2008 Walt Disney World Marathon: My Experience

For those of you who were following my progress on the blog and didn’t see any updates after 10 miles, you can rest assured that I am alive and well. There were reports by many that the notification system was not working properly, and I suspect that the whole thing just got overwhelmed with so many runners.

When I arrived at Walt Disney World on Friday with my family, we drove directly to Disney’s Wide World of Sports to pick up my race number at the marathon expo. It was exciting to have finally arrived and see so many people who were embarking on the same journey I was. Unfortunately, my knee was sore. Every time we went down a staircase, the top of my kneecap felt like someone was hitting it with a hammer.

I picked up my number and we walked around the expo center, visiting any booths we thought were interesting. There, I realized that I could pick up a goodie bag for free. I remembered something about an official shirt, and fortunately, this was where I found it.

After the expo, we headed to Epcot for a priority seating at the Garden Grill. I packed in some mac n cheese, turkey, biscuits and potatoes along with a glass of reisling – my official last bit of booze before the marathon. We hung out at Epcot until it closed at 7 PM, then headed to the Holiday Inn Kid Suites for the evening. I cooked some whole wheat spaghetti the night before and we heated it up in the microwave for dinner.

The next morning, we headed to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, where we were able to check in right away. We ate a big brunch at the Whispering Canyon Cafe (my last big meal before the race) and then headed of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We spent the whole day there and I snacked on Clif bars all day. The park closed at 8, but we left at around 6 PM. I showered and was in bed by 8PM.

My wake up call came at 3 AM as planned. I got up, put on my running clothes, and headed down to the quick service restaurant. I picked up an OJ and a bottled water and headed to the front of the hotel to catch the bus. I ate a Blueberry Clif bar on the bus and finished off my Orange Juice. It seemed like the bus drove all over Disney property before we finally arrived at the Epcot parking lot. The buses were stacked up waiting to drop people off, and there was a massive sea of people congregating on the marathon staging area. It was still very dark outside and there was a very light mist falling. A live band played at the staging area and the whole thing was a little surreal as I exited the bus and headed to the staging area with the rest of the crowd.

I finished half of my water and sat down in the staging area to attach my timing chip to my shoe and attach my bib to my shirt. I stowed my cell phone, and my water in the plastic bag from the expo, attached my number to it and dropped it off at the baggage claim. Then, I hit the port a potty.

After relieving myself, I sat on the concrete listening to the band and watching all the people go by for about 10 minutes. Shortly thereafter, they opened the starting corrals and a mass of humanity began to move out. The walk to the corrals was between one half and one mile. I stopped at another port a potty when I arrived in an attempt to gid rid of any excess fluids. Then, I headed all the way down to corral H, the last one. Several video monitors were showing action on the stage as well as a few music videos. I found my way pretty close to the front of corral H. My knee was feeling okay, but I was wary of what would happen when I started running. I sat on the ground with my feet on front of me, lightly stretching my hamstrings as I waited: 45 minutes to go.

As the music videos played and interviews of Jeff Galloway and other participants occurred, I relaxed on the ground. I was excited, but calm and not very nervous. I was there. I was surrounded by people, and they were all going to carry me forward whether I liked it or not. We watched the wheelchair start and then they took down the barriers between corrals and we surged forward a little bit.

NOTE: what follows is my account of my run in the marathon in my usual present tense format. I’m going to be brutally honest about the experience and that means it won’t be pretty. Some pretty gross stuff happened during the race, so if you’re squeamish, you may want to skip it.

We surge forward momentarily until everyone is very well packed shoulder to shoulder, toe to heel. Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy are on the screen talking about how excited they are. My brain hasn’t registered what I’m about to do yet. I was nervous before my 18 mile and 20 mile training runs, but now I’m just kind of mellow. Before I know it, fireworks are erupting from the starting gate. 15 sets go off – 1 every second for the last 15 seconds before the official start in honor of the 15th anniversary of the WDW marathon. Everyone counts down. When it reaches zero, there is a loud cheer and I see the elite runners takeoff on the video screen. Every is cheering around me, but we’re going nowhere.

Eventually, we start walking slowly toward the start line. As we get closer, our walk becomes more brisk. Finally, after about 9 minutes, I cross the start line, hit the start button on my Garmin and begin a slow shuffle. The crowd is moving painfully slow. I’m tempted to weave in and out, but I remain disciplined. I’ve got a long run ahead and I’m not going to waste energy moving side to side along the route. We reach the first mile marker and already groups of people are walking. I slowly make my way to the edge of the road and try to maintain a decent pace, but I can’t get any faster than 11:00 minute mile pace. My knee has already flared up. The pain is not intense, but it’s pretty bad. If this were a training run, I would have cut it off.

We pass a DJ, and everyone cheers again. People are dance-running and the enthusiasm is infectious. I’m starting to take everything in and I know that if the pain in my knee remains as it is now, I can tolerate it for the whole distance. I smile and continue around a curve past the 2 mile mark and back into the Epcot parking lot. I kind of have to pee, but it’s not bad and the lines for the port a potties in this area are 10 people deep. I figure I can probably hit one that is less crowded further down the road. As we enter Epcot, the course narrows and I have to slow to a walk just to keep from running into people. Once inside, things open up a little bit but I’m still going no faster than 11:00 minute miles.

We slowly jog up a slight incline past Spaceship Earth, the giant silver ball at Epcot. We pass the Future World fountain and get a glimpse of the World Showcase. Across the lagoon, all of the countries are lit up. Laser lights streak across the sky from one country to another. There is music. The site is pretty awe inspiring and I can’t help but smiling as we round the lagoon. Somewhere near Norway, we head backstage. Things open up a little bit, but in a few hundred feet, the two marathon courses, merge and the crowd is thick again. Somewhere back there,we passed the 3 mile mark. Now, we’re headed through the territory we covered as we were walking to our starting corrals.

It feels slightly depressing to be covering the same ground again, but it’s still early and I’m in good spirits despite my slow speed and my painful knee. It hasn’t gotten any worse and it’s certainly manageable as it is, so I jog confidently toward mile marker four and my first planned water stop. The first water stop is interesting. I head to the right of the road to pick up some water, but a huge crowd is gathering and they’re almost out of water. Someone yells that there’s more water further down, so I jog over to the middle of the road where things are now moving pretty quickly and head another 100 feet or so down the road where I find a table full of water. I pull off to the right again, grab a cup of water and walk for 30 seconds as I consume the water.

I don’t hang out for too long because I’ve left a good bit of people behind at the water table and the traffic is flowing at a slightly faster pace now. I merge back in and head down the road at a respectable 10:00 mile pace. We pass the 5 mile mark and the 6 mile mark as we head around an off ramp. When we hit World drive, we have four lanes dedicated to runners and the pavement opens up before me. Thus begins the best part of the marathon.

I kick things up to a comfortable 8:30 mile pace with some hope of making up for some lost time. To my great surprise, my knee responds and all pain disappears. My spirits lift dramatically. In the distance, I see 5 balloons bobbing up and down and I soon come upon the 5 hour pace group. I wonder how far ahead of me they’ve started. Presently, they’ve just started a walk break, so I cruise past them and the 7 mile mark toward the Walt Disney World speedway.

As I round the speedway, I’m averaging an 8:45 mile pace and still feeling very well. I plan on a water/walk break at the 8 mile station. I pass a marching band and hit the water station. This time, I stay in the middle of the pack, running past the early tables, then veering right to a table full of water near the end of the station. I walk for another 30 seconds as I consume the water, then jog off again. By this time, I’ve got to pee pretty bad, but I still haven’t encountered a port a potty with a short line. As we run through the parking lot of the transportation and ticket center, we come to a split in the course. Go right and we’ll run to the sounds of 80’s pop tunes. Go left and we’ve got country music. As a former president of the early eighties preservation society, it’s a no brainer and I head right. I see a few guys popping off the course into the woods and I follow suit. No line here in the trees. I quickly relieve myself and head back on course.

As I run into the Transportation and Ticket Center, I spot my family cheering me on for the first time. I run over to them and give them I quick high five. My spirits are very high and I feel great, but the wheels are about to fall off. As I exit the Transportation and Ticket Center, I pass a long row of port a potties. My tummy has been rumbling over the last few hundred feet, but I figure it’s just my body adjusting to my suddenly empty bladder. Unfortunately, I’m wrong. I pass a little gas and feel slightly better as I head down the road toward the Contemporary resort. I’m still averaging 8:45 miles, but my intestines feel like they’re twisting in knots. I suddenly wish I had stopped at the row of port a potties near the 9 mile mark. As I run under the canal between Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon, I feel like I’m passing gas again, but this time there’s a distinct liquid tinge to the sensation. I quickly slow to a walk to keep from crapping my pants.

As I walk back up the hill, I’m in pretty much distress. Finally, around the 10 mile mark, things ease up and I start running again. I make it into the back stage area of the Magic Kingdom before it happens again. I slow to a walk until the sensation subsides. I manage to get back to a pretty nice pace up Main Street and into Tomorrowland, where I once again have to stop to keep from crapping my pants. I think about how much I should be enjoying this moment, but I’m in agony. Many people hop off the course into the bathrooms at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe, but I continue on. I manage to run again and make it through the castle. Two people dressed like Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are getting there photos taken. I’m comforted by a blast of A/C inside the castle and I emerge at a pretty good pace.

Once inside Liberty Square, I slow to a walk again as my intestine twist in protest. When the feeling passes, I run again and make it through Frontierland, into the production area, past a pirate ship with a waving Jack Sparrow and finally to a port a potty. I wait briefly until a man comes out.

“This one’s short on TP”, he says. I’m not thrilled by that fact, but I’m desperate. I get inside and spend five quality minutes purging my intestines while other desperate runners bang on the door wondering what’s taking me so long. I make do with what little TP there is, compose myself then sanitize my hands. I walk out and the woman in line gives me a strange look as if to say “I’m sorry I was banging on the door”. I nod at her.

“This one’s short on TP”, I say before heading over to the nearby water table. I grab a powerade and down it, then grab a water and down that. My intestinal troubles are gone, but my five minutes on the toilet have taken their toll. I’m as stiff as a board. I start to run again, but now my knee is horribly painful. I hit the 12 mile mark and start to have a serious mental conversation with myself.

I know the family will be waiting for me outside the Polynesian about 1 mile ahead. I can step off the course at that point and ride the monorail to Epcot with them to pick up my stuff. If I continue past that point and I need to quit, I’ll be forced to find a medical tent, ride a van back to Epcot and who knows how long it will take me to be reunited. The debate rages on inside my head. I’m running at 9:00 mile pace now, but my knee is killing me with every other step. My stride has changed to compensate. Ahead, I see the 5 balloons bobbing up and down again. The hour pace group passed me while I was in the port a potty. I latch on to the back of the group, the debate still burning in my head.

About 200 feet down the road, I see my wife in the crowd. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do. Finally, it occurs to me that if I step off this course now, I’m going to feel the need to do this whole marathon thing again. I reach my wife. I lean into the crowd and tell her to take her time getting to the finish. I high five the kids, pull up next to Marie, the leader of the 5 hour pace group and suck it up for what promises to be an interesting second half.

The pace group is pretty fun. We pass over the halfway point and listen to the beeps as our chips register our splits. We remark about all the emails that are probably being sent out as we pass over the mat…though we now know those emails never reached their destination. Marie is a good pace group leader. She keeps us motivated with good conversation and “war stories” of previous marathons. She has good advice for recovery and training for future marathons. She keeps track of our walk breaks, roughly every 8 minutes. I’m running right next to Marie until the walk breaks, when I can’t seem to keep up with her. She walks in a different gear than I’m capable of. So, I fall behind during the walk breaks, but I catch up when we start running again.

This pace group carries me through a pretty tough stretch of the marathon. We’re in a backstage area of WDW. There’s really no one there to cheer us on, and the scenery is mostly trees, and a recycling plant. We hit a walk break at 16 miles and I fall behind slightly. At this point, I’m sending Marie mental signals for the walk breaks, because running is becoming increasingly agonizing. In addition to my knee troubles on my left leg, I’ve now developed a nagging pain on the side of my right foot, probably due to some kind of compensation of the bum left knee. We hit a food station with Clif gels. I’m chagrined to see the last Vanilla flavored gel go to a runner a few feet ahead of me, so I grab an Apple Pie flavored gel. It’s uncharted territory, but I figure I could use a little boost. It’s surprisingly delicious. I grab some water to wash it down and look ahead.

Marie’s balloons are dancing in the distance. She’s too far to easily catch, so I decide to let her go. I’ll miss her and the rest of the group. The next two miles are the worst of the whole race. We enter the Animal Kingdom and I can do nothing but walk. We’re finally into a crowd of cheering onlookers and they’re calling out encouragement. My spirit wants to run, but I can’t. I’m embarrassed by this fact, but there’s nothing I can really do about it.

I walk past Everest, thinking how much more I’d rather be riding that ride than walking past it in pain. I walk across the bridge, past the Nemo show and into Dinoland USA. I manage to convince myself to jog a little bit, but I soon find myself walking again. We exit the Animal Kingdom near the Dinosaur ride to find another water station. I grab another powerade and more water, but I skip the sponges. I’m still walking, but I’m starting to sort things out in my head. Running hurts, but the idea of walking all the way to the finish seems painfully slow. I decide to walk a quarter mile, then run three quarters.

I try the theory out at the 17 mile mark. I make it about a half mile, but then I need to walk again. I walk about a quarter mile, then run a quarter to the 18 mile mark. Now, I decide to run a half, walk a half. So, I walk to 18.5 miles, then run to the 19 mile mark. I’m in agony when I hit the 19 mile mark, but this seems to work okay all things consider and I decide to stick with it. We’re on the open road now, on what beforehand, I considered to be the hardest part of the marathon. It’s not so bad, though. Just about everyone around me seems to be hurting at this point, so at least my misery has company. I’ve started to develop some IT band problems in my left knee now, so it’s actually hurting from both sides. My glutes are sore and my calves are killing me, mostly because when I do run, it’s a slow shuffle.

I take a quick stop at a medical tent to rub my legs down with Biofreeze. This helps the sore muscle, but the left knee and the right foot are still very painful. Somewhere near the 20 mile mark, there’s a temporary bridge over the course with photographers. I’m in the walking phase of my run/walk rotation, but I manage to run for 100 feet or so under the bridge. I raise my arms as though I’m really enjoying myself. I slow back to a walk with a chuckle and look around. I’m not the only one who has done this.

We pass another DJ. The entertainment along the course has been great. Every so often, Mickey comes over the speakers and remarks about how it’s a great day for a race. I really wish he’d shut up. It’s really is a great day. The weather is perfect, but I’m in pain and I just want to be finished. As we approach the 21 mile mark, the course loops around and we can see oncoming runners. I look for the 5 hour pace group, but I don’t see them. They must be about 15 minutes ahead of me now.

At 20.5 miles, I start into my run again. The knee hurts, of course, but now my right calf protests severely. It starts to cramp. I slow to a walk and exaggerate my heel strike to stretch it. This seems to work and I’m able to run again. I make it to the 21 mile mark and then walk another half mile. I walk down an overpass and I can see the back entrance to the Disney Hollywood Studios. The end is near. I run again and make it to the 22 mile mark. 4.2 miles to go. I keep telling myself that this is nothing. It’s an easy Monday morning run.

I enter the Studios during my walk phase. This is frustrating because there’s always a decent crowd in the theme parks and they’re cheering. I want to run, but I also really, really want to walk, so I do. I pass a candy station. They’re handing out Candy bars. My stomach has been fine since my encounter with the port a potty at mile 11, but I decide not to ris ka candy bar. I run through the backlot tour to the 23 mile mark, then walk another half mile. Again, this is frustrating. The march from the Chinese theater to the entrance of the studios is lined with people and it falls during my walking phase. People are actually yelling my name. I look at my Garmin. My heart rate is 130 BPM. It’s laughable. I feel like I could sprint past them, high fiving them all, but I know that as soon as I start to run, it will feel like someone it prying my kneecap off with a crowbar.

I smile at everyone. When someone calls me by name, I raise my arms and whoop-whoop at them or give them a high five but deep down, I’m embarrassed. I exit the studios knowing I just have about 5K to go. The thought is nice, but the pain in my right foot has spread to my ankle and it feels like my shoe is a thorn bush. I walk along the path to the Boardwalk. The path is narrow and the crowd is thick, so when it comes time to run again, it’s pretty difficult. Pretty much everyone is walking at this point, so I have to stop and walk at times until I can squeeze through the people. We slowly pass the 24 mile mark. We walk past the Swan and Dolphin toward the Yacht Club resort. Here, a man lies on the side of the course. His shirt is torn off and he is attended to by paramedics. They’ve got 4 cold beer cans on his stomach and it looks like they may be reaching for the defibrillator.

“Don’t look,” warns some guy near. Right now, I think that’s pretty good advice. Lot’s of people around me are complaining about the heat, but as far as I’m concerned, conditions are perfect. It’s probably about 70 degrees and that’s been my perfect training temperature. They should have been here over the summer. A lot of them have gotten used to training in near freezing temperatures over the couple of months, though so they’re not as acclimated as I am.

As we approach the International Gate of Epcot, I’m disappointed to see that we won’t actually be entering Epcot through that gate. We’re redirected through a backstage area and enter somewhere between Canada and Great Britain. I stop at the last medical tent to top off my biofreeze. I take a huge glob in each hand and rub both legs, leaving chunks of the green gel on my thighs. A cast members says “Welcome home”. I’m about to cry. I think it will feel much better if a cast member tells me that when I’m walking back into the Wilderness Lodge. My legs are shot. The edge of my right shoe feels like a razor blade against my right ankle. My left kneecap feels as though it might crack open and fall off at any second. In my mid, that seems like it might actually be a good thing. I pass the 25 mile mark. I’ll be walking all the way to the entrance now.

My head is down – partially in shame, partially because my shoulders are a little stiff and it seems to take too much effort to hold it up. I can vaguely hear people shouting encouragement. I feel like I could walk another 5 hours if someone would just cut my legs off. Around that time, the 5:30 pace group passes me. They’re walking briskly and I figure I can keep up with them, but they walk on just ahead. I pass the margarita stand in Mexico and wonder if anyone would laugh if I cross the finish line with a margarita. I figure I better not stop, though. Finally, I enter Future World and walk past the fountain and past the 26 mile mark. I walk out the front into a backstage area. There’s a Gospel choir back there. They finish a song as I approach. One of the members yells “Go Brian, you’re almost there!”. Indeed I am. I look up at her, smile, raise my arms high in the air and scream “YES!!!!!”.

I high five the young woman, round the corner and emerge into the Epcot parking lot to a much larger than expected throng of cheering people. The finish chite is lined with people on the grass, up against the fence yelling and screaming like crazy. The bleachers are full near the finish line. My knee and my foot hurt a lot, but I can see the seconds ticking off of the finish line in the distance. I see Pluto and Chip and Dale. I can hear the announcer. I can’t stop myself from running now. I take a deep breath, bite my lip and charge forward in a lame little trot. I cross over the may, hear it beep and slowly walk. It’s over. I did it. 5 hours, 22 minutes and 20 seconds of pain.

As I crossed the finish line, I knew I had to keep walking. Fortunately, that was pretty much a requirement. I grabbed a foil blanket, had my chip removed, then continued through the assembly line to receive my medal. Things seemed to hurt a little less now that I was finished. I grabbed a powerade and a banana and quickly consumed both. I accidentally bypassed the photo line and went straight to baggage claim. I sat down on the pavement, pulled out my cell phone and began dialing my wife. As the phone was ringing, I saw her walking toward me. It was really over.

We hung out for a few minutes and got our pictures taken with Figment. I was ready for my Ice bath, though, so we quickly caught a bus back to the hotel.

I blame my knee pain on the hill running in St. Louis. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to do my longest training run on such a hilly course when the rest of my training had been entirely on flat Florida courses. Even if my knee hadn’t hurt, though I doubt I would have made 4 hours. I was way too far back at the start and I was constantly caught in crowds of people. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably run an official time in a half marathon to try to get a better corral assignment before attempting a marathon.

My right foot ended up with a pretty big bruise along the entire length. It doesn’t look like I’ve got any permanent damage, though. It’s nothing that ice and rest won’t cure with time and I don’t think I’ll have much desire to run for at least a week. I’ll be making a point to hit the stationary bike in a day or so to help purge the legs of lactic acid. Though I was pretty embarrassed about my pace through most of the race, I’m pretty proud that I finished. I stood up to quite bit of pain and I persevered through it. I don’t feel like I ever need to run another marathon….but I probably will. Next year, though, I think I’ll run the half marathon.

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11 Responses to 2008 Walt Disney World Marathon: My Experience

  1. paul says:

    Awesome job in your first marathon. You shouldn’t feel any shame or embarrassment at all. You did a great job at gutting it out through the pain. Trust me I know, my first marathon was fraught with severe cramps and my second was slowed by the most severe blisters I have ever had. They were worse then the ones I got in basic training, and that is saying something. Sore muscles, exhaustion from running and intestinal issues can be over come, but pain from injury is not as easy to deal with. 5:22:20 is now the PR. I felt embarrassed by my 6:38:20 until I returned to work and look around realizing, no one there did it. I did. You did. Know one can ever take that away. Run long.

  2. G. says:

    AGH! How did I miss this? Gonna read the whole thing when I get home, and live vicariously… 🙂 O B!

  3. Saudi says:

    Wow Brian, you did it.
    I agree you shouldn’t feel ashamed at all, but I do understand the feeling as well.
    I have to say I am quite impressed by your determination, and I am very happy you made it in one piece (even though sorta battered), to the end. I am not sure if I would have had that kind of courage, overall with the knee pain AND the stomach problems!
    I say I agree with Raffi, you had a great run.
    Maybe next time you feel up to taking on the marathon your knee will be in perfect working conditions, your stomach will cooperate, and you’ll be a veteran, so it should be a far cry from this time.
    You pushed yourself, you made it, and there isn’t that many people that would have done it or that have even tried or thought of running for that long in their wildest dreams (like me ^_^).

    We are very proud of you Dr Brain!!! 🙂

  4. Marathons are hard. Congrats on finishing. Here’s a nice quote: “Dead last finish beats Did not finish which trumps Did not start.”
    Check out my video for my adventure at the 2008 Disney Marathon. Slow and steady is my motto.

  5. Brandy says:

    Hi Brian,
    I stumbled upon your blog while searching for info on the DisneyWorld Marathon. I enjoyed reading about your experience this past January. I was very impressed that you completed the race even though you were dealt some pretty difficult cards at times with your knee, stomach, and foot issues.
    I’m just starting my training journey toward the DisneyWorld Marathon in Jan 2009, and your story was enlightening. My original goal was the Half Marathon, but like you, I discovered that it was already Closed. So I registered for the full marathon.
    On another note, I was wondering how you created you own blog website. Can you please tell me how to get started? Any info is much appreciated. Thx!

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  9. stephanie says:

    thanks for the post, i am not currently a runner but have always yearned to be, very inspiring story…..i cried at the thought of actually doing this myself

  10. Shane says:

    Brian –
    I am getting ready to run my first marathon in October. I appreciated you recap of this and hope to be able to rely on those thoughts when I start doubting both in training and in the actual marathon! Great Job!

    I look forward to reading through the rest of your posts!

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