Readers, I did a stupid thing this summer. When my wife texted me and said “I think I’m going to sign up for the full marathon this year!” I didn’t believe her. Instead, I just wrote back “yeah, okay! If you do, go ahead and sign me up for the 10k.” Ten minutes later I got my registration confirmation in my inbox. I’m a great spectator. I love clapping and making signs and handing my sister and my wife beer at the end of their races. But I am not a runner. I only run if someone is chasing me. But suddenly here I was, staring at my first runDisney race confirmation.
I began my training in September according to the Jeff Galloway training plans available on the RunDisney website, but in all honestly probably spent more time crafting my running playlist and deciding on a costume than actually running. It didn’t really hit home until a couple weeks before race day when we received our waivers and bib numbers that I was, truly, going to do this. To calm my nerves I made a list of goals for race morning and decided to consider each one an accomplishment.
Goal One: Get on the bus to the start line!
Upon reflection, the hardest part about a RunDisney event is the start time. 5ks begin at 6 am, while all other distances begin at 5:30. Transportation from on-site Walt Disney World resorts begins at 3:30 am, and everyone kept telling me I had to make that first bus. I was smart and set out my race clothes the night before on our bathroom counter at Port Orleans French Quarter, and set my alarm for 2:45. I’m not sure why I did, because I was so nervous that I slept fretfully, having visions of tripping over the starting mat and being trampled by hoards of sleep-deprived actual runners.
If you are staying at an on-site resort, there are signs everywhere encouraging runners to use the provided transportation instead of driving yourself to the start line. After arriving at the start plaza, it was clear why. For marathon weekend, all four races begin and end in the far end of the Epcot parking lot. The provided busses are the only vehicles allowed close to that area. If you choose to drive, you’ll probably end up putting at least a half mile onto your distance for the day! Besides the distance to the start line, driving around can be a challenge on race mornings as large portions of the courses are on the roads, which are closed off to drivers.
Goal Two: Unfurl Space Blanket
Although this is Central Florida, January mornings can be very chilly. In fact, on the morning of the marathon in 2017, a wind chill advisory was issued! I’m a Minnesotan so I’m used to cold weather, but was also very glad I picked up a $5 space blanket at Target and stuck it in my pocket. Be careful, though: the mylar material will mess with the chip timer in your race bib, so you have to make sure to toss it aside before crossing the official start line.
Goal Three: Find the DJ!
It wouldn’t be Walt Disney World without appropriately epic atmospheric music, and the races are no exception. Their DJ was in full swing by the time I got there at 3:45, and showed no signs of slowing down! Although, I admit I was ready to unplug the cables when he played Baby Shark. In addition to the music, Mickey, Minnie, Dopey, and Pluto were all available for meet and greets.
Goal Four: Find an innovative way to stay warm when the space blanket is not enough.
I was not alone in hunkering at the back of the Joffrey’s coffee truck hoping to glean some warmth from the exhaust fumes! In addition to your usual lineup of caffeinated beverages, food was also available for purchase.
Goal Five: Make my way to the actual start line.
Although the race didn’t begin until 5:30, the start corrals open at 4:30. By some miracle, my self-estimated pace of 10-minute miles (my first mile was close! We don’t need to talk about the other five) placed me in Corral A, meaning that we would be the first ones to start. I am normally one to scoff at being herded like cattle, but corral is definitely the best word, everyone hunkered together between metal fencing looking their way down the Epcot parking lot. I’m pretty sure an hour has never gone by so fast, and soon we were marched up to the actual start line.
Goal Six: Start the race!
Runners were sent off in waves from their corrals in about two-minute intervals, each start marked by fireworks. I could feel my adrenaline pumping and wished I hadn’t eaten half a roll of caffeinated black cherry shot blocks already. But then…I ran.
I had no goals other than actually starting. The first half-mile was a cold five minutes of pavement pounding, the only thought in my head a resounding “this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” But soon after the course left the Epcot parking lot, I saw spotlights on the overpass up ahead. If I just ran a little bit further, I could see what it was.
It was Mary Poppins and two of her carousel horses! She was perched up there magically, practically perfect, telling everyone to keep going and cheering us on.
When Mary tells you to keep going, you kind of have to do it.
The bit that separates RunDisney from other races is the character stops. I passed Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope, Chip and Dale dressed as the Rescue Rangers, the witch from Snow White, Abu, and so many others! Most of the characters are also staffed by a Disney PhotoPass photographer, and these quick character meets are both a welcome respite for your body as well as a fun photo opportunity. I didn’t stop at any because my brain was too curious to see what was around the next corner!
Shortly after mile three, the course took a turn from on-road and into Epcot via the backstage entrance near Test Track. This is when I first started to cry as I got my first glimpse of World Showcase, all the pavilions lit up, the torches blazing, and inspirational Disney music such as “Go the Distance” and “How Far I’ll Go” filling the air. Epcot’s World Showcase is my favorite part of all the Walt Disney World parks, and I knew that if I could get there, it would be like running in my backyard until the finish line.
A grin broke out across my face, and each step felt easier than the last. I followed the course around to France, exiting at the International Gateway to the do the loop around the Crescent Lake resorts (Boardwalk Inn, Swan and Dolphin, Yacht Club and Beach Club) before reentering Epcot near Soarin’, up the middle towards Spaceship Earth. I was doing it. I was really and truly finishing a race!
Let me rephrase that. I really, and truly, finished a race.
Things I know now that I didn’t know before
1. You, too, can be a RunDisney racer! “Running” is a loose term for many at Disney races. The only requirement is that you aim to keep a 16:00 pace, or else you run the risk of being swept. The last people to start each race are colloquially referred to as the “balloon ladies” – a pack of runners, carrying balloons, who keep a steady 16:00 pace. If you are passed by the balloon ladies, you will find yourself asked to exit the course at the next sweep point. This does not apply to the 5k.
2. Fireworks are loud! Especially when you can hear them from your resort room every two minutes from 5:30 until 6:20 on the morning of the half-marathon and full marathon. I can only verify that we heard them from the top floor of building two at Port Orleans French Quarter, but I imagine Port Orleans Riverside is within earshot as well. I have also heard that you can hear the announcers from the Fort Wilderness Campgrounds. If you, or any members of your party, are light sleepers, packing earplugs is not a bad idea during race weekends.
3. Sign up quickly! runDisney events tend to sell out very quickly, especially in the shorter distances. Make note of the upcoming on sale dates, and plan accordingly!
4. It’s not a competition. With the exception of the top elites, distance running is about your own personal challenge. Everyone does it in their own way and for their own reasons. Although I will admit that I was very happy that my 10k time was three minutes faster than my sister’s half-marathon time.
5. HAVE FUN. Stop for characters. Pose for the PhotoPass photographers. Cross the finish line of your first marathon with a beer from Norway and a sandwich from Les Halles Boulangerie in France. Make it yours.
Above all, remember: every mile is magic.
Have you participated in a runDisney event? Can you guess my costume? Let me know in the comments!
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