On the Run: The WDW Half-Marathon

by Laura Gilbreath, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the January 18, 2005, Issue #278 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Let me begin by saying: I am not a runner. You know those people you see in marathons, who appear so thin and frail that a stiff wind would blow them away, but who are really solid muscle with not an ounce of fat on them? That is NOT me. Up until five months ago I'd never run further than three miles. And I really don't even LIKE running. In fact, when I first suggested the idea of running the Walt Disney World Half Marathon to my husband Lee, he gave me one of those "who are you and what have you done with my wife?" looks. So what possessed me to think that I wanted to run 13.1 miles in the Disney World Half Marathon? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time...

The 2005 event, Walt Disney World's 12th marathon, benefited the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training. But I think there are a number of other factors that make this event attractive to the novice marathoner. Number one: the course is almost flat. No big "heartbreak hills" to conquer. And number two: Disney has a very generous time limit -- they only require a 16-minute per mile pace. This allows three and a half hours for participants to complete the half marathon and seven hours for the full marathon. I knew I could walk the 13.1 miles in that length of time, so I didn't feel like I HAD to be able to run it.

And number three: it's Disney! In what other race can you run through Cinderella Castle with Disney characters to cheer you on along the way? Not to mention traveling from Canada to Italy via Morocco and Japan. And you don't need a ticket to get in! The 26.2-mile full marathon course went through all four theme parks plus Disney's Wide World of Sports and the Epcot resort area. The 13.1-mile half marathon went through Epcot and Magic Kingdom -- and hey, if I were able to pick the two parks I'd want to run through, it would be those two!

On the downside, this is a VERY popular race, and in 2005 there were 12,000 entries in the full marathon and 12,000 more in the half marathon. Sharing the road with 23,999 of your closest friends may not be your idea of a good time. And then there's the start time. Many people (including me) consider the start time of 6:00 a.m. to be downright ungodly. (Sunrise wasn't until 7:20 a.m. on marathon morning!) But that's not the best part: they want you AT the starting area by 5:00 a.m. If you're staying at a Disney resort, transportation begins at *3:00* a.m., and the last bus leaves at *4:00* a.m. Hey, who needs sleep before a long race, anyway?

Despite all that, I registered online back in May. (I should mention that Lee and I both registered for the half marathon, but he injured his knee in August and wasn't able to train for the run. Since the entry fee is neither refundable nor transferable, he decided to try to run/walk it.)

Fast-forward to Marathon Weekend, January 7-9.

We had been instructed to pick up our registration packets on Friday or Saturday at the Health Expo held at The Milk House building of Disney's Wide World of Sports. Registration was on the upper level. (After seeing the length of the queue they had set up I'm very glad we went on Friday. We had no lines and were done in just a few minutes.) We were required to show our photo ids and submit the signed medical waiver we received in the mail. Once they gave us our race bibs and computerized timing chips we went to the "chip test" area, where we waved our chip over the sensor to make sure that our name came up on the computer screen. (There are so many people in this race that it can take 10-15 minutes for the last people to get across the start line, so your official time is determined by a timing chip that you attach to your shoe. There are sensors at the start line and finish lines that detect when you actually crossed them, so you get an accurate time of how long it took to complete the course.)

Downstairs in the exhibit area we picked up our "goodie bags" with t-shirts made of a "miracle breathable" fabric. That was a nice surprise, even though they were long-sleeved. This year the weather was unseasonably warm for January, with an expected high /low on race day of 81/57. It's usually more like 66/48, which is a lot more comfortable for running. I was hoping to finish early enough that the temperature wouldn't be much over 70 yet, and I was really glad I wasn't doing the full marathon.

We took it easy Friday and Saturday -- no commando touring for us, though we did spend most of Saturday walking around Animal Kingdom. On Saturday evening we went in search of pasta for carb-loading -- but, of course, everyone else had the same idea. Disney was serving an all-you-can-eat pasta dinner at the All Star Cafe, but we figured that would be mobbed. We ended up getting take-out from Macaroni Grill.

Around 10 p.m., we set the alarm AND scheduled a wake-up call for 3 a.m., and tried to sleep. But 3 a.m. came very early. I answered the wake-up call and heard not Mickey, as I expected, but Stitch! He cackled, "Good morning, no sleeping!" before Mickey got on to explain that, "Ever since Stitch escaped into the Magic Kingdom things have been a little exciting around here. Have a magical day!" And then Stitch came back to tell me to "Get moving!" I was laughing at the end -- and it takes a lot to make me laugh at 3 a.m.!

We'd laid out all our clothes and running gear the night before so it wasn't long before we were ready to go. A bus was waiting in front of the BoardWalk's Convention Center (marathon buses don't use the regular bus stops) and we were soon on our way to the Epcot parking lot. We arrived about 3:50 -- wow, there were already lots of buses and lots of people!

We trekked across the Epcot parking lot to the staging area, which would be the finish area for the full marathon. There was a live band and an announcer, and they were doing their best to get us revved up, as well as making periodic announcements to tell us where baggage check was and where we needed to be when. And there were LOTS of portable toilets -- I don't think I've ever seen that many in one place before!

At 5 a.m. we moved into the runners-only area where we were required to show our bib number. From there we began the slow .6-mile shuffle to the actual start areas -- 24,000 people don't move very fast! The full and half marathons have different starting lines, so the groups eventually split.

While there were plenty of portable toilets at the staging area, there weren't nearly enough at the start area, so we spent most of our remaining time waiting in line. At least it gave us something to do! Most of the men just went in the woods -- I wondered how Disney felt about that.

For the start, we were grouped into corrals. The first corral with the "Elite Runners" -- those expected to actually compete to win -- had only 100 people, but the rest of us were split into groups of 2000. Supposedly you were grouped by expected time of completion, but there were a lot of slower people in front of us. We were in Corral M (the fifth of six corrals) and could barely even see the start line!

Just before 6 a.m. we counted down, there was a burst of fireworks, and the race began. I had been concerned that it might take 20-30 minutes for us to cross the start line, but it was only about eight minutes, and we were even jogging, though very slowly, when we crossed.

It was still completely dark, and we spent most of the first two miles trying to maneuver around slower runners and walkers -- it was a lot of work. They had lots of portable lights set up (Lee commented that there probably wasn't a portable light to be had in the state of Florida that day!), but there were still some areas that were rather dark. Part of that section of the course was backstage at Epcot and the surface was uneven in places, so we had to watch our step. About two miles into the race we burst into World Showcase by the old Millennium Village. Wow! Music was playing and World Showcase was lit up just like it is during IllumiNations -- all the torches were burning, the globe was lit and spinning in the center of the lagoon, and the IllumiNations lights on all the buildings were turned on. It was quite a sight.

We exited World Showcase at the gate near Germany and ran backstage. Lee's knee and lack of training caught up with him at about 3.2 miles and he dropped back to a walk, but I kept running. The pack had thinned out a little bit, but at 3.4 miles we joined up with the full marathoners and it got more congested again. We actually ran past our original starting point on Epcot Center Drive before going up and over an overpass, and at just about Mile 6 we were out on World Drive headed towards the Magic Kingdom.

There were water and PowerAde stops about every mile and I availed myself of many of those. The marathon literature recommended alternating water and PowerAde, but also cautioned not to drink more than 4-6 ounces every 15 minutes because of the danger of hyponatremia (over-hydration), which can cause serious, potentially fatal, electrolyte imbalances. At Mile 9.1 there was fruit (bananas and oranges) and PowerGel available. (The marathon course had additional food stops available at Miles 13.2, 16, 19, and 23.)

Each mile marker had a digital clock showing the official race time as well as a big sign with the mile number and a picture of one or more Disney characters, like Pluto at Mile 7. At various points along the way there was entertainment, too -- some organized, like high school brass and steel drum bands, and some self-appointed, like the group of spectators wearing wild Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts who were playing music like "Love Shack," and cheering us all on. That sort of thing really gives you a boost.

Just after Mile 10 came what was for me the most magical part -- running in the Magic Kingdom. We ran through a backstage area and entered Main Street near The Chapeau. There were lots of Cast Members and spectators along the street to cheer us on. At the end of Main Street were Lilo and Stitch -- I got out my camera and had my picture taken with them. I was surprised that almost everyone was running right by!

We ran through Tomorrowland past Stitch's Great Escape and into Fantasyland. Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and Alice were by the teacups and I stopped for a picture. Then we ran past the carousel and toward the castle. Suzie (one of Cinderella's mice) was standing on the balcony waving to us. We ran through the castle and down around the corner into Liberty Square. Pluto and one of the Country Bears were there, and I posed for more pictures.

The Mile 11 mark was at Pecos Bill's Tall Tales Cafe and then we ran past Splash Mountain (looking VERY orange in the morning light) and across the railroad tracks. They had one of the trains pulled up and the engineer and conductor were standing there waving, and I got a picture with them, too.

We went backstage again in the staging area where the Share a Dream Come True parade floats are stored. (Lee told me that when he came through, people were getting on the floats and taking pictures -- Cast Members were watching them but not stopping them.) Then we ran over a metal bridge that crossed the waterway where the Electrical Water Pageant floats are stored -- I'd wondered how we were going to get across that. The course took us onto Floridian Way where two of the reindeer from the Christmas Parade were high-fiving the runners near the mile 12 mark. I was still feeling good, but was glad that the finish line was not too far away!

Outside the wedding chapel was a large group of Cast Members in Minnie and Mickey bride and groom ears. The men were dressed in black and the women in white. They were a great cheering section!

When we were about .1 miles from the finish, the course split and the full marathoners went right toward Animal Kingdom. We went left to the half marathon finish line in the Pluto section of the Magic Kingdom parking lot. I crossed the line at 2:36:46, but my official chip time was 2:28:25 from start line to finish line! (By the way, the winner of the marathon was Adriano Bastos from Brazil, who ran a FULL marathon in 2:19:16 -- less time than it took me to complete the half marathon!)

Volunteers gave me a Mylar "blanket," which I didn't need on such a beautiful day, and removed the timing chip from my shoe. Then I got my Donald Duck half marathon finisher's medal and had my photo taken by a Disney photographer. At the food tent there were bottles of water and PowerAde and an assortment of fruit, muffins, and chips.

From there I claimed the baggage I had checked earlier, then went to the Family Reunion area. There were lots of spectators lined up where the runners were exiting, but fortunately the Family Reunion area was not at all crowded, so I easily found the people I was looking for.

My friend Pam had planned to be waiting at the finish line, but unfortunately she had trouble getting there. She caught a Disney bus at 7:00 and then she and the bus sat in traffic for more than an hour and a half. She arrived at the family reunion area five minutes after I did, which was 20 minutes after I'd actually finished!

Lee finished about 35 minutes after I did and met us in the Reunion area, and then we all started thinking about how we were going to get back to our resort. From what I had read in the literature, I thought there would be buses directly to the resorts, but instead we had to take a bus to the marathon finish at Epcot and catch a resort bus from there. The line for the Epcot buses was *huge* -- probably because so many buses were sitting in traffic.

Anyone visiting the Magic Kingdom or Epcot that morning must have been very frustrated. Disney had highway alert signs out several days before the event informing people to "expect delays," and we had received a letter in our room telling us that roads would be closed, but none of that really prepared us for the magnitude of the traffic delays. I would recommend that anyone at Walt Disney World on Marathon Sunday avoid Magic Kingdom and Epcot entirely until the afternoon, unless they have monorail or boat access or are at an Epcot resort.

The marathon awards ceremony was held Sunday evening at Pleasure Island. All runners received a ticket to Pleasure Island in their goodie bag, and could purchase half-price tickets for friends/family by showing their bib number, but we chose not to attend. We decided to have a well-deserved dinner at Boma instead.

There were quite a few marathon participants eating there that evening, and most were wearing their medals. In fact, we saw the medals in evidence the next two days we were there -- even a Cast Member at the BoardWalk front desk was wearing her Mickey medal while in costume. And why not? It's definitely an accomplishment to be proud of.

I must say something about all the wonderful Cast Members and volunteers who made this event possible. Even at 5 in the morning the Cast Members were cheerful and enthusiastic -- I think a lot of them had to be hoarse that evening from cheering! Most of the Cast Members I saw along the race course were clapping and shouting encouragement -- and when you're tired it really does give you some extra energy. All of the volunteers at the 22 aid stations did a great job handing out beverages or food as fast as they could. And I'm sure they had to get up even earlier than we did! Thanks to all of you for being there for all of us.

This was a wonderful experience and I'm really glad I did it. And who knows, maybe next year I'll go for the Mickey full marathon medal!

Have any questions regarding the marathon? Please drop me an email: lgil@lgil.net.


Related Info:

In 2006, the half and full marathon will be held on separate days, Saturday, January 7, and Sunday, January 8, respectively. The half marathon will be on a new course that will start at Epcot, go to the Magic Kingdom, and then end back at the marathon finish line at Epcot.

Historically, these events reach their registration capacity long before the race date (this year it was September, though it has been as early as May), so anyone wishing to participate should make their plans quite a few months in advance. I registered online back in May by going to www.disneyworldmarathon.com. Registration for the half marathon was $80 ($95 for the full marathon) plus $4 for the convenience of doing it online. Had I been willing to deal with phone calls and mail-in registration I could've taken advantage of a special for DVC members and paid only $70.

Included in the registration fee were the following: race entry, commemorative race program and recap, transportation on Walt Disney World property, race t-shirt, and entry into the Post Race Celebration and Awards Ceremony held at Pleasure Island the evening of the race.

At the time of registration I was given the option to have Disney send me information on special room/ticket packages available to marathon participants, but since we have Annual Passes and were planning to use our DVC points to stay at BoardWalk Villas I chose not to receive any of that.


For another view of the half-marathon, read The Unofficial Guide researcher Len Testa's report here: http://allears.net/btp/authors_sehl5.htm


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.