As we were leaving the parks to return to the hotel Friday evening for dinner and to rest up for the next morning’s Half Marathon, we discovered shocking news through social media: the next morning’s Half Marathon was canceled due to an incoming storm. Although races are occasionally delayed and/or modified due to weather (like Wine & Dine 2015), it’s very rare that they’re canceled outright — especially for a race of this size. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a runDisney event has been canceled; the day’s kids races were canceled as well.
The next morning, we awoke to some lingering thunder. I slept through the night, but my roommates said they heard a lot of noise around 3 a.m., when volunteers would have been setting up the course and runners would have been making their way to the staging area. Since the course would have taken runners between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom, around the Seven Seas Lagoon and along World Drive, the vast majority of the course was far from shelter and would have been dangerous in inclement weather. Disney clearly made the right decision here, and calling it in the evening allowed runners to spread the word early enough stay safe and save themselves the early wake-up.
In lieu of the race, runDisney offered runners several choices: a Disney gift card in the amount of the registration cost, deferral to another runDisney race in the next two years, two 1-day Parkhopper tickets, or for Half-only runners the option to upgrade to the Marathon the next day (with limited availability). Considering all the fine print during registration that clearly says no refunds will be given and how understanding (if disappointed) most runners were, these options seem very generous and were a clear effort of good faith by runDisney.
On our way to breakfast Saturday morning, we encountered dozens of runners making up the miles around the hotel. Had I known that the weather would clear by that time, I may have tried to get some miles in myself, but it just wasn’t worth the lost potential lost sleep to wake up early and decide from there. The biggest challenge for Dopey has always been the lack of sleep, so getting a full night’s rest in the middle of it was a blessing in disguise. It was really impressive to see the dedication of other runners, but it was also kind of nice to have a forced rest day in the middle of it all.
As we made our way to the parks that day, we saw even more runners all over Walt Disney World. Reports came in via social media of hundreds of runners making use of the New Balance Running Trails at the various hotels (including running between hotels), complete with spectators and Cast Members to encourage them along their way. In general, pedestrian connections aren’t Walt Disney World’s strong suit, so it was interesting to see how people made courses; the area between the Studios and Epcot seemed to be especially popular.
In addition to the cancellation of the Half Marathon, the storm brought another major change: a cold front. Temperatures were in the upper-60s when we left our hotel in the morning, but had dropped into the 40s by the afternoon. Although the day started out great for visiting the parks, we were unprepared for the evening temperatures and headed back to the hotel early to warm up and rest for the next day’s race. Coupled with the breezy conditions, the weather for the Marathon was suddenly very different than most people had anticipated.
The marathon course started on Epcot Center Drive before heading north on World Drive to the Transportation and Ticket Center and on to the Magic Kingdom. Runners entered the park on Main Street, passing through Tomorrowland and around the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train before heading through the castle and exiting the park through Frontierland. The course continued on Floridian Way, past the Grand Floridian and Polynesian Village hotels, turning on to Bear Island Road, the backstage road that passes Walt Disney World’s water treatment plant en route to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, with an out-and-back detour along Western Way. Runners entered the park near the Harambe Market, passing through Asia at the course’s halfway point, and exited the park through Dinoland before looping around the parking lot and on to Osceola Parkway. After mindlessly looping through the Wide World of Sports Complex, runners returned to Osceola Parkway, turned onto World Drive, and entered the Studios for a quick jaunt along Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, before running along the canal toward the Yacht & Beach Clubs. Entering Epcot through backstage near International Gateway, the course proceeded the long way around World Showcase and through the spine of Future World, finally reaching the finish line in the parking lot after 26.2 miles.
Marathon morning started out cold, with pre-dawn temperatures in the mid-30’s and frequent gusts of wind. When packing for the trip more than a week earlier, I knew cold temperatures were possible (ghost stories of the snow during Marathon Weekend 2010 are still told among runners), but I didn’t actually expect anything like this. Luckily, I had some extra space in my suitcase so I came prepared and was able to cobble together a suitably warm outfit with running tights, shorts, a t-shirt, sweatshirt, gloves, headband, and an old foil blanket that got discarded just before the start line to not interfere with the electronic timing system. Although I was planning to ditch it as soon as I warmed up, I ended up wearing my sweatshirt until after the Magic Kingdom, around mile 7. I kept the gloves on until I entered the Studios at mile 23, and never got quite warm enough to remove my headband. Once the sun came up, the temperatures were surprisingly comfortable for running, though it was still quite cold after crossing the finish line and standing still for a few minutes.
One of my favorite things about running Goofy and Dopey is that I don’t have to do much work to create a strategy for the Marathon: my legs are tired enough that I won’t start out too fast, leading to consistent pacing throughout. Without the long run the day before, I found myself going a little too fast early on, constantly having to remind myself to slow down and save something for later. The simplest advice I’ve gotten for the Marathon distance is to divide the race into thirds: run the first 10 miles a little slower than what feels right, run the second 10 miles at a comfortable speed, and give it everything you’ve got left for the final 10 kilometers. Although not true thirds, the final 10K is at least as strenuous as the 10-mile segments leading up to it.
True to form, I started out a little too fast, but quickly settled into a comfortable pace. In a normal year, the first 8-or-so miles of the Half Marathon and Marathon course are the same, which leads to some monotony, but because this was the first time running that route this year, I made sure to enjoy the scenery. A lot of the usual characters were out for photo stops, but I especially enjoyed the “extinct attractions museum”, made of ride vehicles from bygone favorites. Placed in the woods along Bear Island Road, it was a highlight in an otherwise uneventful part of the course. It was certainly more interesting than the literal steaming vats of human waste at the water treatment plant (which thankfully didn’t smell due to the cold weather)!
After passing through Animal Kingdom, I knew that there were countless boring miles ahead of me. Osceola Parkway isn’t especially scenic, and the miles going into and through the Wide World of Sports can be mind-numbing right around the time when most runners hit the wall. I used this time to focus on running and keeping a smart pace. We were treated to an up-close view of construction of two new interchanges along Osceola Parkway (at World Drive and Victory Way), which was relatively exciting to me as a transportation geek; I’m sure these will help reduce road congestion during races in future years. Disney also cleverly placed entertainers in the area to make it look like the construction was part of a dinosaur dig site and interacting with runners as they went by.
Another change this year was the switch to Galloway pace groups; instead of running the entire race at a constant pace to reach a time goal, they use a run/walk interval to achieve their goal. As an interval runner myself, I was concerned about this, since pace groups can often be difficult to get around on a narrow course, and interval runners are constantly maneuvering around other runners, despite keeping the same average pace. I ended up spending most of the race leap-frogging the 4:15 pace group (which varied in size from two to two-dozen people at various points), and it was surprisingly painless. However, when I was leaving the Wide World of Sports, I saw a massive pace group on the way in that was blocking the entire path, keeping anybody from passing. Like much of the race experience, it seems like your exact results will depend on your pace.
When we finally made it to the Studios around mile 23, I was still feeling strong and knew I could push the pace a little. I didn’t have a ton of energy left in my legs, but the abundance of spectators made the final miles easier. By the time I reached World Showcase, I tuned out my surroundings, and just focused on a strong and clear finish.
Fredison Costa of Orlando, FL (originally from Brazil), won the race for the 6th time in 7 years, finishing in 2:23:15; Giovanna Martins from Salto, Brazil won the women’s division in 2:48:05. Paralympian Brian Siemann from Savoy, IL won the men’s push rim wheelchair division in 2:03:24, and the women’s division was won by Arielle Rausin of Urbana, IL in 2:26:46. I finished in 4:13:04, which is my fastest time for the Walt Disney World Marathon. The marathon had 17,728 finishers overall, including 6,582 Dopey runners and another 1,950 Goofy-only runners. Despite the cancellation of the Half Marathon, challenge runners received all the medals they would have, had the race been run; Half Marathon-only runners were able to pick their medals up at the Expo if they wished.
When Disney announced that there was limited space for Half Marathoners to upgrade to the Marathon, I was worried that the course would suddenly be overcrowded with unprepared runners. However, I found the crowds to be quite manageable, and rarely found any bottlenecks after the first mile or so. The Marathon never sold out, so I have to assume that the Half Marathoners simply filled the spaces that were already accounted for in the course and corral planning. I noticed that the aid station just past the halfway point in the Animal Kingdom parking lot, seemed especially large, complete with an inflatable triage tent; presumably this was added for runners who hadn’t trained for the full distance and wanted to drop out after they completed 13.1 miles. Talking with some runners in the park who used this option, it sounded like most had previously run a marathon before, or at least a half marathon, and had a general idea of what to expect; it didn’t sound like many first-timers upgraded at the last minute, which is good considering how different the marathon distance is from any other race.
Obviously the big story from the weekend was the unprecedented cancellation of the Half Marathon on Friday night. Although it was certainly disappointing for runners who traveled specifically for that race and threw a wrench into everybody else’s plans too, I thought that the entire situation was handled very well. Something like that will never be executed flawlessly, but Disney did a good job of spreading the word, and the offers to affected runners seemed especially generous considering the circumstances. As always, I found the weekend to be a great excuse to reunite with friends, family, and runners; it’s one of the annual highlights of both my race calendar and my vacation calendar.
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.