I did it.
Sometime after I started seriously running just under two years ago, part of me decided that it wasn’t enough to run a 5K, or a 10K – I would someday run a marathon. Nevermind that the longest I’d ever run before was 6 miles, back when I was 18 and invincible. Somehow, I’d do it.
And somehow, I did.
Last spring, I picked the 2010 Disney Marathon as the one I’d run. In late August, I began training specifically for this race, building up across a stair-step set of races (including a 15K and a half-marathon) throughout the late summer and early fall. I found friends to train with in early winter, and kept with them in the final month before the big race. And near the end of all that, I began to realize that the marathon was no longer a pipe dream, but was right there within reach.
My first and most important goal: finish the race, on my own two feet, under my own power. Based on my two half-marathon times, I figured I’d come in somewhere around 5:15. As my training came to a close, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could break a 5-hour time. And in the final days before the race, I embraced that as a goal, too.
The week before the race, weather forecasts looked grim on race day: arctic blasts were sweeping through Florida, and the predicted temps would be in the 20′s at gun time. I prepared for the cold as best I could: tights, gloves, even a throwaway scarf buried under two layers of winter gear and a few layers of tech shirts. I also was able to grab a mylar blanket from the car, a relic from the Gasparilla half-marathon I’d run in March.
Sure enough, on race day, the weather was so cold it made national news. The runners in the previous day’s half marathon had suffered through sleet and freezing rain; for the marathon, our weather was colder, but less wet.
I had caught the bus over from our hotel. Disney is so jammed that you have to be on the bus by 4:00 am or, they warn you, you’ll miss the start. The buses dumped us off in the EPCOT parking lot, where I met up with Rob, a fellow Kickrunners member, and we walked together about a half-mile to the starting corrals.
Disney starts runners in multiple waves, based on estimated time – I was in corral “G”, only three ahead of dead last. As I waited in the dark for the fireworks to go off, I felt the first surge of emotion, one of several I’d experience in the the day, chanting to myself: I’ve got this. I’ve got this.
The first five miles
The fireworks went off at 5:40 a.m., and the first wave shot out. Our corral gradually got closer to the start. About fifteen minutes after gun time, we were finally off, and it felt great to be moving at last. The cold didn’t seem to be a factor at all – within a couple of miles, I had tucked my gloves into my pocket, and even unzipped my coat a little.
I felt strong, and even though the crowd was thick, I was moving right around my desired pace. I had previously calculated that an 11-minute-mile pace was both attainable (I had run 15 at a 10:30 pace a few weeks before) and gave me about a twenty-minute cushion to get me to the finish in less than five hours. So I used that 11-minute mile as my guidepost.
During the first five miles, as we looped around the main roads outside EPCOT, into the park, under Spaceship Earth, and back out to the road, I started at 11:00 on the dot for the first mile, slowing slightly to 11:20 for the next, then ripping off the next three miles at 10:30, 10:35, and 10:10. Part of that was the exhilaration of finally running the race, part of it was cruising through EPCOT pre-dawn, and part of it was that I got to see my family waiting for me just as I entered the park, in the crowds under the monorail.
As I finished the first five, I almost felt cocky.
That didn’t last.
Six through ten
About mile six, I started feeling like maybe I had done a bit too much carboloading the night before, and started looking for a place to start unloading. I ended up burning almost ten minutes total in two bathroom stops, one in mile 6 and one in mile 9. Aside from that, though, I felt pretty good – my pace was still pretty strong, between 10:30 and 11:00 when I was actually running, and the route was long, flat and straight as we moved from EPCOT to the Magic Kingdom. This was also one of three long stretches of uninterrupted road, so Disney had provided entertainment by the roadside – marching bands and DJ’s. By the end of mile ten, I was just about two hours in, and still feeling like I had a good shot at making it under five hours.
The Magic Kingdom to the Animal Kingdom: the middle distance
Entering the Magic Kingdom, running up Main Street to the cheers of the crowd, is like nothing I’ve ever done before. Have you ever been in the “Happiest Place on Earth,” with hundreds of people cheering for you? It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and one I highly recommend.
Main Street was all too brief but we moved right through Tomorrowland, around the carousel, and then up and through Cinderella’s Castle. This is one of the few places I stopped to pose for a picture, as I traded cameras with another runner so we could each take the other’s picture. Then it was up, through, and into Frontierland, then out the park through a “backstage” area behind Splash Mountain – appropriately used as a water stop.
Once we left the Magic Kingdom, the next few miles were another long stretch of road past a few of the resorts and then down past some truly “backstage” areas, like the sewage treatment plant. As I passed the Polynesian Resort, I strained to catch a glimpse of Dineen and the boys, who had planned to be in that spectator’s area. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them – as I learned later, I was “too fast” for them to catch me there.
At the time, I wasn’t feeling too fast. The cold air – still in the mid 30′s, which even in January is crazy for Orlando – was taking its toll, and as I passed the halfway point, I clocked in at 2:37 – a full seven minutes under my goal split and far off my 11-minute pace. Somehow, I had slipped to 12-minute miles and combined with the two restroom breaks that pace put me in the hole for a five-hour finish. I tried to pick up the pace a little, but by the end of mile 15, I was unable to maintain an 11-minute pace, which I would need if I wanted to make up 7 full minutes in the back half. But with the last three parks still to come, I put that thought out of my mind and hoped that warmer temperatures combined with more inspiring crowds would help me surge at the end. I passed the Disney greenhouse complex – overpowering fertilizer aroma, anyone? – and entered the Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom to Hollywood Studios: in marathon, wall hits you.
I barely remember anything about running through the Animal Kingdom, except that I kept wanting to go faster than my legs would allow. I remember thinking that if I finished 18 miles in 3:30, I could still finish the last 8.2 in 90 minutes, and make my five-hour goal. But that wasn’t to be – the clock showed 3:36 as I finished that eighteenth mile, and then I started doing mental math on what it would take to finish in 5:05, or 5:15.
On the map, the stretch between mile 18, where you leave the Animal Kingdom, and mile 22, where you enter Hollywood Studios, looks deceptively straightforward – a long, straight shot down Osceola Boulevard, a short turnaround at mile 21, then turn north towards the park. Of course, this is also where the hardest part of the marathon begins – the part where you hit the wall.
It was still cold, and perhaps even colder than it had been earlier in the race. Many of the water stops were coated with ice where water had spilled on the still-subfreezing roadway. My legs felt stiff and leaden, and my pace went from 11:29 in mile 18 to a disappointing 14:19 in mile 20. I remembered being told that mile 20 was the mental and physical halfway point in the marathon, in terms of difficulty, and I could feel every bit of it by that point. My training plan had never taken me beyond the 20-mile mark – and if it had, I might have up and quit training – so every step was a new personal record for endurance, but they were victories I could not feel.
I remember trying to just gut it out, as if I could keep running just on sheer determination. Every time I tried to draw on that willpower, it kept me going for a hundred yards at a time, sometimes more, but at some point my legs would stop responding, except to tell me of their aches and pains, and I would slow to a walk. This, then, was the bleakest part of the race for me. I knew I could make it to the finish line under my own power, but I might spend another two hours on that last six miles, walking most of the way.
Sometime during this stretch, Jeff Galloway passed me. He was walking.
I kept plodding, and turned north towards Hollywood Studios.
The final push: Mile 23 and beyond
I don’t remember much of Hollywood Studios, either, except for brief flashes. Mile 22, instead of energy gels, they gave us little bars of Hershey’s chocolate. It was the best chocolate I’d ever tasted, even close to frozen solid. We passed through the “costuming” tunnel, where you could watch workers put together Disney costumes of all kinds – princess dresses, superhero outfits, and so on. I blurted out, “No capes!” and drew confused, concerned looks from some of the runners around me. Haven’t you ever watched The Incredibles? I wondered to myself.
Maybe they were right to be concerned.
At the Mile 23 marker, I paused for my only character pose of the day. All the previous picture stops had long lines, and I didn’t want to waste time in them when I still had a shot at a goal time. But now that all time goals were out of reach, I felt pretty good about grabbing a picture with Mike Wazowski – “With one eye!” – from Monsters, Inc.
After leaving Hollywood, the course followed the waterway leading around the Boardwalk Resort and into EPCOT. More and more spectators lined the course here, and I felt my energy, and my pace, pick up a little every time someone called me out by name – listed on my race number – and cheered me on. (Pro tip: if you need people cheering for you personally, stay away from the purple-clad Team in Training runners. They suck up crowd support like there are no other runners on the course.) Mile 25 melted away, and suddenly I was entering EPCOT.
The five hour mark had long gone, and I was looking at 5:30 or more, but as I started that last mile it suddenly sank in that I was about to finish a marathon. Running past China and Mexico felt faster than it really was, partly because I was on familiar ground and partly because I was so close to the end. Suddenly, I was running again, not just plodding. I looked every spectator in the eye, memorizing the faces as I savored the last few moments. The Mile 26 marker greeted us as we hit the parking lot, and suddenly I could hear the roar of the finish line.
Then I saw it.
Then I started really running.
The big finish
Anyone who’s run with me knows that I tend to finish strong. No matter how tired I am, no matter how much I’ve left on the course before, seeing the finish line somehow flips a switch in me, putting me in an involuntary overdrive. And my first marathon was no different. Once I saw the finish line, I drifted towards the side of the pack, and my arms and legs started churning as I picked up speed. In the last hundred yards, I passed runner after runner – my Garmin later told me I hit a top speed of 10mph (about 6:00 minutes per mile) – and crossed the line with my arms raised in triumph. Final chip time: 5:36:56 – far beyond my five-hour aspiration, but a substantial achievement even so, especially considering the extreme weather conditions.
Family and friends were in the gallery just beyond the finish line, and somehow we saw each other just as I slowed to a walk. The volunteers handed me a mylar blanket, put the fantastic medal around my neck, and I went to meet up with my family.
Final time: 5:36:56.
Average pace: 12:40.
Overall finish: 11011 out of 16833 finishers (out of 24,000 registrants!)
It’s hard for me to believe, as I write this, that I’ve finished a marathon. I would have liked to do it faster, and maybe someday I will, but it’s all to easy to forget that not very long ago it was impossible for me to even entertain the idea of trying to run a marathon in any time, let alone a decent time. If I ever run a marathon again – and it’s way too soon to ask me if I will – I would aim for milder weather, but I’d probably prepare in much the same way as I did this one, although I’d adjust my training to accommodate a time goal, not merely aspiring to finish. Until then, I plan on training for and running multiple half-marathons to keep in fighting trim, and within a reasonable training distance away from a marathon should the spirit move me.