On Sunday, January 11th, 2015, I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon. If you’re new to running or a seasoned veteran of the road, the running events that Disney puts on at their parks throughout the year are some of the best events you’ll run. They are extremely well organized and well attended, but most importantly are supported by a culture of encouragement and positivity. I’ve found every race I’ve run so far to be encouraging and positive, but what makes the Disney running events unique in this regard is to have so many runners (and their families and the park staff and other park guests) in the same place for an extended period of time demonstrating those traits.
There are 4 races held during the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend, each on subsequent days (Thursday - Sunday): a 5K, 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon. There are also a number of challenges you can elect to run, but you have to register and pay for them ahead of time. They are the Goofy Challenge (Half Marathon and Marathon) and the Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon). From what I’ve read from people who run the Dopey Challenge, they take the first 3 races very slow, with many people electing to walk. This way of tackling either the Goofy or Dopey Challenge makes them seem more approachable. In the coming years, I’m sure I’ll run the Dopey Challenge. It’s too enticing from a “Can I really do this?” perspective as well as the 6 medals (4 for each individual race, 1 for Goofy and 1 for Dopey) you receive after completing the challenge.
The medals really are a special part of the marathon weekend events. Walking around the parks, you could see people wearing their technical shirts from completing the race earlier in the AM and wearing their race’s respective medal. Everyone around the Disney properties, from the bus drivers to the cashiers to the other guests, would usually say “Congratulations” or “Great work” or offer some other form of encouragement. It always brought a smile to my face to be in an environment that was so supportive, regardless of whether you only ran the 5K or whether you ran all 4 races. Even as I was flying back home on Monday afternoon, there were so many people walking around the Orlando airport wearing their race shirts and medals and talking about the race weekend.
There are many different running events put on by Disney at their parks in Florida and California throughout the year. I am already looking at the Disneyland Half Marathon, which will be held over Labor Day weekend. Not only will I receive a medal for running that race, but in true Disney fashion, I’ll also be eligible to receive the Coast-to-Coast Challenge medal. This is for running a race on each coast during a calendar year.
During the weekend, each Disney property is a host hotel. I stayed at the Caribbean Beach property and utilized the buses to go from the hotel to the parks, Downtown Disney, the running expo to pickup my race packet and bib, and for morning of the marathon. Buses were running continuously throughout the day and there was never more than a 15 minute wait before a bus arrived going to one of those destinations. Each of the buses to the Disney parks is clearly marked as were the special buses for the expo and to the marathon.
I registered for the 2015 Walt Disney World Marathon on the day registration first opened in 2014. At that time, I had only run my first half marathon and provided that time, which would be used later to determine the corral I’d be in for the morning of the marathon. Each race during the weekend is broken up into corrals that start every 3-5 minutes (with fireworks). This way the runners are staggered and not running over each other. Disney gives you until mid-October to provide a better time from the time you provided during registration. I ran 3 other half marathons before the last date you could submit a better time and did well enough that I got a spot in B corral for the marathon. The 2 corrals ahead of me were the Elite and A corrals. It was gratifying to know I had done well enough to place in a starting corral, but I was more thankful that I didn’t have to stand around for an hour or more waiting before the marathon started.
All of the races start very early in the AM. The half marathon and marathon start at 5:30 AM. For the marathon, you have to be on a bus by 4 AM to make it to your corral on time. I would suspect that the other nickname for the Dopey Challenge would be the Sleepy Challenge since you’re getting up so early 4 days in a row! The Walt Disney World Marathon weekend this year was one of the colder weekends in January for Florida. While walking around the parks on Friday and Saturday, I never saw so many people in jeans, sweaters or sweatshirts, jackets, and gloves and caps. It was almost like being back in NY weather. Almost. All of the corrals have clothing bins so that you can wear some old clothes on race mornings, depending on the temperature, and the clothes you leave behind will be donated to charity. B corral was pretty quiet until around 5:15 AM when most of the people from the buses showed up. And even then, I never felt like I was a sardine in a can. While waiting for the marathon to start, I talked with a gentleman from the Dallas, TX area who was running his 101st marathon that morning. It was good to bond over stories of running from the past year as well as our mutual fondness for the Vanilla Bean-flavored GU gels.
This was supposed to be the first marathon I would run, but it turned out to be my second marathon. Last year, I felt that my training for this race was going very well, so I registered for and ran the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon. In retrospect, that was a good and bad. Good in that I went through all the motions and emotions of running a marathon. Bad in that I should have taken more time to recover after that marathon before starting to train for the Walt Disney World Marathon. The week that I was headed to Florida, on my Monday run and especially my Tuesday run, I noticed my left calf muscle acting up. I had to mentally resolve to run at a much slower pace and to simply enjoy the marathon. I wanted to finish the marathon without injury. The left calf muscle, that I thought would be my downfall during the run, didn’t act up at all. I did have a little pain in my left heel throughout and I could feel my left IT band becoming sore around mile 22. In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest idea to have walked around the Magic Kingdom and Epcot parks on Friday and Saturday. My FitBit says I logged ~9 miles of walking on Friday and ~10 miles of walking on Saturday. You live and learn. I have a month off of running before I start training for another marathon in mid-May of this year.
I attended the “Pasta In the Park” party the night before the marathon. This was fun for some of the character photo opportunities, but at $65, it’s a bit pricey for a pasta dinner. You do get a special viewing area for the IllumiNations light show at Epcot at 9 PM, but I was back on the bus back to the hotel immediately after dinner to get a last stretch in before heading to bed since I had a 2:50 AM alarm set.
The course for the Walt Disney World Marathon takes you through all 4 parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot) as well as through the Walt Disney World Speedway and the ESPN Wide World of Sports. There are plenty of water, food and medical stations throughout the course. And plenty of port-a-potties to go to the bathroom. Although, pro-tip for anyone reading this: the bathrooms in the parks are open during the race. I did briskly walk through one of the medical stations around mile 23 to slather some BioFreeze on my left IT band. One of the most fun aspects of the Disney races are the characters that you can get your picture with along the course. Some of the more popular character photo opportunities had lines with 20 or 30 people in them and I was in one of the earlier corrals!
You start on a road outside of Epcot and run first through the Magic Kingdom after mile 5. After exiting the Magic Kingdom and running through the Walt Disney World Speedway, it’s off on the back roads of Disney to Animal Kingdom at mile 12. Be mindful of the waste treatment facility during this stretch as it stinks. Literally. After Animal Kingdom, you make your way through the ESPN Wide World of Sports, through Hollywood Studios and finally finish back at Epcot. I wouldn’t say the first 22 miles of the Walt Disney World Marathon are largely forgettable, but after running through the Magic Kingdom, the back roads aren’t too interesting. I think one of the more fun aspects of the Disney races during the weekend is that the parks are still open. So, by the time you get to Hollywood Studios and then make your way to Epcot, there are droves of people in the parks that are also shouting words of encouragement, so it’s just a more lively part of the marathon. And that encouragement and excitement really helps during those last 4 miles or so.
As far as hydration and fueling goes, I went out with my 4-bottle pack from FuelBelt (swapped in 10 oz. bottles instead of the normal 8 oz. bottles) filled with Nuun “powered” water and I had 7 Vanilla Bean-flavored GU gels. My personal hydration and fueling approach for a marathon is:
- Knock back one of the GUs 15 minutes before the start of the race
- A few oz. of water at miles 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, and 25, making sure to rotate taking water from each of the bottles to keep them as balanced as possible on my hip
- A GU gel at miles 8, 16, 22, and 24 with one in reserve just in case
I went out with my 4-bottle pack because I wasn’t going to be able to meet up with family to run with a 2-bottle pack and swap out 2 empty bottles after the halfway point. This was my approach during the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon. Personally, once I get into my running rhythm, I hate to slow up for water stations. The bottles allow me to continue to run at pace. You can’t do that with a cup of water. You only end up waterboarding yourself on the course if you try and run and drink. Thankfully I didn’t feel any lack of hydration or fueling even going at a slower pace this marathon.
This won’t be the last running event I do at Disney. Not by any stretch. The environment is so positive and fun. And looking ahead at doing the Goofy Challenge or Dopey Challenge, I’d love to ride back home on the plane to NY wearing 6 medals!
Finally, I’m certainly grateful to my family for taking the time and spending the money to travel to Walt Disney World with me that weekend to run the marathon. It’s always nice to have a familiar face there to greet you at the end of a long race. But as I said, there are so many runners and staff and guests that are supportive throughout the weekend, that I can’t imagine you’d feel alone.