Race Review: 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon (1/8/2017), or: “Sky blue flight on a cold wind to Valhalla…”

I’ve wanted to run a COLD marathon since like forever, man.

And by cold, I mean “Cold to someone who has lived in South Florida” for 90% of his existence, and the entirety of his formative years and most of his adult life. I want the Ice Age experience, and by that I mean something consistently under 50 degrees. Yeah I know. Perspectives…

Oh, I’ve run plenty of COOL marathons, certainly. The 2015 Publix A1A Ft. Lauderdale Marathon came close, starting in the upper 40s but warming up into the mid 60s by race end. The 2015 Lifetime Miami Marathon was wonderfully cool, staying in the 50s and low 60s throughout. Unseasonable heat waves followed me to Alaska and Chicago, resulting in warmer than usual (but still quite cool) temperatures.

And then there’s the sweltering Florida swill that pounded runners into submission at the 2014, 2015, and 2016 Space Coast Marathons, and the 2013 and 2016 Walt Disney World Marathons. Yikes.

All I ever wanted, as a South Florida Tropical Running Iguana, was a COLD marathon. A 26.2 mile mega-jaunt that required layers of protective warmth. We’re talking the whole regalia: gloves, hats, long sleeves, compression pants, Chap Stick, Hefty Bags, thick socks… everything. And on the morning of January 8th, 2017, 18 thousand runners got all that and more at the 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon.

Heat Miser and Millheiser almost rhyme, you know…

I wanted cold? I GOT cold. We’re talking, with wind chill factoring into the equation, a real feel of UPPER 20 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. In Central Florida. In January. Most righteous.

Of course, as they say, the Good Lord giveth and the Good Lord also retains a wistfully wacky sense of ironic muahaha!

Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Let’s start out story with a bit of pre-gaming we’d like to call:

THE RACE EXPO

Boots and I drove up to Walt Disney World on Friday night, arriving at our hotel at about 10:30 PM. Thank the Maker for mobile check-in and cellphone Bluetooth room keys. I wasn’t running any of the Run Disney “challenges”: no Dopeys (5K, 10K, Half, Full), no Goofys (Half, Full), none of that excess whatsoever. “Just” running the Full Marathon was plenty for me, thank you. Still, as Boots drove us up the Turnpike I monitored Facebook, Twitter, and all social media regarding Run Disney. Excessive doesn’t begin to describe the brouhaha erupting over Run Disney’s decision to cancel Saturday’s Half Marathon due to impending lightning storms scheduled to pound the area the following morning.

Er, not quite…

Run Disney made the right decision. I woke up early the next morning and could see lightning crashing all over Disney property from our hotel balcony. Run Disney made the best of the situation by offering Half participants the ability to run the Full the next day, take a refund (in the form of a Disney gift card), or transfer to a future Half. They could also return to the Expo to pick up the medal they would have received at the Finish Line that morning. A lot of runners did “unofficial” runs around Disney property that morning, at resorts, perimeter roads, trails, walkways, anywhere they could find.

I told my friends who were disappointed in not being to run the Half to go ahead and run the Full, and then simply tap out at the 13.1 mark. That way they could still queue up in a start corral, take advantage of the excitement of the entire race environment, cross the Start Line and run, go through the Magic Kingdom, and finish smack dab in the middle of Animal Kingdom. There they could ride Expedition Everest, grab a Safari Amber Ale, and hop a resort bus back to Epcot (or even their resort hotel). Win-win, as far as I was concerned.

Anyway, Boots and I headed over to the Expo around noon on Saturday. And it was PACKED. Beyond packed. It took us 30 minutes to get in and park, and nearly an hour to leave! The ESPN complex was packed to the gills with Half registrants looking to make good on their situation. I don’t blame them.

Walking into the complex we bumped into our buddies Kelly and Sean, which meant a prime photo opportunity, like this one:

Our next stop was the HP Field House to pick up my race bib. This was also the scene of a hilariously awkward moment, when I was recognized by fellow Best Damn Race ambassador Jessica, who thought I was trying to smell her ears when I went to kiss her hello on the cheek, and she froze like an icicle in terror! Oy vey iz mir! But we have since been able to recover from said incident with minimal emotional scarring. Into the Field House I went, where I was able to procure my bib, much to the quizzical entertainment of the race volunteer.

“Me? Running a marathon? Why that’s INSAAAAANE!”

 

We motored over to the Jostens Center, which housed the shirt pickup and race expo. Here is where you can find vendors, guest speakers, race merchandise, free samples, craft beers, Disney-branded New Balance running kicks, and other associated goodies and knickknacks. I grabbed my shirt but, in a first for me, skipped on buying any race merchandise whatsoever. The line was too long and the last things I needed were more worthless tchotchkes taking up space at home.

“LONG SLEEVES!! What a country…”

Well, I did spend SOME money; I bought an Oberon Ale at the craft beer stand. It was QUITE enjoyable, if you’re into flavorful wheat ales. Consider this a positive endorsement from your pal Hokeydude.

On the way out, we noticed that they had lines for Mickey, Pluto, Donald, Minnie, and Dopey, posing by their corresponding race banners. The lines weren’t even that long, either. It made for a nice bonus for runners attending the expo that day.

As I mentioned before, it took us nearly an hour to get out of the ESPN Zone. Yecch. Thankfully, we made it over to The Wave restaurant (in the Contemporary Hotel) to join our friends at the Mickey Milers meet-up. I’ve been a Miler since 2014 and it was great to reconnect with our fun group of buddies (or meet familiar Facebook faces for the first time). Plus of course more craft beers on tap. Good times!

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After the meetup, Boots, Rob, Jackie, and I traversed up to the 4th floor for dinner at the Contempo Cafe. This is a night-before marathon tradition for me, with good reason. The food is really good for “counter service” (I had the Grilled Cheese with braised beef and fries), there’s never a wait, and dining on the concourse level at the Contemporary Hotel is always fun as the Monorail whooshes over your head.

After bidding our friends adieu, we returned to our hotel, where I laid out Flat Matt and all my running gear.

I wasn’t taking any chances with the projected cold for the next day. My race get-up consisted of a wool cap, gloves, long-sleeve compression shirt, RUSH 2112 TECH RUNNING SHIRT, compression tights, running shorts, thick socks, and my semi-new (but thoroughly broken in) Saucony Guide 9 shoes. I was pumped to run! But that also meant popping a Xanax at 7:00 PM to ensure I’d be asleep by 8. I taped up my ankles with KT tape, covered my feet with socks, brushed my teeth, crawled into bed, and wrapped myself in the arms of Morpheus as I drifted off to sleep at about 8:30 PM…

… and promptly woke back up around 11:30 PM with gastrointestinal distress, after which I was up for the rest of the night. That’s right gang: THREE HOURS OF SLEEP BEFORE A MARATHON.

Ugh.

But let’s go right into…

RACE DAY!

I was certainly already wide awake and feeling pretty durned tired by the time my alarm went off at 3:00 AM, but race-day excitement coursed through my nervous system as I prepped for the marathon. I ate a bagel with peanut butter and a Clif bar for breakfast, downed a bottle of Powerade, and was quickly dressed and out the door by 3:45. But not before Boots took the usual hotel room pre-race pic:

“Dig me!”

The drive over to Epcot took no time at all. We were parked and out of the car by just after 4:00 AM. The temperature could be best described as TOTALLY. FREAKIN. ARCTIC. I wrapped myself up in my NYC Marathon poncho, which made things a lot more tolerable for me. Into the Staging Area we went, where we immediately saw our pals Matthew and Sarah, she of the inimitable Sparkly Runner blog, where I’ve been known to make an appearance from time to time.

The weather was so cold, many people elected to stay in their cars for as long humanly possible. The race started at 5:30 AM with the wheelchair and elite athletes. Depending on your corral, your wait might be upwards of an hour longer. I was in Corral F, which meant a start at 5:50 AM. I didn’t want to take any chances of missing my start, so that meant braving the elements as much as possible.

Still, I was able to pose for a pic with Miler pals Mike, Michelle, Bill, and Jennifer.

Afterward I had to surrender my poncho to Boots. If I could, I would have taken it with me to the corral to stay warm, but that meant losing it forever, and I love this thing. Nothing doing. So goodbye, beloved poncho.

And the less sissified pic:

I packed a Hefty bag with me, and poked holes in it for my head and arms. After sliding it on, I *really* missed my poncho. But it helped.

My stomach was still not behaving, which meant two trips to the porto potties that morning. I was hoping the distress from the night before wouldn’t carry over into the race. I took some Pepto earlier and again while heading over to my corral.

Speaking of which… talk about a long, cold, shivery walk. I was still thankful for being able to run a cold marathon for once, and I knew that once I started actually moving I’d be just fine (and I was), but those minutes standing around in a Hefty bag were definitely trying for this Tropical Iguana. I’m not saying I was about to drop into hibernation more than a few times, but man I think I came close.

Anyway, here’s my view from the corral:

The best shot of the Start Line I could muster with fumbling gloved fingers:

And here’s my Rockin-The-Hefty Selfie:

At 5:50 our corral crossed the Start Line. I plugged in my headphones, punched up my traditional Run Disney “Crossing the Start Line” tune (Metallica’s “Master Of Puppets”), clicked my Garmin, and hit the road. My 14th (and COLDEST) marathon had begun!

The 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon

OK. Here’s the race course, blablabla Google Maps, bleebleeblee Garmin 920XT:

The first six miles took us out of Epcot, turning north onto World Drive for the early morning run to and through the Magic Kingdom. Miles 6 through 12 wound its way past the Shades of Green, Grand Floridian, and Polynesian Village resorts down Floridian Way, then heading west and south down Bear Island Road through mostly untouched wilderness and the lovely sights (and smells) of the Waste Treatment Plant. Miles 12 through 18 start on an out-and-back stretch on Western Way, through the scenic Animal Kingdom park, and then leave you heading eastbound on the slightly “less scenic” Osceola Parkway. Your mental game will be put to the test between miles 18 and 23, as the winding paths of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Zone end up seeming a lot longer and less interesting than you remember, and the route exiting there to Disney’s Hollywood Studios is right around when most runners hit the wall of physical and mental exhaustion. BUT! Mile 23ish brings back the fun with a sojourn through Hollywood Studios, moving on to a serene path that takes you to the Crescent Lake resort area, passing the Boardwalk, Yacht, and Beach club resorts into Epcot, where the last mile takes you through World Showcase and right to the Finish Line in the Epcot parking lot.

As I mentioned earlier, once I started running I warmed up immediately. It was a cold morning, but an absolutely stunning one. I made a concerted effort to just run the race as best I could. I was coming off a slower December than usual; my hip tendonitis was on the mend, but as a result I ran about half of my usual monthly distance in December. My longest distance since the Space Coast Marathon, which was six weeks earlier, was 13.1 miles at the Best Damn Race Cape Coral Half Marathon. So I knew I wasn’t going to push for a PR, but I was hoping to best my Space Coast time (5:10). I mean after at all, I had PR’ed this course last year with 4:47. I was thinking just under 5:00 was very do-able.

I knew things were off when I had to stop for two bathroom breaks before mile 5. My stomach was, most assuredly, not behaving. I hit the Mile 5 strip in exactly 1 hour, meaning an average pace of 12:00 minutes/mile. Yeesh. Oh well. I decided to just run and enjoy the morning and not worry about finish time or pace or anything like that. While there were PLENTY of character stops, photo opportunities, video screens, props, vintage Disneyana, DJs, and all kinds of on-course entertainment, I persevered to just keep running and curtail stops to a bare minimum.

And besides, Mile 5 took us right into the first park of the day, The Magic Kingdom! This section of the race is probably the emotional highlight of the day (other than finishing, of course), and the most magical portion of the course. And boy did I get some photo coverage! Here I am running down Main Street:

Boots was waiting for me at the Hub, where she snapped this photo of me doing something bizarre:

What the…?

Then through Tomorrowland:

Into New Fantasyland:

Umm… hi?

And finally, my one and only non-bathroom stop of the day: posing in front of the castle, with full icicle lights in effect:

BAM! Money shot!

What a stunning morning in the Magic Kingdom. If I weren’t in a race, I’d have hung out just a bit longer.

The next stretch of the marathon is the roughly 7 miles between Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. Southbound on Floridian Way, I ran past the various resorts, adjacent to the Golf Courses (where I saw my good pal Beatrice cheering with members from the WDW Radio Running Team), until we turned on Bear Island Road. The Bear Island portion of the race is where I started feeling noticeably tired and more exhausted than normal. I adjusted my pace accordingly and tried to enjoy the run as best I could. Probably my favorite part of this part of the race was the photo-op with vintage Walt Disney World attraction memorabilia:

Pictured above are the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the Skyway cart, and the original ride vehicles from Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and the Astro Orbiters. I totally should have stopped and taken the time to talk to the Cast Member on-site. I love this sort of vintage Disney stuff.

The out-and-back on Western Way felt much longer than I remembered, but that’s because it was; this part of the course was lengthened to account for the shortened path through Hollywood Studios later in the race. Right around this point we passed Mile 12, and I hit a huge wave of exhaustion. The lack of sleep from the night before finally caught up with me; the ongoing stomach issues didn’t help either. I no longer felt ahead of the challenge, but rather struggling to keep up with it.

Entering Animal Kingdom, we passed the usual animals who were lined up to greet us. I don’t know if the colder weather had anything to do with it, but I only was able to spot a couple of donkeys as opposed to the usual diverse menagerie seen during the past few years. I missed my piggy buddy Emmy Lu, that’s for sure. Maybe next year.

Anyway, entering any park is always a mental boost, and now we were in Animal Kingdom! HUZZAH!!

The 13.1 mat, indicating the halfway point, was laid out before we reached Expedition Everest, and I saluted the mass of Half Marathon runners who had completed their race and were celebrating around the area. I made another bathroom break in the park (in-park clean bathrooms are another welcome perk of Disney runs), and then continued down the course, leaving Animal Kingdom and winding around the parking lot before exiting onto the Osceola Parkway roughly around Mile 15.

The Osceola Parkway portion of the race is not exactly the most beloved stretch of the course, but I don’t mind it at all. I dialed up my Disney Running playlist and kept moving along to shuffled tunes from Moana, Tangled, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and a host of other contemporary Disney songs. My pace was certainly slower now, but I was still moving steadily with my 4:1 marathon running intervals.

And let’s take a moment to talk about the nadir, the absolute low point of every Walt Disney World Marathon, that everyone has to endure one way or another…

The 4 Mile Stretch Through The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex

Yes I know. It’s long. It’s boring. It’s cramped. It’s twisted, winding, and never seems to end. The baseball diamond is underwhelming and the soft footing blows. The view of I-4 makes you want to kick a pigeon. On and on and on…

All I can say is to do what I do. MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH IT. Period. It’s the least fun, least inspiring, least enjoyable portion of the Marathon, and pushing through it is what makes you a stronger runner and even a better person. Hyperbole on the last part? Maybe. But all the whining and complaining in the world isn’t going to change a thing, so swallow that down and keep moving. At least there are clean bathrooms… which I used. Again.

I hit Mile 20 feeling somewhat reasonable, and left the ESPN complex at a slower and steady pace. But exhaustion and stomach woes finally did me in around Mile 21. I simply didn’t have an ounce of energy left. I felt completely drained and cramped, and knew I had to stop running and settle into as brisk a walk as I could muster. Was I disappointed? Assuredly. But I was OK with it. In fact, I was in pretty good spirits, considering how insane I usually get beating myself up over a sub-par race performance. I listened to music on my phone while I enjoyed a walk throughout Disney property on a simply magical-looking (and feeling) morning.

I even got to see my buddy Jessica on World Drive, which was definitely a spirit-lifter:

We reached Mile 23 at the entrance to Hollywood Studios. I was able to switch up to a run/walk interval of 2:2. Jog/walk is probably more like it, but hey at least I was moving faster in the last 5K of the race. The course through Hollywood Studios was certainly brief. We entered through Fantasmic, passed Twilight Zone Tower of Terror as we ran down Sunset Boulevard, and turned onto Hollywood Boulevard as we exited the park. There was maybe a third of a mile of park time, at best, and most of it backstage. To be expected, of course. There’s too much construction going on at the Studios to accommodate further running.

The remaining 2.5 miles were spent on the walkway connecting Hollywood Studios to the Crescent Lake area, past the Boardwalk, Yacht Club, and Beach Club resorts. I was slow but steady, maintaining my meager 2:2 intervals, but moving along at a respectable pace. I heard my name called out; my friend Emily was coming up behind me. Again, it’s always great to see a familiar, friendly face when you need it most. She went on to PR, because she’s cool that way.

Just before entering Epcot, I saw Beci Mahnken from MEI Travel and Lou Mongello from WDW Radio, and said hi to both of them. Coincidentally, I had listened to Lou’s 2016 in Review podcast (on which Beci had appeared) during my trek down Bear Island Road. Beci also dug my Rush 2112 race shirt. Good people, the both of them! I bade them both farewell, entering Epcot at the UK Pavilion and turning right towards France and the rest of World Showcase.

Boots was stationed just past Mile 25 and captured my entrance into the France pavilion:

After a quick smooch for luck, I began the Last Mile of the race in great spirits. I was slow and sore, but happy. I praised the beauty of Italian women as I passed Italy. I started chants of “USA! USA!” with flag wavers in America. I sang verses of “Schnitzelbank” through Germany. I scored an 800 on my Math SATs in China. And just before I could begin a Mexican Hat Dance in Mexico, I saw my buddies stationed at the Margarita Stand, and my beloved pal Dale handed me a beer to enjoy as I made my way to the Finish Line. Dale rules!

I’d had my beer. Funny how much faster I was running now.

Exiting backstage past Spaceship Earth, I found the gospel choir singing loudly and proudly at Mile 26, and I stopped to clap and dance along. I couldn’t have looked more embarrassing. And I didn’t even care. All that was left was a few turns and I’d be finishing my 14th marathon!

I made the turn into the Epcot parking lot area and could see and hear the excitement of the Finish Line!

“Stay on target!”

My pal Fitz Kohler had a hug station right before the finish line (check out her blog Fitzness, or even my profile there!), so I stopped to collect her welcoming embrace before finally crossing that line and completing my marathon!

My net time was 5:55, which was WAY OFF my Marathon times of late. A year ago I ran the same course in hotter, more humid conditions and PR’ed at 4:47. Heck, I ran 11 miles with a busted hamstring at the New York Marathon and finished with 5:21, and even did Space Coast later with that hip tendinitis and managed 5:10. But 5:55? I never expected that finish time. But no matter. It simply wasn’t my day to run fast and strong, or even remotely competitive. But I still had a GREAT time. You couldn’t ask for a better morning for a 26.2 mile on-foot tour of the Walt Disney World property!

I called Boots and told her to meet me at the Craft Beer stand. This made things fortuitous, as my pal Michelle just happened to be standing next to us (check out her blog Crazy Running Legs!) She’s also a Best Damn Race Ambassador, and I thankfully made no gestures that could be construed as ear-sniffing of any kind.

And finally, I was able to sit down and enjoy my post-race beer: yet another delicious Oberon Ale!

So another year, another race, another Run Disney experience… even if I ended up running a much different race than I was expecting, I still loved the 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon. A cold experience, to be sure, one that I had always wanted for a marathon. And yet I ran one my weakest races to date as part of it. There goes that sense of ironic humor the Good Lord doth enjoy. Hey, I’ll take it. It was a magnificent morning to be outdoors, to be running, to be fit, and to enjoy it all at Walt Disney World. Be careful what you wish for? Maybe. There’s still nothing wrong with getting it, even when ironically hand-delivered by the Gods. I’ll definitely be returning next year, that’s for goshdarn sure.

And finally, here’s the video, featuring some amazing Jethro Tull that you’ll never hear on the radio, because they’ll be playing “Aqualung” for the zillionth time this week: