Man oh man, this race was one I will never forget. I experienced the highest of eyes and the lowest of lows, all in a few hour period. Let’s start from the beginning. It’s along one, so get ready.
Early last year, right after signing up, my friend Meg sent over a link with a great offer for lodging for the race. We opted to stay at the Hilton Bonnet Creek, as the hotel is pretty much on Disney property and they have a marathon weekend package, geared at making the participant’s life a little easier. There are cheer squads, pre-race snacks, a concierge to help with questions, and most importantly, transportation to and from the race. My family stayed back in Tampa, and planned to head to Orlando the morning of the race.
With a 5:30 am start time, , we had to be ready to go by 3:30am. Race day traffic is insane so you want to give yourself plenty of time to get there. The last bus left at 3:45am, so we were downstairs and ready to go! I grabbed my pre-race coffee and we hopped on the bus. It was nice and warm in there, so we were pretty happy to spend some time being protected from the 41 degree temps outside.
We were on the bus for about 15 minutes, going all over the place when we literally passed right by our hotel again – hmmm, strange – bad sign #1. We were now going in the right direction, headed to the runner drop off at Epcot. We pulled up next to the Swann and Dolphin resort and immediately stopped in grid locked traffic – there were 3 lanes merging down into one, with no one directing the traffic. I remember looking at my watch and it was 3:57. Around 4:10, the driver put the bus in park to deal with an issue with the bathroom door locking from the inside, with no one in it – bad sign #2. When he came back to his seat and tried to move forward, the bus was giving him an error. It wouldn’t move an inch. OH SHIT.
For the next 30 minutes, the 17 runners that were on board went from antsy, to concerned, to straight up pissed. It was getting closer and closer to the time the corrals closed (5am) and we had to get to the start. The driver kept telling us he wasn’t opening the door. We had to stay put. After multiple attempts of everyone asking, begging, & pleading (accompanied by many less than stellar words) to get off the bus, the driver finally opened the door so we could disperse. Good riddance.
Everyone who was on the bus scattered, knocking on people’s windows to hitch a ride. With traffic still at a standstill, I opted to start running toward the start, along with a few other. I made it about 12-15 minutes before a nice gentleman named John picked me and another guy up to bring us to the start. He was running the full for the first time and was nice as can be. I am forever grateful that he grabbed us, as the start was even further away than I thought. I would never have made it in time.
When I hopped out of his truck, I had to continue to run to the starting corrals. Since I had done this race back in 2008, I remembered there was quite a hike from the parking lot to get to the start, so off I went. I finally landed in my corral at 5:14am, just 16 minutes before the start. Luckily, the corrals were not truly closed at 5am, so I was able to wiggle my way through the crowds pretty easily. I looked down at my Garmin and saw I already had taken over 5000 steps so far. Awesome. Running 3+ miles before the race even started was not in my race day plan.
At that point, I had so many thoughts running through my head. Am I going to have to give up on my 3:30 goal, right from the start? How was I going to run an 8 minute pace after expending so much energy already? Between the mental frustration and the physical effort, I was already feeling tired. Then, I snapped back into reality. I sure as hell didn’t wake up at 4am for the past 3.5 months to let this happen. I was giving this race my all, crappy pre-race or not. I was prepared to slay this race, and that’s exactly what I set out to do.
Once the gun went off, I was off with the rest of the A Corral to conquer 26.2 miles in the happiest place on Earth. The first mile was a little slow since the crowds were so big, so I knew I’d have to make up some time. After that I knew the next few miles always fly by, but even more so when its dark. I took a quick pit stop at mile 4, and continued on, taking everything in. I saw Lightning McQueen and Mater and immediately thought of my son Grant and how much he would love to see those two! It was the perfect way to make me smile. I was very focused on my pace, since I really didn’t want to start out too fast. I think running the 3 miles before the race helped to hold me back a little bit, as 7:50ish was really comfortable right now.
The first park we made it to was the Magic Kingdom, right at mile 5. Cinderella’s castle is so beautiful all lit up and I couldn’t help but smile so big when I saw it. We went through Tomorrowland, I gave Buzz Lightyear a wave, and then we were headed right through the castle. Frontierland was next and then I think we headed out a side entrance.
We ran past the Grand Floridian and some other resorts and now I was really in my groove. My goal pace was right on target and I was feeling great 7 miles in. I had taken in water and Gatorade twice by this point , and then a pack of fruit snacks I brought with me for fuel. I tend to take something from each aid station in marathons, alternating Gatorade and water, and then only water when I eat anything solid. Its worked really well for me in the past and this time was no different.
There were a lot of highway miles ahead now, and I knew I would need to focus for about 5 miles until we got to Animal Kingdom. There were a lot of character stops along the way, so I took it all in, passing each one and just giving them a quick wave. I wasn’t stopping for any character photos if I was going to be reaching big goals!
Animal Kingdom came and went pretty fast. I enjoyed getting a peek at the World of Avatar, since I hadn’t seen it yet. It was really impressive and I can’t wait to get back! I felt good at this halfway point and did a quick assessment. Up to this point, all of my miles except for 2, were sub 8. I was feeling good and had zero thoughts that I wouldn’t be able to get to my 3:30. I had a lot left in me and considered picking it up a bit. Given the pre-race fiasco, I wasn’t sure how much I’d have left come mile 22+, so I decided to keep it conservative. My current pace was what I was going to have to hold. Right around that point, I gave my husband a quick call to see if they had made it to Epcot. I knew traffic was crazy and since they drove over from Tampa, I wanted to check. They were all set and ready, just spending some time between the monorail and Epcot to keep the kids entertained!
I had a lot of highway time in front of me, as I knew the Wide World of Sports was up next, but not until mile 18. I checked off each mile from 13-18, hitting my pace with no issue. I wanted this PR. So bad.
For me, mile 18 is when a marathon really begins. The first 18 miles tend to be a warm up. The last 8 mile stretch is the time that sets a long run and race apart from each other. My previous marathon experience has taught me this exact lesson. Everything can change after this moment – only if you let it.
Running in the Wide World of Sports completely brought me back to my college racing days, as I ran both cross country and track meets on that same course. I mind was definitely occupied during miles 18-20, so that was a really nice break from thinking about what I had left to do.
Mile 19-20 was the first time I was starting to feel a little tired. I kept a close eye on my legs, making sure I wasn’t slowing down, or trying to speed up. This was not the time for either scenario. Holding that pace was what really needed to happen. 8 minutes and under, check (but just barely).
I find that miles 21, 22, & 23 are the toughest of this course. You are running from the Wide World of Sports to Hollywood Studios and there is an uphill at mile 22, taking you from one highway to another. It’s just enough to feel the increased elevation, but not enough to fatigue your legs entirely. This is where the mental part of running is so apparent. Knowing that hill was no biggie was just as important as actually running up it. I couldn’t afford to slow down. I was literally seconds away from running a sub 3:30 or not. Watch check – I was just over 8 minute pace. Yikes. Knowing I was sub 8 for most of the race made me realize I could afford a couple extra seconds per mile from here to the end of the race. Just not too many.
Once I got into Hollywood Studios, I was ready to be done. My legs were so tired and I could really feel that I had already covered the 26.2 mile distance. There was no way in hell I was slowing down now – I only had 3 miles left – a simple 5k. If I slowed down now, I’d lose my PR and my sub 3:30. I wanted this big finish so bad and knew there was only one thing left to do – haul my butt to the finish, see my family waiting for me, and get that gorgeous medal. It was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other through Epcot. 8 minutes and 8:03 for miles 24 & 25. I had this. I knew it.
For those of you who follow my on Instagram, I shared the race on my stories through the race. This was when I grabbed my phone in Epcot and I very confidently exclaimed I was “going to PR this baby!”.
I knew it. I was there. This mile was the cherry on top of this whole journey. I took my head phones out, as I do at the end of every marathon, and just enjoyed these last few moments on the course. 7:56 for mile 26. That’s what I needed.
I turned the corner and saw that finisher’s chute. I had talked to my family at mile 24.5, and they told me right where they were. I looked for them and saw two sweet little boys giving their momma the biggest smiles and waves, along with my husband, and my sister, who flew down to see me race. I lost it. My happy tears and huge smile were flowing.
The finish line was just yards away. I threw my arms up in the air as I crossed the finish line, grateful for the ability to have run this race at all. Starting the morning not knowing if I would even make it to the start, to crossing the finish line with a minute + PR and an amazing Boston Qualifying time, was a storybook ending. It’s only fitting that it happened at the Disney Marathon.
I grabbed my medal, my mylar blanket and a special 25 year anniversary gift (Mickey ears!!) and made my way to see my family. The last 3.5 months of early mornings, tired legs and mile after mile were all so well worth it. I finished with an official time of 3:29:37 – a perfect 8 minute per mile pace.
I hobbled my way to the car with my family (nope, did not hop on a bus back!) and have never felt so fulfilled. I’m hanging my marathon hat up until this time next year, when I start training for Boston 2019!
What a day. What a marathon. What an amazing race. I guess its true what Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“Its the not the destination, it’s the journey.”