How Far I’ll Go: I ran the full WDW Marathon (accidentally)

2017 Walt Disney World Marathon

In Summer of 2016 I returned to work after having my second baby. My son and daughter are only 22 months apart, so I was still very much a new mom. I was unsure of everything- my parenting, working, where I wanted to move my family, the list goes on. As luck would have it, on my first day back to work I was asked to participate in 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon weekend on Team Cigna. It was a great opportunity and excuse to 1) resume distance running post baby x2, and 2) head back to Disney for our annual trip even though we now had two babies in tow! It was an immediate “yes” from me- but not for the full marathon. Oh no.

I had run 5K, 10K, 8 mile and half marathon races up until this point. A half marathon was a nice distance for me. It was a challenge, but it wasn’t insane. I was even asked if I wanted to register for any other races. Being a life long Disney goer and runner for almost 20 years, this would be my first Run Disney event and I didn’t want to regret anything like waking up several days in a row at 3am, so I decided just the one race – half marathon- was a good choice.

I was SO excited for this trip for many reasons. 1) Heading to sunny Florida from Connecticut in the dead of winter. 2) My son’s first Disney trip at 9 months and our first as a family of four. 3) My parents, DVC members, decided to join (date nights and extra hands for the kids – yay!), and not to mention unforgettable memories for all of us. We built up excitement for my daughter by telling her mommy would be running THROUGH the castle and we’d see Mickey- even at 2 years old, she was just as excited as me!

It was tough training because of my work schedule, child care, nursing, and sleep deprivation having both an infant and toddler. I managed to get long runs done on most weekends, working up to 10 miles. I just couldn’t get in 11+ having it fall right around the holidays and prepping for a family vacation. I did the best I could with cold weather. I had access to a small gym in our development with a couple treadmills, elliptical and stationary bikes. For some long runs, I had to hop on the elliptical and count it as a mile if the treadmills were occupied during my training time. I had little flexibility and did the best I could. I still felt confident I’d finish with a comparable time to previous half marathons but certainly wasn’t planning to PR.

Well, man plans, and God laughs! There was beautiful weather for the 5K. There was a somewhat wet 10K, but the race went on as scheduled. Then the night before the half marathon a wrench was thrown into my plans. It was cancelled due to lightening. Not postponed, not delayed – just straight up cancelled. All the training, effort, and excitement I put into this – it mattered so much to me! But I quickly realized I was here in Disney with my family and things could certainly be worse, so I did my best to shift my attitude. I went to bed disappointed but determined to enjoy the rest of vacation. Until I got up to nurse my son at around 1:30am.

I checked my email, as most nursing mothers do in the middle of the night while fighting to stay awake to nurse a hungry baby. An email from Run Disney with options of reimbursement for the cancelled race popped up. It stated that in exchange for my cancelled half marathon registration, I could A) receive a park hopper ticket, B) receive registration to another Run Disney race within the next 2 years, or C) register and run the FULL marathon just one day later (this would only be available for a lucky select few since space was limited). I knew it was crazy and risky, but there in the middle of the night with my son and sleeping toddler next me (and delirium setting in), I decided there’s no time like NOW. I immediately responded and received email directions to head to ESPN Wide World of Sports the next day to exchange my half bib for the full marathon registration. What did I just do…?

The course map for the half marathon in Walt Disney World on WDW Marathon weekend.
A look at the map of the half marathon (13.1 miles) for the 2017 WDW Marathon weekend event.
A map of 26.2 miles through Walt Disney World. The 2017 WDW Marathon course.
A look at 26.2 miles through Walt Disney World – the 2017 FULL WDW Marathon course.

In the morning I informed my husband of my plan. Understandably, he was a bit unsure of my decision. He didn’t want to see me get hurt and knew I would be crushed if I got injured and couldn’t visit the parks in the days that followed as we had planned. As we walked around and chatted with other guests, I got a mix of feedback. Sweet ladies at the bus told me the Run Disney course is the most supportive and fun course to run. They said I could walk after running the 13.1 miles I trained for and still very likely finish without being swept or grab a bus to the finish if I needed to. Some runners were downright insulted by the thought of me unintentionally running a full marathon in the presence of the “serious” runners who were here to qualify for Boston. I get both sides, but I made my decision and I was giving it a go.

All runners must pick up their bibs at the Run Disney Health and Fitness Expo at Wide World of Sports.
Picking up my half marathon bib for 2017 WDW Marathon weekend and all smiles with my youngest!
Complimentary buses are available between Disney Resorts and the Run Disney Expo on WDW Marathon weekend.
On the bus right after I picked up my bib for the FULL 2017 WDW Marathon (and my face of fear)!

Deep down my plan was to run 13.1 which would bring me to the middle of Animal Kingdom, and then walk to the next medic tent and grab a bus to the finish. Deeper down, I thought “How crazy would it be if I actually ran the whole 26.2 miles?” I had never run 26.2 before, but I had run half marathons, I had some training under my belt, and I’ve been running since I was 14 years old. I also had faith in my body. I knew it had just been under a ridiculous amount of exertion from two pregnancies and nursing for a combined 20 months. But I treat my body right. I take good care of it. As a Registered Dietitian, I work in a few different areas of nutrition. One of them being as an eating disorder clinician. I had been preaching to my clients that the body is not an ornament. It is a vehicle to experience life. It’s not meant to look pretty. It’s meant to take you places so you can experience all the thrills life has to offer you! Like all ladies after childbirth, I wanted my old body back. I wanted my same exact size as pre-baby and I wanted it immediately. But rather than starve and overwork my body to fit in my pre-baby jeans before my son could even eat solids, I chose not to focus on it. I ate what felt good, what tasted good and what I knew would nourish me and my nursing infant. I ran when I could, but I didn’t feel guilty when I missed workouts or had to shorten my mileage because I was too tired. I listened to my body, I fed it, and I took care of it. Now it was time for my body to take me where I wanted to go- to the finish line of the Walt Disney World Marathon, and yes, on 24 hours’ notice.

Run Disney runners love to plan their race outfits. I planned to wear a shirt that read "Half Marathon, Full Princess"
The DIY shirt I wore, originally planned for the half-marathon, now to be worn as an explanation for when I planned to stop at mile 13.1 on the full 2017 WDW Marathon course.
Runners can keep coffee and food in their room for the morning of a Run Disney race.
On the bus to the race start with my cold up of coffee that I picked up the night before and my recycled half bib gearing up to run the full 2017 WDW Marathon course!

The night before the race I had pre-planned dining reservations in Disney Springs at Raglan Road for my dad’s birthday. One of my favorite restaurants, but not a place to find an ideal pre-marathon meal. (Here’s what I would normally recommend to eat the night before a run Disney race). I ordered a salad (I usually steer clear of fiber the night before a big race) because it was one of the lighter meals on the menu. I filled up on the soda bread and picked up a Clif bar and banana to eat the next morning. That night my nerves got the best of me. I barely slept and by 1am I ate the Clif bar and banana because I was already hungry!

The start line of the full marathon for the 2017 WDW Marathon in Disney World.
It just got real! Here’s a shot from the start line of the 2017 WDW Marathon in Walt Disney World.

When it came time to get up for the race, I had to pump (at least 8 ounces of breast milk), drink the coffee I had saved from the night before and head to my bus. Luckily, through my race team, I had admittance into the VIP tent. This was a life saver because I got to eat a bagel with peanut butter and banana which is my GO-TO pre-race meal. (Here are more tips on what to eat on your run Disney race day). It’s like a race-day security blanket in many ways. I had more coffee and water and peed probably 100 times. Did I mention I was nervous? At one point, I ran into the famous Olympian (and Run Disney loyal) Jeff Galloway. All I remember him saying to me is “It’s a great day for a race- it’s dry and warm!” He was right about the dry part, but not so much the temperature. It was 34 degrees outside to be exact. The race costume I brought – capri leggings and a tank top that read “Half Marathon, Full Princess” would not hold up with this chill. The night before I made a mad dash to Under Armor in Disney Springs and purchased winter running gear – lined leggings and a fleece quarter zip. I had a throw away layer on top and scammed a mylar blanket from a volunteer who pitied me (and probably saw the fear in my eyes) as we started our walk to the start line.

The start line of the 2017 WDW Marathon.
Here goes nothing! I’m ready to start the 2017 WDW Marathon course!

I was able to keep my corral, which was D, and early in the start process. I buddied up to anyone who was nice enough to listen to me ramble about transferring from the half marathon. I could not find one other person who was in the same position as me. Nerves set in as the announcers started and the fireworks were going off. As soon as I crossed the start, I felt hungry, tired and immediately thought “How am I going to pull this off?” Very similar to thoughts I’ve had as a new mom. But I told myself to make it one step at a time- aim for the half mark and then walk to the medic tent and take a bus to the finish if needed. I tried to stay positive but I felt the fear taking over me. I carried on as if this was the half-marathon race. I was running at my half marathon pace and simultaneously looking up fuel stations and medic tents in the race guide PDF I saved to my phone.

Cinderella's castle covered in Christmas Lights and on the course for the 2017 WDW Marathon.
The view that I came here for – time to run through the castle! One of the best views on the WDW Marathon course!
I loved seeing Cinderella's Castle lit up with lights on the 2017 WDW Marathon course!
Tears in my eyes as we turned onto Main Street USA. I loved seeing Cinderella’s Castle lit up with lights on the 2017 WDW Marathon course!

Once I reached mile 5 and could start to see the Magic Kingdom in the distance, the course truly became magic! It was a welcomed flat road with little to no incline (especially compared to the rolling hills of Connecticut where I train) and even though it was freezing I was warming up from blood flow, the rising sun and adrenaline. As I turned the corner into Magic Kingdom onto Main Street USA, I saw the castle for the first time ever decorated in Christmas lights and all the cheer squad lined up yelling for us runners. I was brought to tears. As a life-long Disney fan, when you see the parks in a different light, and you have a moment to admire the beauty and work that goes into this place, it is truly awe inspiring. I have said this before – Run Disney is a well-oiled machine. They have this process down. I was so uplifted from every single volunteer and crew member on the course- from the bus driver to the characters. Those people on the cheer squad don’t know me but they were shouting my name as loud as my own mother would as I ran past them. This was only mile 6 but I felt great! With every step that followed, it was harder and harder to think about leaving the course early when I could enjoy all 26.2 miles of it!

Characters like Donald Duck are available for photopass on the WDW Marathon course.
Hey Donald! A reason to stop and catch my breath on the WDW Marathon course.
Run Disney races start early. The sunrise started as I ran through Magic Kingdom.
The sunrise started as I ran through Magic Kingdom and painted the park in the most beautiful light during the WDW Marathon.
The sunrise gave a pretty glow to Splash Mountain on the WDW Marathon course.
Seeing Splash Mountain at sunrise and in a pretty glow on the WDW Marathon course.

As we exited Magic Kingdom the sun began to rise. I loved running with my own two feet all over the Walt Disney World property and seeing sights from a different point of view. I had brought my headphones but never once felt the need to block out the environment around me. Every step I took was another view of Disney and I loved it. As we ran into Animal Kingdom, I started to think “Wow, I feel pretty good.” As I reached the half way mark, I felt even better. I didn’t see any signs of a medic tent or any other runners stopping. I expected to meet other transferred runners from the half at the 13.1-mile marker, but there was no crowd, so, the words of Dory told me to just keep swimming.

Characters are available for Disney photopass on the WDW Marathon Course, like Lilo and Stitch.
Lilo and Stitch telling me to “hang loose” on the WDW Marathon Course!
Halfway through the 2017 WDW Marathon course brought me to Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Mile 13! Where are all my fellow half-marathon transfers? I kept running to find them but they were nowhere in sight. Do I stop, or keep going from this halfway point of the WDW Marathon course?
Runners dress up in costumes for Run Disney races. Here is Simba and Rafiki on the WDW Marathon course.
Perfect timing- I ran up behind this man simulating the opening scene of Lion King to the soundtrack of Animal Kingdom entrance on the WDW Marathon course.

Next thing I know, it’s mile 16. I decided to finally walk. I had been nervous to do so up until this point because I feared I wouldn’t be able to start again. At this point, a nice gentleman ran up next to me. I noticed more packs of runners than individual runners around me. I think my pace of runners had finally caught up with me. He said hello and asked how I was doing. I immediately explained that I was a transfer from the half, so truly I am just thinking about if and when I’ll stop running. He said to me “Why? You can totally finish!” He was so matter-of-fact and made it so simple for me. I responded, “You’re right!” Not quite sure what came over me at this point, mostly likely just pure Disney magic. I called my husband to check in on him and the kids (because that’s what us moms do- forget that fact that we are literally running a marathon, let’s first check in on the family and make sure they’re ok)! He said everyone was fine and just keep going. Once I knew he wasn’t worried, and the babies were fine, I was 100% committed to finishing. My reasoning was I would never again be this far in, fully paid for and running the race, so might as well finish!

Family members can be spectators on the later parts of the WDW Marathon course.
My favorite character stop on the course was this princess, my 2 year old daughter! Family members can be spectators on the later parts of the WDW Marathon course.
The WDW Marathon course ends in Epcot after Spaceship Earth.
So close! Nearing the end of the WDW Marathon and realizing I was about to finish 26.2 miles of magic!

We got to ESPN Wide World of Sports (mile 19). The sun was shining and even though it was still cold, it was bearable. In the VIP tent, I had grabbed a marker in case I wanted to finish the full marathon. What did I need the marker for? To edit my shirt! I crossed out “half” and wrote “full” so my shirt now read “Full Marathon, Full Princess.” I did a lap around the baseball field and then headed to Hollywood Studios. My joints welcomed the soft dirt and grass under my feet as a brief change from the hard pavement. Around mile 20 I started to feel tired and my knees were sore. I took a Tylenol and kept at it with run/walk intervals. I heard someone say that once we made it into Hollywood Studios, you could no longer be swept because the buses wouldn’t be able to make it into the park area to pick you up. I’m not sure if that is true, but I also knew my husband and family were waiting outside the Beach Club for me at mile 24. I had never planned to see them on the course, but the stars aligned when I switched to the full marathon which meant the later hours of the course would take me right by our resort! The thought of seeing them kept me going (and maybe also the chocolate candy they were handing out at Tower of Terror)! When I reached the Beach Club and saw my husband, babies and parents, I started crying again. This was more emotional for me than the actual finish. I knew what I was doing would leave a lasting impression on my daughter, even though she was only 2 years old at the time. Mommy promised her I’d run through the castle and I delivered on that promise and then some! My husband and parents were cheering for me, and for some reason, were not at all surprised that I was pulling this off! I contemplated taking a short break to nurse my son, but he was sound asleep in the stroller, so after a big hug from my favorite princess on the course and the rest of my family, I took off to finish. I could hear in my head…

“When there’s a smile in your heart, there’s no better time to start. Think of all the joy you’ll find, when you leave the world behind and bid your cares goodbye… You can fly!”

So, I did- I flew through Epcot (it was more of limping, but I was still moving). As I approached Spaceship Earth, I pictured myself on my high school cross country course with my coach screaming “Kick it in!” I started passing everyone, like 5 people at a time, and made it across the finish line at just 6 hours! I had people come up to me to say they had been pacing themselves off me for the last 10 miles. I didn’t have the energy to tell them I hadn’t even trained or planned for this, but it made me feel good to know I was finishing with runners who had.

I was so happy to finish that I almost forgot my medal! Thank God for Donald Duck who just about chased me down! The medal is all I have from the race since I never did get my hands on a Full Marathon shirt that weekend. I do proudly wear the half marathon shirt, even though that race never took place. After a couple pictures, snack box and a mylar blanket, I darted for my bus back to the resort.

I earned my 26.2 Full WDW Marathon medal!
I did it! 26.2 Miles through the happiest place on earth! The 2017 WDW Marathon has gone down in history as my favorite run Disney race ever!
I will never forget the 2017 WDW Marathon!
Done and done! Came to run 13.1 miles but ended up magically finishing 26.2 magical miles in the WDW Marathon!

The post-race time period was more painful than the actual marathon. My family was switching resorts from the Beach Club to Saratoga Springs, except I arrived 2 hours before them because of the crowds and traffic they encountered. I wondered the resort, since my room was not yet ready, just waiting for my family to make their way back to me. I was afraid to sit thinking I would never make it up again! Once we finally reunited, I had very little gas left in my tank. A big motivation to finish the marathon was so I could reunite with my son and finally nurse him. To this day, I credit him and my promise to my daughter to run through the castle as the reasons for my finish. As I’m sure you’ve heard before, long distance running is large-part mental. You need to BELIEVE in yourself and focus on your “why.” There really is no better place to find this motivation within yourself than on a Run Disney course. If you just look around and see all that has been accomplished from just one man’s dream, it becomes clear that great things (and long distances) start with just a few small steps.

After the race, I visited Epcot with my family and met Elsa.
The day after running the WDW Marathon, I toured Epcot with my family and met Elsa – an unforgettable trip!

Please never take this as advice to run a race you have not properly trained for. I don’t recommend it. But please do take this as a message that you can do anything you put your mind to! This Run Disney race truly changed me. I have never been so proud of my body, nor had I ever seen my hard work and dedication to the sport pay off like this in all my years of running. In many ways, motherhood is a marathon. You may not know how you’re going to handle the next day, the next phase, the next year… but somehow you do. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. (Read my tips for Run Disney as a Parent).

Full warning here: Run Disney races are addicting! This has gone down as my favorite Disney memory of all time, and I’ve been back for several more races since this one. I can’t wait to return next week! Whether it’s the 5K or full-blown Dopey Challenge you’re aiming for, know that YOU CAN DO IT- there’s just no telling how far you’ll go! What are you waiting for? Book NOW!

 

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are my own and not the views of The Kingdom Insider. Always consult with your physician before starting a new exercise regimen or training plan. Running without proper training may lead to injury.

Jamie Lee McIntyre MS RDN is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and contributor to The Kingdom Insider for Disney food, nutrition and wellness - related topics. She is a practicing Dietitian with over 11 years of experience, and is a nutrition communications consultant providing content online and on air in broadcast media. You can find her online (www.JamieLeeRDN.com), at the finish line of a Run Disney race, or in the parks scanning menus, reading labels and trying new foods!