A year ago, I checked off completing the 20th anniversary Walt Disney World marathon off my bucket list as "one and done." However when runDisney announced a brand new (6.2-mile) 10-kilometer race as part of WDW Marathon Weekend for 2014 and the Dopey Challenge for runners to complete the (3.1-mile) Family Fun Run 5K, WDW 10K, 13.1-mile half-marathon, and the 26.2-mile marathon over marathon weekend, I had to eat my "one and done" words: I had to sign up for the new challenge.
Not only would I be running my second full marathon, but I would be completing 48.6 miles in four events over four days. What would cause me (as one of 7,000 Dopey Challenge registrants) to sign up for such a crazy challenge? The lure of an inaugural 10K event, of course! Not to mention the six runDisney medals I would get for finishing Dopey—those medals would be mine!
Our family friend Runner Bob decided to join me on the challenge and so, with 6,998 of our new best friends, we started on what would be a very challenging four days in Walt Disney World.
The Expo – Break Out the Charge Cards
The fun started on Wednesday at the official WDW Marathon Weekend Expo and packet pickup at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. While runDisney transportation buses start running to the expo Wednesday morning around 9:30 a.m., I knew of a different way that would get me and Runner Bob there much quicker. And much to our surprise, when we arrived around 9:20 or so, the expo had opened earlier than the 10:00 a.m. published start.
We immediately hit the official merchandise booth, where we scooped up a few Dopey Challenge items. But since we were also going to receive six participant tech shirts (one for each event plus a Goofy and Dopey shirt), we refrained from picking up individual event merchandise out of respect for our wallets and our luggage weight. Among the new runDisney items that we saw were runDisney tutus in shades of bright pink, purple, green. Kind of fun, but I haven't crossed over into the world of race costumes just yet—so thankfully, none of them followed me home.
After shopping, we picked up our bibs—each Dopey Challenger received two bibs; one combo bib to wear during both the Family Fun Run 5K and 10K, and a second to wear during both the half and full marathons.
We then picked up our participant shirts, then wandered through the expo which was held both inside the warmth of Josten's as well as outside in the Stadium hallway, where vendors fought off the cold morning winds. Many other running events had booths where they showcased some amazing bling from their respective events; several of the medals truly give runDisney a run for their money (and at a fraction of the cost…).
After the chaos of people trying to buy Disney-branded New Balance running shoes at the expos last year, runDisney instituted a new Fastpass-style "virtual queue" system, posting a step-by-step instruction video on YouTube in the days right before the start of the expo. Shoppers signed up for a return time, which then allowed them up to do other things (like shop for more merchandise at the expo) until their time was called. While this may have freed people from standing in line all day, the initial line to get a return time went on for what seemed like miles. I later spoke to a runner from Brazil, who told me that she got to the expo at 8:00 a.m. to sign up for the virtual queue. When New Balance finally contacted her to tell her she could pick up her shoes, it was 7:00 p.m.!
We finished the day with a wander through Epcot that ended early as the first of four days of alarms awaited everyone in the morning.
Day One – Let the Challenge Begin
Most WDW races start early in the morning. And although the Family Fun Run 5K had a later start than the other races, I'm from the West Coast, so it's always a major adjustment to get used to the three-hour time difference of early morning WDW races. On Thursday morning, the alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. and I slowly went through race prep. I caught up with Runner Bob at 3:45 a.m., and we boarded the bus for the 5K. We were in corral D, which was the fourth of five corrals for the event.
Historically, the 5K is the funnest, most relaxed race of a weekend. Many parents walk the distance with their children, and the finisher's medal is a very cute rubber version. However unlike previous years, for this year, there were more serious-looking runners in the faster corrals; all were wearing Dopey racing bibs.
The 5K course followed the traditional route from backstage at Epcot to a run around the World Pavilion. Epcot is especially beautiful in the early morning hours when the sun is just starting to peak out. We took it slow to conserve energy for the next three days and just enjoyed the sights and the views of an uncrowded Epcot park.
For being a Dopey Challenge, Dopey himself was rather ellusive during most of the races. He did make an appearance in World Showcase during the 5K, but the wait for a photo with Dopey (for all the Dopey Challengers) was estimated to be between 20 and 30 minutes.
When we crossed the finish line (which had a race clock for the first time), we were handed our rubber Pluto 5K medals. As Dopey Challengers, we were told to go around the corner and through a separate chute, so that we could get our finisher's wristband.
So with our medal in hand and a finisher's wristband firmly in place, race one of the Dopey Challenge was complete!
Day Two – Inaugural Bling
It's always fun to collect inaugural runDisney medals and with the addition of the new Walt Disney World 10K, there was more bling to be had and a new course to run.
The lure of an inaugural event made getting up again at 3:15 a.m. on Friday a little easier (though not by much), and I also had a special custom-made "Dopey Challenge – Day Two" shirt to wear, which proved to be a great conversation-starter during the event. On the bus ride to Epcot, Runner Bob and I started to notice familiar faces from the previous day's fun run, who we figured to be fellow "Dopeys"—this is truly the only time you can get away with calling someone that and meaning it as a compliment not an insult.
We again took our places in corral D, and waited for the fireworks to signal our start. The 10K starts in the same location as the 5K but instead of a right turn, the course takes a left and leads participants to the roads outside of Epcot.
By mile 2.5, however, we are again in familiar territory as we rejoined the 5K course around the World Showcase, followed by an exit to the Boardwalks. We returned back to Epcot shortly after mile 5 as we made our way down to the right of Spaceship Earth and out the park for the finish.
The 10K course is fun, and is a great transitional distance between the 5K and the half-marathon.
We added the inaugural Minnie Mouse 10K medals to our Family Fun Run Pluto 5K medals, got a second wristband attached to our wrists, and celebrated the completion of day two of the Dopey Challenge.
Day Three – This Isn't Getting Any Easier
In a repeat of the past two days, the alarm clock Saturday morning woke me up at 3:15 a.m.—this was quickly losing its charm. After hearing more than one horror story of Dopeys who slept through their alarms and missed the races, I had set the alarm across the room and added a back-up alarm in the form of the room alarm clock. I stumbled up out of bed, hurriedly turned everything off (so as not to wake up the entire building), and got ready for the WDW Half Marathon.
I donned my "Dopey Challenge – Day three" shirt and attached the second of the two racing bibs, put on a fresh pair of running shoes, and headed out for yet another early morning bus ride with Runner Bob.
For the half-marathon, we were starting in corral L, which was the 12th of 16 corrals. Taking a lesson from both the 2013 Tower of Terror 10 Miler and Wine & Dine Half Marathon, runDisney created more corrals with smaller numbers of participants in each one to ease congestion. The earlier corrals with the faster runners went out in two-minute intervals while the later corrals, which were larger, went out in five-minute intervals.
While there was a lot of sputtering and complaints about being in the later corrals (including one person who rumor has it paid someone to switch corrals with him so he could have a 'better' start), many of the runners I talked too turned into fans of the process when they noticed how much smoother both the start and the first few miles of the half marathon were compared to previous years.
As usual, the WDW Half Marathon course takes participants from Epcot to the Magic Kingdom and back. Along the way, I was startled to see a gentleman running with a sousaphone decked out as Big Bird. Yes, Big Bird. He was keeping a pretty good pace but he happily stopped along the way to pose for pictures. We continued by a variety of Disney villains and grave diggers, pirates and princes and of course, had the most magical run through Cinderella's Castle.
With a final run back in Epcot by the gospel choir, we easily finished the third event in the Dopey Challenge. Technically, we wouldn't hit the half-way point of the Challenge until 2 miles into the marathon, but hey—at this point, we had three medals in our hands and three wristbands up our arms. All we had left was 26.2 miles!
Day Four – They Shoot Alarm Clocks, Don't They?
On Sunday morning, as the alarm went off at the now-familiar but still ungodly time of 3:15 a.m., I gave the clock a bleary one-eyed stare. The early mornings were getting to all the Dopey participants and I was not alone in going from Happy to Grumpy in four days' time. There was nothing more that I wanted at that moment than to stay in bed to sleep for several more hours followed by a leisurely breakfast of Mickey waffles. But the alarm wasn't going to shut up until I got up—and once I was up, well, I may as well get ready for a 26.2 mile jaunt around Walt Disney World. I would feel pretty silly wearing my "Dopey Challenge – Day Four" shirt if I didn't run the miles!
I poked my head out the door and was pleasantly surprised by the cool, crisp morning weather. Thirty minutes later, I met up with Runner Bob and we boarded the final race bus of the weekend to the marathon start at Epcot. Of any of the events in the Dopey Challenge, I was most nervous about the marathon—due in part to training that had started out with big promise and ended yet again on the pavement as I took out my knees in a late-October fall. But by this point, only a rabid pack of "balloon ladies" (the official "last persons on the course," who mark their position with helium-filled Disney balloons, whom you have to be ahead of to avoid being swept on the course for not meeting pacing requirements) could keep me from finishing the Dopey Challenge. We took our spots in corral L, and began the 45-minute wait to our start.
The first couple of miles were spent calming my nerves, which slowed me down as I completed my own "Tour d' Potty" of restrooms along the course. Given my slow pace, I sent Runner Bob off on his own journey and told him I would catch up eventually. It took until passing through the gates of the Magic Kingdom around mile 5 for the nerves to calm down, but once I hit the park, I mentally switched into "I can do this" mode. We only get to spend a mile or so in the Magic Kingdom, but as always it is a highlight of runDisney events—especially the run up Main Street, which never disappoints in the crowds and enthusiasm.
The picture line with Mickey and Minnie at Cinderella's Castle stretched way too far back to consider stopping, so it was out through the Castle and out of the park on the long highway stretch to the Animal Kingdom. I was feeling good, everyone was singing along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" ("bum, bum, bum…") and the weather was still cool, so I continued to pick up the pace. I was hoping to catch up to Runner Bob in the next couple of miles.
As in 2013, we took a slight detour along the course and ran around the oval of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. While there seemed to be fewer classic cars on display than in 2013, it was still a fun break from the highways between the parks. By mile 12, it was time to run through the Animal Kingdom. The Tree of Life welcomed us in as we ran through Asia and past Expedition Everest. Runners were peeling off the course for a chance to ride the attraction during the marathon, and there where many high-fives and lots of laughter by those who successfully completed the extra challenge.
We exited the park to large crowds of spectators and supporters, who cheered us on as we next headed to the ESPN Wide World of Sports. The spongy rubberized track at ESPN felt good on the legs and yet again I found myself picking up the pace. There was still no sign of Runner Bob, but by my calculations, I was on target to knock almost 30 minutes of my 2013 marathon finish!
And then… it hit.
I didn't stumble. I didn't fall. So it came as a total surprise—at around mile 19, my left ankle popped.
I felt a sharp, stabbing pain that quickly spread down the foot and up my leg.
"I have a stress fracture!" I thought, panicked. Immediately, I slowed down to a walk. A very, very, very slow walk.
By around mile 20, the pain had calmed down a bit, so I tried running again.
…Back came the sharp, stabbing pain.
At this point, I should have probably stopped at the nearest medical tent and tossed in the race to prevent potential damage. Really, there was only one logical action to take. Right?
I just couldn't stop so close to completing the Dopey Challenge.
So, for the last 6.2 miles of the marathon, I gimped my way along the course. Through Disney's Hollywood Studios and down the Boardwalk and back to Epcot, I hobbled. The distance may have been the same as the 10K I'd done just two days earlier, but this one was not a happy 10K; runner after runner passed me and we entered some of the more populated spectator areas. It mentally hurt more to hear the cheers than the silence of the roads. I was sure that the balloon ladies were breathing down my neck, and at any moment, I would be stopped and pulled from the course. Four days of early mornings wasn't helping either. To add insult to injury, I was even passed by the Big Bird sousaphone runner.
I was hurt, I was mad, I was tired, and this was not how my fairy tale marathon was supposed to end. Cue the confetti and violins—the pity party had begun.
My pity party was in full swing as I entered Epcot and made my way around Spaceship Earth. It was all I could do to keep from snarling at the spectators as they happily rang cow bells and cheered. They were way too cheery for my pity party. I was reduced to a slow gimp in front of all those people (oh, the horror!) and fought back tears as I wondered what this latest injury would mean for the Disneyland Tinker Bell race events coming up the following weekend. What was supposed to have been a triumphant running finish was reduced to a slow, gimpy walk by a very grumpy Dopey.
Just before the finish, when I finally realized the balloon ladies were still well behind me, I stopped for the first time in many WDW races to rest the leg and to listen to the gospel choir sing. I've always been amazed at their energy and enthusiasm and as I listened, I relaxed and realized I had been way too hard on myself. The mental beating I had given myself in the last 10 kilometers of the marathon had been brutal—but wow, I was finishing the Dopey Challenge—48.6 miles over four days! I smiled (something I hadn't done in miles), rounded the corner, and slowly made my way up the long stretch to the marathon finish.
I crossed the finish line way off my target time and was met by a wonderful medic with a wheelchair, who hustled me to the med tent (you know you are hurting when a wheelchair looks inviting). On the way to the tent, we stopped and picked up my marathon medal, but the Goofy and Dopey medals would have to wait—which of course put me into a panic (what if they run out before I could get them?!).
I was examined by a wonderful team of medics (apologies again for the nasty sock and shoe—but hey, I did just finish 26.2 miles), after which I sat with a bag of ice on my ankle for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, they let me escape to collect my remaining medals, which the volunteer placed around my neck to go with my marathon medal. And then, to the clanking of metal on metal and the congratulations of the volunteer, everything finally released, and I cried—I completed the Dopey Challenge! No matter whether I ran or walked across that finish line or how fast my final time was, I was officially a Dopey Challenge finisher—that was something to be proud of.
So to all the spectators who cheered and held signs for hours, to other runners who shared encouraging words, to the volunteers who did such a wonderful job of supporting us four mornings in a row, to fellow Dopey Challenger Runner Bob who ultimately had a great marathon, to Thomas, who is the best Chief Support Officer ever, and to all my wonderful family of friends who supported me during this ultimate of follies—thank you. I couldn't have done it without you.
There were approximately 7,000 registrants for the Dopey Challenge. Of those 7,000 registrants, 6,119 completed all four events. The youngest Dopey was 18 and the oldest was 77. Congratulations to each and every one of you for a job well done! We are now (and forever) all Dopey Challenge finishers—and we get to claim the "inaugural" Dopey titles!