The 2008 Disney Marathon was my first marathon and by far my most memorable. The event is at Walt Disney World, so the location is fantastic and the weekend is totally enjoyable, even if only because there is so much to do around the property. The fact that it’s hosted on Disney property also leads to a couple of drawbacks with the event itself, but I’ll get to that.
My wife, Jen, and I ran this marathon as fundraising participants with Team In Training. For those of you not familiar with the program, it’s the largest endurance sports program and run by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. They recruit folks to complete an endurance event (marathon or half-marathon, triathlon, century bicycle ride) in exchange for raising money to fund the Society’s mission to cure blood cancers and improve the lives of patients and their families. Basically, they provide you with professional coaching, a team atmosphere, and transportation to and entry into the event for which you are training. This includes a carb-loading dinner prior to the event as well as a victory party after completing it.
We stayed with our team in the Coronado Springs Disney Resort and if you’ve never stayed in a Disney resort, I highly recommend you do this if you’re planning to participate in an on-site sports event. Disney provides top-notch services, free transportation to any of the parks or attractions (including Downtown Disney) and you can basically park your car and never touch it again during your entire stay. In addition, they will cart anything you buy in their parks back to the hotel room for you so you don’t have to carry it around.
After checking in, we visited the Expo, which was top-notch. There were plenty of vendors and no shortage of things to do/buy. The only downside to buying commemorative items is that everything is Disney-licensed merchandise and so it’s expensive. Not terribly so, but certainly more than at most other Expos. The non-Disney items (typical marathon-specific clothing, sunglasses, etc.) were pretty much normal price for an Expo. While there, we picked up our bib and race packet, as well as our long-sleeve technical shirt, which was very nice.
After heading back to the resort to relax for a bit, we went to the Team In Training Pasta Party, which includes a guest speaker (many of TNT’s events feature John “The Penguin” Bingham as the keynote speaker, though he was not at this one)
and usually a blood-cancer survivor speaks to the group. This helps tie what each of the athletes have done in the way of both athletic training and fundraising back to the Society’s mission and can get very emotional. The food is always fantastic too!
On Saturday night, we struggled to get to sleep at a decent hour but our anxiety made to hard to relax. We were in bed by 10:00 or so but tossed and turned until close to midnight. One of the few negative aspects of running the Disney Marathon is that they want you to get running and off their roads so that they can open them up to tourists. As a result, they expect you to be at the staging area by 3:30 so that you can move to the Start area around 5:30 for the 6:00 start. Notice there’s a two-hour gap between those times.
By the time you actually start the race, you’ve been awake since 2:30 and on your feet for about three hours. The staging area is a large parking lot and fortunately, it was 65° when we were there. Two years earlier, it had been just above freezing, so you can imagine what a toll sitting around in such temperatures must take on 15,000 runners.
We hung out as a Team in the staging area which made it a little more tolerable. Everyone who had things to do, such as body-marking, saved them until we were in the staging area, which gave us something to keep us occupied. My coach even asked me to write on the back of her legs — brave woman. For some reason, I wrote what she wanted instead of “Dave is Hot!” though to this day I’m not sure why. We all checked our post-race bags and made one last trip to the port-a-potties before heading to the Start area.
The start of the marathon is pretty spectacular with Disney characters animated on large jumbo screens to get you motivated and then some serious fireworks. If you’ve never seen 15,000 people start a marathon at the same time, it’s really impressive. You can’t tell from the picture to the right, but there are actually two sides of the highway (three lanes each direction) that are filled with runners and they go back quite a bit farther than the camera can see.
One of the immediate problems with a race this size is that walkers and runners are all lumped together. Jen ran the half-marathon the previous year and it took her 30 minutes to get from her starting corral to the Start Line where her chip time started. This is a common problem at Disney if you are in the last corral, so if you can supply a previous time to get into a better corral, I strongly recommend doing so. Even two or three miles into the race, the pack is still pretty much elbow-to-elbow, so any opportunity to get ahead of the walking crowd is beneficial.
As the race started, some idiot kept stopping at every mile marker to take a photograph. This isn’t too uncommon but he was taking it from the middle of the course instead of stepping off to the side. Every time he stopped, we all slammed into him (and subsequently one another) until eventually a few of us pushed him off the course. I don’t know if he finally “got it” or not, but he was behind us now so we never saw him again.
About two and a half miles into the course, you go through Epcot, which of course is closed. Instead of a normal PA system, Disney actually has a pretty significant sound system all throughout the parks (think about the quality of the music during the Light Parades) and there was house music blasting and bass pumping. Epcot’s World of Nations was all lit up with laser lights and strobes and there were characters on the course here and there. It was very energizing — perhaps more so than any other part of the Marathon course — to run through here at the beginning of the run.
Miles five through 10 are mostly on the highways between the Disney parks and therefore not all that exciting. This is to be expected given that you have to cover 26 miles and there’s only so much room that Disney can block off inside the parks themselves. As a side note, any part of the course that runs through a park is blocked off with a rope on each side to keep pedestrians out of your way. One of the things we appreciated most was that the mile markers are sponsored by Sharpie, and every tenth of a mile or so, there was a sign that had a random bit of trivia sponsored by Sharpie. The idea was to (a) cure some of the boredom of being in between parks and (b) foster conversation with other athletes. It was successful on both fronts.
Eventually you run through the Magic Kingdom, down Main Street and through Cinderella’s castle. This was one of my favorite parts because I actually knew the park. Since this was the first park that was open at the time we ran through, it was also our first chance to see spectators along the course. I can’t tell you what a big difference this makes! As we ran through the parking lots outside the Magic Kingdom, park visitors began to yell at us and people (park visitors and guests of runners) had gathered watch us go by. There were a lot of folks holding signs for Team In Training runners and many people just yelled at anyone whose name they could read on the bibs or your shirt. It was amazing how many people yelled “David” as I went by.
There are official photographers at some of the most desired photo opportunities, such as in front of Cinderella’s castle. Again, there are Disney characters along the way and you’re always welcome to stop and take a picture with them (you can use your camera or one of the official photographers will happily take a picture that you can purchase for $60 later) though there may be a line, especially for the more popular ones.
As we ran through the park, we also went behind parts of it and were able to see some of the “backstage” areas where shows were staging or characters were setting up. You will never see a costumed Disney character with their “head” off, but we did get to see Captain Jack Sparrow about to enter the park with some other (support) characters from Pirates of the Caribbean. After about a 10-minute run through the Magic Kingdom and another 15 or so minutes of running around it, we were back out on the highway between the parks where it was starting to rain.
It was a five-mile trip from the Magic Kingdom down to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and thankfully there were “Sharpie moments” to read along the way. There was also music set up every third of a mile or so and about the time you could no longer hear the last set of speakers, you could start to hear the next set that you were about to run past. Occasionally you would pass a live DJ on the course — there were probably three or four total along the way — or a live band.
It’s probably worth noting that I wore headphones during this race even though you’re not supposed to. I never saw anyone in the way of course officials challenging runners who were listening to music and I can’t believe that Disney would ever actually do this, but it’s also worth pointing out that there’s enough going on (both to hear and look at) that you can probably survive just fine without music, even if you’re used to wearing it when you run.