Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The 2016 Walt Disney World Marathon

Waking up the morning after the Half Marathon, I was happy to see that I was not any worse for for wear. Only my knee was a little sore but the rest of my legs seemed close to 100%. This is why you do twin long runs for Goofy Challenge training. That part of it was paying off. Right after the Half, I was feeling stiff and the knee was hurting bad but my body remembered what to do and after a night's rest, I was fine.
One more race...
Also close to 100% recovered was my brother. Definitely feeling a lot better than the day before, he now had the joyless job of driving me back to Epcot. At 3 am. The worse, at least for him, was now behind though. Me, on the other hand was very nervous. I know I was because I'm not a superstitious guy and at that moment I was invoking all sorts of stuff for good luck. I had my Jeff Galloway-signed bib, my legendary NY Jets shirt, the socks I wore for my first marathon...  Suddenly all of that was "crucial" to my race strategy. So yeah, you could say I was nervous.

As far as an actual race strategy, mine was pretty simple: Run. Run until you can't run anymore and hope I have run enough to walk the rest of the way before the Balloon Ladies catch up with me. That's it. I did have an Ace up my sleeve though. My PR in the Philadelphia Half Marathon had earned me corral placement squarely in the middle of the pack (Corral J) and I was going to milk that for all it was worth. On the flip side, it was humid and not as cold as I would have liked. In fact while waiting in the corral it was downright warm. Thankfully, as the day went by, it got colder and the breeze that came in throughout the day was well received. I was also behind on my hydration. I could feel it in my mouth but there was no point in filling my stomach with liquid right before the race, so I would have to work on that during it.

You will notice that contrary to the Half recap, this one doesn't have many pictures. That's because once Mickey counted us off, I was dead set on one thing: Finishing. I avoided stopping as much as possible. Too bad, because the Marathon course has changed since I last did it in 2014. Because the WDW Race Track no longer exists, (a part that I really liked with the cars and all) the course has been modified. Most of the changes I think, are for the better. I'll try and point them out.

The first 10K was pretty uneventful. I got into a rhythm pretty quickly and was feeling pretty good. I was kind of surprised about how well I had recovered but I was definitely thirsty so I started to drink more than usual at every station hoping to slowly make up for it but the humidity was making it harder. I was soaking wet. Normal for Puerto Rico but not for this race. Then we reached the Magic Kingdom and of course this is the moment when everything is fine in the World.
First race selfie... Fail. LOL
Not as foggy as the day before.
 This is actually one of the major changes to the course. Now you pass in front of the 7 Dwarf's Mine Train and get to see all of New Fantasyland, including The Little Mermaid ride and Gaston's Tavern. Then, you head back to (Old?) Fantasyland and through Cinderella's Castle. Overall, you spend quite a bit more time in the park. A great thing in my opinion. Also, it was still dark enough to actually see the Castle all lit up. Sure, the clouds helped a little. It was overcast the entire day. I can see why runners like to pass through it while it's dark. By the way, this time around there was no choice but to go through the tunnel. There was no optional route. Instead they had Cast Members telling people not to stop for a picture to keep the area moving. You could still have your pic taken at the base of the Castle though.
Right before leaving the Magic Kingdom...
The thing about going through the parks, is that the terrain becomes more dynamic. Whereas the roads are flat most of the time, the parks go up and down, which give them a great feel when you are walking during a normal visit, but not so great when you are trying to conserve energy during a marathon. I'm not talking about major hills here but the overall effect zaps your energy level a bit. Leaving the park, I found myself trying to catch my breath as we headed down to Animal Kingdom.

This particular stretch is one of the longest without any "park action". Disney tries to spice things up with characters and stuff and spectators line up when you pass the Polynesian and Grand Floridian but it's mostly uneventful. It was here I started to feel fatigue setting in. I told myself to calm down and take it in sections. "Make it to mile 10." I told myself. "Then make it to 15, asses yourself and eventually make 20." 

They now added a little out and back section going down where Bear Island Road meets Western Way. I hate that. Makes me want to cut through the cones and get on with it, especially when your Garmin is running long (which mine was, by a quarter mile at that point). This is also the moment you pass by the now infamous water treatment facility which, oddly enough, was not smelling as ripe as I remember the last time.

What was smelling full and ripe was the elephant house in the outskirts of Animal Kingdom. Wow, that was stinking up this year. This was good news however, as this meant we had made it into the park and were close to the half way point of this race.
Well, that didn't come out right.
Animal Kingdom is probably the worst park in terms of ups and downs. Worse than MK in fact. Also, I think we ran through more of it this year than 2014 but I'm not sure. In 2014 I felt like we were barely in there. This year I had a good look at it, including the Tree of Life of which there was a great spot to take pics (just not enough light). Many were waiting to ride Expedition Everest. I just ran through. Maybe one day... But not today.

This is the halfway point, and as I ran through the Animal Kingdom parking lot, and read I had done it 11 minutes faster than the day before filled me with pride. Yes, there was plenty of road ahead, but I had just run 2 Half Marathons back to back on consecutive days and, this part is important, I was still going. I also caught a glimpse of Pandora. Hope they finish that soon.
See the cranes?
You can see the "floating" rock starting to come up...
After the Animal Kingdom, you run on Osceola Parkway. Do you know what happens if you keep going on Osceola Parkway? You reach ESPN's Wide World of Sports. I hate ESPN's Wide World of Sports.
A.K.A. Hell
I'm going to start a petition to change the name of WWoS to Hell. Just name it Hell because that's what it is and if you want to finish your marathon you have to go through Hell. I really don't have any pleasant memories of this place back in 2014 and even less so now. It was shortly after entering here, that the wheels started to come off for me. After entering Hell, I met Mary again at a hydration stop. I was so happy to see her. That was followed by sponges. I took one and pressed it on the top of my head and it felt ridiculously good to have the water drip down my face. That was the end of the good news.

Then came that endless maze of fields... baseball, softball, lacrosse, football... it never ends. Then the track. The surface there felt like stone for some reason. Then I was forced to take a restroom break so I took advantage of a real restroom in the middle of the endless field of fields and that's when it happened. As I started running again my legs turned to jello. They just did not want to go on. I finally managed to get the intervals going but just barely. That's when I switched from 2:1 intervals to 1:2. I went around the stadium and the announcer called my name and that sort of got me going a bit but the writing was on the wall. As I exited Hell and crossed mile 20, I started to only walk. I texted my friends Gilbert and Frankie "The Jet" Ramos and told them with this pic.
Now the real race began.
Coming out of WWoS, I noticed that no one was coming in anymore. The station were I met Mary was now empty. Somewhere in the maze of Hell, were the Balloon Ladies, lurking ever-closer at their steady 16 minute per mile pace. I've heard that the final 10K of a marathon is where the real race begins and this couldn't be more true this day. I tried to focus on keeping the fastest walk I could muster but still, I was being passed by everyone on the course and that made me a bit more anxious. I was back on Osceola Parkway and as I was about to take the exit for Hollywood Studios, a State Trooper in a motorcycle passed by and said through his mic: "The Balloon Ladies are 2 miles away from this point. I'm pretty sure you guys are safe." I wasn't so sure.

I was somewhere near mile 21, which meant the Ladies were at mile 19. With me walking, they were definitely gonna catch me before the finish. But I didn't need to reach the finish to be safe. I just needed to reach the cut-off point where everyone who passes before the Balloon Ladies will not be swept. If only I knew where that was... This was going to take everything I had. My friends texted me back sending words of encouragement. "The Jet" sent me this, from Rocky IV:
This picture reminded me of another saying that travels the internet quite often. It's from Muhammad Ali.

I continued my march and entered Hollywood Studios. A lot of people were celebrating but I had a feeling this was not it. We were given chocolate, which to me was the best-tasting in the World, then I had to take another bathroom break right at the park entrance. This could not come at a worse time. Then, as I left the park and headed to the trail that leads to Epcot, a Cast Member told me: "This is it! No more buses from this point on." I desperately asked the people around me if this was the cut-off point and only a lady ventured to tell me "I guess". I just couldn't believe it. Was I really gonna be able to pull this off? This part of the course is very pretty and full of guests. You see the Boardwalk and the Yacht and Beach Clubs. My phone died. Off in the distance I saw the entrance to Epcot...

As I turned right for the World Showcase in England I started to cry. For the first time I felt safe and with that came an overflow of emotion. I thought about my daughters and how I wished they were there. The music they were playing on the park speakers was awesome! You know, that triumph of the spirit kind of music that Disney is so great at. I started to cheer back when people cheered for me. Then, as I was coming up on Morocco, a lady dressed in pink with a balloon tied to her waist passed me on the left.

The Balloon Ladies had caught me. I said "Oh Crap!" out loud which they heard and she looked at me concerned and said: "It's OK. You are safe! We just need to come in time officially. You are all safe." And that calmed me down as she started to pull ahead of me. "Great, I can now finish in peace." I thought to myself. Or can I?

Bear in mind that all this happened in my head and it took seconds. All this struggle to finish. All this uncertainty. All that work. Yes, it was to finish this challenge but it was etched my head that to do that you had to beat the Balloon Ladies and here I was behind them. Safe of course, but it didn't feel right. It took all of two seconds to make the decision.

I started running again. Hard.

Now, by this point I thought I had left everything on the course but: a) Apparently pride can also be used as fuel because I'm pretty sure that's about the only thing I had left. b) It seems I had walked long enough for my legs to "recover" enough for me to pull one big, final push to the end. Whatever it was, in the words of Forrest Gump, "I was running.!" The pavilions were nothing but a blur and I was passing absolutely everyone I came across. There was a lot of "excuse me" and "on your left" going on. I could hear the Balloon Ladies yelling behind me, telling people they were safe. It's quite ironic how such nice people can invoke so much fear in others.

So, I made it to Future World and Spaceship Earth was right in front of me, then I turned right on the service entrance and there was the Mile 26 sign, with the glorious choir singing in front of it. I had planned to take a picture here, but then again I wasn't planning to be sprinting at mile 26. Anyway, my phone was dead so it didn't matter. A little further ahead, was the finish line. For the Half, they were playing the Imperial March from Star Wars when I crossed. It was awesome! For this one, I couldn't even tell you if there was any music at all. It was all over. I had completed the Goofy Challenge. 39.3 miles in two days. A volunteer was putting the marathon medal around my neck when I heard the announcer saying the Balloon Ladies were crossing the finish line... on time. My official time? 7 hours, 37 minutes, 14 seconds. A very long way off my first (6:45:25) but I had made it.

Further ahead, I was given the required runDisney box of goodies, water, sports drink... then you go to a tent were they check your bib and a picture they took of you during the Expo so they can give you the Goofy medal. I fought the tears for a while but then I remembered that I had to contact my brother to pick me up and had no phone. I was pondering what to do as I walked from the runner's area over to were the rest of the people were when I saw him standing right in front of me. I tried to tell him something. Anything. But I felt like if I did, I would start crying. All I could do was point at the medals on my chest and look at him. "You did it man!" he told me. 

I had to wait until we got back to the hotel because of the phone dying. But I finally took some pictures. I think this says it all. It's already my Facebook profile picture. I was so tired. I can'r believe I made it up the stairs to our room.

But the bling was sure shining bright wasn't it? I think this post has run long enough so I will talk about my feelings on this race and challenge in another post. Suffice to say, I learned a lot with this experience. I always do.


  1. Yes you DID IT indeed! SO proud of you Frank! This post is so full of emotion. I love it! I think your re-naming of ESPN is completely accurate. It seems we were running through there more than last year. Did they actually tear down the race track? I know we didn't run through it like last year but I thought it was just a route change.
    I stayed to watch some friends who came in over 7 hours so I am surprised I didn't see you would have loved to seen you finish!

    1. Yes, the race track is sadly no more. runDisney should find another place in the course to put all those cool cars. I mean 26.2 miles is plenty of space. Just saying...

  2. I love this write up and how you pushed through at the end! Isn't it great that you can dig deep and find fuel even when you think you have nothing? Congrats on the Goofy :)

    1. Runners are a rare breed indeed. That's why we train. To find a way to get it done no matter what.

  3. I did the Dopey this year and really have a lot of the same thoughts as you do here. I was undertrained due to a knee injury and the night before my calf started to hurt, so I ran the whole way with a huge pain. As I got to Hollywood Studios and the Boardwalk all I could do is run. It hurt to walk it hurt to run, so I just kept running, and running and running just to get it over with. It felt like it would never end. All I could say as I crossed the finish was "I'm done! I'm done! I'm done!" That was the hardest thing I have ever done. I'm so glad you were able to finish before the balloon ladies!

    1. I think a future goal for me will be to run a Disney race in which the Balloon Ladies are not an issue. One where I can just run and enjoy. Definitely something to aim for.

  4. Oh my goodness Frank! This recap is AMAZING!!!! I'm so proud of you!!!!!! And I had ZERO doubts that you would complete The Goofy Challenge! You know I've always believed in you!

    1. And you have no idea how much that means to me Mindy. Thanks for helping me believe.

  5. Loved all of your recaps and I'm crying here reading this one! You are so amazing and I'm so glad to be cheering you on! #fitfam

    1. Sorry I made you cry but then again, I was doing some crying myself there so... I said once, I'll say it again. The #fitfam is awesome! The Angels on my shoulders.

  6. This is an awesome recap. Congratulations! I'm running the WDW marathon next year, so I was curious about the course changes. Mile 20 is where everything just sucks. It hurts to walk and it hurts to run. The finish is getting closer but there's still a good chunk of time left on the course.

    I also hated the ESPN part when I ran it in 2013. Ugh.

    1. Wide World of Sports... I'm pretty sure they can't eliminate that part completely but Disney should at least make it more bearable. They should add more entertainment in there.

  7. AWESOME recap, and CONGRATULATIONS! Hahaha, I share a lot of the same thoughts as you do during the marathon. I looooooved the extra park time in MK, but I HATE WWos! Oh, and I get soon emotional running through Epcot -- how could you not?! We had fallen pretty far back, too, and a pacer rode by and told us the balloon ladies weren't far behind...and it's definitely scary not knowing exactly where you are officially "safe!" Amazing job! :)

    1. And you forgot to mention Jennifer, that you are A DOPEY finisher. Very brave.

  8. great recap and congrats again! I am planning on doing just goofy next year (I did dopey last year and want to go back and try just goofy) and I am pumped!

    1. "Just Goofy". Like that's easy... LOL You will do great once again!

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