After two days of early morning races and three days enjoying the parks, waking up for the Half Marathon was a bit of a struggle. Although there’s no denying the physical challenge of completing 48.6 miles in 4 days, many runners say that the hardest part is surviving the whole ordeal with so little sleep. On this trip, I fell asleep during Ellen’s Energy Adventure at least 5 times on 3 trips through the attraction, among other places, and a friend of mine even fell asleep standing up while in a queue. For yet another day, we were out the door and on the bus to the race before 4am.
The 13.1-mile Walt Disney World Half Marathon course begins on Epcot Center Drive, before heading north on World Drive through the Magic Kingdom toll plaza to the Transportation & Ticket Center. Heading around Seven Seas Lagoon, runners pass the Contemporary before entering the Magic Kingdom backstage. The course then heads up Main Street, through Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, passing through the castle, and continuing through Liberty Square and Frontierland. After taking a backstage road for a couple miles, runners pass by the Grand Floridian and Polynesian Village, returning down World Drive. After a series of overpasses near the Epcot parking lot, the course has an out-and-back through Future World to Showcase Plaza, and finishes in the parking lot.
While walking to the start line from the Epcot parking lot, we got to experience a special treat. We were walking down an unmemorable backstage road, when several people around us stopped and looked to the sky. After a quick moment of confusion, we saw a golden streak pass through the night sky, which was the SpaceX rocket being launched from Cape Canaveral. Although I’ve seen some photos of rocket launches from Walt Disney World (most memorably, shuttle launches which appeared directly behind the Mission:Space pavilion) this was my first time seeing one in person, and it was a really neat and unique way to start the morning.
The weather was warmer than the two previous races, but still much colder than I had anticipated when packing for the trip. After ditching my foil blanket moments before the start of the race, I quickly realized that it was still quite cold, even while running. A few hundred yards into the race I stopped and picked up a sweatshirt that another runner had discarded, which kept me warm for a few miles. I have no idea who previously wore it, but I’m grateful they left it where they did. There’s no dignity in distance running.
My strategy for the Half Marathon was to take it easy and enjoy the journey. I was surprised to see the character photo locations all had longer queues that usual – perhaps because other runners were also saving their legs for the next race – so I bypassed most of them. I was also disappointed to see that many of the same characters made appearances during each race. Although I don’t run with character photos as a priority, with so many people running multiple races it would be nice to see a little more variety from one day to the next.
This was my 5th time running this course, not including times I’ve run the Marathon which also uses a significant portion of the Half Marathon course, so it was kind of nice to just zone out and cruise through it. Knowing the course so well, it was interesting to notice the minor differences along the way, like the lack of construction walls around the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The 3 overpasses beginning at mile 10 are always a tough ending, but watching the sunrise over Spaceship Earth made it easy to see that there wasn’t much farther to go.
22,116 runners finished the Half Marathon, and I came in at 2:02:47. Luke Humphrey just barely edged out Mike Morgan, both from Lake Orion, MI, to win the men’s division in 1:08:56; both runners logged the same finish time. The women’s race was won by Megan Geothals of Rochester, MI in 1:16:25.
Sunday morning brought the weekend’s keystone event, with the Walt Disney World Marathon. For most visitors, park hopping through all four theme parks in a single day would be unthinkable using the transportation system, so doing that route on foot before lunch is no small task. The 48.6-mile 4-day Dopey Challenge’s halfway point is around mile 2 of the Marathon, so there was a lot riding on the final day. Touring the parks before the races is a double-edged sword, since runners get to enjoy fueling by snacking their way around the world, but it can be difficult to find food that you actually want to eat before a big race. Many months of preparation and planning, and days of wise eating and strategic running all came down to the final day.
The 26.2-mile course for the Walt Disney World Marathon is identical to the Half Marathon for about the first 8 miles, passing through the Transportation & Ticket Center and Magic Kingdom. After passing by the hotels, the course then takes runners on a lap around the Walt Disney World Speedway, before heading down Bear Island Road, a backstage road past the water treatment plant, to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Runners enter the park in Asia, pass by Expedition Everest, and exit through Dinoland for a lap around the parking lot. The course then progresses east on Osceola Parkway to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, where there are several miles of twists and turns through the facilities. The course then progresses through Osceola Parkway to World Drive, and into Disney’s Hollywood Studios. After passing through the costuming tunnel, Streets of America, and Hollywood Blvd, the course follows the path to the Boardwalk area, and into Epcot through the International Gateway. After a lap around World Showcase Lagoon and heading through Future World, runners exit the park for a big finish in the Epcot parking lot.
One of my favorite things about the Walt Disney World Marathon is that it seems comparatively easy for the distance. The course is spaced out so that every few miles there’s a landmark that you can mentally work toward. Instead of having hordes of cheering spectators for the entire distance, which can get monotonous after a few dozen miles, there is a lot of variety and things to look forward to. Additionally, after running the Half the day before, my legs always start off a little bit tired and sore, so I never quite “hit the wall” in the traditional sense. Rather than slowing down significantly in the second half, the physical challenge of the race is fairly consistent throughout.
In an unexpected twist, my Magic Band fell off when I bumped it against my fuel belt while I was on the Speedway. As I was stopping to pick it up, a family friend spotted me and we ran the next couple miles together, chatting along the way. It’s always fun to have somebody to talk to during a race, especially during the middle miles when you need a mental distraction. We were progressing at different paces, so we separated and continued to run our own race.
On the road into the Animal Kingdom, several of the Affection Section animals were on the course to support the runners. Assisted by their handlers, they were wearing race bibs with their names on them, and had blankets with animal-related puns and words of encouragement on them. This part of the course is always somewhat unexpected and completely unique in the marathon circuit, but it’s a lot of fun.
Shortly after exiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the race’s halfway point, I started to notice some discomfort in my Achilles. At first I thought it was just some chafing from my somewhat-new shoes, but I discovered after the race that it was a muscle issue. I had missed most of my long runs due to a busy work schedule in December, so I was hoping for the best, but bracing for the worst. With some ice and compression, I did the most I could to aide my recovery and prepare for the next week’s races.
One of my least favorite parts of the course is a relatively recent addition, the Wide World of Sports. Added in 2013 for the Marathon’s 20th year, this portion of the course winds through ball fields, the running track, and Champion Stadium. While it’s not unpleasant, it is very monotonous and one of Disney World’s least unique locales; it looks like any neighborhood park in the country. Additionally, the road into the complex is used for both inbound and outbound traffic, so runners see people who are 3 miles ahead (or behind) them. Seeing people on the return makes it even more difficult mentally, since it is difficult to gage exactly how far ahead of you they are, and how much longer you’ll be stuck in the course’s purgatory. Since this part of the course replaced mileage from an early pass through Epcot at the race’s start on the previous course, it seems like a downgrade in the overall experience.
Once in the Studios, I was excited that the race would give us an up-close look at the costuming tunnel from the former Studio Backlot Tour, and one final look at the park’s oversized hat icon. Despite running right past the hat, there’s a joke among many runners that they don’t remember ever seeing it, partly because of the course layout that skirts alongside it without really heading directly toward, and partly because of the mental fog from 24 miles of running. After passing it a final time, I was excited for things to come.
The path between the Studios and Epcot was packed with spectators, which is always a fun boost of energy toward the end of the race. This was then amplified upon entering Epcot, where there were some spectators in World Showcase, along with the lit torches and epic music blasting from the speakers. Making the “victory lap” around the lagoon is always one of my favorite parts of the race, and this year’s was a particularly fun experience.
20,048 runners completed the Marathon, and I finished the race in 4:20:51. 4,723 runners completed the 2-day Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge in its 10th year, and another 6,397 runners finished the 4-day Dopey Challenge. Fredison Costa of Piedade, Brazil won the Marathon in 2:18:06, marking the 11th consecutive year that the race has been won by a Brazilian runner. The women’s division was won by Giovanna Martins of Sao Paulo in 2:50:20.
After getting cleaned up after the race, we headed into the parks wearing our medals to celebrate. Marathon Weekend tends to bring runDisney’s fastest and “most serious” field of all of its races, so it was fun to see everybody let loose a little bit after several days of focusing on the races. But as all good things must come to an end, I left Walt Disney World on Monday evening to head home for a few quick days of work, before heading west for the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend at the Disneyland Resort the following weekend.
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.