Looking Back: Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend

Today begins the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL.  The Dopey runners will be racing first to the expo today before beginning their four days of races.  With the 5K starting tomorrow followed by the 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon.  Each year I get emotional when this weekend approaches.  This race has been a very important part of my life and will always be special to me.

When I started running I was looking for a goal race and when I saw the date for the Disney Marathon I knew it would be perfect for me.  I was an undergrad and knew that the best race would be during the winter break allowing me to take an extended vacation to the race and not have to worry about quickly heading back to attend class.   That was beyond the fact that getting to run around Disney would be a great first race to complete.  It served as a great motivation during the training and will always be one of my favorite races.

Beyond Disney being my first marathon, it was also the race where I accompanied two of my best friends complete their first marathon.  In 2014 and 2015 I accompanied friends through the 26.2 miles as they completed their first race.  Being able to watch each of them through the struggle that each marathoner has made me realize how great an accomplishment completing the race is.  I have accomplished a lot of goals since I started running, but seeing each of them cross the finish line in Orlando was a unique accomplishment that I will always appreciate.

Lastly, and most importantly, this race was the backdrop for one of the most important events in my life.  After completing my first marathon in 2012 I made another commitment that would change my life, I proposed to Bride! I thought that there was no better way to signify an ending of one chapter in my life and starting a new one than completing my first marathon as the period of one chapter and proposing as the introduction to the next chapter.

During my training for Disney Marathon 2012 I grew so much and learned so much about myself.  It changed my life forever and I will always look fondly at the race, the environment, and the emotions at the finish line.

-Runner

Walt Disney World Marathon

I was so happy that I was able to come with Runner to this year’s Walt Disney World Marathon. Back in 2012 we got engaged after Runner completed his first marathon but I haven’t been back to the race since. Our racecation began with a Thursday night flight out of DCA. Runner and I scored a great deal on a non-stop to Tampa. Runner’s best friend Joey, picked us up and let us stay at his house both before and after the race. IMG_0121Since we were in town early, Friday was our designated theme park day. So many choices – Busch Gardens, Sea World, and Disney. Universal Studios was the winner because I had never been there and we went with our friend Sonia – a true Harry Potter fan.

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Krusty Burger!

Krusty Burger!

I was most excited about visiting Simpsons world! Growing up, my siblings and I would watch at least 2 episodes everyday. Mom would make us turn off the Itchy & Scratchy parts too, lol. There was a large area of the park with statues of all the characters, great for photo ops. There was a Moe’s Tavern where you could order a Duff beer and a Krusty Burger where we tried the signature treat. I was most disappointed that there was a Quik-e-mart but no squishees! There was also a Simpson’s ride which ended up being more fun than I expected. Harry Potter world was a blast. Done to the nines with so many products to buy – good thing we weren’t obsessed fans. Although, I was almost tempted to buy a wand which has special powers in certain locations in the park. To visit both Harry Potter areas and to take the Hogwarts Express we had to buy the park hopper pass which was extra $$ but we figured we better see it now or never. Butter beer was good!!!

IMG_0137 It was a chilly weekday, so we had no problems with lines. We left the park at a reasonable hour, so Runner wasn’t too worn out. That night we made it back to Tampa in time for Italian beef sandwiches with our friend Kie. The next morning, Saturday, we rented a car and headed back to Orlando. This time our destination was Walt Disney World. The expo was held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. Kudos to the plentiful and free parking.IMG_0143 While the expo wasn’t too exciting, I did get to make a poster to cheer with. We also tried a ton of Powerbar/Goo/ShotBlok samples. Shortly after that we found a hotel on Hotwire just outside of Disney’s main gate. Gotta love off-season hotel prices. We scored a great deal because we really didn’t care where we stayed, just the location. We have successfully used Hotwire this way for years. Highly recommended for those who travel on a budget. That evening we met up with our friend Kathleen for Runner’s ritual Chik-fil-a pre-race meal. We called it an early night and headed straight to bed – Runner was snoring by 8:30p. Now that is dedication!

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Stuck in traffic, but also a great view of the race!

My morning wake-up call was at 3:30am to drive Runner to the starting line. I returned promptly back to bed. The race actually stepped off at 5:30am. Was I there to cheer the runners on? No. While I feel bad that I wasn’t, the logistics of it just made it impossible. However, I did make it through traffic to the finish line (parking at Epcot was $17 ouch!).  After the race we had a satisfying lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings and returned to Downtown Disney for more shopping fun.

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That evening we drove back to Tampa for a dinner of steak and cheetos. No joke. Thanks Joey! That night we were also introduced to the local gem, Seffner Tiki Hut. Finally, on Monday, before getting dropped off at the airport, we had a delicious lunch at Hungry Harry’s BBQ. All you can eat for $11 best. decision. ever.

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The boys at the Seffner Tiki Hut

Race Recap: 2015 Walt Disney World Marathon

Disney EntranceDisney concludes my 2014 calendar.  I cannot look forward to the rest of 2014 until I look back and reflect on my concluding race of such a great year.  Next week I will not only look at my 2014 season as a whole, but I will also look forward to my 2015 adventures and goals. For now, please enjoy my recap of the 2015 Walt Disney World Marathon.

Race Organization: 20/20
There is no race that is organized as well as the Disney races. They have thought of everything that could come up during the expo, the race and the post-race and addressed each scenario.  Their staff and volunteers are always welcoming and happy even during what are a few long days since there are four consecutive days with early race starts.  They have entertainment throughout the race and work to help the runners complete the race as easily as possible.
The one ding against runDisney is that they are so big and complex that they cannot adapt very well to unexpected events.  When there was rain during the race the characters had to go inside instead of just being under cover to still allow the runners to enjoy the energy given by each character through the race.  Despite this one criticism out of all the races that I have ran, runDisney and the Walt Disney Marathon is the cream of the crop.

Expo: 12/20
For Disney being such a well put on and large running event Disney’s expo is lacking in size and attendance of the biggest and best companies and displays. The expo takes place in a great location, at the Jostens Center at the ESPN Wide World of Sports just across from where the packet pick up is.  The organization getting into the expo is quick and easy, especially compared to getting into the expos at the Chicago and New York City Marathons. Also, the Disney expo, more than any other, has more custom apparel and merchandise than any other race. If you want anything running related to be Disney themed, you can find it at this expo.  Be it t-shirts, running pants, jackets, headbands and even shoes it is available at the expo.  Unfortunately many other large running companies are not present at the expo.  Champion is the sponsor of the runDisney shirts and they seem to have a monopoly over all the other clothing companies including Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Asics.  No other large company has any presence at the expo also there are, for obvious reasons, no other races present to promote their upcoming events.  I understand that runDisney competes with any other race since they have races throughout the year but giving other races the opportunity to promote at their events is good for the running community as a whole and a better experience for the runners themselves. Although the race organization is top of its class, the runDisney expo is definitely not near the best I have ever attended.

In front of 'Spaceship Earth' before the big Race!

In front of ‘Spaceship Earth’ before the big Race!

Race Experience: 18/20
Even to non-runners, the idea of running through Disney parks, during which some are not even open yet sounds like a great opportunity.  This is the opportunity that every runner has during the Walt Disney Marathon.  Getting to run through the Magic Kingdom Castle before the park is open and right at dawn is a great experience that you can only get if you run in the race.  In every race you interact most with the volunteers that man the water stations throughout the long miles and often times after a few hours these volunteers understandably get tired and often will cheer just a little bit less but in Disney this is not the case.  Weather the volunteers and crowds are at mile 2 or 22 they cheer loudly and excitedly for every runner.  For anyone who has been to Disney they know that no matter how old you are you enjoy the parks and the atmosphere and running through the parks is no difference.  It always amazes me how much energy running into the parks gives every runner.  Even after 22 or 25 miles, when you enter those parks you quickly gain more energy and view the future miles as shorter than before.  The only failure that I found in Disney’s execution was one that probably hurt me more than other runners.  In the previous years they have served chocolate and fruit gummies just before mile 23, right as you enter MGM.  This year those gummies were not available and I feel that runDisney saw this as a cost cutting measure.  This treat helped take your mind off the fact that you still have a long 5K to go, and they also provided a refreshing flavor after a whole morning of GU, Powerade and Water.  I hope that Disney just forgot to order these and did not try to save a few pennies by removing them.  Besides that small change that I really didn’t like, Disney put on a world class race that is hard to beat anywhere in the country.

Post-Race: 14/20
Post-race is usually the best part of the day…because the race is over!  At the Disney marathon the post-race is a lot of fun for many reasons.  The first is that you are in the shadow of Spaceship Earth at Epcot and surrounded by the “Happiest Place on Earth”.  Secondly after the finish you are able to take many photos with more characters, backgrounds, friends and family that were waiting for you to finish.  This was mostly the case in 2015 as well, with a few drastic differences.   When I finished the race I saw that there were no nylar blankets available and the massage area seemed much smaller than last year, with a much longer line.  I was rushed through the drink area to the picture taking section where I tried to get a picture taken with a friend who was running Dopey but was told that only Dopey runners were allowed to go into that area and I was not allowed as just a marathon runner. Lastly, after I got my bag my friend wanted to wait in line to get her picture with Dopey but it started to rain and they had to take Dopey inside, leaving dozens waiting in line.  There was a good chance of rain the whole day and Disney should have been prepared to handle the rain. Disney made some big, and uncommon, mistakes during my post-race time and I am confident that these mistakes will not take place in the future if I were to run the race again.

Relaxing at Downtown Disney later that day!

Relaxing at Downtown Disney later that day!

Extras: 12/20
Disney, as mentioned above, customizes anything that you would want.  You could legitimately have a whole running wardrobe with just runDisney branded items.  The one thing that runDisney doesn’t do well is provide extra items, or allow other groups to have items, to runners during the expo for in preparation for the race.  Every branded item is tightly controlled by Disney and does not allow for some of the unique collector items that you can find at other races.  I hope that in the future runDisney will reach out and open up the abilities of companies to expand the runDisney brand with more new and unique products.

MY OVERALL EXPERIENCE: 76/100
The Walt Disney World Marathon is one of the best in the country.  Although some of the details of this year’s race were not to my liking, the most important aspects, the race experience and organization, are near perfect. While in Orlando for the race you get the opportunity to go to Disney, Universal Studios, the beach or any other activity that Orlando offers.  As you run around the parks you get to see Disney like very few people ever get too, and you really get a lot of energy from the surroundings, the crowds and the excitement.  I still believe that the Walt Disney World Marathon is the best marathon for any first time marathoner, and one of the most enjoyable for seasoned marathoners to participate in.

Top 3 Running Memories

In honor of National Running Day, I’d like to share my top 3 running memories:

1. Not only was the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2012 Runner’s first marathon, it was the same day we got engaged. After 26.2 miles to think about it, Runner popped the question as we walked by the Disney castle. His original plan was to do it at the finish line… but no dice! The fences kept me from running up to him, and by the time we reunited at the port-a-potties the timing was just not right. More on the marathon proposal here.

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2. My sister, the opera singer, was giving her senior recital the weekend of the Boston Marathon in 2013. Upon Runner’s request we stayed until Monday to watch the big race. We even dragged my Mom and brother with us to the expo! The whole city was buzzing, with energy for the race. We even tracked down the one bar that was serving the special Sam Adams marathon brew. On Monday, our hotel was out in the suburbs so we decided not to go all the way back into the city that morning. We watched the very first runners pass through at the infamous Heartbreak Hill in Newton, MA. The crowds were so positive and the weather was amazing. We headed out of town shortly, only to hear the horrible news about the bombings on our drive back to DC.

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3. The New York City Marathon in 2013 was a race of epic proportions.  Runner was entered in the race as a Guide with Achilles International. We had a great time checking out the expo – I even made a “big head” poster of Runner (as seen here). My friend Tanya and I waited patiently at mile 14 for Runner and Rick to come by. The race app kept us at ease because it gave real time updates on where Runner was. It was a blast cheering for anyone who had their name on their shirt.

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