It’s still a little difficult for me to wrap my head around what happened to me last weekend. You see, I’d reached a point of utter frustration with the marathon. Before Sunday, I’d run four of them, and each one went pretty much the same way – I’d run well early in the race, smack into “the wall” headfirst at mile 16-18, and proceed to walk-run the remainder of the race at whatever pace my broken body would allow. Crossing the finishline would lead to an eventual collapse to the ground, at which point every muscle in my body would be on the verge of an intensely painful cramp. To be honest, I wasn’t convinced that my body was suited to handle the marathon distance, and I had almost resigned myself to the likelihood that my BQ would have to wait until my age crept up to a level where my qualifying time synced with the speed at which my body permitted me to run 26.2 miles. All of that changed on Sunday, and I’m still not entirely sure why.
I went into marathon weekend with only one major goal: to have fun. I figured I’d go out at a manageable pace, take some videos, and try my best to just enjoy the race. I fully anticipated to struggle during the final 8 miles like I always have, and I told myself that I’d just use that time to soak in the scenery and take some pictures. I was not even going to try for a BQ (I need sub-3:15:39, and my PR from Hartford in October 2009 was a 3:32:35), and I planned to shoot for a marathon PR only if the stars aligned and I felt great out on the run.
In the weeks before Disney, I was really worried about the race-day weather. I’m from New Hampshire, and training for Disney had involved running mostly in sub-freezing temperatures, including my final 20-miler, which was run in wind-chills of around 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m well acclimated to running in frigid northern New England, and was convinced that a heat-wave would pass through on race day, knocking out any chance I might have at an enjoyable race. Well, star #1 fell into place when Florida was hit by a record-breaking cold-snap, with race morning temperatures forecast to be around 20 degrees F with wind-chill. Who could have predicted that a marathon in Florida would be as cold as many of my winter training runs in New Hampshire? I was prepared for these conditions, there was no doubt about that.
I woke up at 2:45 A.M. on race-day morning in order to catch a bus to the starting line. After fueling up and caffeinating, I trudged about a half-mile through the cold to the bus-stop, and huddled with a large crowd waiting to board the bus to the staging area. One of the difficult things about Disney is that the race starts at 5:40 A.M., and if you stay on-property at a Disney resort, you need to be on the bus before 4:00 A.M. So there I was at 3:45 or so, climbing aboard a bus in gear that matched what I’ve worn on so many of my recent runs back home (tights, two shirts, Brooks Element/Infiniti windbreaker, gloves, hat, headband). I chatted a bit on the ride with a fellow runner and former northerner from the Tampa area, who lamented the fact that he was way overdressed compared to what he was used to. It was to be the first Disney for both of us, and despite the cold, we were both pretty excited.
As we exited the bus in the Epcot Center parking lot, we were met by race volunteers who welcomed us to “Disney Alaska,” a fitting description of how it felt to be in the staging area on that morning. It was bitterly cold and breezy, and runners all over were wrapped in mylar blankets, sleeping bags, and trash bags. This was the first ime I’d ever worn a trash bag before a race, and I was glad that I did. I had planned to meet up with some fellow Twitter runners before heading to the starting corrals, but unfotunately I went to the wrong tent and missed them. However, I met a few other runners trying to keep warm near the baggage tent, and we exchanged jokes about how it had never been so tempting to just hang out in a porta-potty for a bit because of the warmth. Despite all of my cold-weather adaptation, I was freezing during that 30+ minute wait, and it was all I could do to avoid shivering uncontrollably.
When we finally began the nearly one-mile march to the starting corrals, people were still suffering from the cold, and one of the more humorous sights was the number of runners hovering under the giant halogen lights lining the path in order to keep warm. Some were even cuddling up to generator exhaust vents to steal a bit of warm air, joking that it was worth it even if the exhaust fumes they inhaled caused them to collapse later on. Aside from that and the endless streams of people relieving themselves in the bushes (an unusual sight at Disney for sure!), the march to the start was fairly uneventful. We got to the corrals, I found my spot in corral A, shed my trash bag, and waited for the race to start.
Once we got moving, I was surprised at how un-crowded it felt. Despite the fact that there were over 23,000 runners signed up for the race, corral A was pretty roomy, and it didn’t take all that long for me to find my stride once the burst of fireworks signaled the start of the race. We we’re off, and the next 26.2 miles consist mostly of a series of flash-like memories for me. One of the unusual aspects of my preparation for this race is that I never really studied the course in any way – no poring over maps, elevation charts, etc. To be honest, I didn’t even really know when we would be hitting each of the parks. I just wanted to run and not think, and this actually turned out to be a great approach. I lived solely in the moment, with no expectation of what would be coming next, and no over-thinking of race strategy. Perhaps that’s why my memory of the race itself is so patchy. There’s a ton to see at Disney, and those sights are a great way to take your mind off what your body is doing, making the race much easier from a mental standpoint. I really think this contributed a lot to my ultimate performance.
The first miles of the race wound through Epcot center in the dark, which was very cool. I saw a few princesses, I ran with a guy dressed as Super Mario, and I soaked in the experience at a relatively easy high-7:00 pace. I honestly don’t remember much else until mile 10 or so, when I stopped briefly due to some GI issues that had developed. I was still in a carefree mode about pace, and the 2:00 I lost didn’t matter too much to me at that point.
The next park we passed through was the Magic Kingdom, and by that time the sun had finally come out to warm things up just a bit. Despite this, there were patches of ice on the ground along the race course (they had volunteers stationed at these yelling “Mind the ice!”), and the water stops were slick from cup spillage that had frozen on the ground. The drinks handed out were slushy, which also made drinking fast a challenge. Entering the Magic Kingdom was pretty amazing, and the crowds lining Main Street provided a big boost. I was filming parts of the race on my Ipod Nano 5G (aside: this is a fantastic little gadget for race recording – you can watch my 2010 Disney Marathon video here), and unfortunately I didn’t turn it on right and missed the Main Street moment. However, I did catch the run through Cinderella’s Castle, as well as many of the other sights and character stops from the MK.
Leaving the Magic Kingdom led to another stretch along roads, during which I ran with the 3:30 pace group for a bit. I was feeling good, and it was around this point that I thought a PR might be within the realm of possibility. Even outside of the parks, Disney did a fantastic job keeping your mind occupied on things other than you legs and feet. I found the steady stream of Sharpie signs, each with a joke or clever saying, to be a nice distraction, and there were musical acts, hot-air balloons, and characters all over the place. It hit the halfway point right around 1:45:13, on pace for a 3:30-ish PR, but I was wary of “the wall” that I fully expected to arrive around mile 16.
Well, I hit mile 16, and there was no wall. I hit mile 17 and Animal Kingdom, and there was no wall. I hit mile 18, there was no wall, and I was actually feeling stronger. Once I made it through mile 18, I knew that I would PR. I was convinced, and nothing was going to stop me – it was only a question of how much of a PR it would be. I said goodbye to the 3:30 pace group, and I started to race. I threw down a 7:20 mile for mile 19. I was passing people left and right, and I was absolutely stunned at what my legs were doing. They wanted to go faster, so I obliged and clocked a 7:08 mile for mile 20. Having always been the guy walking in pain at that point, I was reveling in the fact that my body and mind still wanted to run. There would be no wall on this day, so I popped in the headphones I brought in case I had another mental and physical breakdown, popped on my “tempo run” playlist, and “dug deep” as was suggested to me by my friend @britishbulldog. “Dig deep” and “Run with Strength” became my mantras for the final six miles, and I must have passed well over 100 runners with these phrases running through my head.
Disney Hollywood Studios came around mile 23, but I was racing at that point, and I opted to keep the music in and video camera off (this was the first time I have used music in a race since probably the first I ever ran, but it just seemed right for me at that moment). The final miles took us through the Boardwalk and then back into Epcot for the finish. I ran mile 24 in 7:12, mile 25 in 7:32, and mile 26 in 7:14, and the last stretch through Epcot was probably my favorite of the entire race. The sun was bright, and I honestly felt like I was flying – it was absolutely amazing! I approached Spaceship Earth (the “big ball”) still feeling strong, and ran the final 0.2 at right around a 7:00 pace. I high-fived Donald Duck as I crossed the finishline in 3:24:49 (chip time), and proceeded on to get my medal. Continuing the unlikeliness of the day, after exiting the chute, I never stopped to take a rest. I never even sat down. I actually felt like I could continue running. I had finished 367th out of 16883 finishers, and I was runner’s high like I’ve never felt before (I was actually trying to incite the crowd in the final mile, which is very unlike me!).
I met my family after picking up my bag, and we opted to not stick around and watch the finishers due to the crowds and cold (my kids were not having fun in the cold). I regret this as watching the finishers who come after me is one of my favorite parts of a marathon, but there will be others in the future, and some family time was in order. I had promised my kids I would take them for a swim after the race regardless of the weather, and swim we did. We capped off the day by walking around Downtown Disney (I must have easily logged 50K+ total on the day between racing and walking), and I celebrated by eating far too much.
I’m not sure I’ll ever know why this race went the way it did for me, but this post is already way too long, so I plan to put another together where I talk a bit about what I did differently leading up to and during this race (Update - here is that post, which is actually an audio podcast on how I think I avoided the wall). All I know is that I achieved my primary goal of having an awesome time, managed an 8:00 PR, and ran an approximately 5:00 negative split in the second half, all while recording video during the race. Most importantly, I proved to myself that I can run a marathon without hitting “the wall,” and that crossing the finish-line of a marathon does not automatically lead to collapsing in pain. BQ, here I come.
To finish, I’d just like to say that the Disney Marathon is a phenomenal event. If you’re looking for a marathon to do, I highly recommend Disney – it’s easily the most fun I’ve had in a race of any distance. If you’ve never done a marathon and are looking for a first one, this would be a great choice. The crowds, scenery, and organization are all top-notch. If you’ve never considered running a marathon, all I can say is that you can do it, and this would be a great one to strive for. If nothing else, watch my 2010 Disney Marathon video and picture yourself behind the camera – anyone can do this, and that I truly do believe.