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the World in Four Hours
by Bill McDonough
Dressed only in shorts and a tank top, I am standing in the middle of Epcot Center Drive at 5:55 a.m. on a chilly Sunday morning in January. Instead of being buzzed by speeding tourists and Disney buses, I am surrounded in the pre-dawn darkness by 18,000 similarly dressed fanatics, counting down the minutes to the start of the annual Walt Disney World Marathon.
A big wave from Mickey Mouse and a whoosh of fireworks signals the start of our trek through all four theme parks, entirely on foot. The fleetest afoot will return here to Epcot in less than two and a half hours. But most of us will run through the morning, finishing in three, four, five, even seven hours.
This annual event has been a fixture at Walt Disney World since 1991. The course has changed over time, and this year's race starts and ends at Epcot. A concurrently run half marathon finishes in the Magic Kingdom parking lot.
But I am here to run all the way, a full 26.2 miles through the parks and along Disney's network of roads. The enormous crowd - filling both sides of the divided highway - surges forward slowly like an uncoiling snake. Spectators line one side of the road, bundled up against the unseasonably cold temperatures. Chilly for watching but ideal for running.
We wind our way through the Epcot entrance plaza and step into the park itself through a "back door" that deposits us in the middle of the World Showcase's English pavilion. Although it is still quite dark, the entire park is ablaze with lights and music as we wind around the World Showcase, only to exit through another service gate by Mexico.
Now we hit the roads for a long stretch up to the Magic Kingdom. The sun slowly rises and begins to warm the air as we race alongside the Monorail whooshing overhead. All along the route are clusters of volunteers passing out water and sports drinks, as well as DJs and cast members encouraging runners with cheers and music.
We pass another large crowd of spectators at the Transportation & Ticket Center, before entering the Magic Kingdom just after the ten-mile mark. Bursting from backstage into Town Square, we are greeted by throngs of cheering family members and friends who line Main Street. Running toward the castle as it shimmers in the early morning sunlight is a memory that will last forever.
Circling through Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, I slap hands with Buzz Lightyear and Goofy, who join dozens of other characters in cheering on the runners. Passing right through Cinderella's Castle, we wind our way through Liberty Square (one of the Country Bears tries to keep pace with me!) and out the "back door" of the Magic Kingdom onto Floridian Way.
Past the Grand Floridian and Polynesian resorts, about 5,000 of our number peel off to finish the half marathon event. At this point I wish I were going with them. But I have many miles to cover before the day is done.
A snaking back road brings us into the backside of the Animal Kingdom. Passing through Harambe to the pounding beat of drums helps me to pick up the pace on my way down a long stretch of highway to Disney's Wide World of Sports. Now we have reached the 20-mile mark and my legs know it.
Up the road we go to Disney-MGM Studios, entering by the Rock 'n Roller Coaster. By now, guests are entering the park for a day of fun and adventure. I wonder what they think of this stream of sweat stained, half dressed runners in their midst?
Following the canal from MGM to Boardwalk, thousands of feet pound across the wooden promenade as we get a glimpse of our final destination - Spaceship Earth. Has it only been four hours since we were here?
Circling the World Showcase for the second time today, our long, thin line of runners passes through even more cheering strangers as we make our way under the giant ball and out into the Epcot parking lot and the beautiful sight of our favorite word - FINISH!
Across the line and a smiling volunteer places my cherished gold Mickey Mouse finisher's medal around my neck. No Olympic medal ever meant more to an athlete.
I can think of no better way to tour Walt Disney World than under my own power, accompanied by so many of my new friends. For serious runner and health conscious jogger, the Walt Disney World Marathon is a both an annual goal and reward for putting in the miles necessary to be a marathoner.