The 2016 Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend was held January 6-11. With a 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon, Kid’s Races, and Health and Fitness Expo, it is the flagship weekend of the runDisney race series. Over 100,000 runners and spectators partook in the four days of events. I competed in the Dopey Challenge, in which runners complete four races in four days, totaling 48.6 miles. I was joined by two friends who were also running Dopey and two others who each did the Marathon as a standalone event.
I flew to Orlando on Wednesday morning and headed to the Expo after a quick stop at the hotel. With the new layout for bib and packet pickup, the process was surprisingly smooth with minimal waits. I was also surprised to see how much of the official merchandise remained on the shelves, particularly for events that required runners to pick up their bibs on the Expo’s first day. In the past, many items have sold out within minutes of opening, but it seemed like most items were still in stock after a few hours. After the Expo we went to the parks, knowing that the next morning’s 6:00 a.m. race start would be the latest we’d get to sleep in all weekend.
The 3.1-mile 5K course begins in the Epcot parking lot, and follows Woodpecker Lane to the park’s backstage entrance. After passing under the outdoor portion of Test Track, the course enters the park between Mexico and Norway, and proceeds around World Showcase, through International Gateway, into Future World with a brief loop near The Land, before returning to the parking lot for the finish.
Because the Family Fun 5K is an untimed event, I ran it with my friends at a leisurely pace. One of my friends was assigned to Corral B because of his pacing proof, so we dropped back to start with him. We ran the first mile, walked the second, and then ran the remainder. It began misting lightly during the race, but the temperatures were just cool enough to be comfortable while running without being miserable while waiting for the race to start. We stopped for a couple quick photos along the way, and finished in about 30:30.
The 6.2-mile 10K course starts in the Epcot parking lot, and spends the first half of the course heading through the toll plaza and running along Epcot Center Boulevard. After entering the park’s backstage area, runners emerge between Norway and China, and then loop around World Showcase and the Boardwalk. The course briefly passes through backstage and emerges next to Imagination to cut across Future World and finish in the parking lot.
Shortly before the race began, the announcers mentioned that Paula Radcliffe, the marathon world record holder for the last 15 years, was running the race. I was pleasantly surprised by this, since Disney typically brings in well-known pop culture celebrities to their events, not bona fide world champion runners. I was even more surprised when I looked up and saw her standing right next to me. Despite starting near the back of the corral, competing in the Master’s division, and claiming she was just taking it easy that day, she went on to place third overall for the race.
The biggest factor in the race for me was the rain. Although it drizzled lightly before the race, it seemed to stop around the time the first corral was released. However the rain returned, and with vengeance, around the time I hit mile four. Since I was taking it relatively easy as part of Dopey, I wasn’t too concerned about the rain slowing me down, but I did worry that it might cause some blisters. Although it wasn’t ideal weather, running in the rain always feels like you’re doing something extreme and hardcore, so it made the race a little more memorable than usual. I finished the race in 56:30; João Marcello Avelar of São Paulo won the men’s division in 32:35, and the women’s winner was Sydney Leiher of Beaver Creek, OH in 37:41.
The 13.1-mile Half Marathon course starts on Epcot Center Boulevard, near Overpass Road, and heads north on World Drive. After passing through the Magic Kingdom toll plaza and parking lot, runners go through the Transportation and Ticket Center and past the Contemporary en route to the park. Runners enter through backstage, before entering Town Square and running up Main Street. The course then winds through Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, passing through the castle, and then exits the park through Liberty Square and Frontierland. Runners follow Floridian Way past the Grand Floridian and Polynesian Village, and return to World Drive. After climbing several overpasses, the course enters Epcot for an out-and-back through Future World, before finishing in the parking lot.
In my recent half marathons, I’ve struggled with my fueling strategy, leading to stomach cramps in the final miles. I tend to drink a lot of water in my daily life, so it can be tough for me to find the right amount to drink while on the run. I settled into a rhythm of taking two cups of water and about a half cup of PowerAde at each fluid station, which seemed to hit the balance just right. Considering the Marathon looming ahead of me, I was quite relieved to find something that worked so well.
The morning started off pleasantly cool, but fog settled in after the race began. Although the fog made it tough to see anything in the distance, it was neat to see how everything looked in the foggy darkness. The fog lifted after the sun rose, which was around the time I finished. Although I kept a pretty solid pace, I held back some to help preserve my legs for the next day’s Marathon, finishing the Half in 2:04:10. João Marcello Avelar won his second race of the weekend in 1:10:17, and Megan Curham of Warren, NJ won the women’s division in 1:14:29.
The 26.2-mile Marathon course starts outside Epcot and follows a similar route to the Half Marathon for the first 8 miles. Runners then head down Bear Island Road, a backstage road that goes past the water treatment facility and connects to the back of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. After running around that park, the course continues onto Osceola Parkway to the Wide World of Sports, where there are several miles winding through the grounds. Runners then return to Osceola Parkway, head up World Drive, and enter Disney’s Hollywood Studios. After running along the route of the former Backlot Tour and out through the park’s entrance, the course heads toward the Boardwalk, enters Epcot for a lap around World Showcase, and finishes in the Epcot parking lot.
After the four other mornings to fly down to Orlando and run the three previous race, dragging myself out of bed before 3:00 a.m. was a struggle, but I was excited to finally get the race underway. As usual for Goofy and Dopey runners, the first few steps were tough on sore legs, but I quickly settled into a pace that felt comfortable and began to watch the miles tick by. The Marathon is one of my favorite courses anywhere because it’s laid out so that there is a point of interest every few miles; instead of thinking about running 26.2 miles, it’s a lot easier to think about running over two miles to the Magic Kingdom toll plaza, and then a couple more miles to the Transportation and Ticket Center, and so on. Although the course has had some changes in recent years (mostly downgrades, including the never-ending trip to and through the Wide World of Sports), it’s still one of the best courses I’ve ever run.
After running the first two races in the rain, I was glad that the weather stayed dry for the two longer races. However, the fog during the Half Marathon made the race more mentally taxing than usual, and the humidity during the Marathon added a whole new layer of complication. By around the halfway point, my clothes were completely soaked with sweat; I felt like I had just jumped into a swimming pool.
It seemed like other runners were also impacted by the humidity; the field seemed thin out much more than usual during the final third of the race. It was also the first race where I had seen a runner lying on the ground on the side of the course receiving medical treatment at various locations far away from the medical stations; I saw at least two runners doing this, including one with an IV. There is no real way to train for weather like this, but it really stresses the point that even though the races take place on Disney property where things are usually fun and easy, they are still very demanding physical events and should be taken seriously.
Although doing Dopey is no easy task, I contend that it actually makes the Marathon seem easier by comparison. Instead of starting out full of energy and hitting the wall later, you’re sore and sleepy from the beginning which helps to keep your pace in check throughout the race. While I slowed down slightly throughout the Marathon, my fastest and slowest splits were only 36 seconds per mile apart, finishing the Marathon in 4:21:08. Fredison Costa of Piedade, Brazil finished in 2:33:24, winning the Marathon for the fifth time in six years; Natasha Yaremczuk won the women’s division in 2:52:23. Brian Siemann of Savoy, IL won his third race of the weekend in the men’s push rim wheelchair division, finishing in 1:52:05.
Walt Disney World Marathon weekend is runDisney’s biggest and oldest events, and it’s also one of my favorites. In addition to being the only Disney weekend with a full marathon, I enjoy how big the weekend is. The spectacle of the four races really takes over the resort, and it feels like a special time to be there. The timing of the event shortly after the winter holidays can make for difficult scheduling, but runners are typically rewarded with comfortable weather and relatively light crowds in the parks. Even in the world of running, the scale of the multi-day event makes it pretty unique, and the Disney elements just make it that much better.