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A Beginner's Guide to Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend

August 14, 2010
by Firedancer on the DISboards
DIS Contributing Columnist

Every January, thousands of Disney fans line up for one of the Walt Disney World marathon weekend events. The weekend, which consists of a 5K, half marathon, and marathon, is the marquee event of the RunDisney (formerly Disney Endurance) calendar. Because the races are unique (where else can you run through the Walt Disney World parks and get a Mickey or Donald medal for your effort) and walker friendly (you just need to maintain a 16 minute per mile pace), they attract a lot of first time runners and walkers.

Every year there is a thread on the W.I.S.H. boards about the weekend and there are a lot of questions from folks who have never attended or participated in a marathon weekend before. Since a lot of first timers have the same questions and concerns I thought it would be helpful to get some of the information out there. Hopefully someone sitting on the fence about trying one of the weekend's events, or one of the other events RunDisney puts on each year, will be inspired to give it a try.

The most popular race that weekend, especially for first timers, is the half marathon. It is a harder challenge than the 5K but not a 5 or 6 hour event like the full marathon can be. The inevitable first concern from most people is if they can do a 13.1 mile race in the allotted time. The answer is a resounding yes. How long it takes you to get up the endurance for a half marathon will depend on your starting point but with sufficient training and effort you will be able to complete the half marathon. If you are starting from scratch and are not a current walker or runner, a program that is very popular is the Couch to 5K (C25K) program. It is designed for someone whose current cardio routine consists of a trip from the couch to the fridge and back. No matter how out of shape you are the program will get you to the point of completing a 5K and once you have accomplished that you are ready to look into a half marathon training program. Three very popular choices are the Galloway Method, Marathoning for Mortals, and Hal Hidgon's website which has multiple plans. Anyone who has competed in endurance events will tell you that race day is the easy part. It's the hours of training in the summer heat or winter cold that most consider the hard part. Once you get past that it is smooth sailing.

After you decide that you can do the run (or walk) there are some specific race weekend questions that come up. This is where I have to put in the disclaimer that while much of the information is consistent from year to year, any could change for future events. The weekend, as it is arranged now, consists of a fitness expo on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, a family fun run 5K on Friday morning, a half marathon on Saturday morning, and a full marathon on Sunday morning. There are also kids events on Friday and Saturday so your little ones can join in the fun. If 26.2 miles is just not enough for a weekend you can also sign up for the Goofy Challenge which means you run both the half and full marathon for a third finisher's medal. In addition to the Donald medal you earn for completing the half and the Mickey medal you earn for completing the full, you get a Goofy medal. You also get a Goofy technical running shirt in addition to the Donald and Mickey shirts you get for the half and full respectively. The theme for the 5K changes from year to year as does the park it runs thorough. For 2011 the 5K will go through Epcot and will have a Toy Story theme. The course for the half and full marathons have been pretty stable. For both you start just outside of Epcot but the half brings you to the Magic Kingdom and then sends you back to Epcot while the full has you go through Epcot first then off to the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and then through Epcot a second time. Both finish just outside of Epcot in the parking lot.

Another question that comes up is exactly how the 16 minute per mile pace works. Basically, at given points throughout the course sweepers will stop any runner or walker who has fallen below the minimum pace and take them via bus to the finish line. If that happens you do not get a finisher's medal. The good news is that the clock for the sweepers doesn't start until the very last person crosses the starting line. If you head up to the start of the walk corral and cross the start line 10 minutes before the last person in the walk corral starts you have just given yourself 10 additional minutes of padding. The other thing to keep in mind is that the pace is cumulative so you just have to stay ahead of the sweepers. That means you can go out and put in some quick miles to buy yourself some additional time later in the race. I'll give you an example. Let's say you started 10 minutes before the last starter and walk the first 5 miles at an average pace of 11 minutes. That means that when you get to mile 6 the clock for you will be at 55 minutes. If they sweep at mile 6 you will have a 45 minute gap between you and the sweeper (16*5+10-55). Even if you walk the remainder of the race a little above the 16 minute per mile minimum you will be allowed to finish as long as you don't drop all of those 45 minutes. If you have one bad mile and only managed an 18 minute/mile pace they don't pull you out as long as you are ahead of the sweepers based on your cumulative time.

Transportation for the weekend is pretty straight forward. Unlike the other race weekends, every single resort on property will have buses to get you to the expo (located at the ESPN Wide World of Sports) which is a necessity since that is where you pick up your bib and race packet. All the resorts except the monorail resorts at the Magic Kingdom will also have buses to get you to the race events. The monorail will start running early enough on race days to get runners to the start in plenty of time. If you are staying at one of the Epcot area resorts around Crescent Lake you must take the bus to the start. The International Gateway will not be opened and you can not walk through Epcot to the start. Every year people try to walk to the start only to learn they are not allowed and it is too late to get the bus to the start on time. No park tickets are required for any of the races even though they go through the parks. If, however, you want to walk back to your resort through Epcot you will need a ticket. If you have a single park ticket and use it to walk through, you will have to make Epcot your park for that day.

There are road closures on both Saturday and Sunday to accommodate the race course. If you are staying on property Disney buses will still be able to get you to the parks but the trips may take a little longer. If you have an advanced dining reservation keep that in mind. If you are staying on property and driving, the resorts will have a list of road closures for you. They are supposed to put them on the doorknobs ahead of time but they are not consistent so if you don't have a copy head down to your resort's front desk and ask them for one.

Another very common question without a straight forward answer comes from those who want to watch a friend or family member run as opposed to participate themselves. Those folks can use Disney transportation to get around the course as best as possible but where and when to try and see your runner involves a lot of variables. It depends on how quickly you can get around (especially if you want to attempt to see them more than once on the course), how quickly your family member or friend runs the race, where exactly they start (runners are staged based on expected finish time), and so forth. What I can say, from the runner's perspective, is that there are areas we can use a boost more than others. I recommend folks that want to watch someone compete in the half find a spot along the course after the runners exit the Magic Kingdom. This is a boring part of the course and because the crowds are much thinner you both have a better chance of seeing each other. Another option for the half is trying to see them just before they enter Epcot. The runners enter the park near where the bus stops are so you can head over there and start walking back against the course until you find a clearing. There is an overpass the runners go over just before entering the parking lot so if you can get back to that in time it would be much appreciated as that is the most challenging part of the course for many runners. If you are quick enough (and the runner pace isn't too fast) you can see them next to the Grand Floridian or Polynesian and then take the monorail to Epcot and see them again. For the full that same location after exiting the Magic Kingdom holds but they don't head back to Epcot afterwords, they head onto the Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios first before returning to Epcot via the Boardwalk. Anywhere you can get along the course for those last 6 miles would be much appreciated. Most of the runners would have done no more than a 20 mile training run so that last 10K is rough.

As the race weekend gets closer, more information is released by Disney Sports and the final race program and instructions will be available online. Any questions you have about specifics for the weekend will more than likely be addressed there. You can also head over to the W.I.S.H. boards. There are veterans of every Disney race posting there and they can either answer your question or steer you in the right direction.

I really hope anyone who is thinking about trying one of the events gives it a go. In addition to marathon weekend in January there is the Princess Half Marathon weekend in February (at least for 2011) and the Wine & Dine Half Marathon in October. Crossing the finish line of your first race, no matter what distance, is an accomplishment you can be proud of and one which only you can achieve for yourself. Unlike most sports you don't have a team to rely on or prop you up, only your legs can get you to the finish. Of course the encouragement from those around you does make it a little easier.

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Jim, Per the final race instructions: "Please note, the race shirt you requested when you registered (listed on your waiver) is the size you will receive at Packet Pick-Up. We are unable to exchange sizes on-site." From what I understand they are pretty strict about this policy but if you pick you race packet up very late on the last day (Friday for the half or Saturday for the full) and they have plenty of shirts left they might make an exception. It doesn't hurt to ask but I would assume you end up with an XXL.

There is also the Everest Expedition. Not a long distance run, but tons of fun!

Jim Werner
Do they allow you to exchange your race shirt for a different size? Since I signed up, I've lost 65 pounds. Just don't think an XXL will look good on me anymore. Thanks!

Discrepancies or Corrections? Please let us know.