Race Review: 2012 Disneyland Half Marathon (9/2/2012)

Well I’m back from running the Disneyland Half Marathon, spending 5 nights in Southern California doing the whole tourist experience: sightseeing, sun-worshipping, marveling at the actual existence of mountains, eating way too much, staring down hyper-inflated security guys at House of Blues in Hollywood, plenty of funky alcoholic beverages, machaca!, crashing rooftop parties, recreating classic album covers, discovering wicked cool little stores in Burbank, saspirilla, studio tours, theme parks… I’m exhausted! Oh, and I ran 13.1 miles too.

Let’s begin our journey with my Endomondo tracking results, a satellite display of the half marathon route, based on the GPS from my cell phone:

(It doesn’t really say much, so if you’re so inclined click here for the official Disney course PDF)

Pre-Race: My alarm goes off promptly at 4:15 AM. The week of every race, I wake up at 6 AM starting about six days before, and then 5 AM the last two days before the race. The day before the race, I totally abstain from any and all caffeine, have a carb-friendly dinner around 5 PM that night, get back to the hotel (or home, if it’s local), lay out my clothes and gear for the next day, pop a Xanax around 7 PM, and by 8 I’m in bed. I didn’t deviate from this program one bit, and it worked. I was fast asleep by 9 and got a much-needed seven hours of sleep. Waking up early was no sweat… which for an insomniac is a miracle in and of itself.

So I woke up, ate my bagel and peanut butter, shaved (wanted to look remotely non-Sasquatchish for the pictures), got dressed in my usual gear, except for my new tech shirt with our Millheiser RULES!!! team logo. While they say never, ever, EVER run in new gear — and this is mostly true — I make an exception with the custom shirts we use for Disney runs. I’m totally used to the material. All good.

As far as gear, the only things I really need are three packs of GU energy gel, arm pouch for my cellphone (which acts as both a music player and GPS tracker), the aforementioned cellphone plus headphones, a bit of toilet paper in a ziploc (better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it), and based on some advice from Holly, the awesome girl who cuts my hair (brilliantly) and also does multiple triathlons like they’re no big thing, so as such becoming my racing/fitness svengali, I brought a few mentholated cough drops to clear up the breathing passageways. I also prepped a bottle of SPARK energy drink to take about 20 minutes before the run. With everything good to go, Boots, Ann, Shyla, and I — Team Millheiser RULES!!! — left the hotel around 4:45 AM and walked the roughly 10 minute route to the Start Line.

Showing off the Team Millheiser RULES!!! shirt near the Start Line.

The weather was simply perfect for a run. Cool, dry, and very pleasant. I couldn’t believe people were complaining about “humidity”. These were great running conditions. Yeah, 10 degrees cooler would have been even more perfect, but then so would ave been Giant Ice Cream Unicorns floating down from the heavens and handing everyone 57 Les Paul Goldtops and announcing that everyone had all their bills paid off for the next two decades. I hit the port-o-unit, as ritual before every race, did NOT drop my phone in the toilet this time, thank you very little, met back with Team MR!!!, downed my Spark energy drink, high-fived the gang, smooched Boots for luck, and made my way to my starting corral. I was in Corral B, which means I was in the second group to start running. That’s the earliest I’ve ever been in any race, which kinda gave me some extra mental boost (along with the adrenaline-boosted excitement that was already coursing through my veins). At that point I heard the race announcer introduce Lord of the Rings / Goonies star Sean Astin, who was also running that day. I never saw him, alas. 15 thousand people were there, plus spectators. It was a bit crowded.

The DJ and announcers kept the crowd level high, then came the National Anthem, and we were moments from taking off. At 5:45 promptly the wheelchair athletes took off, quickly followed by Corral A, and finally Corral B was jockeyed into position behind the start line. I popped my first GU gel, set up the Endomondo to start tracking me, set the music player to Metallica’s Master of Puppets, and at 5:52 I left the regular world in a twilight fog behind me as James Hetfield’s crushing riffage pushed me past the Start Line and I was off.  My 13.1 mile journey begun.

Mile 1

The first mile of ANY run is no effort at all, really. With that much excitement and so many people coming through the chute, there’s no way you’re going to be able to go all-out at race pace (nor should you), so you run at a reasonable pace without all that much room to maneuver. And that’s OK. I consider it the warmup mile anyhow. I don’t run it at warmup speeds, of course, but at a steady moderate pace. We headed south down Disneyland Drive, past the Grand Californian and Paradise Pier hotels (both Disney hotels). The palm trees that lined the drive were lit up beautifully, but nothing prepared me for the turn eastbound on Katella Avenue. The same style of palm trees surrounded us, lit up with strings of twinkling bulbs, but what took my breath away was the mountain range in the eastern horizon, with just a hint of sunlight peeking out from behind them. For a South Florida kid, this was freakin’ breathtaking. I only wish I could draw or paint. I’d love to be able to express this on a visual basis. Alas. A left turn on Harbor Boulevard took me to…

Miles 2 – 4

One down! I’m feeling strong and steady, my pace increased and my energy levels even higher than they were at the start line. A quick left turn takes us on to Disney Way and onto a perimeter road just South of the California Adventure park. We’re now on Disney property, and the employees are out, waving and cheering us on. Always a nice boost. We circle the underside of the property and, after about another mile, we enter Disney’s California Adventure park from the west. Daybreak is beginning and the park looks magnificent. Words cannot do justice to seeing all 160-feet of Mickey’s Fun Wheel shining in the glow of early morning light, with the World of Color fountains bubbling excitedly in front of it.

This is a NOT from the race, but imagine this view on a clear, cool dawn just as daylight is breaking. Yowza!

I only wish I took a picture, but I wanted to keep on going, so you’ll have to make do with that stock picture from above. Although it was getting hotter and I started to begin to really feel the run, nothing could have made me stop. Almost. Because the next thing I knew, I made a right hand turn down Route 66 and there I was, in Radiator Springs. I was in the brand new Cars Land area, and holy cow I literally felt like I had just entered the Cars movie set. Unbelievable production design and immersive detailing on the part of the Imagineers. I had to make myself stop and snap some pics.

“Oh, life could be a dream…
If I could take you up in paradise up above…”

I wanted to stop and soak it all in. Really. But I was barely two-and-a-quarter miles into my run! No time for love, Dr. Jones… buckling down I bid Radiator Springs a quaint goodbye and put my energy back into the race. Before I knew it I was out of DCA and in an esplande that connects DCA and Disneyland proper. I heard my name yelled out, and sure enough there were the excited members of Team Millheiser RULES!!! sitting at one of the tables at the La Brea Bakery. Boots had a little bit of difficulty finding me at first, but was able to get a few shots of me, including this one:

Passing the La Brea Bakery. No time to stop!

We crossed the esplanade, into a Disneyland backstage area, and then there we were, running North up Main Street USA. It was a beautifully serene image, even if the Disneyland castle is the size of a dollhouse in comparison to what we have in Orlando. I didn’t want to pound the pavement too hard; this was an experience I totally wanted to soak in, but I kept up my pace. We turned West into Frontierland, passing Mile 3, did a loop around Big Thunder Mountain, and then curved South through Fantasyland, finally going through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle itself. That’s always a bit of a money shot moment, but since the castle is so small the experience is over just as it’s begun. I make it a habit of stopping for a castle picture at Disney races, and this time was no exception. Thankfully the wait wasn’t too long, and I was able to grab this pic with an unbelievably cute Sleeping Beauty and good ol’ Prince Whoever. She said something blush-inducing like “Step up here, proud champion” and me being the softie I am, I ate it right up.

Aww see what a swell pair of kids.

After that it was a sharp turn East into Tomorrowland, circling the Matterhorn, making our way through Mickey’s Toontown, and then into the backstage area at the Northwestern edge of the park. This was were they seem to keep their many animals, and they spared no expense bringing out the Clydesdale horses and Billy goats. Adorable. Many people were stopping for pics with these proud animals. I don’t blame them but I kept going. Sadly we left the parks, turning North on Disneyland Drive as we reached…

Miles 5 – 8

One runner next to me turned to his friend and muttered, with a mix of sadness and humor, “Here’s where it gets a lot less fun…” Well look, let’s be real. After about two miles through Disneyland and DCA, with all the theming and music and characters and colorful fun and whatnot, running through the streets of Anaheim is bound to be, shall we say, a tad bit anticlimactic. Still, the run was fast, flat, and filled with spectators. The temperature was decisively hotter now. If the race started in the mid/upper 60s, it was now about 7 or 8 degrees warmer. Low/mid 70s. But there was low humidity and plenty of breeze, so I never felt the deleterious effects from the weather. The spectators were great: plenty of antique cars lining the course, blasting music, honking their horns, with their requisite antique car babes (of every age), popping gum, applying make-up, hair up 50s style… awesome! There were also hula dancers, Mexican dancers, high school bands and cheerleaders, and more. I’ve never high-fived so many people in my life. They seemed to thrive on it!

Otherwise, it was 4 miles running through city streets. Right around now I started to notice a few people standing bent over or sitting on the sides of the road, apparently overcome by the heat. While it was definitely not that hot out, this is what happens when you don’t properly hydrate regularly. That means alternating water and Powerade at each stop. Replenishing those electrolytes isn’t just a good idea, it’s common freakin’ sense and an absolute necessity. I saw tons of runners without hydration belts tear through water stations without stopping. For whatever reason; I guess they figure they’d get a better time if they didn’t stop or slow down to drink. Not smart. Nothing adds more time to your results than passing out in a ditch somewhere between miles 6 and 7. Sheesh.

Miles 9 – 12

Here’s where things start to get interesting. On the ninth mile we reach the Honda Center (home of the Anaheim Ducks). While we don’t run through the arena, we ran around it and soon found ourselves on running on the Santa Ana River Trail, a dirt road running parallel to the river. I’ve never run on trails before so this was somewhat new for me, but I was digging it. There was a great breeze and the crowd really seemed into it. Unfortunately a pair of jerkwad bikers were riding the trail against the crowd, and instead of realizing this was perhaps the WRONG day to choose that path and ride (or walk their bikes) on the sides instead, they actually tried to ride THROUGH the runners, against traffic. By the end they were forced to the sides, and responded with loud, obnoxious profanities directed at several runners. Stay classy, gentlemen.

As I hit the Mile 10, I was running under the Orange Freeway and right into the Angel Stadium parking lot. Soon after, we were running through the stadium itself, right out on the field. This was totally freakin’ magical. Half the stadium was filled with throngs of cheering people, mostly boy scouts and cheerleaders, but their enthusiasm was infectious. More than a few of them were cheering you by name (printed on the bibs), sticking their hands out for high-fives, which I gladly obliged. Being an old-school baseball nerd, this might have been my favorite moment of the run.

Although it doesn’t look it, the other half of the stadium was filled with cheering spectators!

We even had live video up on the stadium displays. Sweet 🙂

Alas, that had to end and we poured out back onto the street. I passed by the old First NLC office that was at the far end of the of stadium parking lot. I worked there for a few days in July of 2007, so it was kind of cool to see it again five years later as I ran by. Heading west on Gene Autry Way, we hit the 11th mile. At this point the run is now just a 5K, so I picked up my pace to finish the run at not-quite-my-5K-pace-but-close. The route took us parallel to I-5 for a bit, then underneath the highway and next thing I knew we were back heading West on Disney Way. I could see the Tower of Terror in the near-distance and knew it was getting close. Crossing Harbor Boulevard, we entered the backstage area of DCA, the same entrance we had used back after crossing Mile 2. As we did, a bright blue sign indicated to us that we were now entering…

The Last Mile!

I generally do 6:1 splits on longer distances. That’s six minutes of running, one minute of walking. It’s my derivation of the Galloway Method, and it generally works for me. He recommends no more than 4:1 splits, but I find that saps me of momentum. HOWEVER… on the last mile, I never stop. Not for water, not for walking, nothing. I go all out as much as I can. Your adrenaline levels are through the roof at the prospect of crossing the Finish Line soon, so I try to take advantage of it. Otherwise, there isn’t much to report here. I saw one young kid, maybe about 16 or so, sitting in the shade, bent over, being attended to by Disney employees. Poor kid look liked he had had it. He wanted to continue going; kudos to him for his determination. I hope he was able to walk the rest of it. There wasn’t much longer to go anyhow.

The route curved north and then we turned left at the Disney’s Paradise Pier hotel, running in the lot behind the hotel, then turning north along the path next to the Disneyland Hotel. This path was cool, shaded, and loaded with cheering spectators. This was it! As I rounded that final curve I could see the Finish Line in the distance and poured it on as much as I could.

The last turn before the Finish Line, which is close in sight.

I could see the banners, the characters, the clock time display, everything. All I had to do was finish strong and upright. Oh, and do two things:

1) High-five Donald…

Don’t leave me hangin’ brah!

and 2) Flash the usual GUN SHOW as I cross the Finish Line!!

A shared moment of awesomesauce. I’m at the lower right.

As usual there were a few happy n00bs who forgot to remember that you are not supposed to come to a DEAD STOP at the finish line, and I almost ran into a couple of them. I wasn’t the only one. I yelled out a firm but friendly, “Keep moving guys!” But I was too elated to get too fussy about it. I was done!

I walked over and was “knighted” by a kindly Disney volunteer, who placed the Disneyland Half Medal around my neck. But I wasn’t done. Since I ran the Walt Disney World Half Marathon back in January of this year, I was eligible for the Coast To Coast Medal as well. Hence the green wristband I was wearing throughout the run. I walked over to that line, they cut off my wristband and I was knighted again with my second medal. After a small wait I was able to get a Finisher photo showing off both:

Someone looks AWFULLY pleased with himself!

And that, as they say, was that… I met the rest of Team Millheiser RULES!!! at our pre-arranged spot, excitedly regaled them with Tales from the Course as I downed my chocolate milk (greatest post-marathon recovery drink ever made, don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise), did my stretches while my muscles were still warm and flexible, and we made our way back to the hotel. I was pretty beat and walking slow as molasses, but I was happy with my performance.

Speaking of my performance, so how did I do? Pretty well for me, I’d reckon. While I didn’t make a PR (Personal Record), I was only 40 seconds behind my best time. Which, given the pics I stopped to take, seems fairly reasonable to me. Here’s the stat rundown:

The Quantitative Analysis

Overall, I was in the top 24%. For Men, I was in the top 37%. For Men 40-44, one of the most competitive Divisions ever, thank YOU very much everyone with a midlife crisis, myself included, I was in the top 42%. I’m happy with the numbers. I had a fun time and a great run. Plus if you check out my splits, I did the first 5K in 33:17, the second in 33:05, and the third in 29:32. I managed my pacing and energy pretty well and was able to turn it on in the second half of the race.

Overall it was a fun run and a great experience. For those of you reading this and wondering if you could possibly do a Half Marathon, I guarantee you that YOU CAN. I used to play sports all the time growing up but I never considered myself ‘athletic’. In many ways, I still don’t. This is just an endurance test, something you can build up over time with perseverance and a plan. In January of 2011 I weighed almost 290 pounds and could barely walk up a flight of stairs. I was weak, anemic, with breathing difficulty at times and absolutely no energy. ZERO. Just start small and work your way up. Within a year, I ran my first Half. Now I’ve done five, and training for a Full in January.

A full. That would be like crossing the Finish Line of a Half and then… doing it all over again. Crikey!

I have got a lot of work to do…

Anyway, if you’re gonna do your first run, do it at Disney. It’s EXTREMELY accessible, walker-friendly, supportive and wildly fun. My next Disney run is actually 22 days from the day I’m typing this. Heading to Orlando to do the Tower of Terror 10-Mile night run. These things get addictive as hell… Machaca!!

Click here for a list of all my Disney Running reviews.

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