WRITERS' CORNER

T.C.B. at the
Walt Disney World Marathon

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by Len Testa


Elvis Presley is alive and well, and he runs like a man half his age. I know this because we ran together from around mile 5 through mile 7 of the Walt Disney World Half-Marathon this past weekend (January 9, 2005). Whatever they're doing to him on those alien spacecraft, it's working. Wearing his trademark white jumpsuit, complete with cape, sunglasses, and perfectly coiffed hair, Elvis kept up a sub-11-minute mile pace during the time we ran together.

Seeing Elvis wasn't the only surreal moment of my day. The first was the wake-up call at 2:15 a.m., a time when one normally expects phone calls only from paramedics or bail bondsmen. I showered and rubbed something like half a gallon of Vaseline on every moving body part, plus a dab of Icy Hot on my heels. Smelling like an explosion at Walgreens, I grabbed a quick breakfast of coffee and a PowerBar, hit the lobby around 3 a.m., and was on the bus around 3:30.

The first thing I noticed when we got off the bus at the Epcot parking lot was the number of portable toilets Disney had set up in the pre-race area; literally hundreds and hundreds of uniform gray rectangles arranged side to side. Standing across from them at the far end of the parking lot, you could not see from one end to the other without turning your head. The constant "thunk thunk thunk" of the spring-loaded doors slamming shut filled the early morning hours like an uncoordinated drum beat.

I made my way over to the runners' corrals around 5 a.m. Disney divides runners into different starting areas based on their expected race times, with the elite marathon runners at the front of the starting line, in corral "A." The next-best runners are placed in corral "B," and so on. Having never run a distance race before, I was with the last group, in corral "N." I'm fairly certain we were lined up in Daytona, as I couldn't even see the starting line from my position at the back of the pack.

As the race start time grew nearer, I finally got a good view of the size of the field. It looked like one of those photos from the civil rights marches on Washington during the 60's, with running shorts replacing protest signs. It was a massive amount of people, completely taking up around half a mile of two two-lane highways.

At 5:55 a.m., right after the national anthem, the wheelchair racers started off, and then it was our turn. With a small fireworks display, and lots of hollering from the crowd, the 2005 Walt Disney World Marathon began promptly at 6 a.m. Except for those of us in corral N. It took us more than eleven minutes to get to the starting line from our place at the back of the pack. To put that in perspective, the folks that won the half-marathon were almost two miles ahead of us by the time we crossed the start. I think I ran through a tollbooth, too, we were so far back, but that may have been a hallucination brought on by the chemicals in the Porta-Potties.

I don't remember much about the first mile of the race, other than no one could run very fast because of the crowd. At that point, the serious runners, the joggers, and the walkers were all bunched up pretty tightly, with folks having to run on the grass to pass.

We ran through the Epcot parking lot near the bus drop-off, and back behind the pavilions in Future World West. Entering World Showcase between Canada and the United Kingdom, we saw the IllumiNations globe glowing red in the middle of the lagoon, the big torches burning, and all of the countries' lights turned on. As Epcot is my favorite theme park, this was an excellent way to start the race. I didn't recognize the background music playing - it wasn't Reflections of Earth, but it was peppy anyway. We exited World Showcase behind Germany, and started back on Epcot Center Drive for the long four-mile run toward the Walt Disney World Speedway.

Somewhere around mile 4, just outside of Epcot, was one of the most memorable moments of the entire race: dozens of women runners going to the bathroom just off the side of the road. It's an obvious problem in a race that can take more than six hours, but one most non-runners don't consider. There wasn't a JiffyJohn in sight, so these women just stopped, dropped their shorts and went about their business. It occurred to me right there that the popularity of distance running may do more for gender equity than a decade's worth of legislation. Any woman willing to bleed through her toenails and ignore social conventions regarding how she's "supposed" to behave, how can that woman be stopped? I left mile 4 feeling much better about this country's future.

Things got better from there. Elvis passed me around the start of mile 5, and I figured if I kept up with him for a while, I might beat my goal of 2 hours, 40 minutes. The King did not disappoint as we circled around the off-ramp on World Drive and headed towards the Speedway. I lost Elvis at the water station somewhere around mile 7, where I presume he was mobbed by his loyal fans. It was around then that I knew my socks, wet from running in the grass so much, had started to blister my toes. Good thing we only had another six miles -- a little more than an hour of constant running -- to go!

We zipped around the Speedway and through the Magic Kingdom parking lot, where we started seeing a lot of spectators lining the sides of the race route. It's very motivating to have complete strangers yell your name as you run by, and it made mile 8 go by very fast. Thanks very much to all the folks who came out to cheer on the runners.

Mile 9 took us down Topiary Lane, past the turn-off to the Wilderness Lodge, and it was here that Disney provided runners with bananas, chocolate-chip cookies, and PowerGel packs. I don't normally take food from strangers, especially strangers on the side of the road offering a handful of peeled banana chunks, so I went with a tangerine PowerGel instead. PowerGels are one-ounce, pudding-like carbohydrate replacement gels designed to keep up energy levels during endurance events, such as long-distance running. And if "carbohydrate replacement gel" doesn't sound very good to you, you don't know what you're missing. They're like eating a mouthful of warm cake frosting, and one of the best parts of long-distance training. Most sporting goods stores carry them for around $1.25 each. Try the chocolate and tell me it's not like something Betty Crocker would make. A big thank you to all the folks at PowerGel for making a great product. Feel free to send samples.

We ran past the Contemporary Resort, and it was a lot of fun running in that little tunnel under Bay Lake. Once past the Contemporary, around the start of mile 10, we made a sharp left and continued on a road that runs parallel to the Disney bus drop-off stands at the Magic Kingdom. At this point, the sides of both big toes were hurting pretty bad, and my arms began to get tired. My longest training run had been 10 miles, so everything beyond this point was uncharted territory. I was running about a quarter-mile an hour faster than my usual pace, too, and it was getting warmer. The good news was that I wasn't dehydrated, cramping, or having sharp pains anywhere. But somewhere around mile 10, the run started to become real work.

Fortunately, we got to run through the Magic Kingdom, which was a real treat. Of course, in my research for the Unofficial Guide, I'd run through the Magic Kingdom dozens of times. Now, however, it was Disney-sanctioned running. We entered the Magic Kingdom between Tony's Town Square and the hat shop on Main Street, and then turned right to run up toward the castle. At the central hub, we turned right and ran over the bridge into Tomorrowland, past the once-and-soon-to-be-rehabbed Stitch attraction, and turned left at the Astro Orbiter. We made our way to the Mad Tea Party -- no one liked my idea of stopping for breakfast at Cosmic Ray's -- and turned left into the heart of Fantasyland. Turning left again at Cinderella's Golden Carrousel, we ran through the castle, and down the right side toward Liberty Square. Through Liberty Square and Frontierland we went (Note to Disney Marathon staff: next year, pass out turkey legs to runners at mile 11), over the train tracks and around the backstage areas of the Magic Kingdom.

We emerged on Floridian Way, and I think mile 11 was the longest stretch of the entire race. We'd all been squeezed on to a single two-lane road, and there was nothing to see but palm trees all around. No music, no breeze, just the sound of shoes hitting pavement, and lots of rhythmic breathing. The temperature had continued to increase, and in the occasional small talk between runners, you could hear folks start asking how much farther the finish line would be. I'd slowed down slightly after the Magic Kingdom; my hip flexors were tired, my quads had a dull ache, and my calves didn't have the same spring in them as before. And sweat had started to drip into my eyes, providing a refreshing sting every few seconds.

Passing the 12-mile mark at the Grand Floridian, we saw the Cast Members from that resort out cheering us on in matching bride and groom outfits. That was a nice touch, and a welcome distraction from the run at that point. I also found my wife and daughter around the Polynesian at 12.5 miles. Not only was this a huge emotional boost, but a major accomplishment. My wife, admittedly not a huge Disney theme park fan, had made it from the Wilderness Lodge to the outskirts of the Poly, taking a boat to the Contemporary, then the resort monorail to the Poly, and finally walking from the Poly to the race course. And my 6-year old daughter skipped a morning in the Magic Kingdom to spend two seconds giving me a high-five. With all due respect to Elvis, that's my favorite memory of the race.

The last couple hundred yards of the race were also a blur. I remember people calling out the remaining distance left, from 250 meters until we could see the finish line. I remember running really hard once I saw the finish, my name getting called as I crossed the finish line, and getting wrapped in a solar blanket right after. Oh, and I almost choked to death on a slice of banana cake I got when the race was over, as my mouth was really dry and I'd not yet gotten a bottle of water. Memo to Disney: Next year, hand out water first, then cake. And I got my medal, a nice, shiny Donald, for finishing the half-marathon. My official time was 2:36:06, and I covered the 13.1-mile course in 2:25:21, not counting the time it took to get to the starting line at the beginning of the race.

Overall, it was a great experience, and a whole lot of fun. The Disney event staff, along with hundreds of volunteers, put on an excellent event. Next year's races promise to be less-crowded, as the half-marathon will be run on Saturday, and the full marathon on Sunday. I'm trying to talk Mike Scopa from Mouseplanet.com into running, ideally the full marathon. Perhaps we can get a few others from the Disney internet community together and run as a group. If you're interested, drop me a line at len@touringplans.com.

In addition to the Disney Cast Members and volunteers who helped stage a fun, exciting, safe race, I'd like to thank the following people for helping me train:

· New Balance Canada, for taking the time to explain "pronation," and for making the 1023WY, a wonderful running shoe.

· Damian Fisher of Renaissance Fitness, the best personal trainer anyone could ever have.


Questions and comments: len@touringplans.com