You can’t PR at a Run Disney race!
That’s what they keep drilling into your head, right? As you dish out your hard-earned shekels to pay the premium registration fees, make travel arrangements, buy all kinds of overpriced merchandise and extra race add-ons like “Chear Squads” and “Race Retreats” and RIDICULOUSLY overpriced photographs, deep down you know that as much fun as you will have at a Run Disney event — and make no mistake, you WILL have fun — you’ll never, ever set a personal record right?
You can’t PR at a Run Disney race!
Unless it’s your first time racing a 5K, 10K, half or full marathon, or if you’re an elite or super-fast runner in the first few corrals, it’s simply impossible to achieve a PR. Heck, even I’ve repeated that mantra over and over. Among all the narrow portions of the course, the higher concentration of race walkers, the photo opportunities, character stops, on-course entertainment, and more, it’s simply not possible to set new land speed records for yourself while at a Run Disney event. Besides, why would you want to anyhow? As mentioned above, you paid a much higher price than normal to race at the House of Mouse; you might as well get your money’s worth and take the time to enjoy everything it has to offer, race pace be damned.
You REALLY can’t PR at a Run Disney race!
Or can you?
Let’s find out…
The inaugural Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon took place in the early morn of November 16, 2014, and this sucker sold out in less than two hours when registrations went on sale way back during the previous March. And why wouldn’t it? First of all, it was an inaugural event, which attracts even the most listless and jaded of Disney runners, and allows them to “get in on the ground floor” and earn the potential of becoming a “legacy runner” by “running it at least five years in a row” and thereby handing over “most of your disposable income” to “beaming Run Disney accountants” for “most of the foreseeable future”. No more excessive quotes, I promise.
Secondly, this was a Marvel/Avengers-themed race. We’re talking the most popular cinematic series on the planet right now, raking in gazillions of dollars at the box office and in licensed merchandising. Having Disney enhance their series of races with their Marvel brand (and Star Wars brand coming in January) was simply a no-brainer. A marketing dream come true, for sure. Your veritable chocolate with my peanut butter, etc.
Finally, this was not only a race at Disneyland, it was a race in Southern California, and it was a race at Disneyland in Southern California, in November. This meant cooler temperatures and holiday festivities well underway throughout the entire Disneyland resort. So all in all we have an inaugural Run Disney race, with a Marvel/Avengers theme, during the holidays featuring weather conducive to optimal running conditions.
The day before the race, Boots and I had walked the Avengers Super Heroes 5K, which, while being pretty much the exact same course as the Disneyland 5K, featured plenty of runners in superhero costumes, pre-race festivities, and Avengers theming throughout the event. We’re talking live-action Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow characters and all sorts of SHIELD, Avengers, and Hydra projections in the park. However, noticeably missing from all the marketing, displays, bibs, and entertainment was the character of Iron Man. Arguably Marvel Studios’s most popular character, there was absolutely NO MENTION OR DISPLAYS of Iron Man anywhere. Run Disney affiliated personnel could not even say the words “Iron Man”, but only vaguely talk about him as a Stark Industries representative or Iron Dude or perhaps even The Man Whose First Name Kinda Rhymes with Fryin’. The sensible explanation for this was that Run Disney did not want to face any kind of legal issues with IRONMAN race/triathlon organization. A little bit of a bummer that we didn’t get to see Iron Man anywhere… at least, not from Run Disney. The runners themselves represented Tony Stark in full regalia just fine.
Anyway, we were still running on Eastern time so the pre-race dinner occurred sometime around 3:00 in the afternoon. We hit out favorite Downtown Disney hangout Uva Bar, and shared some amazing appetizers, including a chorizo flatbread, arepas with pork and avocado, and an amazing Mediterranean dip platter featuring hummus with chick peas, Baba Ganoush, and red pepper hummus made with molasses and walnuts, and all of it was magnificent. Afterward we putzed around Downtown Disney for awhile before making a beeline back to our room at the Anabella Hotel. I basically wanted to stay off my feet; my left foot had been giving me some slight issues since the previous day. It wasn’t pain, necessarily, but a pressure on the top of the foot and the ankle. I was concerned but not entirely worried, but to be safe I elevated the foot and iced it while watching Family Guy reruns in bed. I wasn’t taking any chances.
By 8 PM we were fast asleep, which made waking up at 3:15 AM the next morning a snap. I quickly scarfed down a bagel and cream cheese, showered, and changed into my running gear. I also wrapped my left foot and ankle in KT tape, a new experience for me but one for which I was exceedingly grateful throughout the race.
I was originally planning to wear my Robin costume from the Miami Beach Halloween Half, but a wardrobe malfunction put the kibosh on that plan. The “R” pin I wore as an insignia was missing; I had brought it with me, and had taken it out the day before and laid it on top of the rest of my outfit, but it was pretty much gone by race day. Perhaps housekeeping had accidentally thrown it out? Phooey. It didn’t matter anyhow, because I had mistakenly left my green compression undershirt at home, so my costume was incomplete. Thankfully, I had packed a black Superman tech shirt as a backup, and it surprisingly matched the rest of my outfit just fine. I had a black and green theme going on. Nifty!
We left the hotel around 4:15 in order to make it to the Mickey Milers pre-race photo at 4:45 AM in the Start Area. I had previously retained a humiliating history of always arriving too late for the photo, a problem a rectified during the 5K the day before, and I looked to continue my winning streak that morning. We made it to the Staging Area with plenty of time to spare, and I quickly found the usual collection of bright yellow/purple shirts standing around excitedly in anticipation of the big event. My buddies Jennifer, Bill, and Jennifer (Bill’s wife) were about to rock their first Half Marathon, which meant instant PR for them. Yes it may sound a bit maudlin gang, but I’d give anything to relive that feeling of running my first race. Especially my first Disney one. Those were some way happy vibes.
After the way happy vibe-fest I bid my Mickey Miler buddies adieu and made my way over to the portos for the ceremonial PRP, and then I was off on my way to my corral. I was situated in Corral C, this time on my own as opposed to the fun- and friend-filled corral experience the previous day during the 5K. But that was OK. I basically hung out and watched the pre-race entertainment on the video screens, featuring our intrepid race announcers Rudy and Carissa, as well as a whole bunch of animated shorts featuring the various Marvel and Avengers characters. Still no Iron Man. Phooey.
Meanwhile, I was loving the weather. We’re talking 54 degrees at race start, low humidity, and a cool breeze blowing through. A nice, sweet, gentle breeze. Nothing more than that, right? Nope! Just a light, refreshing, mild breeze and this is what four out of five dentists call FORESHADOWING, folks.
After the National Anthem, the wheelchair racers took off, followed by the combined A/B corrals. I plugged in my reasonably new Jaybird Bluebuds X wireless headphones and punched up my next Zombies, Run! mission (Season 3, Episode 6: “Career Day”), with planned sprints/”zombie chases” scheduled for the entire run. Corrals C and D were scheduled to start together, and at 5:38 I crossed the Start Line (after sending Rudy and Carissa INTENSE TELEPATHIC MESSAGES to remember to call my name at the Finish Line) and I was off on my way in the inaugural 2014 Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon! I was on like Donkey Kong! In it to win it! Neither a borrower nor lender be! Always bet on black! And other such cliches! I was off!
The Race Begins!
As always, let’s start with an overview of the course, courtesy of Google Maps and my ever-trustworthy Garmin 220:
Click to embiggen!
This was a new Run Disney course, especially in contrast to the usual Disneyland Half route. It took us almost immediately into the parks, heading south down West Street, turning east into the backstage Disney area right around the Paradise Pier resort. The next two miles took us straight through Disney’s California Adventure, through the Esplanade, into Disneyland itself (including a run through the castle), then down Main Street USA and turning east until we reached Harbor Blvd. From Harbor we headed south for over a mile, and then turning east on Chapman for another mile until we reached the Crystal Cathedral. Running past the cathedral and through its parking lot, the course turns south on Lewis Street and east down Garden Grove Boulevard, upon which we pass the 10K mark. The second half of the course winds northbound on the Santa Ana trail for two miles until we reached Angels Stadium. Running through the Stadium, the course then winds west on Gene Autry Way, curving northbound until it turns west on Disney Way. In a departure from the Disneyland Half, we turned north on Clementine, northwest and then west on Manchester until we returned to Harbor Boulevard. Turning south, we re-entered the backstage Disney area just behind Tomorrowland and made the final trek to the Finish Line by the Disneyland Hotel.
Running in Corral C made the streets reasonably less crowded during the opening miles. I recalled my memories of the previous Disneyland runs and, while nobody is sprinting right out of the gate except for those pesky elites, I was thankful that I didn’t have to weave and bob all that much. Sticking to my 5:1 intervals throughout most of the race (more on that later), I kept a steady, easy-going pace for Mile 1, finishing the first mile in 9:51. Two things of note happened here: (1) we entered DCA right at the northern edge of Cars Land, and (2) I passed Joey Fatone. I greeted him with a friendly, “What’s up Joe?” and responded in kind, and that was it, because I left his butt in the dust! HAH! Take that! I may not have made zillions as a teen idol, captured the hearts of thousands if not millions of women around the world, been adored by the masses all over MTV and fawned upon by pop culture and started appearing on popular shows all over the Food Network and elsewhere and yeah Imma gonna shut up now.
Boots was stationed at the Esplanade between DCA and Disneyland, and captured this amazing action snapshot of yours truly:
Hey! I’m OK!!
Most of the stops inside the Disney parks were similar to those at the 5K. There were character photo ops with the four featured Marvel characters: Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Captain America, as well a handful of other Disney characters and scenic backdrops. Even that early, the lines looked entirely too daunting, and I really wasn’t all that interested anyhow. The parks looked as beautiful as ever all lit up just before the break of dawn, but I kept my head down and my legs pumping. Something must have really clicked, because I ran Mile 2 in 9:35 and Mile 3 in 9:12! I was weary about going out too quickly and wearing out fast, but to be honest it really felt like I was running a steady, moderate pace without pushing too hard.
Don’t you just love races when you’re feeling like that?
And here’s a slideshow of some other in-park highlights:
Running through the castle and then down Main Street (instead of the usual opposite direction) was pretty neat, but as we exited Main Street and made our way through the bus parking area and onto Harbor, you came to the sad realization that your time in the parks was over. The rest of the race (save for a return to the backstage area and finishing at the Disneyland Hotel) was to take place out and about in the streets of Anaheim. Actually, it’s not all that sad a realization. Once onto the streets, there was plenty of running room — less crowding meant getting your A-Game on was gonna be a whole lot easier. Plus, once I hit mile 3 on Harbor (outside the parks), we were in the midst of a stunning sunrise on a cool, breezy, beautiful morning. My 5K split was 30:42, which (for me) was a strong opener to a Half Marathon. I just wanted to make sure I was able to maintain that pace throughout.
Right about now starts the portion of the race that I’d just love to call…
Here’s Where The Fun Begins
Daybreak was dawning but it was still pretty dark out as I passed Katella, heading southbound on Harbor. I ran Mile 4 in 9:33, still feeling solid and exceedingly energetic. My left foot had no issues whatsoever; whatever was bothering me for the previous two days had dissipated. The KT tape was definitely doing its job.
So things are going well.
Then I notice that the breeze had started to pick up. A lot. I mean, a LOT, a lot.
The palm trees lining Harbor were swaying heavily in the wind… so much so, that it looked like clouds of pollen were being tossed about in front of me. And as I ran into these swirling clouds, I realized something pretty darn quickly.
It wasn’t pollen. It was dust. Sand, even. Scratchy, swirling sand.
A brand-new concept was introduced to the Hokeyblog Staff (meaning me): The Santa Ana Winds. Rather suddenly, huge gusts of wind battered anyone and everyone out there, covering them with dirt, dust, and sand. According to the L.A. Times, gusts reached up to velocities of 60 mph. Insanity.
Back to Harbor Boulevard: as I ran into this whirlwind, I immediately reached up above my Halo Band and preemptively slid on my running sunglasses. It was a bit darker than normal to put them on, but this was strictly a preventative measure to keep all that minuscule swirling swill out of my eyes. Thankfully, my eyes were kept mostly safe, but I saw plenty of runners out there without any protective eye-ware whatsoever. They either had to stop running, slow to a walk, or try to run with one arm over their eyes, anything to keep the dust out. Several crafty Captain Americas used their prop shields as a defensive buffer mechanism. Now that’s good ol’ American ingenuity at its finest!
While these winds were blowing pretty strong, they were still originating from the east so they didn’t affect my running pace all that much. I did seem to notice, though, that while my Garmin chirped off that I had reached four miles, there was no mile marker sign to be found anywhere. Later on I found out why: it had been blown down. Yeesh. Anyway, as the course turned to the est onto Chapman, it really hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks: the Santa Ana Winds were really blowing strong… and now I was running headfirst right into them.
Right then it was a definite challenge, but not too difficult a challenge. I viewed running into strong winds like running up a bridge or a hill; you shorten your stride, lean into it, and keep moving. I give all the credit in the world to the marching bands, cheerleaders, hydration station staff, and other volunteers. It was a cold, extremely windy morning but they stayed the course. Kudos, ladies and gents.
At mile 5 we turned into the Crystal Cathedral property, taking us through their parking lot, past more bands and hydration stations. It made for a really nice respite from the winds, and a course photographer managed to capture this particularly buttkickin’ photo which I’ll share with you now:
On a mission from God!
“Remember kids: there’s always money in the banana stand!”
Leaving the cathedral, we turned southbound onto Lewis St. for under a mile. The wind was still ever-present, but less so as we were, at least for right then, not running into it. My pace was still maintaining: Miles 5 and 6 were completed in 9:37 and 9:31. Maintaining pace meant expending more energy, and while I wasn’t feeling it much, I knew that I had to consider dropping it down a spell or risk burning out by the last 5K. I turned east on Garden Grove and hit the 10K mark at 59:30, meaning I had managed to increase pace somehow. Zowie. I started entertaining notions of potentially PR’ing, which I immediately poo-pooed. That’s the last thing you want to start thinking about during a race. Run your best, deal with the results later. That’s one to grow on, folks.
Unfortunately, this was right about when the Santa Ana Winds were kicking it into high gear, as we were now running headfirst into them again. I almost felt my earbuds being yanked from my ears and my bib ripped from my shirt. At one point the gusts were so strong I could feel myself being buffeted to my right side, almost colliding with another runner. Yikes. Probably the scariest thing I saw was at a hydration station, where an entire table of water was upended, sending cups and water all over the course! A little freaky, to be sure. But the show went on, winds or no winds.
Mile 7 brought us to the Santa Ana Trail, or what was commonly referred to as…
The Most Challenging Portion of the Race
While the trail started around Mile 7 and took us on a 1.5-mile, somewhat north-north-eastern path down towards Angels Stadium, the winds continued to pound us. I found myself dodging an actual tumbleweed that was bouncing down the trail. A tumbleweed! I thought those things only existed in Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Madness. The trail, while entirely paved, was not particularly wide, which resulted in a few bottlenecks and some rather testy runners. Wind and dust and sand was everywhere, making visibility problematic to many.
Making up for these minor frustrations was a long stretch of Cosplayers, selected by Run Disney to cheer on the runners about halfway down the trail. And MAN were they something else. I saw plenty of Deadpools, Spider-Mans, X-Men, Avengers, She-Hulks, Guardians of the Galaxy, and tons of other Marvel characters in some really great costumes. Kudos to whomever stationed Black Widow, Dark Phoenix, and Scarlet Witch together. Who doesn’t love a trio of curvaceous readheads cheering you on? I almost had to stop for a photo op. ALMOST. But I kept going, albeit at a slower pace. Mile 7 took 9:49, with Mile 8 at 9:45.
Mile 9 was probably the toughest mile of the race, which was reflected in my pace of 10:11. The trail went under four different roads, meaning steep drops and sharp inclines back up, along with strong winds and a narrow course. By the time the trail ended and we found ourselves in Angels Stadium parking lot, the wind was blowing extremely strong. You could almost see the whirlwinds of dust and dirt approaching you, and had to protect yourself accordingly. Still, I kept moving, but this picture from that area pretty much says it all:
Check out that dude’s hair… and that haze is pure sand and dust!
But things were picking up! Soon we were right back in the warm, welcoming arms of Angels Stadium. While the seats were mostly empty, there was still a ton of excitement with a wild, madcap announcer cheering us on, marching bands, cheerleaders, a video feed of us runners on the Jumbotron, and of course the thrill of running through a Major League baseball stadium. This was my fourth time running through the stadium, and I still loved every single second of it. Plus, when we finally exited the stadium onto Gene Autry Way, the worst of the winds were gone. Even better, whatever winds that remained were at our back. You don’t have to be Vasco de Gama to figure out what that means — TAILWINDS! Now you’re getting a running boost! How much of a boost are we talking here? I did Mile 10 in 9:33 and Mile 11 at 9:17! I was picking up steam, and while the tailwinds helped during Mile 10, my Mile 11 boost came from a good combination of energy management, hydration, fueling, killer weather, and being smiled on by whatever deities of whichever pantheon decide to smile on runners.
Probably the most heartfelt moment of the race was on Gene Autry Way, as we passed the armed service veterans cheering us on at around the 9.5 mile mark. They were of all ages, most of whom were dressed in vintage military uniforms from all branches. It almost seems a little silly for, as an example, a senior citizen who served this country in Korea to be standing out there, in the wind and cold, at the buttcrack of dawn, clapping and cheering for runners at a Disney race. I should be there cheering all of THEM on. I thanked as many as I could for their service to this country. And yes, my eye was definitely captured by the group of comely women in vintage WAC attire. I think I was born in the wrong era…
. . . gosh!
*ahem* BACK TO THE RACE!
Miles 10 and 11 took us down Gene Autry, then looping around until we were northbound, adjacent to I-5, and then west onto Disney Way. I hit the 15K split at 1:30:49, and once again my mind started whirling with obsessive calculations. 15K meant 9.3 miles, which also meant a mere 3.8 to go. I had no delusions about hitting some massive second wind — pardon the phrase — in the last 5K+ of the race that would lead to a PR. I wasn’t exactly known for having racing afterburners. But I knew I could remain steady and strong and, with some grit and determination, come in at a time less than 2:10, which would be my 3rd fastest time ever, and only a few minutes off my PR.
So I dug in and kept running. I stuck to my intervals like glue. And you know what? The strangest thing happened.
I hit some massive second wind and activated my racing afterburners.
I can’t explain what happened; it wasn’t like I was trying to run faster. But Mile 11 took me 9:17 which, up to that point, was my 2nd fastest mile of the race. Mile 12 was a bit slower at 9:47, but by the time I was back at the Backstage Area behind DCA, I realized that not only was I finally at…
The Last Mile!
… but I was now just eleven minutes away from my PR, with only 1.1 miles to go. There was absolute no turning back now. I had to go for a PR! It would have been unforgivable to not even try. I did away with intervals and resolved to run the rest of the race straight through, giving it as much as I could without killing myself. I tore into the race with gusto, as Judas Priest’s Diamonds and Rust burst onto my earbuds and I forced my body to move in a strong, steady cadence.
As I made the loop around the Paradise Pier hotel and hit the Mile 13 sign I instinctively checked my watch. It was sitting pretty at around 2:05. My PR was 2:07:03. To quote Phil Rizzuto: “Holy cow, I think he’s gonna make it!”
And as this happened I spotted the great Lou Mongello of WDW Radio in the crowd! I gave him a quick point and shout out, which Boots managed to capture with this pic:
“Hey Lou! Call me!”
Whatever that pose I was doing, I haven’t the slightest. Enter Boots who managed to make this “amazingly hilarious” collage out of it:
Anyway, with that I tore down that last 0.1 mile stretch with everything I had, but I already knew that I had it in the bag. IN THE BAG! I WAS ABOUT TO PR! Listen, there’s nothing like making your way down that last stretch of raceway knowing that you not only are about to Finish, but you are about to finish with your best time ever. That’s a feeling of elation and victory that I can scarcely put into words. It feels like… you know what it feels like? It’s that sensation you got as a kid when you work up on the first morning of winter vacation from school and it was a Saturday and all the most awesome cartoons in the world were beckoning you… GOOD ones, too. Sigh.
I was so elated that I forgot to listen and see if Rudy and Carissa bothered to call out my name. THAT’S how high I was then.
I crossed the Finish Line and achieved a brand new PR. My official time was 2:06:04, fifty-nine seconds faster than my previous record.
AND on top of everything else, this dyed-in-the-wool DC Comics fan not only managed to PR at a Marvel race, but as Superman he finished with both Batman AND The Flash!
Bill Finger, Julius Schwartz, and Mort Weisenger would be proud, dudes.
To claim that I was unbelievably excited and elated and proud and happy would be an exercise in restraint. This isn’t false modesty or generalized Aw-Shucks’ism of a most disingenuous sort. When I started this race I had no expectations or notions of setting any kinds of personal records. I just wanted to run and enjoy the race. When the Winds came smashing into us, I disregarded any PR thoughts and just wanted to have fun and make a decent time. It wasn’t until Mile 12 when I realized a PR was very much possible, and then it was just pure will and excitement that pushed me through to the Finish Line. I ran that last mile at a pace of 8:45. Listen, I’m not a fast runner by any means, so for me to sub-9 on the last mile is not from raw ability. That’s excitement, adrenaline, and determination. And maybe just some kind of superhero magic? Or would that be Power Cosmic? Whatever. I was just over the moon.
Let’s take a look at what I’ve always loved to call
The Quantitative Analysis
I know looking at the numbers is a pointless exercise. Everyone runs their own race, PERIOD. Especially at a Run Disney race, where most runners are slowing down to enjoy the experience, stopping for pictures, taking it easy, and having fun. But I just PR’ed so allow me the indulgence of strutting my stuff for a little! Overall, I placed 1020 out of 10449 (top 9.7% of runners). For Men, I ranked 711 out of 4042 (top 17.6%). And for my brothers in the Men 40-44 division, I ranked 136 out of 640 (top 21.3%). Again, these statistics are pretty meaningless, but I’ll trumpet them anyhow
After grabbing my awesome new spinning Avengers medal, a Powerade, and the omnipresent Run Disney snack box, I fielded a host of congratulatory text and Facebook messages as I made my way over to where Boots was snapping pictures. She was situated near the “Big Freakin Hat” next to the Disneyland Hotel, and we hung out for awhile watching runners coming in, appreciating the various costumes, cheering for our buddies, and trying to avoid what felt like hypothermia now that my body temperature was cooling off and the sweat on my body was giving me a bit of a chill. We walked over to the coffee shop at the Disneyland hotel and grabbed some hot coffee and muffins, sat down on some outside couches (but out of the wind), and enjoyed our repast before making the trek back to the hotel for a stretch, shower, and some light relaxation before heading out to grab some much needed lunch at Tortilla Jo’s.
So In Conclusion…
So I think I might have enjoyed this experience just a wee bit…
I mean, yes, hitting a PR is epic awesomesauce and all that great stuff, but even if I hadn’t, I still absolutely loved the 2014 Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon. Was it a perfect race? No, but no race is. Almost everything about this Half was great. The superhero theming was awesome and colorful, the crowd levels were extremely manageable (provided you were in a reasonably competitive corral), the photo ops and in-park experiences were great fun, although EXTREMELY short in comparison with other Disney races. They may want to consider altering the course to have a bit more time in and around Disney property. That said, it was a new course that was much more scenic than the standard Disneyland Half course, while including the standard run down the Santa Ana Trail (albeit from the other direction) and through Angels Stadium. But then you had the row of Cosplayers as well as the Veterans to keep you going strong. What’s not to love about this race?
Oh yes, and one parting admonition to the Santa Ana Winds: you blew as hard as you could, and you STILL couldn’t slow this kid down. Suck on THAT. Here’s the video: