The 25th Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend was held January 3rd through the 7th. Comprised of race distances from the diaper dash to the marathon, it is runDisney’s flagship event with more than 60,000 participants. Runners can up the stakes by participating in the two-day 39.3-mile Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge or the four-day 48.6-mile Dopey Challenge. Celebrating its silver anniversary, this year marked the 25th running of the 5K and Marathon and the fifth running of the Dopey Challenge.
Before getting into too much detail, one of the biggest factors in this year’s Marathon Weekend was the cold temperatures. While much of the country was getting hit with the so-called bomb cyclone, the Orlando area was seeing lows below freezing and highs in the low 40s. Although still warmer than many places, runners and park goers spent long hours outdoors, leading to hours of tensed muscles that caused fatigue on their own. The races were never in any danger of being canceled, unlike 2017’s half marathon, but the conditions were less than ideal all around.
Additionally, due to a scheduling difference, this year’s Marathon Weekend was a week earlier than normal, overlapping with peak holiday crowds in the parks. As far back as late spring, runners reported difficulty finding hotel rooms, and the parks were packed with families still on school vacation. Combined with the cold temperatures, there were several times that I questioned the sanity of it all, even though it’s one of my favorite events in one of my favorite places. If I struggled to have a good time, I can only imagine how miserable it was for people who were less enthusiastic from the onset. By Sunday, the crowds had dropped to their usual quiet mostly-runner levels, which helped cap off the weekend with the races taking over Walt Disney World. But for much of the event, it felt like we were lost in the (massive) crowd.
The Health and Fitness Expo opened Wednesday morning for runners to pick up their race packets, purchase official merchandise, and peruse vendors for last-minute items they may have forgotten. With heavy rains and chilly temperatures, the queues to enter the various buildings were hastily moved indoors and undercover to protect runners from the elements. Although Disney had limited options for how to quickly reconfigure their facilities for the waiting crowds, this led to a variety of queues that merged and separated from one another with no particular rhyme or reason, often putting early arrivers far behind people who had just shown up.
Adding to the confusion, a new expo layout was used this year, with some race distances receiving their bags of shirts in the same building as their bibs and others having to move to a different building. Ostensibly this change was done to ease the crowding at the official merchandise booth, which was centralized in a larger location that in the past, but it was a bumpy road to get into the building itself. In addition to the lousy weather, crowding was increased by the Expo’s late opening, which had been pushed back to accommodate runners who purchased high-end packages. This meant that more people than usual had lined up for hours before opening, merchandise ran out faster, and patience wore thin.
Although Disney’s expos have always been a bit chaotic, and event staff were doing the best they could with the weather, this expo wasn’t well received. Throughout the weekend I overheard lots of runners, many of whom were seasoned runners with many Disney and non-Disney races under their belts, complaining about the chaos at the expo, often saying it had turned them off from returning to a Disney event. I understand that they’re constantly trying new things to see what works best, but this year’s layout and schedule were not successful. Perhaps once the new cheer arena comes online, the additional indoor space will help reduce some of the chaos.
Thursday morning’s 5K course began in the Epcot parking lot and wound its way backstage behind Test Track. Runners entered the park next to Mexico and proceeded around World Showcase Lagoon. After exiting at International Gateway, the course reentered next to the United Kingdom and headed toward Future World. With a brief loop around Future World West, the course headed to the finish line in the Epcot parking lot.
Starting an hour earlier than previous years, the morning of the 5K was the coldest day of the week, with temperatures at the start dipping below freezing. I walked the 5K with friends and family, which actually made it easier to dress for the weather since I just bundled up with everything I had. Others who actually ran the race brought throwaway layers to shed after they warmed up; I turned this into a shopping trip of sorts, collecting discarded items that I could wear to the start line of the upcoming races. I may have looked ridiculous picking clothes off the ground and saving them for later, but it made the pre-race waiting much more enjoyable for the next few days. There is no dignity in marathoning!
The untimed 5K is always a highlight of the race weekend for me since it’s a low-pressure event that’s a fun way to start things off. This year’s early start time was somewhat of a disappointment, not only due to the additional lost sleep but also because even at a walking pace we covered most of the course in the dark. In previous years we’ve watched stunning sunrises over World Showcase, but this year we barely got to see light cross the horizon. Considering how much running is done in the dark during Marathon Weekend and how valuable sleep is for Dopey runners, this was a disappointing change for me.
I finished the 5K in 57:50. There was no official tally for the untimed race, but approximately 12,000 people finished.
Friday’s 10K course began in the Epcot parking lot and headed out through the toll plaza. After looping back on Epcot Center Blvd, the course went backstage behind Test Track and entered the park between Norway and China. Runners then circled World Showcase Lagoon and exited the park at International Gateway to proceed around Crescent Lake, past the Boardwalk and Yacht & Beach Clubs. Entering the park next to the United Kingdom, runners headed into Future World, made a quick loop around Spaceship Earth, and finished in the parking lot.
Arriving long before the race began, a friend and I huddled for warmth with other runners near heat lamps in the pre-race staging area, waiting until about 20 minutes prior to the race to move to the corrals. However, by the time got to the corrals, both corral A and B had been released to begin lining up for the start, forcing us into corral C. Although I don’t fault the race organizers for moving runners into position, it was disappointing that no announcements were made in the staging area; had we known this was going to happen, we easily could have gone to the corrals earlier. Runners assigned to corral C were understandably annoyed with the A and B runners trying to work their way to the front of the corral, but considering the large differential in expected paces, it was the best way to keep it safe to run on the dark course.
I always struggle with the 10K distance, since it’s short enough for considerable speed, yet still long enough to require some endurance. Since I was recovering from an injury, this was actually my first outdoor run and longest run since October, other than the two Wine & Dine races I ran in November. As a test to see how the longer races might play out, I was pleased to see that I had no real difficulty or pain, but noticed how heavy my legs felt by the end of the race. I took this as a signal that I would need to slow my pace some and take more fuel, but overall I was happy with the signals my body was telling me.
With more than half of the course gone before entering the park, the 10K isn’t my favorite race of Marathon Weekend, feeling somewhat like a technicality en route to Dopey rather than a standalone event. Starting in corral C, rather than A where I had been assigned, the course was far more crowded than I had experienced in previous years, but never uncomfortably so. The crowding meant that I was unable to stop for any character photos, but I gladly stopped for a spectator handing out beer along the Boardwalk, which is always fun at 6 a.m.
Following the approach used at the Wine & Dine races in November, and pioneered at Disneyland Paris, the Marathon Weekend races used a few large corrals subdivided into mini-wave starts. While the courses all felt noticeably more crowded than in previous years, I never encountered any real choke points. My pace tends to be ahead of the worst crowding, but I heard similar evaluations from others. runDisney may need to continue to tweak the size and spacing of the mini-waves, but the general approach seems to smooth out the worst bottlenecks.
12,890 runners finished the 10K, with Joao Marcelo Avelar from Sao Paulo, Brazil winning the race in 31:56. Celia Holmes from Waco, TX won the women’s division in 38:50. Nikita den Boer from Haarlem, Netherlands won the women’s push rim wheelchair division in 29:58. I crossed the finish line in 58:23.
The Half Marathon course began on Epcot Center Blvd and merged on to World Dr before passing through the Magic Kingdom toll plaza. After looping around the parking lot and passing through the Transportation and Ticket Center, the course passed the Contemporary, went through the Magic Kingdom bus loop and entered through the park’s front gates. Runners went up Main Street, into Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland before passing through the castle on the way to Liberty Square and Frontierland. Exiting through the parade gate, the course proceeded past the Grand Floridian and Polynesian before returning to World Dr. Runners then climbed 3 overpasses to enter the Epcot parking lot, followed by an out-and-back through Future World and the parking lot finish.
Although the temperatures for each days’ race was slightly warmer than the day before, it was still in the mid-30’s for the start on Saturday. In honor of the race’s date on Topsy Turvy Day, I dressed as Clopin from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, supplemented with a turtleneck, headband, running tights, two pairs of gloves, and a throwaway jacked I had collected during the 5K. I ditched the jacked by mile 2 and removed one pair of gloves around the halfway point, but otherwise kept my layers on. While I got a lot of puzzled looks from runners, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of cast members who enthusiastically recognized my costume; although Hunchback is one of my all-time favorites, I realize that Clopin is a second-tier character from a film that’s been largely forgotten.
In an interesting move, white cherry PowerAde was supplied at the aid stations for the Half and Full. Although I didn’t have any complaints with the flavor, the clear color seemed to make the volunteers’ lives more difficult by having to constantly remind runners whether they had PowerAde or water. Luckily the volunteers did a great job of consistently having PowerAde in the printed cups first followed by water in plain cups at every aid station, but it seemed to add an unnecessary burden on their work. In general, the volunteers did an outstanding job this year, especially considering the cold temperatures (and inevitably cold drinks getting spilled on them) which impact them even more than the runners since they never move around enough to get warm.
Given my relative lack of high-cardio or endurance training, I knew I would need to run this race at a slower pace than usual in order to have somewhat-fresh legs for the next day’s marathon. Throughout the weekend I was participating in an online fantasy running league, earning points for silly things like stopping for character photos. With this in mind, I took the focus off of my pace and went out of my way to savor the little moments along the way. Although I can’t really point to a single standout moment, it ended up being one of the most fun races I’ve run in a long time.
The Half Marathon had 20,801 finishers, with Joao Marcelo Avelar repeating the previous day’s win in 1:08:28. Brittany Charboneau from Denver, CO won the women’s division in 1:17:37. Brian Siemann won the men’s push rim wheelchair division in 56:30, and Nikita den Boer also repeated her victory for the women’s push rim race in 1:00:12. I finished the race in 2:10:57
The Marathon course matched the Half until around mile 8, when it turned down Bear Island Rd and passed Disney’s water treatment facility on the way to an out-and-back on Western Way. Runners then entered the Animal Kingdom backstage areas, hitting the halfway mark in the park. The course then headed east on Osceola Pkwy before spending several grueling miles winding through the Wide World of Sports Complex. The course then returned to Osceola Pkwy and World Dr before entering the Studios briefly. After following the waterside path to the Boardwalk, runners entered Epcot through International Gateway, ran the long way around World Showcase, through Future World, and on to the parking lot to finish.
I’ve always claimed that running Goofy or Dopey actually makes pacing the Marathon easier, since you’re starting on sore legs and can’t really go too fast in the early miles. With long days of tense muscles trying to stay warm in the parks, I was sore all over by Sunday morning, but my legs felt relatively fresh. Several times in the first few miles I had to do a reality check and remind myself to slow down, to ensure I wasn’t spending too much energy early on. As a rule, I like to divide a marathon into thirds: going a little slow for the first 10 miles, at a comfortable pace for the middle 10, and giving it everything I’ve got for the final 10K. And yes, from a pacing standpoint, I consider the final 10K to be a third of the race, since the fatigue and stress make it even more challenging than either 10-mile segment that proceeds it.
Around the time I reached the Wide World of Sports, I felt the fatigue begin to set in. Unconcerned with the winding paths or lack-of-scenery, I turned my attention inward and began to really focus on the pace. One of my favorite moments was around mile 19, where a DJ had been posted in a rather remote part of the already-underwhelming complex. Instead of playing upbeat music and shouting empty encouragement at runners, he accompanied the silence with realtalk, reminding that there was no way to sugarcoat the isolation of that section of the race or how far we had left to go. Had I been in a different mood, it could have been completely demoralizing, but I found it really funny and helped me buckle down and head to the finish.
Due to construction, the current course spends very little time in the Studios, so I was able to focus on running rather than my surroundings for much of the final miles. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever pushed so hard for so long at the end of a race before; there was a significant stretch between the two final parks where I struggled to even keep one eye half-open. Yet somehow through all that, it managed to be my most evenly-paced race I’ve ever done. Timing splits are texted every 5 miles, and my projected finish varied by only 2 minutes over the course of the entire race, which could easily be a result of the run-walk-run method, where individual splits vary slightly. I was exhausted by the end, but I managed to pace it just right.
20,025 runners finished the marathon. Nicholas Hilton of Tucson, AZ won the men’s division won the race in 2:17:52, marking the first time in 15 years that a non-Brazilian won the race. Giovanna Martins from Sao Paulo, Brazil won the women’s division in 2:47:22. Brian Siemann and Nikita den Boer won the men’s and women’s push rim divisions again, in 1:54:03 and 2:04:30, respectively. I finished the race in 4:35:50.
In honor of Marathon Weekend’s 25th running, cast members throughout the resort wore commemorative buttons all week and a billboard was installed on Epcot Center Blvd. While there was relatively little on the course to honor the anniversary, a special sign was installed at mile 25, inside Epcot. It was an understated anniversary, perhaps learning their lessons after making grand promises for just-okay additions to the 20th, but it still felt special to me. In a move that completely surprised me, all Marathon finishers got a commemorative pair of mouse ears along with their medal. Although I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to Disney’s typical marketing and giveaways, even I got a little misty-eyed when I saw them (though that may have also been a result of marathon-brain…who knows!).
There was a noticeable increase in disabled athletes throughout the weekend compared to recent years. Through a partnership with Achilles International, the Marathon had its highest ever number of wheelchair competitors; I also encountered many blind runners tethered to running guides throughout the weekend. Although all the races require training and dedication, especially the marathon distance, one of the things that I enjoy most about Marathon Weekend is its ability to meet runners where they are and push them to limits they never imagined.
Overall I enjoyed the weekend, but it was definitely one of the more trying runDisney events I’ve been to. Between the weather and the park crowds, there were many times when I simply wasn’t enjoying myself; considering this is usually one of my annual highlights, I can’t imagine how miserable it must have been for people who were less gung-ho about it from the start. Next year’s races will return to their normal weekend, which should alleviate the crowds, and I’ve experienced a wide enough range of January weather to know that Disney really has no control over it, but it’s still tough to truly be prepared for everything.
Hitting the 5-year legacy mark for the Dopey Challenge was a huge accomplishment, and one I’m looking forward to continuing in the future. In its 25th year, 75 runners have completed every WDW Marathon to date; about 10 times as many have completed all 5 Dopeys, earning legacy status. I know a lot of runners who planned to stop after 5 years, but I expect to keep going as long as I still enjoy the races and can fit it in my schedule and finances. Marathon Weekend is such a fun and supportive atmosphere that can’t be found at most races, and the multi-day experience makes it really unique. Running Dopey certainly isn’t for everybody, but it’s something I look forward to every year, both for running and for vacation.
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.