I’ve lived in Florida for nearly 12 years now. The first time I saw snow in my current home state was at 5:00 am on Saturday January 9th, 2010. I was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and shorts.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
As many of you know, I expected some cold weather for the Walt Disney World half-marathon. It had been cold pretty much all week. I stopped by the local running store and inquired about arm warmers, but the only ones they had were at a different store, were coated in silver and retailed for $35.99. Ultimately, I found an old pair of long tube socks in my sock drawer, cut off the feet and Raffi sewed the ends together to make some nifty homemade arm warmers. I tried them out on a 3 mile shakeout run after my visit to the chiropractor on Friday and they were plenty warm.
Friday evening, I arrived with my family at the race expo. It was the typical Disney race expo – large and crowded. I quickly collected my race number and chip, then got my goody bag and browsed through the expo while Raffi, Alice and Wendy made signs at the Sharpie booth. We spent about an hour at the expo and then headed to the Animal Kingdom Lodge to check in.
After check-in, we headed to dinner at the quick service restaurant at the hotel. I had a chicken flatbread. I had thought about meeting Patrick at Downtown Disney later in the evening, but I was feeling relaxed and a little sleepy after dinner, so I seized the opportunity to get a good night’s sleep.
Back in the room, I tried out my racewear, then placed it in a neat pile. I set the alarm and called for a wakeup call at 3:00 am, then went to bed. I slept pretty well, though I was waking up every ten minutes from 2:00 am on. The alarm roused me at 3:00 and I canceled the wake-up call. I immediately went to the bathroom.
It may seem weird to mention, but part of my training this year has been the post-wake-up poo. I haven’t necessarily consciously trained myself for this, but it’s just kind of happened. I used to have to have breakfast and move around a bit to get the gears going, but now I can pretty much crap right after waking up. It rocks.
Anyway, I dressed myself, quadruple checked my gear, then headed down to the bus. The bus was pretty cold, but I was wearing my running jacket and an old pair of mesh lined nylon pants that I had left over from a trip to Salt Lake City. I was extraordinarily calm. I felt confident. I had been here before. I knew what to expect at the start and I was ready.
We arrived at Epcot and I stepped off the bus. It was cold, but there was no rain like the weather channel had been predicting all week. The temperatures must have been in the low thirties. I chatted with a guy who was running the Goofy challenge for the first time. He had lots of questions about the course and I was delighted to answer them. I shook his hand when we arrived in the staging answer, then dug into my bag for my homemade energy bar and orange juice.
I have to note at this point that the wind wasn’t fun. There was a DJ playing some tunes, but everyone was pretty much huddled behind tents, trucks, trashcans and whatever they could find to block the wind. I found a spot in a crowd and slipped my jacket off to pin my number on my sleeveless shirt. Once I had it on, I slipped my jacket back on and went to work on the D-tag. The D-tag always takes me awhile. I’m no genius, but I do have a Ph.D. and I always have to read and re-read the instructions for the D-tag before I finally get it attached to my shoe.
Once that was done, I started to jog around the staging area. There was plenty of open space since everyone was huddled around the edges. I kept speeding up as I did 100 m strides and it felt nice. It also warmed me up. Eventually, the green army men came out and started to herd everyone through the baggage claim area. I stopped near the baggage claim and removed my jacket. I put on my homemade arm warmers and replaced the jacket with an old torn poncho. I put the jacket into my bag with my cell phone and checked the bag. It was almost time.
On the other side of the baggage claim, the crowd steadily built. People were waiting in line for the port-a-potties and others formed a big mob waiting to be released to the starting corrals. Knowing there would be more port-a-potties near the corrals, I just kept walking laps around the holding pin to stay warm. Eventually, they paraded the wheel chair participants through and to the start. Then, we were released to the start. That’s when it got a little weird.
“Hey, is that snow?” I heard someone say.
There were giant floodlights illuminating our way and as I looked up into the lights I saw small gently falling flakes of snow. I pulled the hood of the poncho over my head to keep my hat from getting wet. I pondered the whole snow thing all the way to the starting corrals. I figured it was better than rain – at least better than driving rain anyway.
I hit a port-a-potty near the corrals, then set about running warm-up strides on the road alongside the starting corrals. I had no idea what time it was and I just kept running to stay warm. The good news was that race pace felt pretty comfortable. The bad news was that the light snow had turned into a moderately hard sleet. In the carnival-like atmosphere, music pulsated from giant speakers and the cameras focused in on small pellets of ice gathering on the road. There were news crews interviewing participants about the cold. There were people bundled up and huddled in corners. Others were running back and forth along the road.
I headed to the woods and peed one more time. The announcer mentioned we were 9 minutes from the wheel chair start and I entered Corral A. It wasn’t yet very full and I easily made my way to the front. I parked myself on the far right side, up against the fence. As the announcers introduced the national anthem singer, I pulled the poncho off and threw it over the fence. I stood calmly as she sang the national anthem. I looked around and managed to find the 1:30 pace group some distance behind me on the other side of the corral. My race plan developed. I’d start off very slow, wait for the pace group to catch me and then follow them the rest of the way.
The lady next to me asks me if I want the poncho.
“No,” I reply.
“I know someone who does,” she says. She hops the fence and grabs it, handing it to a man who has been hiding behind a truck on the side of the road. He wraps it around himself and they both hop the fence back into the corral. As the wheel chair participants depart, I strip off my pants and throw them over the fence. My legs don’t feel as cold as I expect and that’s a good sign. I look back to see 18,000 people behind me launching their outer clothing in giant arcs over the fence. It’s a beautiful site, but I also notice that many more people are keeping their outer clothing on compared to last year.
Soon, Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy take the stage and they start the countdown. At 10 seconds, fireworks go off and the elite runners take off. It’s a little early, but that’s cool. I’ve been anxious to start. I take it easy through the starting chaos. I’m near the front and the road is fairly empty. I look back and can’t see the pace group. I float along as people streak by. I keep looking back and still can’t see the pace group. My planned pace is 6:50 and I’m well over 7:00 now. I’m through the first mile in 7:35. I’m 47 seconds off the pace I need to be on to finish in 1:30:00. It’s manageable, but I don’t want to get myself any further in the hole.
I look back again and still see no sign of the pace group. I start to think I might have to do this without the pace group. It’s disconcerting, but I focus on putting my pace around 7 minutes per mile and dig in. We head down an exit ramp and onto World Drive. At the bottom of the ramp, I see a giant silver ball. I’m briefly disoriented. I’ve just left Epcot at my back, but now I’m staring at Spaceship Earth! After a few seconds, I realize that it’s a hot air balloon. Thankfully, I haven’t gone insane. I pass the 2 mile mark, still about 40 seconds in the hole. I do some math. I’ve got to pull back about 4 seconds per mile. That’s doable.
There’s still no sign of the pace group and the wind is blowing in my face. The ice pellets bounce off my face and begin to sting. One falls into my mouth and I crunch it in my teeth, slightly amused. Another pellet flies right into my eye. The novelty quickly wears off. Ahead, I can see the entrance to the Magic Kingdom parking lot and I know that means the 3 mile mark. At 3 miles, I’m about 36 seconds in the hole. I’ve pulled back 4 seconds and that’s all I need. I’m satisfied with that as I cross the 5K mark and head into the transportation and ticket center.
I’m looking forward to this. It will be the first crowd support and the next few miles will be the most enjoyable of the race. I run through the parking lot. The race is strung out, basically in single file with moderate gaps between runners. There are a few groups of 3-4 here and there, but the crowd is sparse considering the situation in the starting corral. I can hear the crowd in the distance and I pick the pace up, passing a few people.
The course takes a left turn and we head down and into the transportation and ticket center. The crowd is enthusiastic and I pick up the pace again, passing a few more runners. I feel a little worried about this, but I decide to take advantage of the crowd and hold the increased pace. I’m surprised to find that I’ve pulled back no time as I pass the 4 mile mark. I don’t let it bother me – I haven’t lost any time either. I hold the increased pace through the crowd, then ease back as I exit the transportation and ticket center.
As I head toward the Contemporary Resort, a lone, cold and wet DJ reminds us that we’re almost to the end of the headwind. Soon, we’ll turn and head back to Epcot. The thought bolsters me. I tell myself to hold onto my pace now and I’ll be able to make up my lost time on the way back.
“Piece of cake,” I tell myself, though I’m still not 100% convinced I can do it. My thoughts drift to mile 9 and I wonder if I’ll hold up. The course dips down underneath the Seven Seas Lagoon and then comes steeply back up on the other side. I focus on getting up the rare hill in this race and pass another runner. I pass the Contemporary resort, then hit the 5 mile mark, still 32 seconds in the hole.
I make a sharp left turn and look back over my shoulder. I don’t know why. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. Is it the pace group? Do I want to see if the guy I just passed is coming back on me? It doesn’t matter. All I can see is a blur of lights and traffic cones. I hear Richie’s voice in my head.
“The race is in front of you, buddy.”
I curse myself. I don’t care where the pace group is. I’m pretty sure they’re still behind me, which means they’re further off pace than I am. If I’m going to hit my goal in this race, I’m going to do it by myself.
I’m entering the Magic Kingdom. I dip down an incline, under the railroad tracks and into a backstage area. A left turn leads me through a gate and into the park.
“You go, you little studmuffin!” yells a woman carrying a purple parasol and dressed in 1920′s garb. I can’t help but smile and my pace picks up. I make a sharp right turn onto Main Street USA. The crowd is large and a beautifully lit castle fills my view.
I charge up Main Street, then veer right into Tomorrowland. This is the best part of this race. I cruise through Tomorrowland and into Fantasyland. I’m feeling fanatastic. The air is now calm. The park is lit up. There are characters and other cast members everywhere. I fly through Fantasyland, past the Dumbo road and make a left turn to the back of the castle. The timing is perfect.
Trumpeters atop the castle raise their trumpets and begin playing a royal welcome. I charge through the castle and emerge on the other side in a flurry of flashbulbs. Ahead, I can see runners entering the Magic Kingdom and momentarily, the whole park seems laid out before me. I veer right and down a ramp from the castle. Then, I make a right turn into Liberty Square and the 6 mile mark. I’m about 28 seconds in the hole now. I’m pulling back time at the prescribed rate, but it doesn’t sit quite right. This is the most magical mile of the whole thing and much of the rest will be lonely miles on the road. It’s time to kick it up.
I pass several runners on my way through Frontierland and stride over the 10K mark. Now backstage, I pass a replica of the Black Pearl and raise my left arm in salute to Captain Jack Sparrow and his pirate crew. Like good pirates, they yell a hearty “Arrrrrr!” back at me.
I make a right turn, cruise through a water station, passing several more runners, and then make a left across a small bridge. I’m halfway home. The next few miles will be dark. The runners are all strung out and I’m running like I ran the Race for the Taste. I’m catching a runner, hanging with him and then accelerating past to catch the next runner. I hit the 7 mile mark, only 3 seconds in the hole. I’ve run the 7th mile in under 6:30.
My chase of runners continues as I do the math in my head. I need to hit the 8 mile mark in 54:56 to be on pace. My spirit is lifted greatly when I spot the mile marker in the distance and the first two numbers on the clock are a 5 and a 3. I run a celebratory fartlek to the mile marker and pass it in 54:48. I’ve got 8 seconds in the bank now!
The crowds start to pick up as I pass the Grand Floridian and Polynesian Resorts. I’m still passing a runner every minute or two, but I’m starting to feel winded. The next runner ahead is a young woman in 3/4 length tights. I catch her and run just behind her for a few minutes. By now, we’ve reached the Magic Kingdom parking lot and I can see the throngs of people just entering the parking lot. They’ve just passed the 5K mark.
I pass the young woman and pull into a large gap. There’s a group of about 15 runners around 100 meters ahead. I pass the 9 mile mark with 20 seconds in the bank. At the 15K mark, there’s a lift over the course with some photographers. I raise my arms up over my head as I pass under the lift. I’m all by myself. The road is empty around me. Across the median 4 lanes of asphalt are completely crowded with people who are only 2.5 miles into the race. The feeling is incredible.
“Catch that group and you move up 15 places in the standings,” I tell myself.
Shortly, we run through a water stop and the group splits. Some go left, some go right and others go through the middle. I pass those who’ve stopped for water and tuck in with the 5 who’ve run through the stop. We pass the 10 mile mark and I’ve got 40 seconds in the bank. I realize I can run 10 seconds slower than my goal pace and still make my goal time for the race. It’s a good feeling, but I don’t slow down.
We reach a cloverleaf in the highway and make our way up the entrance ramp. There’s a slight incline around the curve and the group begins to break up. I pass a few runners and hang with a few more. Together, we start to reel in the runners ahead. Atop the overpass, I look down to see the runners below. It promises to be an awesome sight, but I’m blown away by the rush of wind that has hit me again. After 4 miles with the breeze at my back, the cold crosswind is slightly shocking. I suddenly realize how sore my butt is getting and it becomes a struggle to turn my legs over. The course begins to climb up to another water station and the 11 mile mark. I cruise through the middle with about 50 seconds in the bank.
I’m getting tired, but I know I’ve just got to keep going to the finish and my goal will be achieved. The good news is that the next mile is almost entirely downhill. I cruise down, letting gravity pull me. It’s glorified falling, but apparently that’s a pretty efficient way to run (if perhaps a bit damaging to the knees). I pass a few more runners and then make a sharp right turn. I quickly head up another small overpass and then downhill into the Epcot parking lot, passing a few more runners in the process. I pass the 12 mile mark in 1:21:50. I’ve got 8:10 to run 1.1 miles. I can do that.
I pass into the backstage area of Epcot and then out next to Spaceship Earth. I want to fly, but the legs just aren’t turning over as fast as they were earlier in the race. I’m still under 7 minutes per mile, but I’m pretty sure I’m off the 6:52 pace.
“Just don’t fall down and you’ve got it,” I tell myself.
I run out into Future World toward World Showcase. I round the giant Christmas tree thinking I’ve only got a half mile to go.
“A half mile to go!” yells a cast member, confirming my suspicions. I charge back toward Spaceship Earth, passing another runner. I veer right backstage, pass a Gospel Choir singing hymns and zip past another runner. I’m past the 13 mile mark with time to spare and I enter the finishing chute with a great sense of accomplishment in my heart. I cruise through the finish line with my arms raised in victory.
My chip time is 1:29:11. I’m 120th out of over 17,000 finishers and 20,000 entrants overall. I’m the 102nd male to cross the finish line and 20th out of 926 in my age group. I slow to a walk and smile. It feels good.
I get my medal, collect water and powerade, then get my picture taken with the medal. I then go through the food tent and grab some breakfast for the family, trying to hold everything in place along with the mylar blanket around my shoulders. I enter the baggage tent and throw everything on the table.
It took them 10 minutes to find my bag, during which the cold weather finally managed to give me a chill and my legs started to tighten up. I pulled my jacket out of my bag and put it on, then walked to the family reunion area to find my family. I checked my cell phone and found out they were lost and now weren’t being allowed into the Epcot parking lot. They had to go back to the hotel, so I just took the bus back and met them there. With some complaints to the hotel staff for the idiocy of the marathon staff giving Raffi directions to closed roads, we were granted a free night’s stay, 8 park hopper passes and a special safari in the Animal Kingdom the next day. Raffi, Alice and Wendy had spent more time in the car trying to get to the race than I had spent running.
On the bus back to the hotel, I finally ran into the leader of the 1:30:00 pace group. He told me it took the group 8:10 to get through the first mile, but he got them to the finish only 25 seconds after me. Kudos to him for pulling them back from that deficit and through the finish just under their goal.
Today, I found out I was the top local finisher in the race. One of those ”Congratulations!” banners would have been awesome, but the local paper devoted a small paragraph to me. It’s buried in the middle of an article about a completely different event. Hey, you gotta start somewhere .