It’s time to reflect on the journey from non running Mum living in England to a RMA running Tooowoomba Mum To Disney World and the most epic running challenge. Grab a cup of tea or a wine as this an in-depth recap!
Back in 2014, I sat at home reflecting on what I had achieved in my 39 years on this earth. I was happily married with 2 beautiful sons and had a great career. But something was missing. I wanted to do something big in the next 12 months before I turned 40. What better than to run a marathon, (bare in mind I’d never run much before). The plan was to do it once and once only! If you’re going to do something once, I, thought might as well make it big – Enter the Dopey Challenge, and what better place than at the happiest place in the World. Walt Disney World, Florida. Fast forward to January 2015… ran the 5km, 10km, half marathon and then the marathon. I was over joyed. I’d joined that small percentage of people who had run a marathon. Job done ✅… or was it?
After looking at everyone’s photos and medals from the 2016/2017 races I was overcome with medal envy. I wanted those massive shiny Mickey Mouse medals. An email arrived in my inbox midway through the 2017 Disney Marathon Weekend from a Disney run fanatic Jennifer who is also my US based vacation planner. She could guarantee me a place in 2018 Dopey Challenge or any other race with a run-disney package if booked in the next 48 hours. My eyes lit up…. this would mean not having to sit up at 2:30am with iPads / computers and phones out trying to get access to run Disney active site to register (Reason: this caused majors panics back in 2015… hubby said just wake up at 6am and register… Me ‘no no I’ll get up and do it, I won’t be able to sleep’. Luckily I did at 6am it was sold out! Me 1 Hubby 0).
It was going to be worse this time as it was an anniversary year…. 25th Anniversary of the Disney Marathon and 5th year of the Dopey Challenge….which in Disney terms means special medals and surprises.
I bit the bullet and signed up. The good thing about using this method was I only had to book 1 night (I recommend this as you can be flexible). And so the countdown began….
Disney have had a special partnership with Jeff Galloway and each year he devises a training program for the races (so does Hal Hagidon). It has lots of long back to back runs and a mini Dopey Simulation about 4 weeks out.
My main focus was having a good half marathon time for me to submit… I’m not fast, but with Disney the have 20,000 -25,000 people starting in waves all based on your proof of time. If you think you will finish in less than 5:30 then it is essential to provide a link to the race via your active account. The better the time the less hanging round in the corals before hand.. possibly in the cold / wet or even sleet… temperamental Florida Winter weather. Logan Half Marathon gave me a 2:07 time PB so I got it uploaded (and then checked hundreds of times before the deadline to make sure it was still there).
I won’t lie training was hard especially those Sunday long runs when you’d already run 3 days. Luckily Lisa (fellow Toowoomba RMA) would join me on the last legs of these runs and keep me going when all I wanted to do was stop and go home! The weather was getting warmer and runs slower, but it could be worse, fellow US Dopey Runner’s were training through sub zero temps.
As September approached the excitement online about the medal design reached fever pitch. Everyone was eager to see the bling we would hopefully be getting our sweaty little hands on. Finally, when the image was released it made that weeks runs a little easier…. so sparkly and pretty.
The next spike in online activity was mid December with the anticipated number and coral allocation release. Forums making spreadsheets speculating on previous stats and times. In 2015, the corals had been A through to P, each coral starting in 3- 5 minute increments (I was in J which meant lots of hanging around). This year it went A through to H and each coral would have mini waves….. I was in C for the 1/2 marathon and full marathon and B for the 5 and 10km runs.
We flew to the states 10 days earlier as I had booked a conference which happened to be in Disney over New Year…. claiming those CME credits. Marathon weekend kicked off on the 3rd with the Expo.
Now to a breakdown of my trip. I chose to stay at Disney Yacht and Beach club during the races for a few reasons.
- It’s close to the start line , although you can’t walk to the start Disney buses everyone in each morning (you can drive 5 mins max).
- After the race you can walk back to your hotel -providing you have a theme park ticket as you have to walk through EPCOT. (1/2 and full marathon this is important as the other races finished before the parks open)
- Have photos with medals / characters without the massive lines on way home
- Good cool down walk and the walk back is along the course so you get to cheer on the other runners.
Expo– the madness of Disney begins. I had booked the race retreat as an extra. It’s a temperature controlled tent for runners before and after the 1/2 and full marathon. They provide drinks and snack pre race then breakfast / lunch post race. There is also the opportunity for unique character photos, toilets, post race massage and a stretching area…. worth it for me.
Expo Day 1
As part of the race retreat we could access the expo 2 hours earlier than everyone else (10am). I checked in to get my wrist band and off to get my numbers / tshirts. Then onto the Disney marathon merchandise….it was mayhem. I knew what I wanted … replica medal pins and race pins, an ‘I did it’ t-shirt and a Mickey Mouse. People where scrambling for everything, jackets / running costumes / headbands. Stuff sells out so quickly here because unfortunately the expo is open to the public and so it is attended by professional ebayers, buying the limited edition stuff and selling it the same day at twice the price.
By 12 noon I was done, I had looked at the other exhibitors and was on my way home, according to fellow runners, they queued for 2-3 hours to get in to the expo and by 4pm not much Disney stuff was left.
Day 1 of the challenge – 5km
The first of the earlier mornings … alarm set for 3am. Runners need to be in their corals by 5am…. race starts at 5.30am. Disney had issued a weather warning as the temperature was set to fall below 0 at the start of the race. I chose to drive rather than take the bus, purely to keep warm. I arrived at Epcot car park at 3:40am had a snooze in the car with the heaters on full blast and the seat warmer too! As it’s Disney and lots of runners choose to run in costumes, I did have a Cinderella themed running outfit planned for the 5km however with temps in the negatives… warmth and comfort prevailed. I’d also taken the pjs from the plane (and made my hubby and kids keep theirs too), these were my throwaway pre race clothes.
The race started with Mickey Mouse counting the runners down and fireworks. Each wave in the coral got their own mini fireworks with the start of each new coral getting the full fireworks.
The training plan for Dopey suggest you walk or do your normal 5km time…… for me it was too cold…. just run so I can get back to the warm car and back into bed! The course takes you around Epcot theme park, with character stops along the way….. Vikings in Norway, Jimney Cricket in Italy, Marie from Aristocats in France. I chose not to stop as the lines were long and I didn’t want to get cold.
Race done ✅Medal received, wrapped up in a Mylar blanket, I braved the short character lines at the end in the car park. 3.1 miles down only 45.5 miles left!
Day 2 Minnie Mouse – 10km
Same start time … same cold weather warnings.
This time I stayed a little too long in the car and my coral had already left the pen to head to the start so I started in Coral C this morning. The course takes you out along the highway back into Epcot by Test Track ride and around the countries to France and then out and around the Boardwalk past my hotel room and the into Epcot and to the finish. I braved the cold in my Tinkerbell outfit and loved it.
Again the plan was to go slow to conserve energy .. did a few little stops for photos along the way but mostly ran slower than I usually would. Finished … medal collected … photos taken and ran back to the car!
3.1 + 6.2 = 9.3 only 39.3 miles left to do
Half way there in terms or early mornings but unfortunately not in miles.
Day 3 Donald Duck 1/2 Marathon
As I’d book the race retreat, I headed to the bus at 3am, arrived at the tent, check in. Bagels / tea/ coffee / Powerade / water was available. A DJ in the corner and unique characters from Duck Tales set the tone. There were toilets and a changing area as well as a stretching area. They announced at 4:50 it was time to head to the corals and that it was a 0.7 mile walk so if you’re in an early coral to go now.
All ready to go … Luckily Coral C didn’t have to wait to long at 5.42 I was off. We headed out along the road past the entrance to Epcot and on to the Magic Kingdom. Words cannot describe the magical feelings running up main. The crowds all cheering, running towards the castle … twinkling in its Christmas lights. I always tear up. As you run through the castle there is a little detour if you want a photo in front of the castle… it would be rude not to stop! My aim in the half was to run and stop for characters and places. I had photos in front of the castle, Ariel’s Grotto with Sebastian and the Genie at the Golf course. The course returns to Epcot again to finish and is pretty much flattish… no hills like Toowoomba. A little stop / detour to have photo in front of the Epcot ball just before mile 13 marker. The small choir gathered at the end as well a a great crowd made it pretty special. Photographers were all along the route and are in sitting in little see-through green huts so you can easily manoeuvre into their path for a great photo. Disney have a thing called Memory maker which costs $169 and in each of the 4 theme parks there are loads of Disney photographers around that are positioned to get the best family photos by iconic Disney landmarks, as well as character spots. These photos are uploaded to your magic band (the band stores all electronics information and doubles as room key/ credit card/ photo collector/ fast passes for rides and all dining reservation as well as theme park tickets.) For that price all race photos and holiday photos including ride photos are included for editing / downloading etc. great value especially if you have kids and this holiday we had over 1000 photos on our Disney pass… and we are all in them so no more with me missing because I take the photos.
In the finishing shoot there are stands for the cheer squads to watch, the announcers try and call your name and again there is DJ pumping some great tunes out. Volunteers are ready to hand medals out. The medals can be engraved in the parking lot after the race for a small fee. Off to collect your water / Powerade and Disney food box with a banana (also contained in the ‘star of the box’ is a synthetic cheese dip.. so funny the Facebook tales about this cheese… I donated mine to the Travelling fit crew- they where collecting them!)
Back to the race retreat tent for a massage, food (hot and buffet breakfast included) and warmth. After a while I walked back to the hotel through Epcot getting a few post race character photos and cheering the other runners still out in the course.
3.1 + 6.2+ 13.1 = 22.4 miles completed only a little thing called a marathon tomorrow…
Day 4 the 25th Anniversary Walt Disney World Marathon.
On the Friday night they honoured the 75 runners who had run all previous marathons and gave them lifetime entry during the big reception…. how amazing. An even earlier wake up alarm with around 25,000 competitors. The buses are busy… at 2.40am I’m heading to the bus stop. I arrived at 3.15 at the start area, head through bag check and straight to the retreat tent. I need a cup of tea! I’m starting to get nervous. I’d set myself a task of a sub 5 hour marathon. I didn’t care if it was 4.59:59.. I just wanted a 4 for the hours. So far my plan of taking things slow in the previous races had not worked . The cold for the 5 and 10 meant I ran rather than walked. I’d set a goal of walk / run the half marathon to take photos and finish around 3 hours conserving energy for the marathon oops 2:28 with photo stops. Bit too fast. In the retreat time I headed for bagel and tea and about 4 trips to the toilet I was so nervous. Early trek to the corals… National Anthem, minutes silence… talk from major sponsor / head of ESPN complex and the Mickey and friends . And then the elite and wheelchair Athletes begin.. not long until I’m at the start ready to go.
The course is pretty flat, a few flyovers to run up but they are gradual rather than straight up. It winds itself through all 4 theme parks and the ESPN wide world of sport. Again Disney out does itself with course entertainment marching bands, DJ’s and character stops all along the way keeping you entertained. The Kilometres or miles start to fly by and I hit the magic kingdom first around 4km in. Once you get to the car park entrance you wind through the transportation centre and it’s not until km 8 that you reach the entrance to Main Street. Crowds are gathering again and they are several deep and amazing. Out and off along the road past the hotels and Disney wedding chapel (a few guys in tuxedos ready to propose .. very funny) water stops every mile too. On out to Animal kingdom along highways and the lovely smelling Disney water treatment plant! You hit the half way point here. Each mile marker has a different theme with music. Some people stop for a selfie at every one. This next bit for me was when I started to struggle. You have 9 or so km to the next area .. ESPN wide world of sports. Across the central reservation just before you enter you can see people at 35km… I did notice a few people skip the course. It then starts to wind around all the sporting fields and around 32km my legs were tired…. At 35km you head up the steepest flyover with Sarge from Toy Story and a few green army men on microphones shouting encouragement or making you stop and do pushups or burpees.
On the 3rd theme park Hollywood Studios and the sweet / candy stop… just keep running just keep running like Dory… my legs are burning. My family were at mile 24-25 waiting for me which is after you leave the theme park heading back to Epcot for the final leg. It took every ounce of control to stop myself from crying when I saw them. My husband and boys telling me they were proud of me and if I kept going that 4 hour goal was still possible. I kept going ..reaching mile 26 only 0.2 miles left. This is where Disney knows how to get to you emotionally… a huge Gospel Choir singing Hallelujah…….. and you can start to hear the roar of the crowd as you enter the home straight…. I’d made it crossed the line with a clock time of 5:03…. watch time 4.52.25….. I couldn’t believe I’d done it….achieved my goal after running the 3 previous days. I was presented with my marathon medal and then a surprise gift of 25th Anniversary Mickey Ears.
I then headed back into a tent where they check your photo against the expo number pick up photo and then check you’ve completed the 3 previous races. After this you are presented with the challenge medals. I’d checked my other medals in with my bag , so time for a photos with all 6 medals ….
Photos ✅ headed to race retreat tent for massage and brunch. And the head back to the hotel to meet my boys.
It was then that I nose dived into disappointment. When I went to get my medal engraved I realised my chip didn’t register at any check points. It looks like I didn’t complete the challenge. Rundisney gave me an email to trackshack and I was advised to send them an email ASAP with as much information as possible. (Fast forward 4 days and they replied to say they reviewed the footage of the finish and have me crossing the line at 5.03.. however the start time by USAF must be given as the start of coral C rather than may watch time… a difference of around 2-3 minutes, but at least I’d be registered as ‘Completing’ Dopey and the Marathon rather than a DNS.
I headed out that night to celebrate with a Bellini and wore my Challenge medal with pride.
Some people make a party out of the race, if you are slow enough and the theme park is open to the public by the time you are running though you can ride the rides during your race…. another tradition is when running the last mile around the different countries if it’s open you can have an alcoholic drink in each one. Some buy a beer in Germany, margaritas in Mexico and run. Videos of the Mexican tequila challenge at the end of marathon run are so funny.
Ok I have a confession I did look at the dates for registering again even though I said I wouldn’t do another marathon…. I’ve got until April 19th to come to my senses or not!