26.2 miles. Four parks. Countless ibuprofen. One perky mouse. Three not-so-perky runners.
Such was our experience last weekend when Sam, my brother Daniel, and I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando, Florida.
After a disastrous half marathon in Nashville last year that landed me in the medical tent on an IV, I decided it would be fun to register for an even longer race. I’d grown accustomed to living with seven toenails and awkward chafing.
We chose the Walt Disney World Marathon. Because if you’re going to push your body past its physical breaking point, you might as well spend a fortune to do it in The Happiest Place on Earth.
Registration for the 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend events (which included a 5k, 10k, half marathon, and full marathon) opened in late April, which was early enough to dull the reality of how painful running 26.2 miles actually is.
We signed up the day online registration opened, since these events tend to sell out quickly.
In typical Disney fashion, the entry fee for the marathon was the steepest I’ve ever seen at $180 per person.
We visited the expo at the ESPN Wide World of Sports the afternoon before the marathon to pick up our race packets.
Traffic to the expo was pretty wicked, which surprised us since Disney World regularly manages large crowds of people. According to Google, the drive from our hotel to the ESPN Wide World of Sports center should have taken about 15 minutes. But with the sheer volume of traffic, we didn’t arrive for nearly an hour.
Bib pickup was straightforward and well marked, and a good number of venders were set up selling everything from compression tights to energy gels to a cocktail of pain relieving ointments.
We were a tad bummed by the lack of freebies.
Aside from the pre-race carb load and the medal, the primary reason Sam and I run marathons is for the freebies at the expo. We once received a free jar of Biscoff spread, which more than made up for the three months of painful training we’d endured.
Sadly, vendors at the Disney Marathon expect you to pay for stuff. Barbaric, I know.
Race morning meant a 3:30a.m wake-up-call since the run started at 5:30a.m. Based on our experience at the expo, we figured the traffic would be pretty intense (Spoiler: We were right!).
Sam dragged me out of bed for our typical pre-race breakfast of bagels and peanut butter. At this point—as had happened many times throughout our training—I wondered what possessed me to willingly volunteer for such torture.
We left our hotel shortly after 4:00a.m., but due to road closures and the huge volume of traffic, we didn’t arrive until after 5:00a.m.
Sam and I wore cheap ponchos over our clothes because we were freezing. Other runners wore trash bags or emergency blankets just to keep warm. Fun fact: Florida gets cold.
Once we finally arrived at our corral, we started feeling some of the pre-race hype. Lots of people had dressed up in wacky Disney-themed costumes and, despite the cold and the early hour, everyone was pretty energized.
Fireworks went off with each corral, and by the time our turn came, I was somewhat excited to run. Or at least I hated the idea slightly less than I had before.
We passed numerous Disney characters along the course available for photo ops. My favorite was Captain Jack Sparrow! We didn’t stop for any pictures though, because I was confident that if I stopped running, I’d never start again.
On mile five we entered the Magic Kingdom, which was undoubtedly my favorite part of the race. I’m not a Disney fanatic, but there was something truly magical about running through Cinderella’s Castle at sunrise.
An added bonus was that I didn’t yet have sharp pain coursing through my legs or a blister the size of Kansas on my pinky toe.
Running through the parks was incredible. But we found the stretches between parks, which mostly involved running along highways, got a bit monotonous. The longest “boring” stretch lasted about 8 miles between Magic Kingdom and ESPN Wide World of Sports.
Though the occasional character photo op was dotted along this stretch, the lack of interesting scenery meant nothing to distract from the increasingly severe pain I felt.
At one point we ran past a water treatment plant. Which, though an improvement over miles of highway, didn’t spark the same level of excitement as the Magic Kingdom had.
Luckily, we passed a 6ft man dressed in a Stitch onesie.
Ok, fine. He passed us.
Regardless, it was a morale booster.
We noticed fewer and fewer people stopping for photo ops the further we got. Likely for the same reason as us. Stopping would entail starting again, which was well out of the realm of possibility by mile 3.
I made a mental note of each medical tent we passed and took water at every water station to prevent dehydration. These were scattered quite frequently along the course.
I knew we were in the thick of things when the line for Biofreeze was longer than the line to meet Goofy.
Hollywood Studios was near the end of the course, which was a nice distraction from the excruciating, mind-boggling, debilitating pain I felt in every part of my body.
I honestly don’t remember much from there since I focused most of my remaining energy on putting one foot in front of the other. But I do remember seeing lots of people cheering us on from the sidelines, which is always a great motivator.
The final stretch of the course led us through Epcot. By then I had started making myself wild promises of what I could do and have if I made it across the finish line. I would never run again, I could eat anything I wanted for the remainder of my life, and I would book a celebratory trip to Jamaica. As I’ve said before, marathon running is all about the mind games.
Once we passed the 26-mile marker, we turned a corner and caught our first glimpse of the finish line. In all my life, few sights have brought me more joy. Despite the pain, I smiled for the first time in approximately 23 miles.
Lots of fans cheered from the sideline as Sam and I crossed the finish line together, hand-in-hand.
It would be three days before I could walk again. But the glorious feeling of accomplishment would last a lifetime.
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