race that you really want to run, that you have in mind?
PB:  No, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on in my life right now.  But I’ll be thinking about Antarctica… definitely that’s going to be on my mind, and who knows what’s going to happen.