The 22nd annual Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend presented by Cigna was held January 7-11, with kids races, a family fun 5K, and a timed 10K, half marathon, and marathon. With more than 84,000 participants, Marathon Weekend is runDisney’s flagship event. This year marked the 10th anniversary of Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge, in which runners complete the Half Marathon on Saturday and the Marathon on Sunday for a 2-day total of 39.3 miles. I completed the Dopey Challenge again, in its second year, which includes the 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, and Marathon on 4 consecutive days for a total of 48.6 miles.

Part of what makes Marathon Weekend so special is how it completely takes over everything for the weekend. In previous years, I have spotted my first runners on the Metro to the airport to catch the flight to Orlando, but I was surprised that I didn’t see any until I was checking in for my flight. I would guess that at least a third of the passengers on my flight were travelling for various Marathon Weekend races, including 2 other people who were wearing the same shirt as me, from last year’s Dopey Challenge. Even before getting anywhere near Walt Disney World, the energy was contagious.

After landing at the airport, I was picked up by a friend and we proceeded directly to the ESPN Wide World of Sports for the Expo and packet pickup. Due to a policy change, this was the first time in Walt Disney World that all runners were required to pick up their own packets; a friend or family member can no longer pick it up for you. To deal with the extra crowd flow, Disney used wider walkways than in previous years and moved some vendors to the baseball stadium, but the expo still felt especially crowded, since thousands of runners had to be processed in advance of Thursday’s 5K and Kids Races.

01_Expo

Also new this year, runners completing multi-race challenges had their photos taken at the Expo, and then verified after completing their final race, to ensure that no bib swapping occurred. While I appreciate the attempt to enforce the rules, it seemed kind of pointless since the photos weren’t verified after each day’s race, potentially allowing the earlier races to be completed by another runner. The old system, where runners were given a wristband upon completion of each race, seems a lot more fool-proof and had a faster processing time.

Despite arriving about an hour after the 4-day expo opened, I was dismayed to see that some of the official merchandise was already sold out, including some clothing that was only available in odd sizes. Considering that, unlike a normal shop that deals with walk-in traffic, runDisney knows exactly how many runners are registered and even has their shirt sizes on record, I find it troubling that they were selling out of select items so quickly. This is a fairly consistent trend for runDisney, and seems like something with an obvious solution.

My travelling group for the weekend included two friends who were doing Dopey along with me, and another friend who was “only” running the Marathon. The four of us walked the 5K with my parents, who also joined us in the parks each day. My brother and his wife also came out to cheer for the Half Marathon and Marathon, and joined us in the parks on Sunday.

After spending Wednesday afternoon and evening in the parks, we were up well before the sun on Thursday for the 5K’s 6:15am start. When checking the weather for this trip, I saw that it was expected to be chilly toward the beginning, but the actual temperature was much lower than expected, staying in the mid-30’s throughout the race. Wearing the only semi-warm running clothes I had packed, we headed to the Epcot parking lot staging area, where we found plenty of other runners who were equally unprepared for the cold.

02_5K Huddle

On the way to the start corrals, there was a bottleneck that slowed foot traffic down. Instead of pushing and shoving or growing impatient like a normal crowd, runners took this time to cozy up to strangers for warmth, creating a huddle reminiscent of emperor penguins. Runners are a special group of people, and there’s nothing too strange for them to do to make a race more comfortable.

The 5K course starts in the Epcot parking lot, follows a backstage road behind the park’s east side, emerging in World Showcase between Mexico and Norway. Runners then head clockwise around the lagoon, with a brief detour around International Gateway and the United Kingdom pavilion, before heading back toward Future World. In order to facilitate better pre-race logistics, the start line was moved from previous years’ race; to compensate for the lost distance, the course now gives runners additional time in the park, looping through Future World West before exiting the park near Spaceship Earth and heading to the finish line.

03_5K SSE

With the usual runDisney fanfare, the race began and we were on our way around the parking lot. A few minutes after starting, we encountered some fellow runners who appeared to have had a collision. After stopping to give some band aids to a boy, we continued on our way. The sun rose when we were about halfway through the course, which helped us warm up some, but it remained pretty chilly throughout the race.

In the past, the torches around World Showcase Lagoon have been lit during races, but this year they also turned on the white lights outlining the pavilions that are used during Illuminations. Additionally, the usual playlist of Disney pop tunes was replaced by a soaring mix of instrumental music that made us feel like we were in a climactic battle scene of an epic movie; while it’s a minor difference, it certainly added a new level of excitement on the course. After an otherwise uneventful race, we made it to the finish line in a leisurely 1:02:37.

04_10K Toll Plaza

Friday morning marked the 10K, with an even earlier start time at 5:30am. The temperature was slightly warmer than the previous day, but still colder than what had been forecasted and I was not dressed for the occasion. Since the race was based in Epcot, I recycled my Dreamfinder costume that I had created for the Avengers Half Marathon at Disneyland. The walk to the corrals had a minor slow spot, where I bumped into some other running friends of mine, but nothing like the previous day’s backup.

The 10K course begins in the Epcot parking lot, before heading west out of the toll plaza. After a U-turn onto Epcot Center Dr, runners head backstage and enter the park between Norway and China. They then proceed around World Showcase Lagoon, with a side trip through International Gateway around the Boardwalk area. After returning for a quick pass through Future World, the finish line is in the Epcot parking lot.

05_10K World Showcase

The course was particularly interesting this year, since it took us right next to the former Maelstrom ride, which is currently being reconfigured into a Frozen-themed attration. Despite having thousands of runners streaming past, all of the building’s backstage doors were open and the interior lights were on. I even saw a backhoe moving around through the door closest to the Norway/China onstage gate. While it is not surprising that they do construction work during nighttime hours to reduce impacts to park operations, I was surprised to see them working in such close proximity to the race.

The course also passed by Soarin’s backstage area, and we were treated to a first look at the construction for the yet-to-be-announced 3rd theater construction. Since it was still dark and the area wasn’t particularly well lit, it was hard to make out anything beyond the general site clearing and the construction trailer, but it’s clear that more is on its way.

06_10K Boardwalk

Since I was doing 4 consecutive races, my strategy for the 10K was to run at a comfortable pace, as if it were a normal shakeout run before a big race. Without a real time goal, I stopped for several character photos along the way and enjoyed the scenery. It was interesting to note how insignificant the “hills” in the Boardwalk area seemed during this race, since they would feel like overwhelming mountains at the end of the Marathon a few days later. I finished the 10K in 57:44, and headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up for another day in the parks. Tim Hendricks of Coronado, CA won the 10K with a time of 33:09; the women’s division was won by 16 year-old Samantha Hanson of Sterling Heights, MI in 38:03.

Although after 2 races it seemed like I was halfway through the Dopey Challenge, those 9.3 miles were less than 1/5 of the total race distance, and the earliest wake-up calls were still to come. Look out for more information in part 2 of this report!

 

Kevin has been visiting Disney parks his entire life, including multiple trips to all 11 worldwide theme parks and several years as a Disneyland local. He has been a distance runner since 2011, with over 300 Disney race miles under his belt. He currently lives in the Washington, DC area and continues to make regular visits to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

 

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