Somewhere around mile 18, clothes sticky and wet, hair dripping, sun beating on my burning skin, legs moving in a steady rhythm on cruise control, arms tucked at 90 degrees near my hips, breathing the thick air uncomfortably easy, surrounded by all shapes and styles of runners on the two-way section of the course, my mind deep in conversation with my body and spirit to make sure every part of me was fully engaged and connected, I looked around at the running course of a sprawling highway, built for automobiles not human legs, and realized how deeply I love to run and more so how profoundly I love to run marathons. I realized I had found myself in that moment. I am a marathoner.
Another 26.2 miles on my legs and accomplished 8 weeks after my first marathon. Running a marathon as a marathoner is a very different experience! I knew what to expect, how it feels to start, to pass mile 6 (go fast but not too much, still a long way to go), mile 13 (halfway there, stay consistent), mile 20 (now is when the real work starts) and what it feels like at mile 24 (so close and yet so far).
The Disney marathon was on Sun Jan 13. I flew to Orlando on Thursday and stayed with family. There were heat advisories for the weekend with temperatures pushing up to 90 degrees. Last time I had trained in extreme heat was July/August. All my recent runs were done in NYC frigid cold and face-numbing winds.
Racing is as much mental as physical. I knew going into a January marathon in Florida that I was in for more challenges than just running the distance. Last year I ran the Manhattan Half in a snow storm. I did it to prove to myself that weather cannot be an issue for finishing.
I had to acclimate to the heat and begin my nutrition/hydration preparations. I guzzled what felt like an endless amount of water, coconut water, Gatorade, in that order, for 5 days straight. I increased my carbs and munched on pretzels for the extra salt.
My taper plan had me running 2 miles each day leading into the marathon. I used those easy runs to acclimate my body into the heat. I used them to clear my mind of any doubts and reassure myself I can do this marathon.
I felt relaxed, like the edge was gone. I didn’t get butterflies thinking about the course or antsy to hit the race. At the expo I didn’t feel a wince of anxiety or fear. When I received my bib I didn’t feel the need for a photo to remember the moment. I decided my casual attitude would only serve me well in relaxing my muscles and mind, down to the core.
My cousin was running the Goofy Challenge that weekend (Half Marathon on Saturday, Marathon on Sunday for the coveted 39.3 mile honor!) and my sister came along to cheer me on and run as a pacer at a few mile markers.
The day before the marathon we stayed at the Hilton Bonnet Creek. It was fabulous. We sat by the lazy river pool and instead of frosty cocktails I continued to sip water, coconut water, Gatorade. After awhile it was too hot and I realized sweating was counter-productive to my hydration process so I went back to the room to use my foam-roller.
I went to bed by 8pm but couldn’t sleep. I just enjoyed the quiet time with my thoughts and the fact that my legs were being rested. Wake-up was for 3:30am. Start time 5:30am.
If you just read 3:30am wake-up, gasped and made the abrupt assumption that you could never, ever wake-up at that hour and most certainly not to prepare to run 26.2 miles, I would like to take a moment to tell you that you are wrong and are just listening to the i can’t voice in your head. you can.
Normally I never shower before a run. What’s the point? This time I tried changing my pre-race routine and instead took a hot-to-cold shower to relax, wake-up and keep my body temperature cool.
We drove to the start line in Epcot. At the corrals there were more runners dressed in Disney-themed costumes than running gear. It made for fun people watching throughout the race. The temperature was pushing 70 degrees in the still of morning darkness yet participants were dressed in stifling full-body costumes.
As each corral was called up to the start line Mickey Mouse counted down and then fireworks were ignited in the pitch black morning sky. I felt calm, focused and excited.
Despite the fireworks, the race began with little fanfare to jolt you out of the gate. The course began along a highway that leads towards the Magic Kingdom. The only spectators out were the wonderful volunteers and workers. I clicked my Garmin watch to ‘start’ and got to moving briskly.
There were many slow runners that likely should have been in corrals further back. For the first 4 miles I was maneuvering around a lot of walkers. At times I ran miles along the grass in order to move away from packs of walkers.
If I wasn’t aggressive I would have been meandering along, boxed in around a gaggle of runners dressed as Disney characters who were more interested in taking pictures on their phones than racing. I busted out the Kenyan stride technique, pushing quickly for :10 seconds never to see them again.
At the first fluid station I activated my hydration plan: one cup of Gatorade (a few sips); 2 cups water (one to dump on head; one for a few sips). The water was refreshing and soaked my shirt and leggings as though I had plunged into a pool. I should have tipped my head forward and dumped the water on my head. I only figured out that technique around the 3rd fluid station into my run.
Disney characters were spread along the entire course. Many participants were stopping to take a picture with the character, waiting on lines at least 30 deep, and losing precious race time. The only picture I was focused on getting was crossing the finish line.
Runners take note: This marathon is not for runners who love to race. My impression is that the Disney Marathon is like a fun run, 26.2 miles of magical, happy fun, especially for Disney fans.
By mile 5 I was still passing many super slow joggers/walkers. I realized what was going on. They had put themselves in the front corrals in order to buy more time on the course to get pictures with the many characters. The race is time-limited at 7 hours from when the last participant crosses the start line.
Approaching Magic Kingdom was very, well, magical. It was still pitch black outside, and in the distance you could see Cinderella’s Castle lit up like a frosty, sparkly cake. I held a quick pace. I wanted to knock out as many miles as possible in the darkness before the sun became a factor.
The sun was now starting to change the sky a burnt orange and the ground was smoking everywhere with fog. The fog was a welcomed natural air-conditioning. The scenery was picturesque, just like a Disney movie.
I had been warned that there tends to be a bottleneck of runners through the castle in order to capture their photo moment as they exit. Fortunately this was not the case for me. I spotted the photographer and made my standard racing pose – arms up like a champ – and probably photo bombed a few other’s photos.
The run through Magic Kingdom was quick, dark and peppered with cheers from the workers. Hitting Main Street USA was one of the only spots with a crowd of cheerers but it was over in less than a minute. After a few quiet zig-zags through the empty park grounds (Tomorrow Land, Frontier Land) we worked our way through back roads of the park.
Along miles 7 – 8 I caught my sister among the cheerers and that was a welcome boost.
The next ten miles are a blur of highway, parking lots, passing walkers, glancing at Disney characters, hearing lots of Disney movie songs, taking GUs every 6 miles, wetting my head.
There was one incline on the highway that I suppose counts as a hill but after that I don’t recall any other true hills beyond a scattering of little bumps throughout the parks.
The run through Animal Kingdom had workers standing outside in what seemed like a private road for delivery trucks with an array of petting-zoo animals on display. At another point we ran through the ESPN race car speedway. Muscle cars and Disney’s Cars were on display around the entire track. The drivers were sitting in folding chairs, sipping drinks and just staring at us as we trotted along in the piping hot sun on the black tar.
At another point on the course there was a sewage treatment/ water-processing plant that stunk worse than a port-o-potty at the end of a marathon. That was definitely the lowest point of the course. Even so, I grumbled for a moment to myself and then chuckled and enjoyed the craziness of the experience. No matter where the course leads, I loved every minute. And I realized that if you put me in a race, surrounded by other runners, I am going.
Mile 16 came fast. At mile 18 I felt enlightened. As I passed mile 20 I felt charged-up and ready for the hard-work. These next 6 miles are the ones I had been training for. I shifted my brain into another gear and moved into a quicker pace. I was soaking wet, with the exception of my feet, and I felt strong.
Suddenly by mile 22 the heat was getting to be uncomfortable. I had hopes of finishing faster than my time for Philadelphia but by mile 22 I was pacing to finish around 4:30, my Philadelphia Marathon time was 4:36. Now I realized I was in a fight to match my time and not be slower. I had to keep moving and step it up. I thought about my training runs in the summer where I had to push faster and harder on the high miles. I can do this!
There were minimal spectators around to cheer the runners on. Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, Mary Poppins and the creatures from Monster Inc. were not going to motivate me to move my ass! This is where I missed the power of the crowds to push you along. I had to cheer myself on. I turned up my music and blasted Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive and Wail”. I sang the entire song as I chugged through the heat. The singing also helped to steady my breathing.
I briskly walked through each fluid station, drank water/Gatorade, dumped water on my head and kicked off again. The mile 22 fluid station offered fresh bananas. I took a few bites and enjoyed the sweetness as it settled in my stomach. It was a welcomed change in taste and texture to my energy gels and chomps.
At Mile 23 there was the last fluid station. As we moved beyond the water tables runners were still walking. I was a good twenty feet past the station when I realized I needed to start running and stat! I couldn’t let my engine turn off. I shouted to my legs and literally out loud not caring who heard me – Come on Tara. Move your legs. You. Must. Run. Do. Not. Walk. I moved my arms first and immediately my legs followed in rhythm.
The last 3 miles were brutal. Runners were dropping like flies, walking, slowing down. I kept pushing past but it was so tempting to want to walk too. More than once I had to tell that nagging voice in my head to shut-up about walking.
I focused on the fact that my sister was going to be somewhere up ahead before the finish line. I cranked up Cypress Hill’s “Insane In The Brain” as I thought it was a very appropriate soundtrack for what I was experiencing.
Mile 24 I’m in Epcot passing a surreal imitation of what is supposed to be a street in NYC. I see the Epcot Globe off in the distance and I know the finish is somewhere way over there. I still have 2.2 miles to run. The park is open to the public but few of the visitors are cheering the runners. We were being routed throughout a very winding course in the park.
I don’t remember much of the sites. There was an extremely steep and short ramp down into a cool dark tunnel where the costumes are created and then back up and out into the harsh sun. A very narrow walkway around a lake where I had to again run on the grass in order to pass walkers.
My legs weren’t cramping but I was starting to feel some niggling sensations in my ankles. So much of the course was on uneven, beveled ground that my ankles were getting quite the workout.
I was in a fight to get to the finish line under 4:36 hours. I couldn’t afford to lose a minute. I needed water but there were no more fluid stations. Where is my sister? I come around a turn and finally I see my sister standing on the sidelines. What a welcomed sight!
It was also messing with my head because I almost felt like I had finished when in actuality I had 1.2 miles to go. She was pep talking to me – You did it! You are done! It’s just up ahead! But I wasn’t done yet. I had to keep on moving and not waste a single second or step.
I could barely talk to her. I had been running for over four hours alone, nestled away inside my mind, staying focused on moving and piloting my body. My sister started to burst forward with a quick run and I willed myself to move with the same spring and bounce. I could keep up for a few steps and then my legs would resist. I ripped off my iPod headphones and phone armband and threw it at her hoping the change of sensation would give me a much-needed boost. It helped.
I had just a mile to go and it felt endless. We kept pushing around twists and turns, behind bathrooms, kiosks, gift stands, a Gospel choir, park goers who paid us no mind and that finish line was no where in site. My sister had said the finish was just around the corner. But we went around at least 3 corners and it still wasn’t there.
Finally we come around another corner, up a tiny incline and there is the finish line and the only true cheerers I had seen on the race course for many miles. My mom and aunt were on the sidelines hooting and hollering my name. We spotted them and I gave them a thumbs-up. I could not slow down or run over to the sidelines to give them extra attention. I needed to get this job done and quick.
As I came to the Disney Marathon finish line the emotions that ran through me were completely different from when I crossed my first marathon finish line. A single thought came to mind as I approached – Now you are a marathoner and not someone who just ran A marathon. Go!
I saw Mickey Mouse giving high-fives and decided I’d give at least one Disney character some attention just as I crossed the finish line.
After crossing I started to walk. The magnitude of the moment sank in and I let out a huge yell of relief and joy. I finished within a minute of my Philadelphia Marathon time: 4:37.
Rankings/Stats: #255 out of 1751 Women in my Age Group; #1508 out of 10,619 Women; #4376 out of 20,680 Finishers. There were 25,000 participants and almost 5,000 never finished.
We worked our way over to a cooling area with fans and misting water. Now I realized just how hot my body was. My sister revealed to me that when she saw me at mile 25 I looked very pale. I turned off my engine (that inner-voice that repeats go, go, go, go) and felt my body sizzling in the heat. I could feel how hard I had worked and I loved the feeling. Someone put the big, chunky medal over my head and I gave thanks to God for my strength and endurance.
My ankles were throbbing, my calves were slightly cramping and my skin was roasting in the sun. I slugged down two bottles of water. There was a massage tent – $1 a minute – so I got a ten minute massage that felt like pure heaven!
I took a photo and the photographer commented with surprise at my big smile after 26.2 miles and in such sweltering heat. I laughed and said, “I live to smile across the finish!”