Friday, January 17, 2014

The 2014 Walt Disney World Marathon

The night before leaving for Florida, I did my last scheduled run of my training cycle: 4 miles. It was one of the best runs I have ever done. I was in total control: Pacing, breathing, movement. I remember feeling a bit surprised at how easy it felt to run. It was pretty clear to me at that moment that I was in the best running shape I have ever been in my life. No question about it. But, was it good enough to tackle the challenge that was ahead? Well, I was sure gonna find out.

People who read this blog regularly (and surprisingly, there are a few) are by now extremely familiar with my worries about this race. Left up to me, I was pretty certain I could finish this race, even if it meant tying myself to Mickey Mouse's tail so he could drag me across the line. But, alas, it was not up to me. First, the infamous Balloon Ladies, who start after the last runner crosses the start line and keep the minimum 16 minute per mile pace. Get passed by them, and then you are faced with the official Run Disney sweep bike team. Once you get passed by them, the next thing is the bus back to the start area. It's over.

So, I spent most of time in Florida in a state of paranoia. Sure, I had fun at the parks and I met a lot of incredible people which I promise will cover in later posts but the looming cloud of uncertainty was always there. If only I had done a bit better in those long runs, I would have felt better. If only...

Race morning. 2:00 am wake up. I make sure to put on everything I had laid out on my "dress dummy". I go to the bathroom, then go to the bathroom again. Disney had the resort restaurants partially open selling some essentials. I have some coffee, a banana and a Clif Bar sample from the Expo. At 3:00 am, a line of buses is already waiting for runners and spectators outside the resort. Shortly after, we are in the Epcot parking lot. Runners arriving from all the different Disney resorts and many other places. You can feel the excitement in the air. I just want to head straight to the corral to get as far to the front as I can but there is people I want to meet and this is my last chance. There is a Team Run Disney meet-up I don't want to miss. It sure was worth it though. As I mentioned, I met some pretty cool people, including blogger extraordinaire and heroine Heather Montgomery from Heather's Looking Glass but that is a story for another post.

After the greetings and pictures I said goodbye to my brother and thanked him profusely for coming with me on this adventure and left for my corral which, by the way was in China apparently (Hi Deuce!). I heard people say it was as far as 2 miles away. I'm not sure about that but it certainly felt that way. Not only that, once there, it took forever for the gun to go off for my corral, which was next to last. At least I got to sit down for a while as the other corrals went off, rest my legs  and think strategy which, by the way, was dead simple: Cross the finish line. Don't get picked up. That, and don't do anything stupid. I also got to sit right in the front of the corral which I thought gave me a decent buffer from the balloon ladies. I had already decided to go with a 2:1 run/walk ratio, having tried several during my long runs I felt this was the one that fit best. If things felt apart, I could take it down to 1:1. If things deteriorated beyond that... well, I would chew that food when I had to. The elites went off at 5:30 am. An hour or so after that, it was my turn. Mickey counted us down and in a blaze of fireworks, we were off.

The Magic Kingdom

I didn't start the intervals right away. I ran for a while as the crowd spread out. When I felt it was OK, I set off the intervals app. There was only one problem: I had to pee. Bad. Right off the bat I was surprised by the amount of people who were going to the side of the road to relieve themselves. I knew there were porta-potties at the hydration stations but I figured they would be crowded this early in the race and given the amount of people going in the woods, it seemed like a good bet. Finally, I gave in and stepped to the side. I'm a runner now... I regretted it almost immediately. Shortly after starting to run again, I heard the fireworks for the last corral go off. Some time later, a bunch of people sped by. The leaders from the last corral were passing us by. So much for my brilliant "buffer" plan. The balloon ladies were officially on the hunt.

The Magic Kingdom is the first of the four theme parks you run through during the race. It makes sense. Everyone wants to run through Cinderella's Castle and even if you marginally trained for this race chances are good you will make it to mile 5. As daylight started to break, we passed through the parking lot entrance above. Then, we made it to the TTC (Ticket and Transportation Center) which is were you choose how to arrive to the Happiest Place on Earth: Boat or Monorail. It was there where I got a pleasant surprise. My brother was waiting for me. He took this picture. I might have been overly excited to see him for some reason.

Spot the Fat Runner!

I also saw this nice lady with a sign that read: "So now do you think it was a good idea?" I got her attention and told to ask me again later. She got a real kick out of that apparently. After that we ran through one of the many "secret" areas that are revealed to those who run this race. The service roads, cast member entrances and many facilities that make this place work behind the scenes. At this point, and all through the race, I tried to thank as many volunteers as I could for being there helping and cheering. They did an awesome job.

"You can go the distance."

After going underneath the bridge above (which is actually a waterway for boats) I crested a small hill (one of the very few on this race) and saw this...

Space Mountain. I had made it to the Magic Kingdom park.

So, what's it like to run in the Happiest Place on Earth? Everything I had hoped it would be. I don't care who you are. It is very hard to not run there and not have a huge grin on your face. We entered through a side door straight into Main Street U.S.A. from there, it's left to Tomorrowland, then Fantasyland and through the Castle.
Main Street U.S.A.

I was feeling pretty spectacular at this point. How couldn't I? Having all those people cheering you and the energy of entering the park had given me renewed energy. Then again, we were between miles 5 and 6 so this was just beginning. Approaching the 10K mark, I was still 20 miles away from the finish.

Disney's Animal Kingdom

After the Castle, the route takes a right to Frontierland and out the park through another secret door. This was the 10K mark and another hydration station. This is where I took my first gel. A mile late I should mention. I was too excited to take it at mile 5.

After the Magic Kingdom comes the first of two areas with a whole lot of nothing. Not that Disney didn't do their best to spice up the route with DJ's, characters and other entertainment but you can't run in the parks the whole time. Did you know that Disney has their own power, fire department, vehicle maintenance facilities and water treatment center? Well, they do and I saw most of it on this leg of the route. I also got a glimpse of the Grand Floridian which is Disney's top resort.
The Grand Floridian

The highlight of this leg, for me, was the race track. You run around the WDW Race Track and Disney invited several car clubs to show off their stuff. For people that like cars (and I sure do) this was pretty much heaven.
What?! No one told me they shipped my car for display here! 

It is at this point in the race that I began to feel a little more relaxed. I start to check my phone and find a whole bunch of stuff. Messages and social media updates. Friends and family were responding to the runner tracking updates and wishing me well. Obviously, I didn't get to read them but it was nice to get that support. What I did check was the runner tracking updates. I was a little surprised.
Mile 5 split - 1:15:59 Pace 15:12
Mile 10 split - 2:32:20 Pace 15:14

Really? I seemed to be doing great and maintaining a steady pace. In fact, the pace was dead on perfect. Sure enough, I checked Mr. Garmin's virtual partner and confirmed that I was gaining ground on the balloon ladies. Even with the unexpected "pit stop" I was further and further away from them. I thought about slowing down but figured I needed as much distance as possible when things got desperate so I just maintained what I was doing. 

I did answer one message though. Mindy Bobe, who writes the blog Road Runner Girl and who I was honored to meet two nights prior to the race was keeping track of my splits and sending me words of encouragement. She wrote after the 10 mile split:

Way to go Frank!!! You're doing great!!!!

I answered back:

All heart Mindy. All heart.

"All heart" is just something I say to motivate myself. It's from the film Jerry McGuire. It's all I could think of at that moment. I knew I was closing in on a very important part of the race for me and I was gonna need everything I could muster to pull through. 

A note about the water treatment facility I mentioned: You smell it before you see it. I wouldn't exactly call that part the most pleasant of experiences and surprise! No entertainment either. Heck, I didn't want to be there why should the poor cast members? Anyway, after the track and that odorous look at just how big of a world is Disney World, we headed into what seemed like more maintenance facilities but upon further inspection, what I thought was warehouses and stuff like that was actually housing for animals. Big animals. Which only meant that we had arrived at Animal Kingdom park.
Expedition Everest

It has sort of become tradition for some runners to ride Expedition Everest during the marathon. Lucky people... If only I wasn't in such a hurry to... you know, cross the finish line. I knew I was close to halfway done, and was both surprised and to be honest, kind of proud of how well I was doing. I was running strong, maintaining my intervals and more importantly, completely pumped to continue.

As you are about to exit the park, you reach the halfway point of the race. Seconds after going over the split sensor, I get the message:

Halfway Split - 3:19:10 Pace 15:12

Well, whaddaya know... a Half-Marathon PR... and I'm not even running a Half. If only I had been doing a Half, it would've been over right then and there, but I was merely halfway through. Next came Disney's Hollywood Studios but first, a stop in what I found to be the most frustrating part of the course.

Now came the hard part. If only...

ESPN's Wide World of Sports

A while after leaving Animal Kingdom, I was confronted with this sign:

This is pretty much how I felt:

Know what I'm talking about? That scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Sam tells Frodo: "If I take another step, it will be the farthest away from home, I have ever been." Well, that's what I felt like. Beyond that Ariel sign, was completely unknown territory for me. Much as I tried, I was not able to go beyond 15 miles during training. But here I was and I was still running. Better still, I felt like I could keep on running. How long would it last?

Let me tell you why I hated this part of the race. As you go down the road towards Wide World of Sports (WWOS) the first thing you see is the exit that leads to Hollywood Studios on the other side of the road. That, of course is where you want to be, especially with all the runners going in that direction who are almost there. Even worse, as you reach the entrance to WWOS you are faced with the runners who are exiting the facility on the opposing lane. This gives you the sensation that this is a slight go-around and that you will soon be joining those runners on the opposing lane. Not true.

What you do get, is a tour of every football, soccer, baseball and softball field they have in the place. You actually do a lap in the running track, then head all the way to the other side of the park to do another lap around the stadium. The Braves play there during spring training. Whoop-dee-freaking-doo.
R2-D2 and C3PO during the lap around the track

It took forever to go through WWOS. A feeling made all the more time consuming by the fact that you saw where you actually want go right before entering this gauntlet. But I was rewarded for going through that by the 20 mile marker and some good news:

Mile 20 split - 5:08:10 Pace 15:25

In what I can only describe as a miracle, I had maintained myself above pace for 20 miles. Not only that, Mr. Garmin let me know I was a whole mile ahead of the balloon ladies. They were sure gonna have a hard time catching up to me. Not bad, considering it was my first 20 miler. By the way, this is the last update I got from runner tracking. I think my chip shorted out. At this point, there was pain and fatigue to go around. The Sun was out in full force (Thank goodness I had a cap) but the air was cool. I was waiting for a collapse of some sort at any minute, but I knew one thing: I wanted to keep running. As long as that feeling remained, I felt I was gonna be OK.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

Mile 22 is important. Crucial actually. Mile 22 is right before the entrance to Hollywood Studios (DHS). You see, once you get to DHS, you are safe from being swept. DHS and Epcot are separated by resorts. No roads in between which means Disney doesn't have to pick you up in a bus to open those roads if you fall behind.

And folks, I made it to DHS. Against all odds (and my own mind) I had done the entire route up to this point not missing a beat, or an interval for that matter. I was now safe. All that I needed to do now was a relaxing walk through 2 more parks and I would cross the finish line. There was only one problem.

That is not what I came here to do.

I came here to run a marathon. To accomplish a goal I had set myself two years ago. A goal that has set me on this running journey and has taught me so much. The toughest miles of this race were ahead of me. Up to this point, I was running against a clock. From this point on, I was running against myself. My legs and feet were killing me and every part of me wanted to stop but I kept my intervals. I kept on running. The only luxury I afforded myself was a bathroom stop in DHS. Going to an actual restroom sure beats going to a porta-potty (or the woods). I didn't really have to go. It was more of a re-arranging of clothing to make sure I was comfortable to run the final stretch. At 16:42, it was the slowest mile I ran in the race (bathroom time included). After that I was out of DHS.


It's only fitting that the slowest mile be followed by the fastest. Right after exiting Epcot who do I see? My brother! Again! Man, this guy has gone above and beyond. He caught me in the middle of a walk interval and jokingly tells me to not slack off. I start running just to show him I still got some gas left (incredibly enough) and he takes this pic:

Mile 23(ish). Smiling and still running!

13:30. Absolutely amazing for mile 24 if you ask me but I started to fade very quickly after that. This part of the route, being inside the parks and resorts, was very scenic. The Yatch Club Resort is beautiful and you run right through it. Right after the resort is a bridge that leads to Epcot and as I was crossing it I hear the evil laugh of a woman in the sidelines. It was the lady with the sign I encountered in the Magic Kingdom!!!!! (Remember that?) She was still holding the sign and when she got my attention said: "Well?" I told her: "I'm still here, so apparently it was a good idea after all!" To which she replied "That's what I wanted to hear! You got this!" There was also a volunteer at the very last water station who threatened to splash me with water instead of giving it to me to drink because I was a wearing a New York Jets shirt. Haters gonna hate.

All that interaction was wonderful because it kept my mind off the fact that I was seriously tired and hurting. The ability to continue was fueled by sheer force of will at this point. Well, that and one little thing.

The night before the race, I called my wife via Skype so I could see the girls. I missed them so much during the trip. Everywhere I went I saw things I knew they would love to see but, alas, it was just too expensive for all of us to make this trip. If I wanted to run this race it was by myself but they made sure I could have them with me. As it turns out, my wife, along with the girls had made race signs to show me during the video call.
The middle one says: Our Champion. "We Love You" The bottom one says: "Mickey and Minnie, there goes Frank."

After showing me the signs, all four of them started chanting: "Go Papi Go! Go Papi Go!" Which means "Go Daddy Go!" As I was running the final leg through the Epcot Pavilions, that is all I could hear in my head. 

As I went "around the world" through England, Morocco, Italy... "Go Papi Go!" 

USA, Japan, Germany, China... "Go Papi Go!" 

Norway, China, Mexico... "Go Papi Go!"

Every time I wanted to stop, they would tell me "Go Papi Go! Go Papi Go!" and I would have to fight tears. 

Every run interval that seemed to last forever: "Go Papi Go!". 

Every muscle screaming for me to stop: "Go Papi Go!". 

They were the true heroes of this race. They carried me through this. Even now, days later I have tears in my eyes as I write this. Every time I try to tell this story, it's hard not to cry. It was a very emotional moment for me and one that I will cherish forever.

And so, after going through the pavilions and passing Spaceship Earth I saw this:

And across from them, this:

My excitement went through the roof as I passed the sign and after a slight corner, the finish line was waiting for me. I sprinted towards the end passing between and hi-fiving both Donald and Mickey Mouse, I crossed the finish line then screamed : "YEAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!" at the top of my lungs.


Then all that emotion I had held all through the end just spilled out. I started to cry. I haven't cried like that in long time. As I kept walking a lady put my medal around my neck while another, who saw I was so shaken up grabbed me and hugged me and told me: "Come here Frank. You did it. You did good." I thanked her and thanked her again for being a part of this. I then met my brother who took this pic:

And with that, it was over. I had just run a marathon. Here is the journey by the numbers.

Avg Pace

Two things jump at me right now. With a few exceptions, I managed to maintain a pretty steady pace the entire marathon. Second, that 15:20 average pace is actually faster than my pace during the Divas Half Marathon.

Caught in my paranoia of being swept, I hadn't really set any A, B or C goals for this race (beyond not being swept of course) However, 

C) I avoided being swept 

B) I finished 

A) I finished 17 minutes ahead of my intended pace.

Yeah, I think I can check this one into the "success" column.

I have to say it. To get through this, I had to run the race of my life. I mean that in every possible way. Also, a lot of stuff had to go right for this to happen. The 10K runners went through some tough heat on Friday and the Half-Marathon runners endured heat plus brutal humidity on Saturday. Sunday was as perfect as could be. The skies were blue and clear and it was cold. I mean really cold (relatively speaking). It was 40's and 50's at the start and it never went over 65 the whole day. I drank Powerade and water at every station and took salt tablets twice during the race. I also had 4 gels. One every 5 miles give or take plus two bananas at the food stations and they gave us chocolate and gummy bears when we entered DHS but I only had chocolate. I thought about buying a margarita while passing the Mexico pavilion but that will have to wait for next time I guess. Had any of those things gone differently we might have had another outcome but why fret over it? I got it done.


After getting myself together we walked (well, my brother walked. I sort of limped) to the buses and back to the hotel. After a much needed shower we headed to Hollywood Studios were I celebrated with a Cheeseburger (man, those taste even better after running a marathon) at the Sci-Fi Dine-in, then we watched Fantasmic! The day after that, I returned home, where I was given a hero's welcome by my wife and daughters. There is nothing more I can possibly ask for.

Runners often talk about how a marathon changes you but I want to modify that statement a bit. Running a marathon enhances you. It's not really change and change can go either way, good or bad. You learn many things about yourself. About your limits. About what you really can and can't do. But those things you learn were already there. They are not new. They are simply newly found. They were always there within you. Hence, you become better. A better version of yourself. You have been enhanced.

And that is the best part of this incredible experience of training and running a marathon. As excited as I am about what I have done. I'm even more excited about what I will do next. I don't know what that will be yet but it sure will be exciting getting there.


  1. I know exactly, EXACTLY how you feel, and what this marathon meant to you. I'm fighting back tears reading this. Dopey was my first marathon, and training for this race and crossing that finish line really shows you the kind of inner strength and courage that you have in a way not much else can! There was no better feeling in the world -- it truly does change your life forever. Congratulations on your accomplishment -- you did an incredible job! :) WTG!

    1. Wow Jennifer, congratulations to you too. Dopey was your first?! That's brave. Totally awesome!

  2. Hi Frank! I'm so, so happy I saw you linked on Mindy's blog. I had tears in my eyes the whole time I was reading your recap. You are amazing. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Mindy is the best!

  3. This was such a great recap, it seemed like you really captured the emotions you were going through at the time. I'm thinking I might do a marathon one day (just did my first half) and if so, it will probably be this one.

    1. Disney is an awesome first marathon. The course is flat and you get to run throught all four parks! I'm doing the Goofy challenge for 2016 so maybe you can join us then.

  4. What an amazing recap, Frank!!! Congrats on your fantastic finish :)

  5. This is the best review I have read on the Marathon mainly because you are one of my peeps! It's rare to find a review from someone who is a back of the packer. Our race is a very different experience from the speedy cheetas at the front and we face different challenges.

    I started running in 2014 with Avengers being by first half. I've done 4 halves now and was contemplating doing the full this coming January. I was debating whether I could do it especially since i'm not crazy enough to do Dopey and have my corral placement tied to a 10k time rather than a half time. I'm afraid if I don't have a higher placement I will be swept (finished both Avengers in 3:30). This has now given me something to think about.

    Thanks and congrats on a great accomplishment.