January 7, 2012 was definitely the best running day I’ve ever had. I don’t have any other big races to compare it to, but the Walt Disney World Half Marathon is the best race I’ve ever been a part of.
The Race Plan
I had bought pace bands from races2remember.com. I had bought bands for 2 hours, 1 hour, 58 minutes, and for 1 hour, 56 minutes (you get three bands for $7.50 when you buy them). The cool thing about the bands is that they are actually customized to the course so it adds some time for miles that have lots of hills, and subtracts some time for miles that are flat or even downhill. They must have someone actually review the course (and for a big race like this, it has probably been refined over the years).
I had my Garmin set up so that the first screen (and the screen I stayed on almost the entire time) had my current lap average pace in big numbers at the top, and the last lap time and the overall lap average time on the bottom. I had another screen with overall time, total distance, and overall average pace, and then one last screen (that I almost never used) that displayed my current pace zone (which I had set up to display “2 hour” for an average pace, “1:58” for an average pace, “1:56” for an average pace, and zones that displayed “Too Fast” and “Too Slow”).
Wake Up, Pre-Race Preparation, and Transport to Race
The day started for me at 3 am (which for my body felt like 2 am). Phil, Daryl (friends of mine who were running the race with me... not their real names), and I were not staying at a Disney property (we got a really good deal on a vacation rental by owner so we are staying at a really nice town house). All three of us were dressed and out the door by 3:30 to drive to the Epcot parking lot.
I knew there would be a lot of cars (with 27,000 runners, I wasn’t surprised), but, man, there were A LOT OF CARS. We parked and walked to the staging area where the pre-race party was set up. We made our way up to the stage at about 4:30 or so.
There was a DJ playing party music (think songs from a wedding reception… I know one of the songs he played was the “Cha Cha Slide,” so that gives you an idea). I don’t know how some of these people have so much energy to dance at 4:45 in the morning, but they did. A bit before we made our way to the start line, they brought out the founder of P90X (I don’t have the energy or interest to look up his name) to lead us in calisthenics before the race (yeah right, like I’m going to start doing P90X before a half marathon). Then it was time to walk to the bag check, drop my bag, wait in the Port-o-Potty lines, and then walk the 20-25 minutes to the start line.
I didn’t know there were this many runners in the entire world. There are sooooooo many people at this race. We entered near the entrance of Corrall F and I had to walk past Corrals E, D, and C before I could enter Corral B. I actually had to show a proof of a better finish time in order to get moved up to Corral B, and based on my goal time I know I would be toward the front of Corral B, so then I had to try and weave my way amongst all the people to try to squeeze to the front of the Corral.
Last year,there was a group of soldiers (or maybe they were Marines) who were also running a Half Marathon in Iraq via satellite. As I was cutting up through the Corral B folks, I heard them interviewing the Major (now a Colonel, they mentioned that twice) who led that group of soldiers (or Marines) who was here in Florida running this year’s half with his wife. Moving… whatever.
Then, it was time for the start. I didn’t have the best view of the Corral A start, but I tried to take a video of it with my iPhone. The fireworks and flames were cool. (The video is pretty bad, but I tried)
Then it was time for us Corral B-ers to start walking up to the Start line. I turned on my iPod and set up my “Motivate” playlist to play (which would take me through the first mile or two). As I was walking up to the start, it was playing “Go the Distance” (from Disney’s Hercules… a great Disney marathon motivator), and after our start for Corral B it had switched to “Beautiful Day” by U2 (say what you will about U2 or this song, but when you see and hear fireworks going off literally directly above your head as that song is playing, it is pretty moving… at least to me).
Then I was off!
I wanted my average lap pace to read about 9:10 per mile. I didn’t really look at my watch for the first 0.3-0.4 miles, and when I finally checked it, my average pace was just below 9:00. Oops! My one thing I wanted to avoid was going out too fast… and here I was, running 15 seconds per mile faster than I intended.
The first couple miles of this race run along a three-lane road that I assume would normally take you from Epcot to the main freeway that runs up to the Magic Kingdom. It’s pretty boring, scenery-wise, although Disney does a good job about trying to keep you “entertained” during the race. At about 0.5 miles, there was a high school band (the first of several on the race course) and a bunch of cheerleaders doing lifts and cheering for us (how they were convinced to be here at 5 in the morning, I’ll never know).
I tried to reign it in a little bit after the first half mile or so, but I still ended up with a first mile split of 9:02, which was even faster than the goal split for a 1:56 fast time.
Mile Split: 9:02
Mile 2 includes the first big turn of the race (from Epcot Center Drive onto an onramp onto World Drive (the main freeway into the Magic Kingdom)). I tried to do a good job of keeping an inside line for the whole race, so I had to work my way to the right onto the inside line of the road and onramp. Of course, lots of other people were trying to do the same thing so there were a few points when I had to decide between being stuck behind someone who is slower or passing to keep my pace. A couple times I passed, but I decided to sit behind someone who was only a bit slower than I wanted to be going.
After the turn onto World drive, it was a pretty straight road until almost the end of mile 3. Somewhere in here was a pair of characters on stilts (maybe from The Princess and the Frog?) giving people high fives (well, I guess for them, they were low fives).
My goal split for my slow goal (1:58) was 9:03 and for my fast goal (1:56) was 8:53. I really tried to slow down and hit the slow goal because I didn’t think I could maintain this fast pace for the whole race, but I guess adrenaline was still flowing because I came in at 8:49.
Mile Split: 8:49
Mile 3 takes place almost entirely on World Drive, so it is basically just a straight shot, without much need to worry about turns (although for future races, at the end of this straight-a-way, there is a big left turn, followed almost immediately by a sharper right turn, and then another smaller left turn, so if you want to keep a tight line, be prepared to cross across a lot of traffic). Somewhere along here was a hot air balloon suspended just above the ground. I looked way over to the left and saw the other direction of the highway where I would be running in about an hour. This mile also included the car entrance to the Magic Kingdom (with the huge Magic Kingdom sign). If I was running this race for fun instead of for a specific time, I totally would have stopped to take a picture here. Toward the end of Mile 3 (just before the big left turn), you can see a Hess gas station, which is the only thing that is really, really lit up at this ungodly hour of the morning.
My intended split for my slow goal was 8:57 and for the long goal was 8:47. I was able to keep it close at 8:52, but I still had meant to be a bit slower (about 8:55 to 8:59 to “make up” for the faster splits of the first two miles). I still felt pretty good, even though every split was faster than I intended, but I was starting to feel like my heart rate was getting higher (I probably should have worn a heart rate monitor), and I was worried that I would burn out later if I didn’t pull back a bit. Because of that, around this point, I decided to force myself to shoot for the splits from the slow goal just to make sure I didn’t burn out at around mile 10.
Mile Split: 8:52
At the start of the fourth mile we ran past the Disney Race Track (I think they call it the Richard Petty Driving Experience), but I barely noticed it. Most of the fourth mile takes place in a parking lot for the Magic Kingdom, so we were weaving in and out of the parking lot driving lanes. I don’t really remember much else about this mile.
My intended split, in order to stay with my desire to stick with the slow goal splits, was 8:55, and since I had been so fast for the first few miles, I was willing (and hoping) to come in a few seconds slow. I ended up with 8:59, so for the first time in the race, I was sticking to the plan. My internal mantra for the next few miles became “Trust the plan. Trust the plan. Trust the plan.”
Mile Split: 8:59
Mile 5 is where things started to get interesting. First, we ran past the Ticketing and Transportation Center, which is the first place where a lot of spectators line up and cheer. There were a bunch at the Start Line too, but they were waaaaaaaay over on the other side of the freeway, so they were hard to see or hear. The TTC spectators felt like they were right on top of us, and it gave me a small surge of adrenaline. Phil’s parents (who had made us some really cool signs) had told us they were going to try to be here to cheer us on, so this was the first time in the race where I stopped my iPod just to soak in the crowd and search for their signs. (It turns out that Phil’s parents weren’t able to make it to the TTC in time for us.)
After passing through the crowd at the Ticketing and Transportation Center, we veered to the right. In this stretch, the road goes under the little stream that passes between the Seven Seas Lagoon (the big lake right in front of the Magic Kingdom) and Bay Lake (the lake that the Contemporary Resort sits by). The stream goes over a bridge (I guess it would be an aqueduct). Standing on top of this bridge was a volunteer with a huge (HUGE) pair of Mickey Mouse gloves and he or she was just clapping and cheering for us. It was a little thing that sounds a little cheesy now that I write this, but it was kind of motivating during the race.
After coming out from underneath the bridge, I also saw another volunteer wearing Mickey gloves (much smaller than the ones the person on the bridge was wearing), and I heard the following joke for the first time (which I heard at least half a dozen more times during the race): “Gimme four!”
My goal split for this mile (to stick with my intention to stick with the slow goal splits) was 8:55, with a willingness to lose another few seconds to conserve a little energy. I ended up with an 8:58. So, for the second straight mile, I was actually sticking to the plan.
Mile Split: 8:58
The next mile and a half of the race is the definite highlight of the entire race. It is where my energy peaked, and it is also where there is the most to see and experience. You guessed it, the sixth mile is where you run through the Magic Kingdom!
After coming out from under the bridge by the contemporary, I spotted Space Mountain. I attempted to take a picture with my iPhone, but it didn’t turn out very well (that answers one of my pre-race questions. An iPhone is not a good camera for this race. Too dark.) I loved Space Mountain as a kid (still do, actually), so it was really cool seeing it rise out of the darkness. Next we took a pretty sharp left turn and passed by a nice guard who said “Good Morning!” to us. Unsurprising, but Disney employees (Cast Members, as they are called) are really friendly.
Shortly after that, we entered Main Street USA, which is probably the coolest part of the race. Others might say Cinderella’s Castle, but for bang for your buck, I’ll take the crowds cheering along Main Street (as you’re looking up at the Castle) any day. Main Street is where the biggest crowd (next to the Finish Line) has congregated and is cheering you on. I took a (shaky) video just to give you an idea of the cheering and the crowd.
After Main Street, we take a sharp right into Tomorrowland, followed eventually by a left turn into Fantasyland. There are very few people in the back part of Fantasyland (a couple volunteers), so for some reason the most memorable part of this portion of the race was the Gift Shop that was open (it was pretty close to the Snow White ride) and the woman sitting (looking dejected and tired) at the cash register. There was also a princess (maybe Rapunzel or Aurora maybe). Then, it was time for the turn back toward Cinderella’s Castle. We ran past the Carousel, and through the tunnel in the Castle. I actually tried to slow down a little to leave a bit of a gap between me and the group in front of me in the hopes of getting a decent picture taken (I don’t know if they got one, and I don’t know if it was any good, so we’ll see if it turned out).
And then, that was it. The end of the most exciting mile of the race. My goal split for Mile 6 was 9:00 even, and I stuck to it pretty well, coming in at 9:00. Now I knew I had to steel myself for what I had heard was the most boring part of the race.
Mile Split: 8:59
Well, not quite yet. There was still about a half mile left inside the Magic Kingdom. Just after exiting the Castle and crossing the six mile line, we made a pretty sharp right turn ending up in either Frontierland or Adventureland (I think Adventureland, but it really doesn’t matter). Somewhere in here we must have passed close to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, because we passed a pirate ship and Captain Jack Sparrow (and the longest line for a character picture that I saw). Then we crossed a bridge to a service road, which, for my fellow minimalist runners, was actually kind of painful. It looked like the bridge was made of some kind of grated material that was covered with a thin plastic sheet (kind of like the wind screens that you sometimes see around tennis courts?). The grating was really painful on my feet.
Anyway, after crossing that bridge, we were very quickly out of the park and running along a narrow, two-land back road that is probably only used by Cast Members. It was very dark and it was quiet (although a little further on there was a DJ or something playing party music, so that helped).
My goal split for mile 7 (using the slow goal) was 8:53 (which is one of the fastest goal splits in the race). I kept pretty close to this pace, and came in at 8:51. Around this point, I was still feeling really good, so I think I started thinking about maybe trying to get back into the fast goal range, so I peaked at my total time, which was at about 1:02:30, which was 35-40 seconds slower than the goal time at this point for the fast goal (but about 30 seconds faster than the goal time for the slow goal). I thought this was a bit much to think about making up just yet, but I kept in the back of my mind that I might be able to pick up my pace later and maybe hit the faster goal.
Mile Split: 8:51
During the Eighth mile, I kid you not, “Lose Yourself” by Eminem (you know, from “8 Mile”) came on my iPod. (OK, that didn’t really happen… but if it had, the runners around me would have had to clean little bits of my brain off of themselves, because my mind would have been blown). In this stretch, we made a sloooow bend left and passed the Grand Floridian resort and the Polynesian Resort. There was a very small group of spectators at the Polynesian (and Phil’s parents said they were going to try to catch us there as well… again, I found out later that they couldn’t because the monorail broke down… but I was looking for them). Otherwise, this mile was pretty uneventfull… well, that’s not true. This is the point where I looked up and noticed a slight pinkish orange glow in the sky and said “Is that the sun?!” At least one other runner chuckled politely, but it was nice seeing that I would no longer be running in the darkened hellscape of the background of Walt Disney World.
My goal for this mile (for the slow goal) was 8:52 (fastest goal split for the race). I was able to keep that (plus a few extra seconds) and come in at 8:49. I also checked my total time again (around 1:11:00), which was still about 40 seconds behind the fast pace goal for this time… but I was still keeping the thought of making up that time in the back of my mind.
Mile Split: 8:49
The ninth mile is when we come back to the main highway (World Drive) and, if you’re fast enough, you will see some of the people going the other way (e.g., around the mile 3 marker). We passed by the Race Track again and came up to the Hess station that we passed about 50 minutes ago.
It felt like this mile (and the mile before) was slightly down hill, so this mile was really fast. Even though I felt like I was doing pretty much the same effort. Despite that, this mile was 8:39, bringing my total to right at 1:20:00. I was still about 20-25 seconds behind the fast goal target (1:19:26), so this is the point when I definitely thought about trying to catch up to my fast goal.
Mile Split: 8:39
The tenth mile was entirely along World Drive. When I started the mile, it was light enough that I could see people going the other way jogging or walking slowly between Miles 2 and 3. I know it’s a bit petty of me, but it gave a bit of a jolt of energy to see those people who were more than an hour behind me. It was even a bigger jolt to see the buses that were picking up people that were walking too slowly and the cleaning crews behind those buses cleaning up the course for the open of business for Walt Disney World.
I tried to pull the pace back down to the slow goal split (9:00), but obviously my body was having none of that, because I ended up hitting 8:48, which is slightly faster than the fast goal split (8:50).
Mile Split: 8:48
Miles 11 and 12 include the only spots where there are “hills” on this entire course, and that is the exit ramps. I had read enough summaries where people complained about these, but honestly, they were really mild. I had read that the big loop from World Drive to Epcot Center Drive was really hard, but to me it was a very mild uphill climb (if you have done any hill training at all, than this will be cake). The biggest trick about it was trying to keep a tight line. For a turn this big, just about everyone tries to hug the inside line… because of this, I have a modest proposal for a race rule: IF YOU ARE WALKING ON THIS LOOP, THEN MOVE TO THE OUTSIDE. For the most part, I was lucky on this loop (most people were right around my intended pace for this mile), but there were 3 to 5 people walking about this ramp, and all of them were blocking the inside line for us people trying to hit a goal. It doesn’t sound like much, but being forced to run big turns like this on the outside can add a lot of distance to the loop. (OK, Rant Over).
Anyway, because this was the only true “hill” of the race, I decided to keep this mile’s pace at the slow goal target split of 9:00, but I did end up being a bit fast (in fact I was a bit above the fast goal target of 8:50), and I ended up hitting 8:51 for this mile, and my total time at the end of mile 11 (1:37:36) was only 21 seconds behind the fast goal time (1:37:07).
Mile Split: 8:51
Now I was entering the home stretch. Mile 12 starts just a bit past the big loop and just past the Army Man from Toy Story (the only character I kind of wish I would have stopped for). Then there was a sharp U-turn in front of a giant big screen TV broadcasting an announcer. There was another onramp that was a bit steeper than the big loop of Mile 11, but it was shorter. I still felt really good, so I was starting to think about if and when I wanted to pick up the pace and start pushing until the finish. When I ran the Minneapolis Monster Dash 10 mile back in October, I had started pushing at about 2 miles from the finish, but I was still nervous about starting that early here. Because of that, I picked up the pace a little bit, but decided to hold back from kicking it too hard.
My mile split, 8:32, was well below even the goal split for the fast pace (8:55), and my total time (1:46:08) was just behind the fast goal total time (1:46:03) (although I wasn’t checking the total time here because I was gearing up to pick up my pace).
Mile Split: 8:32
At the start of Mile 13 was a rock band (I don’t really remember what they were playing, but I think it had an alternative rock kind of feel). I know that just before Mile 13, my running play list had shuffled to “I Believe” from Book of Mormon, which seemed like some kind of musical fate, since I was planning on picking my pace up there. Right after “I Believe,” my music list shuffled to “Beautiful Day” by U2 again, which definitely felt like musical fate. Mile 13 turns off of Epcot Center Drive, runs along the edge of the Epcot parking lot and through a back stage area, through the Future World portion of the part, a very sharp U-turn around the Christmas tree at the border between Future World and the World Showcast, back through Future World, underneath Spaceship Earth and back toward the Epcot parking lot. Just before the end of Mile 13 was a huge Gospel Choir which was a huge motivation because I knew I was almost there.
Right after I passed the Mile 12 marker, I picked someone way up in front of me (a man in a purple Team In Training shirt who was probably 300 to 400 m in front of me) that I wanted to pass before crossing the finish. He was going a bit faster than I had been at the time, but at a reasonable enough pace that I could catch him. By the end of Mile 13, he was maybe 30 meters in front of me, so I only had a bit of time left to catch him. By this point, I wasn’t worry about whether my split was on target, because I knew I was going faster than both goal splits. My split ended up being 8:12, and my total time (1:54:20) was well ahead of the target for the fast goal (1:55:01). I didn’t know any of this, because I was still trying to catch Mr. Purple Shirt.
Mile Split: 8:12
Last 0.1 Mile to Finish Line
I put all my concentration into reeling in Mr. Purple Shirt, and I passed him with about 15 meters to go. Then it was just a matter of running as fast as I felt I could (which turned out to be about a 7:00/mile average… thank you track intervals!) until I crossed that line. I tried to look up and smile (who knows if it really happened), raised my arms for the picture, and then stopped my timer. I looked down and saw 1:55:10 and said “Holy CRAP!” I could NOT believe it.
Final Split: 0:49
Total (Garmin Time): 1:55:10
Official Time: 1:55:07
Waaay back in September, when I started training for this race, I decided that anything in the 2:10 to 2:15 range would be fine for me (because I hadn’t really be running much for almost two years except for a bit starting in May). As I started doing my training program, I kept pushing my goal up. First to just a PR (previously 2:06:10, so I would be fine with a 2:05), then to something under two hours, until I started to think “Maybe I can do 1:58.” But, I never imagined I could be around 1:55, and here I had just ran that and had enough energy left in the tank that I could have easily gotten sub 1:55 (and probably around 1:53 if I had started pushing earlier).
BEST. RUNNING. DAY. EVER!