The Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend is a bona fide bonanza. There is no other way to describe it. While I’m used to races with a few thousand runners for a regular charity 4- or 5-miler in Central Park, and my inaugural half marathon had more than 20,000 participants, the sheer number of runners who show up to participate in the four races over the course of this marathon weekend was astounding. The Pluto 5k on Thursday, Minnie Mouse 10k on Friday, Donald Duck Half Marathon on Saturday, and Mickey Mouse Marathon on Sunday are just the tip of the iceberg. Some runners take on the Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge, running both the half and full marathons, and the truly hardcore go for the Dopey Challenge, which includes all 48.6 miles across all four races. I’m just happy I can run a half marathon!
Since my main event was the half marathon, I was able to visit the theme parks with my family on Friday. Friday evening we got to see the Main Street Electrical Parade in the Magic Kingdom, which I’ve always loved, and the Wishes fireworks. Fireworks are my favorite!
After the fireworks, we got on the bus back to our hotel, near Disney’s Boardwalk and Epcot. I found myself sitting next to and across from several fellow runners, who had all caught the nighttime festivities and were heading back to try and get a couple of hours of sleep. They had all run the race before, and two of them were running the Dopey Challenge – all of them warned me that the alarm clock’s early bell would be tolling long before I was ready! This turned out to be true. I was up at 3:30am to be on a bus to the start at 4am, and I don’t think I got more than two hours of sleep. There was too much excitement coursing through my veins, both nerves and adrenaline keeping me awake. It didn’t matter much – when we got to the staging area, there was music playing and characters were milling around, and all the other runners were very friendly and ready to keep each other alert and ready to race! I stopped by the Team JDRF tent to say hello to a few other runners who were running and fundraising, and then began to make my way to the starting corrals.
It got a little nerve-wracking about 4:30am, as I walked to Corral D. There were 16 corrals in addition to the elites at the front, and the walk up to near the front where D was located was almost 2 miles from the drop-off point. When I got there, I realized I was a little too early – very few of my fellow runners were there yet! I had submitted a half marathon proof of time from last year of 2:10, and a target time of 2:00, so even though this was my first Disney half marathon, I was in an upper corral, whereas most of the other first-timers were farther back. Apparently, all the other half marathoners in the upper corrals knew the drill with Disney races and planned to get there closer to the starting time of 5:30am. Everything worked out okay, although the temperatures were quite cold for Central Florida and I had to work hard to keep warm, stretching and doing some light jogging. I was glad I had worn a long-sleeved fleece and leggings over my shorts and tank top – I threw the leggings into the donation pile prior to starting as planned, but I ended up keeping the fleece with me the whole race, as the temperature hovered around 45 degrees the entire time. Finally, it was time to start. They let each corral begin and walked the next corral right up to the start, then held the runners so that corrals were released at precise 2-minute intervals. This was a little frustrating as we waited, but it was worth it when the fireworks went off for each and every corral!
Miles 1-3 were relatively uneventful. I started off a bit faster than planned because of the cold. I usually try to keep the first few miles slow and steady, but I ended up running a 9:32 pace for a 29:37 5k split (I know this because I signed up for runDisney tracking alerts, and they texted me the times so I could see after the race – my Fitbit Zip is so not that fancy!) Around mile 2, a bright spot in the darkness on the side of World Drive turned out to be the pirate ship float from the previous evening’s Electrical Parade, with music blasting. It was that kind of fun Disney touch that made this race special. Although the highway running up to the Magic Kingdom is relatively barren, there were all sorts of entertainment setups alongside the course to keep things interesting, and thousands of Disney cast members cheering the runners on.
Mile 4 brought us to the Transportation and Ticket Center and the Magic Kingdom sign. Here is where my energy finally revved up and I shook off the major shivers! There were some characters here for photo ops, but I had decided before the race that I was only going to stop in the Magic Kingdom and afterwards so as not to lose momentum too early, and also to only pause for photos if there were no/short lines, because waiting around in the cold would probably have hurt! So I kept on running, went down a small slope under a tunnel and when I came up we were right outside Space Mountain and rounding a corner, heading through the turnstiles and charging up Main Street, U.S.A! This was probably one of the most exhilarating running moments I’ve ever had. Throngs of family, friends, and other onlookers stood on the sidewalks cheering all the runners on, and Cinderella Castle glittered up ahead, lighting the path through the darkness.
After a hard right into Tomorrowland, I took a left back through Fantasyland and went through the castle. At the base, I took a beat, pausing for a photo. Just couldn’t resist that sparkling backdrop! Afterwards, the course continued through Frontierland and Adventureland, and Mile 6 marked the exit from the Magic Kingdom. My pace grew to 10:16 for a 10k split of 1:03:47, reflecting the stops I made on Main Street and at the castle. They were worth every minute.
The sun began to rise during Mile 7, and by Mile 8 the sky was fairly bright. The Grand Floridian was beautiful in the dawn’s early light, and while I was starting to feel the cold a bit more and my knee was a little sore, I found a spoonful of sugar to sweeten the rest of the run.
Miles 9 and 10 felt a bit slow, although my pace of 10:19 and 15k split of 1:36:07 was not far off my usual steady jog on a long run. It was probably because the scenery on this part of the route is the least entertaining, although Disney does try hard to make the highway exciting. There were characters at the golf course, Mickey and Goofy in golf clothes looking adorable, as well as Aladdin and Genie and a few others along the way, but the lines were at least a dozen people long. Mile 11 was the most difficult, as there was a slow and steady climb up and around an overpass. This course was very flat with the exception of a few underpasses and overpasses, so even though I’m used to running much steeper hills at home, to have one come in after miles of flat terrain was tough. In addition, the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel pyramid was in sight starting at Mile 9, but I knew it was roughly four miles away sitting next to Epcot, so the view (while gorgeous) felt like a bit of a trick!
By Mile 12, I was heading into the Epcot parking lot, just a few hundred yards from where we had started. I headed into the park and charged past Spaceship Earth, my pace picking up considerably for the final push. Instead of heading into the World Showcase, the course looped around and brought runners back toward the exit from Future World into the parking lot, where the finish line was located. I crossed the finish line just before 8am, clocking in at 2:14:33 with an overall pace of 10:16. I placed 4,654/22,081 finishers and 1,581/12,379 women. I was elated and exhausted all at once. During my celebratory brunch at the Captain’s Grille at the Yacht Club resort, and spending time in the parks afterwards, I felt like a princess when cast members and fellow runners alike shouted congratulations. It was an incredible race.
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