It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs……
No, “two races” does not mean I bandited the goofy challenge. I mean that the race that Disney put on was the best, and the race I ran was the worst. The short version of this blog post is, I finished and got my medal, but it was a sufferfest and I should have trained better.
OK, now that we’re past the cliffs notes version, let’s do this with pictures, video, fireworks and everything!
Actually, we have to go back in time a bit to really tell this story. At the risk of turning a simple race report into a treatise on fatherhood, cynicism fighting sincerity, long-term planning, how to vacation at Disney, and all manner of random thoughts, I have to go back to how I ended up at the Disney Half-Marathon in the first place.
Our first family trip to Disney was in the fall of 2010. The four of us, my Mom and Dad and sister Jodi.
No one could believe the energy I had every single day of the trip. I discovered an entity that we recently named “Disney Daddy.” He comes out in preparation for a trip like this, and is in full planning mode while in Florida. He wants to make the most of the trip, and pack as many experiences into a day as possible, so he figures out which restaurant in which park or resort six months ahead for reservations. He makes everyone get up early for “rope drop” (as antiquated a term as ‘shipping’) so we don’t miss out on certain things. But after you have seen your kids get a chance to do something like this video, you make the plans. It’s 16 minutes long, but for Star Wars fans, it’s awesome. I even made opening titles on a borrowed Mac.
So back to the grand narrative. We returned from the first trip, having enjoyed Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, and all four parks, met the real Buzz Lightyear and real fairies and princesses. The original plan was to return in maybe 3-4 years.
The energy continued after Disney. I found myself putting up Christmas lights in trees on Thanksgiving weekend. I hadn’t done that in years. It seemed worth my time since the kids would enjoy it. I noticed I wasn’t sitting on the couch, I was out and moving. (Except when spending hours on that Jedi Training video above. I really am a geek at heart.)
On December 1, 2010, I woke up with time on my mind. In 15 months, I would be 40. I knew it was finally time to do something. I wanted to set myself to a goal, something that was a reach, but achieveable in 15 months. It was a Wednesday morning and Meg was getting ready for work. I mentioned this and threw out the idea of bench pressing 250. (I have little girl arms, if the little girl was atrophied from a year in bed.) 250 would be a huge goal for me. She was unimpressed with this as a goal and said “why not the Disney half-marathon?” She knew it was in January. I thought about it for less than 3 seconds and said “you’re on.” All wrapped into one I had a goal, a direction for change in fitness, and an excuse to take my kids back to the most magical place on earth. I went running in cold rain that flooded our local creeks, and I was hooked.
Later that morning, I called my good friend Lee, a seminary classmate. Lee has been running since June, and I know this from Facebook updates. I tell him all about my Road to Emmaus moment, and tell him he should be coming to Florida too. As it turns out, he has already made plans to do the marathon there the same weekend. It’s settled. We’re in it.
I tell that story again and again, because for me, it’s like the day an alcoholic takes his last drink. It was a moment of clarity. It was not a complete seismic shift, I had been heading in this direction for some time, but I needed a focus. Like WWI, I had my Archduke Ferdinand moment, and it’s been a crazy 13 months since. I took up triathlon, started dreaming of more long term goals, but the first really big deal was to do this half-marathon.
January 4, 2012, we’re back in the air. Our first stop is Epcot center, where Jack has requested to ride Soarin’. He was a hair too short for it last time, and it was a huge heartbreak. We have a fully packed day in Epcot, including two rides on Soarin’, meeting Mulan, watching Chinese acrobats, Turtle Talk (where Jack was chosen to ask a question of Crush, a privilege his sister enjoyed on the first trip), a private photo shoot with Mickey and Pluto, and the evening climax of Illuminations. All this after waking at 2:45 that morning to drive to BWI. The long day was hell on our feet, and the questions of the sanity of this plan were starting to bubble up.
No time to think about it, as the next morning was another rush to get to Holllywood Studios early for signups for Jedi Training. We knew from last time how popular it is, so we didn’t mess around. Disney Daddy was in full fascist mode, and we were go go go! That was another awesome park day, complete with Olivia’s tackling of Tower of Terror, two rides on Star Tours, Jedi Training, Cars stunt show, dinner at the Sci-fi Diner, the Osbourne Family dancing light show, Toy Story Mania! ride, meeting Phineas and Ferb, and another late night with Fantasmic! at 9pm. Now the feet are completely fried. Uh oh.
Friday was a light day by Disney standards. First we went to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex where there was both packet pickup and the kids races. Jack was running the 200m dash at 11am, so we were in that line first.
The kids races started with a dance party, and an appearance from the P90X guy. Great, now Jack will add to his list of 5 things he will eat: mac&cheese, hot dogs, apples, wheaties with Macca on the box, and I suppose now protein powder.
Kids runs were awesome. The 100m went first, which meant the youngest kids (other than diaper dash) were up. Several waves were needed, and each one took longer than any 200m wave, because the 2 year olds would stop, turn around, cry, get picked up, wave to everyone cheering. It was cute. By the 200m waves, every kid on the course meant business. Meg ended up running with Jack. Olivia stood next to a little girl just like her, with a brother in the 200m, and she was running the Mickey Mile later. They discussed pacing advice from their Dads. I wish I recorded that conversation.
We had some time before the Mickey Mile, so we went to pick up our own packets. Just as we were doing so, John Bingham, my favorite running writer, was taking the stage at the expo, a few feet away from packet pickup. I wanted to stay to hear him, and get a book signed, but Olivia’s race was in 20 minutes. Next time.
Olivia went back and forth on whether she wanted Meg to run with her, and at the last minute decided, yes. Jack and I went to the finish line and waited. The first kids across the tape were the 12 year old track stars who were flying. Olivia was at the back of the pack with 11:24, but a PR for her as far as I’ve measured.
After the kids races and completing goody bag pickup, we didn’t really browse the expo at all, but did get a chance to randomly run into Lee and Heather at the complex. I spotted them and shouted LEE MILLER!!!!!! which Lee told me was like a little piece of a Phish show experience when you see an old friend. (So in the near future, I have to do a comparison of the running subculture/tribe to the Phish subculture/tribe. Or any tribe for that matter.)
Time to say good bye to the ESPN WWoS complex and make our way to Downtown Disney for another thing Jack missed out on in 2010. The T-Rex Dinosaur Restaurant.
Oh wait – just next to T-Rex is the Lego store.
We finally make our way to T-Rex, and it is epic. As your novelty themes go, this one was definitely not designed by amateurs. Animatronic dinosaurs, color changing ice cave room we ate in, and a steaming volcano dessert for four.
Cap it off with a trip to Build-a-Bear Dino Workshop.
T-Rex was also an important stop because I got to meet an online friend in person. Marie, aka MacMadame from BeginnerTriathlete, who keeps a blog that chronicles her journey from gastric bypass to two time Ironman finisher. She showed Jack her ironman tattoo.
Finally time to get off our feet. We went back to the hotel and I got in the pool with the kids to float and soak. Lee met us at the pool to confer about the morning. We got plenty of sleep, but the damage was done to the feet, the fatigue was in the legs, and the late 2011 under-training was becoming evident. My mind was strong though, and I was psyched for the morning.
Race morning at Disney is unlike anything else I’ve experienced, except maybe the parking/camping lot after night two of three at a Phish festival. People are way more sober at this one though, and smell better. (The latter will change in a few hours.)
Because they want to open the parks and have as many runners finished and out of the way as they can, Disney races start at 5:30. That means checking bags by 4:30 for the apparently 4 mile walk to the corrals. So that means 20,000 plus people have to get into the parking lot via shuttle bus or their own cars between 3:30 and 4:30. So, we awoke at 2:45. Seriously. We met Heather to get on the bus, and Lee took charge of Olivia and Jack, a prospect that had him nervous for months prior. They all did fine. In fact, they got to the Magic Kingdom in time to secure a really good watching point.
Off the shuttle, into the lot, and it was cold. We stood around for a while. Actually the ladies stood. I laid down in the lot on my bag. Bag check time, then through the gate past the huge port-a-potty lines. We saw the wheelchair athletes go by through the crowd, to cheers from all sides. Slowly we made our way with the tightly packed crowd up the road, under giant rented construction lights. Second bank of port-a-potties was our next stop, then to corral G.
That guy is wearing a garbage bag for warmth. We started the day rather chilly. I knew that would soon change.
Corrals are assigned by expected finish times. You don’t want faster racers starting behind slower ones. That’s deadly in auto racing, and annoying on foot. G was the next to last corral, only ahead of H which was just people who failed to give a time, so most of them still got to pass me.
Each corral would start 6 minutes after the previous, which was enough time to walk forward. 22,000 people is a lot to funnel through a start line. Each subsequent start made it more and more clear that we could not turn back. But who would want to? You’re surrounded by thousands of happy people, ready to challenge yourself, and in true Disney style, it starts with FIREWORKS!
Once we got started, just after 6:06 AM, I was really unsure what the race would hold for me. This was uncharted territory. I had run 10 miles, but that was before Thanksgiving. Neither my long runs, nor my total volume were near where they should have been. Just finish, just finish. That’s fine for someone used to running 10-12 minute miles, you can walk the last ones in and not worry about finishing. But I was close to the cutoff pace anyway, so I couldn’t spare much. I didn’t plan to stop for any pictures, I had to be more serious about this run.
Meg stayed with me at the outset. It was clear this was not a pace she was comfortable trying to keep. The road was very crowded, especially at off ramps. After three miles I was only averaging about a 14:40 mile, which would have been fine if I could keep it up for another 10. Meg said “you really need to pick up the pace.” I knew that was probably true, but not likely to happen. I also knew I loved my wife and didn’t want to argue with her, and that she is not a coach. So I simply said “just go.” She swears I said “get out of here.” I said “just go.” It was probably for the best for both of us. I didn’t see her again until after bag pickup.
By mile 4 or 5, I’ve seen the winners returning on the other side of the road for their final stretch back to Epcot. I remember my first triathlon, where the leaders on the bike went flying by me along the river road after crushing the climb that would soon crush me. They’d be done with the race while I was still walking my bike up that one hill. These half-marathon leaders would be showered and riding Soarin’ before I was even close to this point on the return. Oh well, just racing the couch and the cutoff clock. I was still ahead of both, but that was looking tough.
Meanwhile, Lee had already taken our kids along with him and his young son Griffin, and Lee’s Mom, to the Magic Kingdom. They didn’t have Chear Squad tickets (those cost extra) but they did arrive early enough to secure a really good spot just as the runners entered Main Street, Magic Kingdom. Here’s what happens when our kids have access to their own video camera early in the morning.
The Magic Kingdom is just before the halfway mark, so I was full of energy. I ran across Marie the mile before the Kingdom and we ran together a bit. I met another really big guy my size who was born in Bloomsburg, and knew where Turbotville was. Heading into the kingdom, I was on my usual pace. I felt good coming into the park, and just inside the Main Street, I spotted the kids with Lee on the left. I was so happy to see them, I stopped and kissed them both on the top of the head. Lee really did secure a perfect spot. Even though they had to wait a long time for us, (especially me), the kids got to see the front runners as well as the wheelchair athletes go by. It was dark when they arrived. It was well into daylight when I made my appearance on Main Street.
The magic of the experience carries you through the kingdom like you have wings. I didn’t stop for my picture with Buzz Lightyear, but in retrospect I wish I had. I wanted to keep moving. Going around the park, and out another gate I never saw before, I was heading into a slowdown. Other runners told me later that the back stretch after leaving the kingdom is always hard. There’s no one out there cheering, or a tiny few. You’re a bit over halfway, with a long way to go, but nowhere near home stretch territory. These were tough miles. The adrenaline of seeing my family and running through the castle was gone. While I made my way around the park, Lee got them to the finish line. They’d have plenty of time before I got there, but Meghan and Heather were much further along.
Approaching mile 9 I saw the buses. The bus is there in case you don’t think you’ll make it, and you ride back. Or, if you’re missing the course cutoff, they will ask you to get on it. At this point, I was slowed down to about a 15:30 average pace, ahead of the official cutoff, plus the several minute cushion I had as a Gate G starter. No thoughts of getting on that bus at all. I had this thing. The clif bar station was just ahead.
By the time I got to the clif aid station, if they had any solid bars, they were gone. I got handed a mocha gel shot. I took it in about 1/2 a mile. I had a few honey stingers along the way too. More than needed I am sure, but I was out there a long time, and with all my other complications, under-fueling was not going to be a problem.
Once I was well past the buses, I looked behind me and saw there were still many people back there. I wasn’t as worried about the sweeper, but I was rapidly slowing down. (Is that an oxymoron?) After mile 10, I just remember I couldn’t get my legs to run. When I spotted Chip and Dale, I was already walking slowly, what’s another 2 minutes standing in line?
The last two miles, I won’t lie. It was a sufferfest. I was deep into uncharted territory. It was too late to go back and redo missed training runs, I was here. I had to finish on my feet. Come on man, it’s only a half-marathon! Well, I made a vow after finishing. Never again use the phrase ONLY a half-marathon, or JUST a half-marathon.
At about mile 11 or soon after, I did get worried about the sweeper. I saw the road being closed behind me. We came up an on ramp to the Epcot road, and by the time I walked around it and over the overpass, I could see the road below being re-opened and the last runners being hustled onto the ramp. I was several minutes ahead of that point, based on how long it took me to walk it. (Funny how little time it takes to drive a clover-leaf on ramp vs walking it.) I got the sense that if I was this far along, they weren’t going to sweep me. Still, I edged on slowly, worried that if I stopped, I might not start again. No sitting down for a break, no standing. I did use one port-a-potty around mile 12 at the last turn into the parking lot.
By then, the local marching bands were packed up and on their buses, the Gospel choir was gone, the park was open for business, and the stragglers were looking rough. I chatted with a couple course volunteers who were on bikes, who assured me, no, they wouldn’t sweep me at mile 12.5.
Coming into Epcot, all I could think was “please tell me we don’t go around the countries.” I just wanted to be done. We walked in the side gate like at the Kingdom, and followed the yellow cones around the ball and the Christmas tree, then back around the ball and into the parking lot.
The finish line was a sweet experience.I had made it. I hurt, I had been stupid about my training at the end of the year, I regretted not doing it right, but overpowering all those feelings was the fact that I actually got it done. I met my first major goal. I finished it, and didn’t get swept.
The clock reads 4:37:23. My start to finish time was actually just under 4 hours, 3:58:27. That’s 22,273 out of 22,421. I actually finished ahead of 148 people. 1597 out of 1604 in my age group. Statistically, I was bottom 1/2 of 1% on both accounts, but not absolute dead last.
But even if I were, do you know what they call the guy who graduates last in his class at medical school? Doctor.
Out through the routine of getting a banana and bagel, picking up my bag in the tent, then sitting with my family for a few minutes. I couldn’t rest long, as I promised Jack we’d go on Soarin’ again at Epcot, and the park was already open. Time to get in there for a fastpass before it was too late. No free massage for me.
We hobbled over to the race merchandise tent, where I all I wanted was this pin.
It is now on my green transition bag that I use for travel as well as racing.
We got into Epcot and I was happy to sit in a very long line for Soarin’ with Jack as Meghan took Olivia around the countries for the Kim Possible Adventure. She actually preferred to keep moving after the race, so this worked out.
After scoring a fast pass and a snack, we sat in the regular line, and I was happy to let it take forever. We rode Soarin’ and I tried to keep from tearing up, but it was hard as this was Jack’s favorite thing in the world now, and I ran this race as an excuse to bring him back and do it. We left the ride, and I convinced him to do another slow, sitting still ride in the same building in Epcot. I was never so glad to spend 10 minutes in a boat going through a greenhouse. I was sitting. Then we waited for the Circle of Life movie, sitting, and watched it, sitting. At this point, Jack uttered the most beautiful words I could have heard “Daddy, I’m tired, let’s go back to the hotel.”
Because my cell phone had now completely died, I needed to call Meg from a borrowed phone to inform her of our altered plans. We left the building and went toward the gate. I looked for race shirts. I spotted a pair of women, seemingly mother and daughter, one wearing a 13.1 I did it! shirt, the other triathlon shirt. I stopped and congratulated them and asked to borrow a phone. They were extremely friendly and I offered our two Soarin’ fast passes we wouldn’t be needing. They said it wasn’t necessary but I insisted as we were leaving. Striking up a brief conversation, it turned out that the younger woman was also a regular on Beginner Triathlete, CassieAggie. It really is a Small World After All, even at Epcot.
Back to the hotel for the best shower of my life and a nap. Hoop De Doo Revue that night where the only “beer” was Bud Light, but it will do.
The next morning was Lee’s Marathon, and I walked over to mile 19ish and scaled the landscaping behind McDonalds where I was able to grab him for a quick pep talk.
A tiny bit of editing for this video. I learned coaching from movies, what do I know?
It was Lee’s first marathon, and he was feeling it afterwards. We went to the Magic Kingdom, then Chef Mickey’s, then back to the MK for fireworks and extra magic hours that went so late, Jack fell asleep in Pirates of the Caribbean. I topped off the night with a trip to first aid for my sore, bleeding, chafed thighs. Oh yeah, I’m not making that up. They sent me next door to baby care for balmex. It’s diaper rash cream with zinc oxide. All I could think of was Kramer’s lawyer Jackie Childs “who told you to put the balm on!?” It was a miracle worker. Meg was smart pre-race and dealt with a lack of bodyglide by improvising with Burt’s Bees.
Seeing marathon medals, half-marathon medals, and goofy medals all over was awesome. Disney is the only place you can wear your finisher medal for three days and not be a doofus for it. Lots of congratulations back and forth to and from other races, and plenty from non-racers too. Jack and Olivia met Rapunzel and Tiana, and Cinderellas wicked step sisters who all made a fuss over the kids’ race medals.
The pinnacle for me was the trip back to Cinderella’s Royal Table. We didn’t tell the kids we were going back. We didn’t do everything from our first trip, but this was something we had to repeat. We had a half-day at the park for our last day, so we scheduled breakfast with the princesses. We won’t have all our family photos from the park until my shared photopass CD arrives in several weeks. But this is the picture we do have from Cinderella’s Royal Table, and it tells the tale just fine.
Before leaving the most magical place on earth to return to Central PA, I had two more pictures we had to do.
When Lee and I first met in the fall of 1994, we both had ponytails. We were the only guys in our class who had long hair, played guitar and listened to the Dead. Times change. (just the hair really) Lee now has his first marathon, I have my first half, and if all goes well, we’ll take this same picture in 2015 with a certain Goofy.
We both benefit from great support from our wives, and they have bling to show off too.
Within a few hours, we were back on the Magical Express, going through TSA screening where thankfully Jack’s plastic sword was not an issue, on a plane, landing at BWI, getting luggage onto a shuttle, and packing up the Jeep.
I kept my Donald medal on the whole time, and finally took it off as we drove past York. There were plenty on the plane, and the pilot recognized all the runners going home.
Looking ahead, I wasn’t kidding just now. Goofy 2015. It’s the 10th anniversary medal. I won’t be back down next year for the 20th anniversary Mickey, but 2015, that’s the ticket. The whole new Fantasyland will be open, I’ll be lighter and faster, and more trained. The kids should be able to do the family 5k. Mom Dad and Jodi already have been told to be ready to return as Chear squad.
When I first set this goal, it seemed like a one-and-done bucket list kind of thing. It isn’t anymore. I can’t let my only half-marathon be a 3:58. Oh, this is only the beginning.
Thanks for the memories, Disney. We’ll be back to make more.