There’s some things I just knew I’d never do. I have no desire to bungee jump, base jump or sky dive, mountain climb or indeed climb anything involving crampons and oxygen tanks, and you couldn’t pay me to run with bulls, lions, tigers or swim with sharks. In that category, was visiting Disney World. Just the thought of Disney World would send waves of nausea my way; the crowds, the enclosed space, the artificiality. My running involves big skies, wide spaces, trails, beautiful century old cities, Paris Marathon, Alice Springs, around lakes in Tasmania, beaches in Western Australia, not theme park running.
So, January 2014, I find myself at Disney World, for not one but four running events, The Disney World Marathon Weekend Dopey Challenge. How did friend Iain convince me? It was an all-out assault; firstly past competitor’s glowing reviews, then pictures of the resort, emails with cheap pricing quotes, videos of fireworks starting the races, the Frozen soundtrack with runners achieving their goals whilst being high fived by princesses, and then the bling, and more bling, seven medals, daily photos of the race bling until I gave in.
It was an amazing event. I’d go back to Disney faster than you can say Jiminy Cricket.
Disney World Marathon is just one of the Run Disney races held in Disney World (Florida) and Disneyland (California). Disney World Marathon Weekend is held the beginning of January, in Orlando, Florida. Across the weekend there are four running events; 5k Family Fun Run, 10k, Half Marathon and Marathon. You can combine the Half and full marathon to register for Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge, or you can register for the ultimate Disney endurance event, all four races, called the Dopey Challenge.
We registered for the Dopey Challenge amidst great ribbing from family and friends, who already thought that just running a single marathon was dopey enough.
The weekend was really well organised. A running travel company, ‘Travelling Fit’ organised our accommodation in one of the Disney resorts and race entry package. Included airport transfers made getting to the accommodation easy and event buses from the resort to race starts made event mornings hassle free. The event expo was huge, yet easy to navigate, we received no less than seven technical race shirts, one for each event, plus Goofy and Dopey shirts. Gear check was fast, pre event information was clear and toilets were everywhere!
Let the races begin.
The Pluto 5k Family Fun Run was just that, very fun, very family oriented. The pace was very slow, with families out for a morning ramble through one of the theme parks. It was still dark, but lit well enough to see the Disney characters who’d come onto the course to meet and greet the runners and walkers. I loved zipping in and out of the crowd through the dawn’s half-light in what appeared to be Canada, China, France, Germany, Venice, Morocco. Later I realised it was, Disney’s Epcot International Showcase. When else can you run around 11 countries in one run, and a 5k run at that!
The next morning was a second early rise; 2:30am, for the 3:00am bus, to get to the event at the recommended time of 3:30am, to be in the starting corrals at 4:30am for the 5:30am start of Minnie’s 10k race. Minnie Mouse was our race starter. The music was loud, the competitors were excited. I started beside two pink flamingos, three Minnie Mouses, Woody and Buzz Lightyear and a number of princesses, all ages and abilities, all as colourful as the fireworks that accompanied the start of each corral. I was obviously grossly underprepared for the challenge, in terms of my costume. I was wearing running shorts, shoes and a singlet.
The Dopey Challenge consists of the four races on consecutive mornings. By the third day, the body was feeling good but sleep deprivation was definitely setting in. Even with a post-race nap on the two previous days, going to bed fairly early in the resort and having a slowish saunter around the theme parks during the day (which by the way I was loving), my running companions and I were exhausted.
Nevertheless, day 3 we boarded the bus pre-dawn for the 5:30am Half Marathon start. Donald Duck was the race starter. He had his running shoes on, but disappointingly for him he didn’t get to race because by the time he started my corral, which was the last, the winners were coming through the finish and poor old Donald had to race to high five them at the finish. My big hot tip for this event, is to register in an earlier corral, otherwise there’s a huge amount of waiting around. Cut off times in this event begin from when the first runner crosses the start, so if you plan to walk some of the event, the last couple of corrals can become a tad stressful.
The Half Marathon started with the typical Disney colour and spectacle of fireworks. The race was a fun run in every sense of the word. Characters greeted us, runners lined up to pose for official photos and selfies with all of the Disney favourites. Jack Sparrow and a full sized pirate ship met us at about the 10k mark, kites were flying all along the course, and spectators came out in force. Anticipation amongst the field was high as we headed down the tunnel into Magic Kingdom. Well it was as emotional as it can get running down Disney Main Street towards the surreally lit up magic Kingdom Castle, the street lined with the most enthusiastic spectators I’ve ever experienced. The moment was only eclipsed by running through the castle. I didn’t even know that running through a castle was on my bucket list.
The Marathon, day four. The body was still feeling good. We’d walked around the theme parks albeit very slowly, eaten fantastic recovery food provided at the end of each race, we’d napped, elevated legs at night, even ice bathed in the resort pool. I’d hunted and hunted for a Minnie Mouse costume but none could be found (my second hot tip, buy your costume before arriving at Disney). We’d lined up and had photos taken after each day’s events with every Disney character you could poke a camera lens at. We had three of the most spectacular medals I’d seen. It was hard to believe anything more could be added to the Disney experience.
At the last minute I found it, my costume, ears and a Minnie Mouse………… cooking apron. We started the marathon with 13 746 other runners. It was dark. Surreally, Jack Sparrow’s pirate ship appearing out of the darkness didn’t surprise me. We ran through Magic Kingdom, my friend Molly desperate for the bathroom. A Disney miracle occurred, as an event volunteer ushered us into secret Disney bathrooms through a broom closet?! We met Prince Charming, all of the princesses, Buzz and Woody for real. We ran on the Cars race track and past Mount Everest, as competitors hopped in roller coasters for a spin (no, not making that up). Marching bands and cheer leaders cheered us on, even a high school track team hurdled beside us.
If we had started in an earlier corral, we would have been fine. My friend Molly had had her training interrupted by a professional quilting project with a deadline. She decided to jog and walk the marathon. We got to the three quarters point, in a fatigued haze of not really knowing where we were due to the “miles” going by rather than familiar kilometres. It was then that we saw her. The race cut off girl, her name also Molly, carrying balloons, indicating if you fell behind her, you were out of the race. We had heard rumours that she was 20 minutes behind us, 10 minutes, 5 minutes. We entered a 400 metre stadium track on the course, 200 hundred metres behind us, Balloon Molly as we were now calling her also entered. It was then that I saw one of the most incredible marathon performances I’d ever seen. My friend Molly (who to be honestly doesn’t usually run) and all of the other ‘back of the packers’, lifted. The Dopey competitors after 4 days’ running, hobbling with their battered knees and achilles, fatigued from lack of sleep, gritting their teeth through tears, telling their inspirational stories, stayed ahead of Balloon Molly.
With 300 metres to the finish we passed the gospel choir, who’d just sung their own six hour marathon. We finished with the amazing ‘Back of the Packer’s’, each with their own story of goals achieved. We finished with the two flamingos, Santa Claus, and a fire fighter in full gear including an oxygen tank, all sprinting (well as much as you can sprint after four day’s racing culminating in a marathon) towards the finish. I even managed a few high skips which have made some priceless event photos with the Minnie Mouse apron falling off around my knees, as I danced to high five Micky on the finish line.
Would I do the event again? Yes! Would I recommend the event to others? Definitely! Would I have the goal to just finish, forget about times, take lots of photos, enjoy the spectacle and finish with friends in the back of the back? There’s no other way to approach a Disney race.
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