What It's Like to Run the Walt Disney World Marathon

I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon on Sunday, January 12, 2020. Before delving into the magic of the runDisney weekend and event, the five-park course (Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and one of the water parks), the Disney characters and exhibits set up for picture-taking every few miles, classic Disney clips and tunes played on screens and speakers throughout the course, and exclusive memorabilia, many readers may be wondering why anyone not named Pheidippides, carrying the timely news of the Persians’ defeat to the Athenians, would run a marathon to begin with. In fact, running 26.2 miles “for fun” seems downright insane. My first cousin, Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, about whom Hollywood made two films, Prefontaine and Without Limits, had that brand of insanity.

Even after running the marathon, I still can’t fathom how certain people make them a regular part of their annual running schedules. I’ve always questioned whether or not I inherited the degree of insanity with which Pre carried himself on the track. However, after running the event, I know for certain that some of that fire roars in me now.

The marathon was the culmination of a year of monumental positive personal changes, during which I lost 100 pounds from running and jump roping. The exercising evolved into training for a marathon. It seemed a grand, symbolic way to bookend and celebrate my transformation. And it was. Why a runDisney event? Because if I’m putting my body through hell, it’s going to be at the happiest place on earth.

I began training exactly 16 weeks before January 12, using On Running’s exceedingly effective “Marathon training schedule for beginners.” It was relatively smooth sailing from then forward. The more I upped my mileage, the more weight I continued to the lose, the more the endorphins freely flowed, the better I felt.

When the marathon weekend finally arrived, I booked it from San Francisco to Orlando a day early to get my adrenaline fix before the race. I rode The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and built my own lightsaber and flew the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. If Smuggler’s Run is half as fun as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, I might just have to rethink my self-imposed moratorium on marathons and link up with runDisney again next year. Or I could simply save my knees some trouble and go to Disneyland or Disney World for leisure sometime before then like a reasonable human being.

Event participants shouldn’t deprive themselves of the ESPN Arena, which runDisney transformed into a maze of memorabilia. Every runner receives a well-designed, commemorative Walt Disney World Marathon weekend shirt, a virtual goody bag, Micky Mouse ear hat, an intricate finisher’s medal, a downloadable finisher certificate, and professional in-race candids, with the option of purchasing additional memorabilia such as a stylish marathon jacket. Runners can even purchase spray-on tattoos celebrating the completion of their race. Close to the finish line, there’s also a nice area to cool down, with massage chairs and many post-run relief products to soothe one’s muscles and joints. I highly recommend purchasing the Runner’s Square, a private space near Epcot which provides complimentary carbohydrate- and electrolyte-rich food and beverages and quiet areas for runners to stretch and find solace pre- and post-race.

The marathon began at 4:30 AM EST at Epcot. With a pulse-pounding House remix of Frozen’s “Let it Go” and Mickey Mouse announcing each coral’s start, I could already feel the boost of extra magic I was looking for. Beginning within the first mile, there were character stations in which staff encouraged runners to take a break and snap a pic with Dopey and friends. There were a lot of those temptations along the extended course on that 95-degree day, but I made it a point to only stop for water and Powerade; I knew once I stopped, I wouldn’t want to start again. No characters could stop me. As much as I wanted a commemorative photo with all of them, the Pre coursing through my veins took over and I remained looking forward (except for the occasional head turn to catch a glimpse of various rides and attractions).

There were times during which I felt as though I either couldn’t or didn’t want to endure any longer in the middle of the race. I completed the marathon by repeating Pre’s most famous quote, one which I live by, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” Without the use of that mantra, there may have been one less runDisney finisher this year.

As time passes, the memory of Pre in the collective conscience of the American people and beyond fades. He died in a car accident at 24 before his prime in 1975. However, he is universally known as America’s Greatest Running Legend, holding every American record from 2,000k to 10,000k at the time of his death. He was the first person to ever wear Nike, as his coaches Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight created the brand during his time at University of Oregon.

As I hit my stride and the pain set in around mile six, I thought of Pre’s quote, “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.” Stripped of its machismo, it echoes the first quote, expounding upon its themes. Those words helped me forget about the copious amounts of compulsive training, the strategic pacing, and how far I still had to run, and allowed me to get out of my own head and focus on doing my best in the moment.

It didn’t hurt that runDisney strategically inserted a theme park in the course after every long, monotonous stretch of road in order to give runners a visual boost. Having the option to view Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, The Haunted Mansion, and more was a delightful way to run, particularly for somebody used to training in a suburban setting. Further, each theme park was partially closed off for the runners (sorry for the delays, vacationers), with masses of people cheering each race participant on with signs and words of encouragement. I ran alone, but I felt supported by thousands. It is runDisney’s design to make this event as enjoyable and least grueling on its runners as possible. And they overwhelmingly succeeded, unexpectedly toasty weather aside.

As the race powered forward in between parks, classic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sports cartoons played on giant screens set up on the side of the course, Disney tunes such as the haunting “it’s a small world” and “Heigh Ho” blasted on speakers, and the select groups of runners in Disney character costumes somehow bearing the heat kept that Disney magic going. As I was nearing the finish line, these two Pre companion quotes entered my mind as the delirium began to consume me:

“Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race, it’s style. It’s doing something better than everyone else. It’s being creative.“

“A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”

I finally understand what Pre meant by those last two quotes. He considered himself the artist, his feet the paint brush, the track on which he ran the canvas. And in that sense, there was no limit to what he could accomplish, or, depending on how one perceived it, create on the track. Indeed, this lens extends to life. If more people looked at the world through an artistic lens, the overwhelming beauty they would see around them that they take for granted (something as small as peeling one’s eyes away from their phone screen to admire the stunning grandiosity of a place like Walt Disney World) would undoubtedly make the world a brighter place. Pre was a philosopher, artist, and rebel who just so happened to run.

I dedicated the marathon to Pre, whose 69th birthday was January 25, 2020. His memory lives on not only through his family, but also through everyone who’s set a goal and stuck with it, adversity be damned.

As for the Walt Disney World Marathon next year? Perhaps I’ll sit that one out. But for readers considering it, it truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience fit for beginners and Olympic athletes alike. Above all, pain aside, it’s tremendously fun. After all, one wouldn’t expect anything less from a Disney event.

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