Inaugural Walt Disney World Dopey Challenge
January 9-12, 2014
In a previous life, I had lived in Orlando (don’t ask me why I decided to move to freaking cold Massachusetts), and although I usually tried to avoid Disney World like the plague (except when the kids twisted my arm), the marathon was something I wanted to do some day. I had signed up but bailed due to persistent injuries in 2012, and decided to try again for 2014.
When I looked up a friend’s results on athlinks.com last year, I noticed a strange thing: 3 results for the 2012 Disney Marathon weekend, with one close to 6 hrs. What the…? Disney doesn’t do Ultras – or do they? That’s how I learned about the Goofy Challenge, completing both the half and the full marathon on two consecutive days. I still remember my incredulous email to my coach, Jeff, wondering how to train for something like that. I also thought this was a crazy one-time thing. His answer: “No, they do this every year, and you simply train for the demands of the race, with back-to-back long runs”.
Nobody ever called me sane, so I decided to go for it. When the sign-up date for 2014 came around, RunDisney had added an inaugural 10k to the list, fitting nicely between the 5k Family Run on Friday (which was now pushed to Thursday) and the half on Saturday. Since a few runners had previously run the 5k in addition to the Goofy Challenge and called themselves “Dopeys” (fittingly), RunDisney decided to package all four races (5k, 10k, half, full) and mint a new challenge – Dopey. Finish all 4 races on Thursday through Sunday within their respective pacing requirements, and you walk away with enough bling to make Mr. T jealous: 5k, 10k, half and full finisher’s medals, plus the Goofy and the brand new Dopey Challenge finisher’s medals.
Signing up is the easiest part of a race and as almost always, life got in the way of training. After running a 3h38m PR in the Marine Corps Marathon in October, layoffs at work hit me the following week and I spent almost two months on the couch, depressed and reverting to my pre-triathlon Pringles dinner habit (remember Jeff’s speech at the Christmas party?). Nevertheless, I managed to get two 20-milers in (on the treadmill, no less), one by itself and the other as part of a 10-20 combo, and hoped that would be enough.
I arrived in Orlando Tuesday night (I could bunk with friends down there who also let me use their car), and drove to Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Wednesday afternoon to pick up my package and visit the expo. Nothing out of the ordinary there, although the packet pick-up was very well organized. I had signed up for the race, some memorabilia, and the race retreat (air-conditioned tent with separate facilities, breakfast, and post-race brunch and massages) separately, and changed my shirt size and expected finish times, and expected some run-around, but everything was nicely grouped under my name.
I received two bib numbers, one for the 5k and 10k, the other for the half and full, a total of six shirts (four races plus two challenges), and the usual product samples. I like swag almost as much as I like bling! The most important was probably a booklet detailing the particulars for each race (directions, parking, arrival times, course, pace requirements), as well as the procedures for Dopey participants: in order to keep track, participants receive a wrist band after each finished race, which must be shown after finishing the next race to get the next wrist band. After the marathon, presentation of the half-marathon wrist band and the marathon finisher’s medal will identify you as a Dopey finisher and get you the Goofy and Dopey medals.
The 5k and 10k were pretty unspectacular. All races are held very early in the morning to avoid the Florida heat (even in January!), and both were run in and around Epcot on almost the same course, with the 10k adding an out-and-back 5k stretch. These are not my strong distances anyway, so I heeded the advice given to Dopey participants at the Expo and kept it easy.
In the half, however, the advice had been “walk lots”. And I’m not walking in a half, no way. Plus, now the Disney machinery had kicked into high gear (cheerleaders, animators, fireworks), and I was full of adrenaline. The course was identical to the first half of the marathon course: from Epcot to Magic Kingdom, along Main Street, through Tomorrowland and the Cinderella Castle, then back to Epcot, with tons of photo opportunities with Disney characters along the way. Spectators have access to the parks during the race for free if the register with the Disney “ChEAR Squad”, but have to get out before the parks open. And running through a fully illuminated Magic Kingdom, filled with cheering spectators, in the pre-dawn hours was a highlight of my running career. Later that day, I could definitely feel my legs complaining, and I was grateful for compression pants and my Normatec. My friends fixed me a nice pasta dinner, and I hit the bed at 8 pm.
On marathon day, I got up at 2am – ½ hr to get ready and a 1 hr drive to Disney, to be there by the recommended 3:30 am to ensure I had plenty of time in case of unforeseen traffic jams and the like (due to road closures) before the 5:30 am start. But everything went off without a hitch, and once again I was amazed by the well-oiled Disney machinery. Although a significant percentage of the 25,000 runners arrived by car, Epcot swallowed them without so much as a hiccup. In the “Race Retreat” tent, Disney employees cheered for everybody entering, and besides large round tables and chairs, a number of leather couches looked very inviting to relax and enjoy the coffee, OJ, bananas, muffins, and PB&J bagels for breakfast.
The starting line was about a 20 minute walk away from the start area at Epcot, and runners were directed there by corral starting at around 4:30 am. Along the way and at the starting line, animators and huge TV screens kept everybody entertained.
Each race in the series is dedicated to one of the Disney Characters – the 5k to Pluto, 10k to Minnie, half to Donald and the full to Mickey. And each character obviously has to start their race. And again in Disney perfection, the wheelchair division started at 5:30 am sharp, followed by each corral in 5 minute intervals. Fireworks sent off each group of runners into the night.
Temperatures were perfect for a race, in the high 60s – the original forecast for low 80s for the Marathon had been steadily revised downwards each day. And I had hooked up with the 3h30m pacer in the starting area and decided to give it a try, since I felt pretty good. About two miles into it, it became clear that this would not be a PR. Not by a long shot. The 20 lbs of Pringles (since Marine Corps) and the three previous races had finally caught up with me. So I decided to enjoy the race, walk through the water stops, take breaks when needed, stop for pictures with the characters, and try sneak in under the 4hr mark.
The course is dead flat with the exception of a few bridges, and slight elevations for the individual theme parks (each park is actually located on the third floor, with two stories of infrastructure underneath and well above the high Florida groundwater level that makes basements impossible). From Epcot, the course leads through uninhabited area, essentially along the monorail line, and into Magic Kingdom from the East through a service access (one gets plenty of looks behind the scenes at these races, and they’re no less impressive than the parks themselves). After running through the castle like on the previous day, we left the park to the West and headed South along a long, straight road towards Animal Kingdom. Any potential boredom once outside Magic Kingdom was alleviated by DJs, animators, characters, and a run around the Walt Disney World Speedway to the sound of several dozen race cars revving their engines.
I hit the wall right around the halfway point, much sooner and harder than in any previous marathon, and started to take walking breaks, all the while trying to maintain an overall 9min/mi pace for a sub-4hr finish. After Animal Kingdom, the course led into Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and around and through the various tracks and fields there. By the time we reached Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the parks had opened as usual to the paying public, and I was curious to see how the machine would handle the interaction between runners and visitors. Easily, as I found out – similar to the procedure at Magic Kingdom during the twice daily parade, the course was roped off and visitors were guided in groups onto “islands” in the course while runners were routed first around one, then the other side of each “island”. So visitors could still cross the course without interfering with the race. Impressive.
Finally the course wound back towards Epcot, past the Swan and Dolphin hotels, through the Yacht and Beach Club Resort, and I started seeing some familiar landmarks from the 10k. Cheerleaders (between parks, in the otherwise “dead spots”), spectators, and a gospel choir cheered us on, and the sight of Epcot’s trademark “Starship Earth” sphere signaled that the finish line was close. I finished in 3h56m53s, just under the 4hr mark as I had hoped. And was rewarded with not only the Mickey, but also with the Goofy and Dopey medals. Brunch and a massage in the race retreat tent provided relief and a proper finish after four days, four races, and four parks (as Disney’s slogan for the event goes).
Now to run the Dumbo Double Dare (10k and half) in Disneyland (California) in August, for three more medals plus Disney’s “Coast to Coast” award for completing at least a half in both Disneyland and Disney World in the same calendar year. Did I mention that I like bling?