I was really nervous about the Walt Disney World Marathon. Not only would this be my first marathon, but I had already done three races over the previous three days. I had no idea how it would go, including whether I’d even be able to make it across the finish line. I had trained hard for months and hit all my mileage, but when the day finally came, anything could happen. But here’s what did happen:
Just like the last four days, I woke up dark and early, got ready and headed off to catch the resort bus to the race. When I arrived at the Epcot parking lot, I joined a couple of meetups to get some photos and socialization to help ease my nerves and share in the moment.
While I ran the previous three races with my phone to take pictures, I was not planning on any photo stops this time. I checked my phone in with my gear bag and headed through to my corral. On the way, I grabbed a cup of water to help wash down the gel I was going to take a few minutes before the race. After the walk to the corrals, I warmed up, found my spot in my corral, took my gel and water and waited for the countdown to start. The time went by both slowly and swiftly in what has to violate some fundamental law of physics. I was watching the time, eagerly waiting for the minutes to become seconds, but somehow that sense of agitation also left the whole time as a blur in my mind and before I knew it, we were counting down. 3…2…1…
Boom! The fireworks went off. And off I went running my first marathon. We started out a little faster than I planned, but the crowd was so packed off the starting line that I had to keep up for the first few hundred feet for fear of getting trampled. Once the crowd thinned a bit, I slowed to my pace, confirmed it on my watch and settled in. This is your pace. This is your home. And that’s exactly how I went. I settled into the steady cadence of my feet, matched my breathing and zoned out to the beat of my music, on my way to 26.2.
It’s a pretty solitary route for the first few miles until we approached the Ticket & Transportation Center, which is where the first real crowds show up. The cheering and cowbells start to grow louder and that’s when you start to realize you’re doing something special. People came out to watch you and your fellow marathon runners. I was fortunate to have a friend (beachmouse again, who was a huge help all weekend) waiting and cheering for me. She also offered some gear support at the perfect time. I had set her up with a supply bag (extra gels, socks in case it rained at the start and I needed a dry pair, etc.). What a huge help! I got there just a few minutes before sunrise, so she was able to hand me my sunglasses and save me having to carry them the first few miles.
As we made our way into the Magic Kingdom backstage, we got our first peek of the castle, glistening white, beckoning us through. We rounded the corner onto Main Street and it was so clear why they call it the most magical race on Earth. Crowds of spectators yelling, cheering, clapping. The energy was so thick I couldn’t resist running faster, up Main Street, through Tomorrowland, into Fantasyland into the rear of the castle and out the front. Camera flashes right and left! I felt like a celebrity and it was spectacular. My first marathon and I’m running through a castle!
I had to fight to slow down and protect my pace and my race plan. On the way through the rest of the park and backstage, I got my pace back in line. We turned onto the Walt Disney World Speedway, for a solid mile around the racetrack, a good chance to zone in on my pace even better and prepare myself for that 4-mile stretch to Animal Kingdom. But the park brought a beautiful change of scenery and the excitement of knowing that as soon as we made it through we’d be hitting the half marathon mark. And when I did, I checked my watch–exactly half of my planned finish time. Feeling good! Feeling so good in fact, that I felt ready to pick up the pace by about 10 seconds per mile. And that began another 4-mile stretch on the way to Wide World of Sports.
If you run with music, you’ll want a pretty steady beat on your playlist at this point. It starts to get a bit warm, you’ve already run 13 miles and you need a little help going forward. That’s how I made sure to stick to my pace. I was definitely counting the mileage, setting personal rewards. In 2 miles, I’ll take a gel. Then it’s one mile to WWOS. But even though my feet were getting a little sore, I still felt strong enough to finish. And I pushed my way into WWOS, feeling a little more tired as I got further through (and bored, definitely a little bored at this point).
I had heard someone say “a marathon is a 20-mile warmup for a 10K,” so I was really focused on getting to mile 20. So that was my next goal–get to mile 20, see how I feel. And when I got there, I felt strong. I was ready to go!
Just a 10K to go and I was ticking off the miles! 20…21…22…feeling strong…into Hollywood Studios…23…only a 5K to go!
And then out of nowhere I got a side stitch. Every breath in was pain. I looked at my watch and I was on pace to beat my planned time by 5 minutes. How could this happen? I was careful about my breathing, using a 3:2 pattern (Warning: page has an auto-play video…ugh! Why?!) to even out my footstrikes. I pushed through for half a mile, but I couldn’t take it. And I had to stop and walk. Everything was falling apart. Walking felt fine. Running was breathing in death. Had I hit “the wall?” I don’t think so. I had energy and I wanted to run. I just couldn’t breathe. So I shifted to a run/walk for the last 3 miles.
I kept a close eye on my pace and the cushion I had built into my time. Ok, I have 4 minutes per mile of cushion and still finish in my goal. Run a little, walk a little. Mile 24…ok, I’m down to a 3-minute cushion)…25…ok, I’m down to a 2-minute cushion. And we entered Epcot…then finally mile 26! Almost there with just a little over minute of cushion. I was so close to the end of my first marathon, I just wanted to run it! Forget the pain! I’m running! I pushed with everything I had left on that last .2 miles and powered through the finish.
I stopped my GPS and couldn’t have been happier about what it showed. I finished at the exact minute of my goal time! And with that I collected my medal and headed straight to the medical tent. I grabbed a couple bags of ice, talked the staff about my side stitch and sat there for 20 minutes, laughing. Out loud.
After 4 days of running, and 4 races, I had completed the Dopey Challenge–48.6 miles!
Looking back, it was a spectacular experience. It didn’t go without a hitch, but I enjoyed it far more than I ever even expected. People ask me whether I’d do it again and without hesitation, I answer yes every time. But I always follow it with “because I’m insane.” The Dopey Challenge isn’t easy and it’s not cheap, but if you’re ready for the mileage (both training and racing), it’s worth it. This is an accomplishment I will be proud of for as long as I have a memory. And I give a very knowing nod of respect to anyone else who has done it.