Walt Disney World Marathon 2024:
Marathon # 107
Date:January 07, 2024
“Every mile is magic”. That’s what they say at Run Disney. So I say the words out loud hoping my legs would hear them. It’s 5.30am and I’m lining up with 12 000 other participants at the start of the Walt Disney World Marathon. It also happens to be my fourth start line in four days having entered the Dopey Challenge. The Dopey Challenge consists of a 5km, 10km, half marathon, and marathon on consecutive days so all the 3.45am wake ups is starting to take its toll. Not to mention the ‘active recovery’ of up to 15 000 steps/day whilst enjoying the Disney World theme parks in between runs. “Every mile is magic”, I sigh. Just then, Mickey & Minnie Mouse enter the stage and the adults around me go berserk. If you thought you were too old for Disney, then think again. For the last four days I’ve been surrounded by ‘big kids’ dressed in their favourite costumes. I’ve seen Pluto, the Grinch, Captain Jack Sparrow, countless Mickey Mouse ears, purple Dopey hats, and more Disney princesses than I could ever imagine. I wonder whether some have spent more time on their costumes than they have on their training. And here I am, dressed in my usual ultra gear with my black jacket. I thought that maybe today people might take the marathon a bit more seriously. However, that was dashed when a gentleman with a big Goofy hat and long dangling Goofy ears shuffles in next to me wearing a Goofy’s Race & a Half Challenge t-shirt (a challenge that involves running a half marathon and marathon on consecutive days). It’s a completely different atmosphere to usual races as I catch the grove with others and try to loosen my stiff body to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’. The music then stops and we listen to a Barbershop rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ with perfectly timed fireworks released at ‘the rocket’s red glare’ followed by another impressive fireworks display at the anthem’s end. The race officially started at 5.30am but as we were in Wave C, it took another 45 minutes before we actually crossed the start line. When it was our wave’s turn, we were given a “3, 2, 1, Go!” and as more fireworks lit up the morning sky, we were off!
It’s a dark and coolish Florida winter morning and I’m surrounded by so many people! Like in the 3 days prior, I’m running with my wife Courtney. Our kids joined us for the 5km run but weren’t quite Dopey enough to join us for the longer distances. We run out of Epcot Theme Park to lots of noise and so much energy! If you don’t like exercising and prefer being distracted whilst exercising, then this is the perfect race for you! Within a couple of kilometres, runners start peeling off to take a photo with Doug and Kevin from Up. Further ahead, there’s a huge line of people waiting to take a photo. Not keen to stop this early on in run, we keep running until we reach the front of the cue revealing that the culprit is Stitch dressed as Elvis. Every few kilometres there is Disney theme music pumping from speakers and Disney movies playing on big screens. In the last three days, I’ve seen so many Disney characters out on course – Micky & Minnie, Goofy, Snow White, Dopey, Peter Pan, the Mad Hatter, Chip & Dale, Cinderella, Clarabelle Cow, Mary Poppins, Pinocchio, Thumper, Jiminy Cricket, Donald & Daisy Duck, Hercules, The Incredibles, Robin Hood, Merlin, Aladdin, Marie from The Aristocats, Baloo from The Jungle Book, Kerchak from Tarzan, and Flik from A Bug’s Life, and many more. Courtney and I never stopped for character photos mid run as we had our fair share of character photos with the kids whilst in the theme parks. However, that didn’t stop hundreds of people cueing up to take a photo with their childhood favourites. Some runners also took their costumes very seriously and I can remember passing a Cinderella who cried out “It’s hard to run with one shoe!” Even a toilet stop had music (‘Let’s Get Together’ from The Parent Trap movie) playing in the background. A participant who was aiming to complete the marathon carrying a large USA flag said “If you’re aiming for a PR (Personal Record), then you’re doing it wrong and probably shouldn’t be doing Disney”. He was spot on! The Disney World Marathon Weekend is all about having fun whilst keeping active!
Courtney and I reach Magic Kingdom Theme Park just after 8 miles (13km). Thankfully, it still feels like I’ve got some magic in my legs! Micky & Minnie Mouse (dressed in their finest attire) wave down at us as we enter Magic Kingdom. When we get inside, Main Street USA is absolutely pumping! It was like a supercharged street party with a blur of supporters cheering and waving. If your legs were tiring, then surely this electrifying atmosphere would have kick started them again! As we veer off Main Street, we pass some of the more iconic theme rides in Magic Kingdom – Space Mountain, Tomorrowland Speedway, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel. We eventually run through Cinderella Castle which is beautifully lit up in purple and blue hues. There’s a bit of jostling between participants for that perfect photo of them with the castle in the background and Courtney tries her darndest to nail it! We then head out via Liberty Square, through Frontierland past the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and then exit the park through Adventureland. Wow, that was a lot of stimulation (and potentially my limit for a run)!
Fresh out of Magic Kingdom, the next theme park is Disney’s Animal Kingdom which is about 5 miles (8km) away. The next section of the course (16-24km) is like the honeymoon period of the Walt Disney World Marathon. You’re still buzzing from the Magic Kingdom and feel rejuvenated. You’ve got a few kilometres under your belt, your legs are still fresh, and you’re almost halfway. You’re feeding off everyone’s positive energy and you’re wondering where Disney has been your whole life. In fact, it even begins to rain but you’re not going to let the weather rain on your parade. For the first time, you see participants ahead of you (still looking relatively fresh) coming back from Animal Kingdom and there’s cheering and high fives for Africa. When we arrive at Animal Kingdom, we run past the iconic Tree of Life (a spectacular 45 metre artificial tree in the centre of the park) and head through ‘Asia’ towards ‘Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain’. Expedition Everest is an adrenaline pumping roller coaster with speeds of up to 80km/hour and is themed around a Yeti protecting the Forbidden Mountain next to Mount Everest. We’d been running for 24km and I could feel that my gait was becoming less fluid. It was also around 9am so the theme park was open – Open to rides. “Runners through the Lightning Lane if you’d like a ride” an event marshal shouted. “Do you want to go on Everest?” Courtney asked me. Thinking my legs could do with a bit of a break, I responded “Sure” and veered left without hesitation. To the looks of bewildered park visitors, a steady stream of runners moved through the Lightning Lane and to the front of the line within a couple of minutes. Before we knew it, Courtney and I were at the VERY FRONT of the roller coaster and ARRRGGGGHHHH! After 3 minutes of nerve trembling ascents, breath taking descents, heart pounding twists, and pulsating turns, the roller coaster finally came to an abrupt stop and we were directed (or rather spat out) back onto the marathon course. It’s hard to describe how I felt after Everest. I must confess, I’ve never done drugs in my life. But I reckon doing Expedition Everest whilst under the physiological strain of running a marathon is probably as close as I’ll ever get to the real thing. Jaded, lightheaded and stunned, I started jogging out of the park.
At some point, the magic starts to wear thin. At some point the balance between physiological strain and stimulation is upset. Joy vanishes. For most of us doing a marathon, it’s usually around 30km. For those doing the Dopey Challenge, you’d be lucky if you were still feeling fresh at 21km. In saying that, I reckon that a Disney run buys you at least 10 free kilometres such is all the excitement and stimulation. But at some point, a marathon ALWAYS gets hard. Disney or not. Hard began from Animal Kingdom onwards. There is this particularly challenging part of the marathon around Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park. The park is closed (as its winter season) so it’s completely empty. Your 19 miles (30km) in. And you’ve got to run around this huge vacant car park to make up the miles. When I get to the 30km mark of a marathon, I know this is the pointy end of the run. The business end. A time to go to work. Though it’s tough from 30km onwards, I love the challenge. On the road leading to Animal Kingdom, a particular quote on a sign caught my attention. The quote came from Walt Disney’s movie, Mulan and are words of wisdom to a young girl from the emperor of China. It read “The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful”. As hard as it is, how you approach the last 12km of a marathon defines you and is where all the ‘good stuff’ comes from. Though the magic may wear thin, it is always within you. Your job in the last 12km is to find it. It usually requires looking inwards. It usually involves digging deep. And it’s YOUR responsibility to find it. If your struggling, just channel the Seven Dwarfs and keep working. If it helps, starts singing Heigh-Ho.
It’s always a bit harder running a marathon when the distance markers are in miles rather than kilometres. When we reach Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we’d done 23 of 26 miles. Being able to work with small numbers (1 mile = 1.6km) meant that I could covert 3 miles to 4.8km. Anyone can run 5km. In fact, Millie (8 years old) and Poppi (5 years old) did it 3 days ago so why can’t I? Hollywood Studios is much busier than Animal Kingdom with many more park visitors. We run past the dreaded ‘Tower of Terror’ ride (not open to participants) but pose for a quick photo and move on. Sometimes the last 5km can feel like it goes on forever but there’s enough supporters holding signs to keep me engaged. The first sign is simple but powerful – ‘Believe’. Others I find entertaining – ‘The almost there mile’, ‘Toe nails are overrated’, ‘You need a therapist’, ‘If marathons were easy they’d be called your mum. If they were hard they’d be called your dad’. What?! Was that a kid holding up that sign? With experience you just get good at digging deep and Heigh-Hoing it. Or if you need more Disney inspiration, it’s time to stop mousin around, go to infinity and beyond, or just follow Elsa and “Let it go”. Holding a good pace, Courtney and I reach the Boardwalk near Epcot before passing all the countries that make up Epcot’s World Showcase. As we get closer to the heart of Epcot, the iconic “big ball” comes into view and we know that we’re near the end. We pass a choir singing “We are the Champions” before swinging round the final corner with a full view of the finish line ahead. Micky & Minnie Mouse are waving as all the runners approach and “Do You Believe in Magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful is playing in the background. Courtney and I cross the finish together and are given some Mickey Mouse finisher’s ears and our amazing finisher’s medals – A Mickey Mouse medal for the marathon, a Goofy medal for the half and full marathon double, and a Dopey medal for our 5km/10km/half/full marathon quartet. It makes you feel happy like an old time movie and you feel like a kid again. There really were magic in those miles! Running is medicine.
2024 Walt Disney World Dopey Challenge
5km – 50:14
10km – 1:03:57
Half marathon (modified to 7.1 miles due to weather) – 1:13:59
Marathon – 4:59:40
The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful