You’re Goofy: My early running days part II
“So I think you should sign up for the Disney Marathon,” Mike said to me on one of our late afternoon training runs.
“Dude, that’s like 26 miles. I don’t know if I can do that just yet.”
“Well, you don’t have much of a choice because we’re signing up for it as soon as we get back to my house… But there’s one catch. The marathon’s already sold out so I’m actually signing you up for the Goofy Challenge.”
“Ok, whatever you say… But one question… What’s the Goofy Challenge?”
Disney Marathon weekend is a semi-big deal in Orlando. At least it is for the endurance running community. It’s a big weekend for Disney as well. They get tens of thousands of runners descending on the theme parks from all over the world plus all of those runners families. Disney also knows how to put on a production and they do their best to make the endurance race experience worth it. Disney Marathon Weekend is a week-long festival of sorts when you include the days leading up to the actual races.
The week is kicked off by the Disney Marathon Race Expo where runners can pick up their race packets, race shirts, shop for apparel, technology, nutrition etc. On Thursday the racing is kicked off with a 5 km run/walk for those interested in doing something a little more tame. Then on Friday the stakes are raised a bit with a 10 km run/walk. Then the big fish begin to be fried as Saturday rolls around because that’s the day of the half marathon (actually the biggest race numbers-wise of the weekend). It’s estimated that more than 30000 runners participate in the Disney Half Marathon alone every year. Then on Sunday the main event takes place—The Disney Marathon, which around 25000 runners partake in each year.
The marathon is such a special distance and is alluring for many. 26.2 miles seems so short when you drive it in a car. Even when you pedal it on a bike it doesn’t seem that bad. Then when you take to foot and begin trying to run you suddenly realize how fucking far it really is and it seems a bit overwhelming. For a few select special crazies, Disney offers a couple of race packages which include the Goofy and Dopey Challenges. The Goofy Challenge consists of running the Disney Half Marathon on Saturday, followed by running the Disney Marathon on Sunday. The Dopey Challenge adds in the 5k on Thursday and 10k on Friday making for 48.6 miles of running over the course of four days. Goofy is 39.3 miles of running over two days. And for someone who’d never “run” more than 10 miles at a time, that seemed pretty daunting. But at the same time I was confident and cocky enough to think I could pull it off. After all how much harder could it be than humping a 60ish pound backpack for 50ish miles in the backwoods of Wyoming on little training and severely blistered feet (I’d done this in 2010 with my mountaineering team, Team Sight Unseen). It turns out, a little harder than I anticipated.
Needless to say, people around me thought I was absolutely crazy but supportive nonetheless. The only one that didn’t think I was completely out of my mind was the crazy SOB who’d signed me up for this endeavor, Mike.
Three weeks after Mike and I completed our first road race together he completed the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Over the previous couple of months Mike had filled me in on what “Kona” was and it’s significance in the triathlon world. Tracking Mike via the online tracker on my phone was fascinating. I found myself on the edge of my seat anxiously waiting for Mike to reach the next checkpoint. And once Mike crossed the finish line nearly 17 hours after he started I thought “If he can do 2.4 mi of swimming, 112 mi of biking and 26.2 mi of running, then maybe I’m crazy enough to somehow pull this Goofy Challenge off.”
Mike returned home from Kona and took a week or so off. But since he was planning to guide me for the entire Goofy Challenge coming up in just over two months we needed to get training. Our plan was to do as many back-to-back running days as possible. I wasn’t advanced enough to do a traditional marathon training plan so we made it up as we went along. I ran with Mike three or four times a week. Sometimes we only ran three miles, other times we ran up to 10.
We drove out to Clermont—about a 45 min drive away—to a looped dirt road with no traffic called Clay Road. Clay Road was a 10 mile loop with no shade and no opportunity to refill on water. Mike and I ran/walked Clay Road several times in our lead up to Disney. Over the next couple of years Clay Road would become one of my favorite spots to run due to the lack of traffic and the fact that I could just focus on running and not worrying about tripping over curbs.
Mike and I ran a little 5k in mid November just to get another road race under our belts and then we stepped it up the first weekend in December to run one of Orlando’s other big foot races of the year—The OUC Half Marathon.
This was my first half marathon and it was only a month before we were slated to take on the Goofy Challenge. Mike and I ran/walked the first nine or so miles before we both blew up. Mike was struggling a little bit motivationally post Kona and I just didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when it came to running. We mustered up enough mojo to run the last half mile of the OUC Half Marathon to cross the line in just under two and a half hours. Slow, but we finished. I couldn’t help but wonder though “How the hell am I going to do this plus a marathon just one month from now?”
The Disney Half Marathon
If there’s one drawback (apart from the financial expense of the race itself) to Disney Marathon weekend, it is the ridiculously early start times of the races. Disney is a money-making machine and they want their parks to be open as long as possible with as few disruptions as possible. So in order to accommodate nearly 30000 runners running 13.1 miles through several of the parks they start the races around 5:30 AM. This means getting to the startling before 5:00. For some runners who stay at the Disney resorts and surrounding hotels, they actually tend to arrive before 4:00 AM. Since Mike lived downtown and we were only a 45ish minute drive from the parks, we left a little later. Of course we got stuck in a little traffic, but still made it to the parking lot with time to spare.
We made our way from the parking lot toward the startline. Since my best running times were fairly slow I was assigned a wave near the very back with the slower runners. However, Mike had also signed up as a participant (not as my guide) and his times pushed us up closer to the front of the race. So Mike had me drape my shirt over my bib and snuck me into Wave F, rather than Wave P where I was originally slated.
The temperature was cold but the energy was high. I’d never experienced the nervous excitement of a major race like this before and it pumped me up. I drank in the energy and was excited to get going.
The first wave to go was the wheelchair athletes. Then Wave A, B, C and on. Eventually we started moving forward and crossed the timing mat to get started. People were bumping and jostling us and Mike was calling out “Blind runner” with a little more force and authority than he had at the Miracle Miles back in September.
We made our way to the right hand side of the road where slower runners typically run/walk allowing the speedy people to pass on the left. Of course, our biggest nemesis were people wearing headphones. But we somehow navigated around them with a combination of yelling and running them over… Hey, whatever works right?
The thing I noticed about the Disney Half Marathon was the party-like atmosphere. There were high school marching bands, cheerleading squads, thousands of spectators, people playing music from big speakers. Then when we actually entered into the Magic Kingdom (the first park we passed through) it was like I was a kid again going to Disney for the first time. I recalled being a kid and running all over the Magic Kingdom because I was so excited. Now I couldn’t help but laugh because I was intentionally running down Main Street USA for a half marathon—and the next day I’d hopefully be running through here again for the marathon.
I heard all kinds of Disney music from movies I used to watch as a kid. Mike let me know when we were passing characters. Overall it was an incredible experience.
We ran/walked our way all the way through several other Disney Parks until we reached EPCOT—the final park. We “ran around the world” and finished the 13.1 mile course strong besting my previous personal best half marathon time by more than five minutes. Now, we had to go home, eat and rest up because we had a marathon to run the next day.
The Disney Marathon
For the second day in a row I found myself in Wave F at 5:something in the morning with 25000+ of my closest friends at the start of another Disney foot race. This time though it was that iconic 26.2 miles. Twice the distance of anything I’d run/walked before. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. I felt very underprepared. My legs were very sore from the previous day and I didn’t know how I was going to get through this. Mike was also hurting and was fighting a bit of a cold. But we knew that we had to somehow just keep moving forward.
We crossed the startling and broke into a shuffling jog. We’d decided to run for 6.5 minutes and walk for 1.5 minutes. And for the first 15-20k we held to that schedule. In my mind I wanted to break 5 hours as that was the Blind/Visually Impaired Boston Qualifying time. My arrogance knew no bounds.
We made our way through the Magic Kingdom, then Animal Kingdom as well as the Disney Speedway and some other attractions. Once we crossed the 13.1 mile mark we were in new territory. I had no idea how I’d respond or when I’d hit that “wall”. It turned out the “wall” was just around the corner.
Mike and I somehow managed to shuffle/jog our way to about 15 miles, refilling our handheld water bottles every few aid stations. Around mile 15 or 16 my legs just didn’t want to work any more. We slowed to a walk and wound up walking one of the most boring parts of the entire course with no music, crowds or anything to motivate us. We could vaguely hear the people cheering as runners passed through the Wide World of Sports Complex, but that was still a very long three or miles away. We walked just telling ourselves to keep moving.
I was on autopilot. I knew that if I stopped moving I shouldn’t be able to start again. I kept telling myself, “It’s only 10 miles. Just one Dr. Phillips or one Clay Road loop.” Then that distance got whittled down to nine, eight, seven and six miles.
We walked through Disney’s Hollywood Studios at mile 22 or so and I couldn’t fathom traveling another four plus miles by foot. We tried jogging, then shuffling, then jogging again. Mile 23 passed and we grabbed some coke, bananas and chocolate. Then mile 24 and 25. We were approaching EPCOT, the final stretch. We did our best to run but at this point I just didn’t care any more. I just wanted to be done with this race. I hated running and never wanted to do anything like this again.
The last quarter mile we were able to break out into something resembling a run because we at least had to look good for the cameras. We crossed the finish line and celebrated with our friends and supporters who’d come to cheer us on and some of whom run the race as well. Then it was time to collect our Marathon Finisher medals and our Goofy Challenge Finisher Medals as well as get our Goofy Challenge Finisher photos taken.
Naturally by the time Mike and I’d gotten our photos, medals and everything taken care of I’d talked myself down off the ledge thinking, “that was awful, but I probably made it way worse in my head than it really was.” And by the time I was laying in an epson salt bath at home I was telling myself “I could run a marathon faster than that.” Maybe if I just did the marathon it wouldn’t be so bad… In other words, I was hooked on distance running and challenging myself physically and mentally. I wanted to know how far I could physically and mentally push myself. Previously I’d pushed myself pretty far, or so I thought. But running/walking 39.3 miles in two days opened me up to a whole new realm of suffering and for some crazy reason I really liked it. And thank goodness I found this love of pain and suffering when I did because my personal life was going to hell in a hand basket way faster than the 5 hours 49 minutes and 6 seconds it took me to complete my first marathon. In fact, my personal life was spiraling our of control nearly as fast as a 2 hour marathon and I would need the pain and suffering of running, then cycling and swimming to cope with myself for the next year and a half.