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Agony of Da Feet

The 2003 Walt Disney World Marathon

Wednesday, February 5, 2003
by Lani Teshima, staff writer

They leap like gazelles, their spritely toes barely touching the ground. The swiftest of the fastest runners who breezed through the 10th Annual Walt Disney World Marathon on Sunday, January 12 and who led the event from start to finish, was 24-year-old Brazillian Adriano Bastos, who clocked the fastest Disney Marathon record in eight years with a whirlwind time of 2:18:33.

...Two hours and 18 minutes. That comes out to roughly five-and-a-half minutes a mile. And although the time is too slow to qualify for any world record, most people (including myself) probably cannot even ride a bicycle at such lightning speeds.

Unlike elite events such as the Boston Marathon—which requires a fast qualifying time to enter—the Disney Marathon and Half-Marathon are for the rest of us: A great beginner's route filled with Disney characters, music, entertainment, and spirit and heart overflowing with motivation and dedication to overcome the limits of the body.

"If you're trying to set a personal record, you're in the wrong marathon," multiple Disney Marathon finisher Terri Jordan from Jacksonville, Florida said, in describing the overall feel of the event.

The Fitness Expo

The Coronado Springs Resort served as this year's official Marathon headquarters. Participants who booked their trip through Disney Sports were given the option to stay at the Coronado, and Disney held the Marathon's Fitness Expo at the resort's convention center.

As with any special occasion, Disney provided a large array of merchandise for the event. Shoppers could choose from several different styles of shirts, including a few that proclaimed "I did it!"—which may have been a bit premature since purchases had to be made before the start of the marathon. Those running the full marathon found merchandise themed with Mickey Mouse, the official mascot for the marathon, while Donald Duck was emblazoned on all of the half-marathon merchandise.

Even these Mickey bobbleheads get into the action. Photo by Alex Stroup.

In addition to Mickey bobbleheads, and Mickey and Donald mini beanies (in shorts and a running number), there was the requisite pin set. One participant who wore a lanyard full of previous Disney marathon pins was particularly excited to learn that the $90 10th anniversary pin set included a special pin available only as part of the set. The gentleman purchased the box set without batting an eye (but only after showing off all of the other marathon pins he had obtained over the years).

The expo was filled with other vendors selling everything from other marathons in beautiful cities (Chicago? New York? Sydney?) and expensive frames for finisher's medals, to shorts, shirts, blister-proof socks, and off-brand imitation sunglasses.

Getting up at what time?

Both the marathon and half-marathon officially start at 6:00 a.m. Not horribly early, until you consider that you must be in line by 5:00. And in order to be there by 5:00, Disney shuttles participants from its various on-property resorts in big buses starting at 3:00. For those of us wishing to avoid any potential problems by missing a bus, this meant getting up around 2:00 a.m. [that would be 11:00 p.m. on the West Coast, where this writer resides.]

The temperature and weather vary greatly year after year. Even in the warmest years, however, 4:00 in the morning is still pretty chilly. Most of the participants bundled up in big Hefty bags and ratty sweatshirts, which got tossed within the first few miles of the event. [Disney, to its credit, rounds up the discarded clothing, cleans them, and donates them to local shelters.]

The route

The WDW Marathon is the only event where participants run through all four Disney World parks, including backstage areas not normally accessible to the public.

The start of both the marathon and half-marathon is on Epcot Center Drive near Epcot. The course loops a bit, and runners finally enter Epcot around mile 3—and at that time of the morning, the park is still closed to the public. What an eerie sight to jog past Spaceship Earth and part of World Showcase, with no one else around except cheering cast members.

The Magic Kingdom toll booths arrive soon enough, but they are deceptive for those unfamiliar with the course; there are still miles to go to the Magic Kingdom.

Although there are many areas where spectators cheer the runners on, the Magic Kingdom's Main Street is a particular thrill. As runners leave the backstage area, they step onto the quaint town square area... and are immediately met by a wall of people standing behind the ropes to cheer everyone on with vigor. Unlike other spectator areas, Main Street is very narrow... some spectators offer high-fives to the runners who make their way towards the center of the park.

Spectators try to find their friends and loved ones among the blur of runners on Main Street. Dale (far right) high-fives the runners... but Chip is nowhere to be seen. Photo by Alex Stroup.

After the Magic Kingdom and the Grand Floridian, those who are running the half-marathon turn off on a side road to finish the last few hundred yards of their run. "If you are running the half-marathon, turn to your left. If you are running the full marathon, continue in the right lane!" a man with a microphone drones on continuously. There are three times as many full-marathon participants than the half-marathon, so the majority of participants continue running onward.

It is at this point that the route heads into the service roads. Inaccessible to the cheering public, an almost serene quiet falls over the service roads as participants begin to feel their bodies tire... miles 14, 15, 16... plodding on, with an occasional character meet and greet or an overexuberant DJ with a loud microphone asking everyone what town they are from.

The service road takes another turn, this time going past the backstage area of Animal Kingdom. The rhythm of African-style music fills the air, and instead of Disney characters, runners come face to face with real animals, including a llama, an owl... and a chicken.

Besides animals, Animal Kingom offered something else unusual: Cobblestone and rocky, uneven pavement. What is supposed to evoke rural simplicity for the regular park visitor, turns out not to be such a good running surface. This apparently causes something of an impediment to the elite runners, and may explain why the fastest runners do not approach world-record pace. Nationally ranked ultrarunner Mark Godale of Ohio, who finished in a blistering time of 2:42, described the marathon route as full of twists and turns, with changing surfaces that made the route seem more like a trail run. In addition to the uneven surface of Animal Kingdom, the route even includes wooden planks along the Boardwalk area, as well as inclined banks on highway on-ramps near Epcot.

The loneliest stretch of road is the area near Disney's Wide World of Sports, as there is very little to see there. It is, unfortunately, also the spot that marks mile 20, the distance where many runners hit "the wall" when the body runs out of glycogen energy.

Bulldozing past this stretch, runners are rewarded with the next park: Disney-MGM Studios. Entering a cast member entrance and running right past the Tower of Terror, the end is nearly in sight... all that is left from this point is the Boardwalk, then World Showcase and Future World, finally running again past Spaceship Earth, to finish in the parking lot right outside Epcot.

Spaceship Earth is visible under the Finish banner as marathon participants cross the finish line in the Epcot parking lot, assisted by the numerous orange-jacketed volunteers. Photo by Lani Teshima.

Character meet-and-greets... on the run

Donald Duck and Daisy Duck launched the start of the Half-Marathon, as they stood atop a crane and quacked a motivational (but indecipherable) announcement. At roughly the same time, Mickey and Minnie did the same for the full marathon—and they were just as indecipherable in the din of the starting area.

The character sightings didn't end there. Most marathon events try to keep the runners' spirits up by providing various forms of entertainment along the course, such as local garage bands and cheerleaders. But only Disney can arrange for runners to meet Lilo and Stitch, or to high-five Mickey Mouse at the finish line.

The author cannot resist the urge to stop and visit with Lilo and Stitch. MousePlanet photo.

Other characters included Uncle Scrooge, the Country Bears, Safari Mickey, Goofy, and numerous others, all of whom eagerly posed with any runner willing to take a break from their run. For this reason, participants are strongly encouraged to carry a disposable camera during the event.

Cheerleading cast members, volunteers, and family supporters

The cheering was not limited to just the Disney characters. In fact, the bulk of the cheerleading came from spectators, volunteers, and cast members. Many of them hold up signs for their loved ones, but one particularly memorable group stood by the Grand Floridian Wedding Pavillion, each dressed as either a bride or groom (and wearing appropriate bride Minnie or groom Mickey ears).

Parade floats and entertainers keep tired spirit lifted near Animal Kingdom. Photo by Lani Teshima.

The runners

Take away the characters, the cheerleaders, the volunteers... and you end up with the runners. Each person ran the marathon for personal reasons, and each had a story to tell.

A surpringly large number of participants were running on behalf of a charitable cause as part of a big fundraiser (which, for most, required raising at least $3000). Charities included Team Arthritis (Canada), Team Diabetes (American Diabetes Association), Team in Training (the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society), Team 20/20 (Prevent Blindness America), Train to End Stroke (American Stroke Association), and many more.

Many of these fundraiser participants dedicated their runs to individuals afflicted with the particular conditions, each of them neatly printing the name of their "heroes" on the backs of their shirts. Some runners did not wear a fundraising uniform, but dedicated their runs anyway, pinning photographs and writing messages on their shirts ("This one is for my dad. I miss you, dad").

After a while, the team shirts and the dedication names all seem to blur into each other... but every so often, one saw a message that truly touched the heart. One such message was written on the back of a threadbare, white T-shirt, worn by a young man not yet 20, his thin body stiff from years of arthritis. Written with an unsteady hand, his message read: "17 years with arthritis... running this half-marathon to prove the pain hasn't gotten me yet."

...you see stuff like that, and you are overcome with both pride and shame—pride for someone who endeavors to be so brave, and shame for daring to feel tired as a perfectly healthy adult. At moments like that, the only thing holding back the tears is the need to take another step forward.

Oh... it's shiny!

A reward worth running 26.2 miles for, the coveted Mickey Mouse medal for finishers of the full marathon. Photo by Alex Stroup.

At the Olympics, only first-place finishers get a gold medal. Not so with Disney, where every finisher who completes the event before the official cut-off time (7 hours for the full, 3:30 hours for the half) gets a medal. Full-marathoners get a mouse-eared medal, while half-marathoners get a medal in the shape of Donald Duck. The design of the latter changed this year from an angled profile (with a long bill) to a front-facing view. The only real identifying feature of Donald this year is his lopsided sailor hat. "I still cannot see a Donald Duck in my medal. It looks like an outline of the state of Michigan," said Larry J. of Rhode Island, who treasures his Donald medal nonetheless.

The Walt Disney World Marathon is extremely well-organized. Slow runners are not made to feel left out, and the route is almost perfectly flat except for a few highway overpasses. With a route filled with cheer and Disney magic, any Disney fan considering the idea of training for a full marathon should seriously think about running the WDW Marathon as their first 26.2-miler (and the same goes for the 13.1 half-marathon).

Registration for next year's marathon and half-marathon (scheduled for January 11, 2004) becomes available online on March 1, and registration often fills to capacity and closes by the summer. With 10 months of potential training time, why not grab your running shoes and take your first step?

Official press release

10th Annual Disney Marathon Produces Fast Times

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (Jan. 12, 2003) - Brazilian Adriano Bastos clocked the fastest Disney Marathon time in eight years while two division records fell Sunday during the 10th annual Walt Disney World Marathon and Half Marathon.

Bastos, 24, of Sao Paulo, led from start to finish in posting a 2:18:33 to lead a field of 16,000 participants in the full marathon. It was the fastest winning time since Leonid Shvetsov of Russia set the Disney standard of 2:11:50 in 1995 and the 15th-fastest Disney time ever.

While it marked Bastos's first win in eleven marathons, his performance continued the event's domination by international runners. Brazilians have won four times. Other winners have come from Colombia, England (twice), Ireland, and Russia (twice).

Bastos's victory margin was by more than five minutes over David Hinga, a Kenyan residing in Methuen, Mass., who finished in 2:23:40. Hinga was New England Runner Magazine's 2002 Athlete of the Year.

Meanwhile, Ronnie Holassie of Miramar, Fla., scorched the half- marathon field of 6,000 with that event's fastest time ever - a 1:07:45 that took nearly a minute and a half off the standard. For Holassie, it was his second Disney half marathon title: He also won in 2001.

Saul Mendoza of Wimberley, Texas, notched his seventh straight wheelchair division title - in a record time of 1:36:39, bettering the Disney mark he set in 1997 by more than three minutes. Mendoza, Mexico's athlete of the century for the 20th century, won the 1500 meter wheelchair competition at the last Olympics.

Women's division winners were Bea Marie Altieri of Clermont, Fla., in the marathon (2:53:10), Julie Peterson of Beverly, Mass., in the half marathon (1:21:05), and Katherine Hunter of Alberta Beach, Canada, for the seventh time in the wheelchair division (2:53:40). Peterson hopes to qualify for the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

The Disney Marathon is recognized for its unusual course - a route that takes participants on a tour of all four Walt Disney World theme parks. The run begins and ends at Epcot.

Complete searchable results are available online at www.disneyworldsports.com.

You can contact Lani here.

"Run a marathon? Are you kidding?"

Don't discount the possibility of ever completing the 26.2-mile event. Everybody starts with the first step, which begins by just putting on your comfortable shoes and heading out the door. If you are not in any physical shape, consider walking for just 10 minutes today. Tomorrow, add a few more minutes, and the next day, a few more.

There are many resources that help non-athletes learn how to start jogging regularly, and to slowly build up training for a full marathon. Two that I highly recommend are:


Marathon event staff – The WDW Marathon events could not happen without the incredible job of those at Disney Sports, who work year-round to arrange everything. This is one of the most organized, well-coordinated runs I have ever seen (or participated in).

As soon as we registered for the marathon, we received e-mail updates regularly so we would know when information became available.

Disney Sports travel office – The travel coordinator at Disney Sports who booked our package was very personable, and the office went out of the way to make our transactions easier for us when we experienced a slight glitch (which was our fault).

Cast members – Whether they were on the clock or not, they lined the marathon route, clapping and cheering tirelessly for the participants.

Medics in the medical tents – Welcoming every hobbling and exhausted participant into their tents, the medics provided anything the runners needed, from Band-Aids, petroleum jelly (to discourage chafing), to pain-relieving ointment. Just the few moments they devoted to making the participants feel better made a big difference in lifting both spirit and body.

Volunteers – An event this large cannot happen without volunteers. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society coordinates more than 3500 volunteers for the marathon weekend, each of whom assist in a myriad of tasks.

Spectators – Whether there by chance or to encourage loved ones, spectators help lift the spirits of the runners with loud cheers, applause, signs, and high-fives.

Team Penguin-Disney – As a slow runner, I found—through John Bingham's Waddle-On Web site—a group of like-bodied individuals who were also training for the WDW Marathon. A caring and friendly community, the members of TP-D helped motivate, nurse, and talk runners through their many months of training.

...and finally, my husband, Alex, who started training—somewhat reluctantly—for the marathon with me, and who finished his very first marathon last month. I am so proud of you!

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