Posts Tagged ‘runDisney’

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.
– Indira Gandhi

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon logo

We interrupt this (normally) chronological blog for a race report four months in the making.  After this one was nearly buried by the whirlwind of our RaceRaves launch, I figured it was time to hunker down and get it published before registration for the 2015 race opens in early April, and before the next Avengers movie opens in May.

I’ve lived in California for over 20 years.  In that time I’ve raced up and down and across the state – from Sacramento to San Francisco to San Jose to San Diego, from Napa Valley to Sonoma County to the Santa Barbara Wine Country, from Huntington Beach to Long Beach, from Mount Diablo to the City of Angels, from Wharf-to-Wharf and Bridge-to-Bridge, from the white sands of Malibu to the blue collars of Oakland to the redwoods of Big Sur, from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada, and in one 31-hour timespan thanks to 11 friends and two vans, from Calistoga to Santa Cruz.

I’ve covered a whole lot of the Golden State on foot.  And yet in my two decades here, I’d never raced at the Happiest (turned Measle-iest) Place on Earth.  I’d never raced at Disneyland.

Maybe it was my less-than-zero interest in Disney’s princess- and Tinker Bell-themed races.  Maybe it was the wallet-crippling registration fees for which Disney races are notorious.  Whatever the reasons, none of it mattered when I flipped open my new issue of Runner’s World early last year to be greeted by this announcement:

Avengers Half Marathon Hulk ad in Runner's World

In the beginning
It’s not hyperbole to say mine was a childhood spent living and breathing all things Marvel Comics.  Countless allowances invested toward Spider-Man’s epic battles with the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus.  Dog-eared issues read, re-read and re-re-read to follow the Hulk’s blow-by-blow encounters with the Abomination, not to mention his own inner turmoil.  Iron Man, Captain America, the X-Men and so many other secondary and tertiary members of the Marvel universe – their every move scrutinized with a hyper-religious fervor, my bedroom an unabashed shrine to their superpowered conquests.  Significant portions of my childhood were blissfully sacrificed at the altar of Stan Lee, as I celebrated every hard-fought victory of good over evil from the sanctuary of my comic–strewn bed.

I watched the TV shows.  I listened to the book-and-record sets.  I read the novels.  I played the video games.  And you bet I wore the Underoos.  On family road trips across Texas, I implored my parents to stop at every roadside convenience store to check for new comic books to add to my collection.  I dragged Dad and his saintly patience to comic book conventions, while driving Mom to the edge of sanity with my heroic in-house escapades.

I once sent the Hulk a personal letter to let him know I had his back, and received a reply – with autographed photo! – handwritten in rigid block letters.  Which confirmed it was from him, because who else would write like that?  He even admitted to liking the way I drew him:

Letter to M.Sohaskey from the Hulk

My voracious hero habit was funded by regular off-hour visits to suburban construction sites, where discarded aluminum cans and glass bottles brought a pretty (albeit sticky) penny at the local recyclery.  And not to brag, but by keeping my eyes on the prize and my hands on the cans, I was able to purchase for $30 a pristine copy of The Incredible Hulk #181, featuring the first full appearance of Wolverine and currently appraised at several thousand dollars.  Heartwarming to think that the best return-on-investment in my personal portfolio was made before the age of 10.

I resolved to find an unprotected source of gamma rays somewhere in my hometown of Plano, TX.  Other kids could aspire to be firemen or football players – when I grew up, I wanted to be the Hulk.  As the implausibility of that career choice slowly dawned on me, I recalibrated my expectations, compromised my youthful dreams and re-focused my energies instead on becoming the next Spider-Man.

And that other comics publishing group, the one foisting so-called “superheroes” like Superman, Batman and – I can still hardly say the name with a straight face – Aquaman on impressionable readers?  Please.  When your flagship hero (whose apparently foolproof disguise is a pair of eyeglasses) is impervious to every threat except debris from his home planet, it’s time to fire your entire creative team and start over.  As nicely as Lynda Carter filled out her Wonder Woman costume, here was one 7-year-old who was immune to her warrior princess charms.  I had neither the time nor the tolerance for superhero wannabes.

Mike Sohaskey as the Hulk, circa 1978

Lord Vader would agree that running the Avengers Half was my DESTINY

Sure I played baseball and basketball, hung out with friends and even maintained a pretty demanding video game habit, all while holding my own in school.  But I would have scrapped it all pronto for the chance to crawl up one brick wall or commute to and from school by swinging on a spider’s web between buildings.

So understandably, three decades later when I saw the full-page ad in Runner’s World announcing the inaugural runDisney Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon, my eyes widened and my pulse quickened as pre- and post-adolescent lives merged in a burst of quixotic epiphany.  This made other no-brainers feel like Sophie’s Choice.

Like an energized bride-to-be, my planning began well in advance of the big day.  To begin, I would have my choice of a couple different long-sleeve green tech tees from my closet, shirts I used to wear regularly back in the Bay Area where the temperature occasionally dips below 55°F.  Next, thanks to eBay I scored a sweet deal on a pair of oversized foam Hulk fists – one slightly faded relative to the other and both long since having surrendered their animatronic vitality.  Probably not compelling to a parent shopping for their 7-year-old son, but perfect for my intended use.

A visit to the Goodwill store followed, where I lucked into an oversized purple swimsuit with the manufacturer’s tag still attached (no hand-me-down swimwear, please).  And rounding out my atypical running outfit would be a pair of lime green Saucony Cortanas I’d purchased for their heel cushioning during my bout with PF last year.  Too bad I didn’t own these Vibram Five Fingers for the full barefoot effect…

Looking over my motley collection of off-green apparel, I may be the clashiest superhero on the course, but I wouldn’t want to be the runner who called out the Hulk for his fists not matching his feet.

Mike Sohaskey & Jen Lee - Halloween 2008

Speaking of costumes, Jen & I collaborated on one of my all-time favorites – Peter Pan & his shadow, Halloween 2008

Avengers Assemble!
At long last, race day arrived.  Lack of sleep, combined with the harsh electrical lighting and crush of costumed runners, lent a surreal quality to the lingering darkness that swaddled the predawn start line.  A 5:30am start time – get ‘em in and out before the park opens! – necessitated a 3:00am wake-up call at home, meaning we fell asleep just in time to wake up again.  No amount of scripted enthuasiam from the dueling emcees on the start-line stage could convince my circadian rhythms that it was time to run 13.1 miles.

From his vantage point on the starkly lit stage, one of the over-caffeinated emcees addressed his captive yawn-dience: “Welcome to the first annual Avengers Half Marathon!” (cheers).  “How many of you are running your first Disney race?” (smattering of cheers).  The second emcee then laughed and chimed in with “How many of you are Avengers legacy runners?  Our script says we should ask how many of you are legacy runners…”.  For non-runners, “legacy” identifies a runner who has completed every edition of a given race since its inaugural year, meaning that once we crossed the finish line, every runner in attendance would by definition be an Avengers legacy runner.  Because of the opportunity for exclusive Disney bling, the runDisney faithful take their legacy status very seriously, as this post confirms.

Tuning out the on-stage banter, my weary mind flashed back to the day before.  We’d arranged to meet Antarctica friends Wally & Larissa along with their friend Travis for lunch in downtown Disney.  There we’d brought each other up to speed since our last meeting in Buenos Aires 19 months earlier – Katie and I had shared all things RaceRaves, and Wally had convinced me through his vivid retelling (read it HERE) that the 56-mile Comrades “Marathon” should be the leading contender for my first African race.

Mike Sohaskey, Wally, Larissa & Katie Ho at Downtown Disney

Avengers assemble! with Wally & Larissa in Downtown Disney

After lunch we’d dropped by the expo, a scaled-down version of its parent Walt Disney World Marathon Expo, with many of the same booths hawking punny runner t-shirts and stickers, recovery tools, running shoes and Clif Bar samples.  Being Disney, too, the expo had a strong motif of sparkle and fashion-forwardness to it.  Looking around at vendors targeting every step of the process – from nutrition to gear to recovery – my first impression as an outsider would have been that running is hard.  Luckily it didn’t take long to collect my race packet and long-sleeve black Champion tech tee, and a short time later we were once again zooming north along the Santa Ana Freeway toward home.

Back to Sunday, and like a Disney-fied Rocky Balboa looking to dispel nervous energy, I bounced up and down in place while knocking my oversized fists together.  Not only would the fists be fashionable on this day, they would also double as storage and protection for my camera, which I carried in the palm of my right hand.

The horn sounded, the “GO!” lights flanking the stage flashed their command, and the “A” corral flooded across the start line.  Down a dimly lit Disneyland Drive we cruised for just over ¼ mile before turning into Disney California Adventure Park, followed by Disneyland at around mile 2.  Winding our way among the attractions, we passed through Sleeping Beauty Castle and down Main Street, USA.

Avengers Half Marathon start line

Aye Aye, Captain!

For the first two miles I wore my earbuds and listened to music on my iPhone, the first time I’d ever done so in a race.  The reason?  I’d been invited to try Motigo, a new app created by a colleague that allows friends and family to pre-record motivational cheers that cleverly play on your iPhone at designated spots along the course.  I’d happily offered to test it out on race day, knowing today would be less “race” and more “fun run”.  Sure enough, just before mile two the heavy drumbeat and driving guitar of symphonic metal faded out quickly to be replaced by Katie’s pre-recorded cheer, after which the music seamlessly picked back up where it had left off.  Motigo was a cool experience, and I can imagine several strong use cases for it, including runners tackling their first half or full marathon and coaches who want to support their runners during a race.

The first three miles in the dark but brightly lit parks included several stops, the first for a photo op with Thor, God of Asgard (who am I to run right by a god without stopping?).  I then made up time by passing both Hawkeye and the Black Widow, opting instead to save my stops for the real heroes, the ones with legitimate powers who needn’t rely on a bow-and-arrow or handgun for their weaponry.  If I wanted a hero with a bow-and-arrow, I’d call Katniss Everdeen.

I even passed up a photo op with Russell from the Pixar movie “Up”, who apparently had risen from bed early to find out what all the ruckus was about.

And then, just like that, we were leaving the park and cruising through Anaheim along South Harbor Blvd.  Given that the first three miles had been largely hero-deficient, I assumed Disney would be distributing the rest of their Avengers either along the course outside the park or saving them for our return visit in the final mile.

Mike Sohaskey & Thor

He who runs a fast half marathon, might finish a bit Thor

Now entering the dead zone
Mile 4 clocked in at 7:14, as I stretched my legs and tried to literally run away from the suburban strip-mall monotony all around us.  With the sun rising in a clear sky and the initial spike of start-line adrenaline out of my system, I felt the first wave of sleep deprivation wash over me.  A stiff headwind greeted us as we turned east onto Chapman Ave.  How adorable – weather! sang the spoiled Californian in me.  I’m convinced that all of Orange County sits within a climate-controlled dome, the main control panel for which lives in Disney CEO Robert Iger’s office.  So I was surprised that non-ideal weather patterns were tolerated so close to the Disney campus.  And I naturally assumed the gusts that were now whipping me in the face would be short-lived.

Apparently, though, there are higher forces at work than even Disney, because the wind really began to flex its muscle in mile 5.  And suddenly this ¾ mile stretch of road in notoriously temperate Anaheim became more of a struggle than even the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City had been two weeks earlier, when Dunkin’ Donuts beanies had swirled around my feet as I’d fought not to be blown sideways like a discarded newspaper.

From Weather Underground, 16 Nov 2014:

The National Weather Service in San Diego has issued a Wind Advisory:

* Winds…north to northeast 25 to 35 mph…with local gusts to 55 mph.

* Reports…strongest wind gusts today as of 1 pm: 76 mph at Pleasants Peak in the Santa Ana Mountains. 62 mph at Fremont Canyon in the coastal foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.

* Impacts…strong gusty winds will make driving hazardous. Watch for broken tree limbs and localized blowing dust may reduce visibility.

Finally we gained a reprieve from the direct headwind, zigzagging our way through the parking lot of the impressive (both for its size and geometric glass architecture) Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.  Another nondescript mile of suburbia followed, Mother Nature again dialing up the wind as if to protest the lack of scenery.

Mike Sohaskey - Hulk Smash

Along the course, local marching bands and cheerleading squads dutifully cheered on the runners with a show of prefab enthusiasm that I both appreciated and pitied.  An odd scene greeted us at mile 7, where one energetic marching band blasted the theme song to the Spider-Man TV series from the late 60s – the one clearly animated by a group of Funyun-lovin’ twenty-somethings on an acid trip – while a runner dressed in full Spider-Man costume danced an absurd jig, as though rats were nipping at his heels.

The familiar song brought back childhood memories of my mom regularly dragging me away from that same TV show because we had to go pick up my older brother Chuck from school.  I’d time and again tried to reassure her that with plenty of Tang and Hostess products in the house, I’d be fine by my 8-year-old self until she got home.  But she wouldn’t relent (moms are odd like that), and so to this day whenever I hear that theme song, I have flashbacks to all the Spider-Man cartoons I missed because for some reason Chuck’s legs didn’t work well enough to walk themselves home.

With my oversized green fists and tattered purple shorts, I drew frequent cries of “Hulk smash!” from runners and aid station volunteers. Spectators, however, were understandably sparse – Katie was trapped in Disneyland parking with no in-and-out privileges, while most of the locals still counted sheep on the backs of their eyelids.

Katie & Goofy

Goofy, meet goofier

This was my first half marathon since Oakland 2012, and one thing Hulk wouldn’t be smashing on this day was his PR from that March day.  Of course, with a green boxing glove on each hand and camera at the ready, a fast finish time was the furthest thing from my mind.  I’d set my lone time goal as a sub-two hour finish, though I was ready and willing to keep an open mind.

Overall, my Hulk hands were light and less cumbersome than I’d expected.  Granted they proved challenging to pull off and on to access the camera once my hands got sweaty, and I opted to spare myself the awkward challenge of aid stations, which looked well-stocked with water and Powerade.  But the smiles & acknowledgements from other runners and volunteers were well worth the minor inconvenience.

Glancing around, I picked out quite a few other Hulks in the stream of runners, many of them sporting officially licensed Hulk muscle shirts or – in one case – a green t-shirt with sparkly purple skirt.  Surprisingly, though, I saw only one other runner wielding a pair of green fists, which were ill-fitting and roughly half the size of my own.  I offered their owner a friendly fist bump in passing and reflected on the fact that sometimes, size does matter.

Along the way I tried to sympathize with the Batmen, the Supermen, the Wonder Women and even the solitary Flash I saw… really I did, but the same thought kept echoing through my head: looks like someone needs their own race!  If it weren’t for Heath Ledger’s Joker, would DC Comics have anything to show for the past 20 years?

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N in NYC

In my defense, we were told to strike our “best superhero pose” (Discovery Times Square, New York City)

Enter Sandman
Luckily I was able to entertain myself, because the monotony of the course persisted as we headed north along the Santa Ana River Trail toward Angel Stadium.  The state’s historic drought had transformed the riverbed into a sinuous sandbox which now served as a limitless repository of wind-blown grit.  Through squinted eyes I spied a homeless camp beneath an overpass, the stark reality of which left me feeling self-conscious in my silly superhero garb.

Just as the riverside path began to feel interminable and Angel Stadium remained a distant hope through the dusty haze, this “dead zone” was interrupted by an oddly eclectic collection of Marvel heroes and villains lining the course.  It took my brain a moment to register what was going on, and as the cheering figures flashed by I committed to memory as many as I could – among them a buff and heroic Falcon, several agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a Scarlet Witch, a classic gray Iron Man costume replete with blinking LEDs, a curiously short Spider-Man dressed like a “South Park” character in costume, pom beanie, scarf and jacket; and a painstakingly made-up She-Hulk with whom I shared a knowing smile and a parting fist bump.

The highlights of this fleeting encounter with good and evil were a a frighteningly realistic Venom; a very cool Sandman wielding what looked to be papier mâché fists that dwarfed my own; and a fleshy Magneto, whose costume clearly strained under the pressure of its assignment and who looked to be harnessing his awesome power of control over metallic objects to hold his belt buckle in place. Unfortunately, on this narrow and crowded section of the trail I couldn’t stop for photos without risking a collision with another runner.

On-course flags for Avengers Half Marathon

Luckily these flags were weighted down, or the wind would’ve turned them into weapons

Whether these were official Disney “crew members” I can’t say, but they did provide a momentary and much-needed distraction from the ever-tightening grasp of OC ennui.  Reality quickly set in again, however, and the remaining distance to Angel Stadium was a definite low point of the morning.  I faced the swirling onslaught of sand and grit (“like little bits of Anaheim shrapnel,” Larissa would later say) with head down, mouth closed and eyes open just wide enough to stay the course.  Ironically, despite the oversized weaponry at the ends of my arms, I felt like the skinny kid at the beach getting sand kicked in my face.  Dammit, this had to be the Sandman’s fault – I should’ve taken him down when I had the chance!

Finally we reached Angel Stadium, where another marching band + cheerleading squad greeted our arrival.  Let’s be honest – Angel Stadium isn’t Fenway Park or even Dodger Stadium, and so visiting the empty stadium wasn’t nearly as appealing as the brief respite it offered from the high headwinds and constant concrete.  Along the red dirt from home plate to third base we ran before exiting through the left field wall.  Like the home team itself in the 2014 baseball playoffs, we got in and out quickly.

Angel Stadium - Avengers Half Marathon course

Welcome to Angel Stadium

As we turned our sights toward home, I glanced the mile 9 sign lying flat on its back just outside Angel Stadium, another casualty of Mother Nature’s bluster.  Unlike New York, the wind in this case stuck to the script, providing a much-appreciated tailwind that erratically blew me forward as we followed the course alongside and over the Santa Ana Freeway.

As the race entered its later stages and our mileage reached double digits, what I saw left me fearing for mankind’s future.  There was Captain America off to one side, nursing a calf cramp.  Spider-Man walked through an aid station, sipping a cup of Powerade.  And Thor shuffled along, soles scraping the concrete.  Suddenly I understood why Mr. Incredible had gained so much weight in middle age.  Apparently protecting the planet from malevolent, all-powerful forces is child’s play compared to the demands of running a half marathon!

Aside from the oft-seen “You’re MY superhero!” signs, the only spectator sign of note was the curious directive to “Run like there’s SHAWARMA at the finish line!”  Which got me thinking – was this sign intended for a specific runner?  Was there actually NOT shawarma at the finish line?  And if there was, was it scarce and therefore worth speeding up for in the face of mounting fatigue?  The sign raised more questions than it answered…

Disney Way - Avengers Half Marathon course

Running along the Santa Ana Freeway at 7:00am? It’s the Disney Way

Approaching the parks in mile 12, a haze of wind-blown dirt hung in the air as seeds and pods from the surrounding trees spiraled to the ground like nature’s confetti.

Lest I’d forgotten the strength of the tailwind at my back, I was offered a graphic reminder when a defenseless orange pylon blew over and shot forward like a skipping stone skimming the surface of the water.  The out-of-control pylon quickly caught up to and passed a runner who had a good 10-yard head start on it, before veering off-course and rolling away.  Wow.

Luckily runners are little more than ambulatory pylons, and without conscious effort my mile 13 turned out to be my fastest of the day in a wind-aided 7:11.

Mike Sohaskey (as Hulk) nearing Avengers Half Marathon finish

Admittedly, I spent no time in front of the mirror practicing my Hulk expressions

Cruising toward home, my ears perked up as that unmistakable Disneyland music rose in the distance, a siren song calling to its beguiled runners.  And as I reeled in the finish line, suddenly I realized there would be no more sanctioned super-sightings – no Captain America, no Iron Man, and sadly {snif} no Hulk.  Disappointing to be sure, though admittedly miles 4-12 (but for one 20-yard stretch of costumed characters) had maxed out my disappointment quota for the day.

Striding past bleachers dotted with spectators, I sidestepped the flow of traffic for one last Hulk-inspired pose before crossing the finish line in 1:47:15.  Gratefully I accepted a finisher medal from a shiny happy volunteer, though the moment lacked its usual “surprise & delight” luster because I’d accidentally seen the medal on display at the runDisney expo booth in New York City two weeks earlier (see Dan’s “Rules for Racing” #1).  No this isn’t a deal-breaker, and yes it’s my personal bias, but runDisney needs to stop showcasing its medals before the race.  After all, anticipation is a powerful carrot, and it’s not like the Disney faithful will stop running their races without a sneak peek at the bling.

Mike Sohaskey Hulk Smash at Avengers Half Marathon finish line

That poor finish line never knew what hit it

Where have all the heroes gone?
Once across the finish line the music died quickly, both literally and figuratively.  I absentmindedly accepted a banana, water and Kleenex-shaped box of packaged munchies from a volunteer, before being shunted unceremoniously out of the finish chute and into the converted parking lot that served as the family reunion area, site of the post-race festivities.

Other than an empty stage set up to one side for the winning Avengers to assemble, the finish-line area felt very non-festive.  I reunited with Katie and we milled about uncertainly, expecting photo ops with other Disney characters, or at the very least some semblance of post-race entertainment.  Sponsor booths stood largely ignored on the perimeter, away from the flow of traffic.  And charity tents were placed on the far side of the converted parking lot, next to a little-used exit.

Mother Nature, perhaps intent on ending this charade, raised another series of strong gusts, and just like that the wind had won.  Soon booths and tents were being dismantled, and mingling runners were being encouraged to exit the reunion area.  The PA announced that the awards ceremony had been moved and would likely be canceled.  We had planned to hang out to wait for Wally & Larissa to finish, but the AT&T race tracking app claimed no knowledge of them, and so I knew neither their pace nor when they’d finish.  Resignedly we exited the reunion area, the sad edifice of the unused stage seeing us out.

See below for my other thoughts related to race production.  RunDisney organizers, avert your eyes.

Mike Sohaskey as Hulk with Iron Man

Iron-ically, the other runners were far more entertaining than the official on-course entertainment

The wind chime-y tinkle of medal-on-medal-on-medal – the mating call of the runDisney devotee – filled the air as we made our way toward the parking lot through the swelling crowd of finishers exiting the reunion area.  This being the final runDisney event of the year, many runners proudly showcased their personal collection of 2014 finisher medals.  In most cases this consisted of one or two Disneyland & Disney World medals, along with a Coast to Coast Challenge medal for completing races in both parks in one calendar year.

Yet amid this impressive assemblage of transcontinental bling, one couple from New York garnered the type of attention normally reserved for conquering heroes, the complete set of his-and-hers 2014 runDisney finisher medals hanging around their necks.  I congratulated and snapped a photo of the exhausted yet beaming duo, their year’s remarkable collection of runDi$ney earnings on full display to be admired like dragon pelts.

And for one fleeting moment, I felt green with envy.

Sporting all 2014 runDisney finishers medals

No one does “flair” like runDisney

BOTTOM LINE: For much of my childhood I ate, drank, breathed and slept Marvel Comics.  And I greeted the announcement of the inaugural Avengers Super Heroes Half with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  So I’m disappointed to say that after experiencing the race once, I have zero interest in running it again.

Yes, runDisney recently added their predictable enticement of an extra medal courtesy of their two-day “Infinity Gauntlet Challenge” (10K on Saturday, half marathon on Sunday).  And yes, the race again will sell out faster than you can say “Ultron”.  But my own enjoyment of the event derived almost entirely from seeing other runners in their full or partial superhero regalia, rather than from anything the runDisney folks did.  So the folks in the home office have some major kinks to iron out here before I can recommend the race in good conscience to any but the most hardcore runDisney-ophile.

First, and speaking of “iron”, I don’t claim to understand licensing or film rights, but I do know Iron Man is a key member of the Avengers, as are the Hulk and Captain America.  And yet Iron Man was conspicuously absent from the weekend’s activities, while the Hulk and Captain America appeared nowhere but on the cover of the official event guide.  So Disney needs to untangle itself from Marvel’s restrictive licensing deals before this race can realize its potential and fully live up to the “Avengers” label.  Until that happens, runners will have to be content with Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow as the meager on-course Avengers representatives.  Fans of the franchise know there’s a reason Hawkeye and the Black Widow don’t have their own movie franchises – they’re BORING.

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon Event Guide

The Official 2014 Event Guide (left) & my “truth in advertising” version (right)

Second, the course itself outside the parks – specifically miles 4-12 – is mind-numbing. Disney can create magic; it can make wishes come true; it can turn adults into kids, and kids into believers.  Disney has the power to achieve a lot of things – but making Santa Ana, Garden Grove and the rest of Anaheim interesting ain’t one of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed January’s Walt Disney World Marathon in Florida and hope to return; on the other hand, I don’t anticipate running another SoCal Disney race.  Tough to believe I’d recommend Florida over Southern California for any reason, but if you’re a runner eyeing your first runDisney race, and as long as you aren’t wed to either the Avengers or Star Wars, then set your sights on Florida.  And if race distance is no object, then the WDW Marathon is a no-brainer.

Cinderella vs. Sleeping Beauty Castles at runDisney races

Another vote for Florida: Cinderella Castle in Orlando (left) vs. Sleeping Beauty Castle in Anaheim (right)

PRODUCTION: I appreciate the fact that runDisney events attract a slew of unlikely runners and inspire loyalty among those runners, as only Disney can.  And this year’s WDW Marathon was seamlessly orchestrated from start to finish.  But the inaugural Avengers Half – and I never thought I’d say this about a Disney production – felt like a company going through the motions.  Honestly, it felt like the folks at runDisney half-assed this race.  Logistically the race went off smoothly enough, but when your reputation enables you to charge $195 for a half marathon while promising a “power-packed weekend of fantastic fun and amazing excitement”, you can’t half-ass ANYTHING.  For $195, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be waiting to valet my car on race day.

Unfortunately runDisney has no qualms about wringing every last penny out of its customers.  Case in point, the runDisney ChEAR Squad program (get it? EAR? Mickey?) lets spectators purchase silver, gold or platinum packages to gain “special access” inside Disneyland during the race and to reserve seating at the finish line.  This, rather than apathy, was the reason the finish line bleachers were largely empty on race morning – friends & family had to pay to sit there!  Spectators who smartly refused to pay were positioned behind barricades on the far side of the finish line, where the real crowds gathered.

Avengers Half Marathon finish line

Tough to see here, but the paid spectator seating along the home stretch was largely empty

Note to runDisney: feel free to charge the runners whatever registration fee you can command for your races, but leave the spectators alone.  Better yet, if you were to offer a race-day Disneyland park discount to every registered runner, maybe you could access those spectators’ wallets without seeming so blatantly exploitative.

The high winds on race day certainly weren’t Disney’s fault (so much for my illusion of a climate-controlled dome…), and I’d like to see whether the finish-line festival becomes more festive without the overriding concern of booths, tents and the main stage blowing away at any moment.

And one other question, runDisney: why would I dedicate (at least) 20 minutes of my time to complete your anonymous post-race survey that no other runner will ever see, when I can post my review on RaceRaves.com where other runners (and race directors) will read and benefit from it?  Maybe it’s time to ditch the anonymous survey in favor of a forum where runners can openly share their honest feedback?  Your finishers are your best evangelists, so a little trust in them might go a long way…

Avengers Half Marathon Medal 2014 in Hulk hand

RaceRaves rating:Mike Sohaskey - RaceRaves rating for Avengers Half Marathon

FINAL STATS:
November 16, 2015
13.25 miles in and around Disneyland (Anaheim, CA)
Finish time & pace: 1:47:15 (first time running the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon), 8:06/mile
Finish place: 233 overall, 40/640 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 10,468 (4,047 men, 6,421 women)
Race weather: Cool and sunny (starting temp 54°F), strong gusty winds
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 63ft ascent, 70ft descent
2015 registration opens on April 7

Avengers Half splits

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