A runDisney First-Timer Looks at the Expedition Everest Challenge

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

Hi! Remember me? It's been a while since I've written anything for MousePlanet. When I announced my "semi-retirement" last March, I had every intention of continuing to write monthly features, but life got in the way. So this is my first article in over a year, and it's on a topic that I've never written on before: running. Yes, running.

Before I "disappeared," I said that I needed to take care of my health. I did just that. I ate less, exercised more, and I've lost about 55 pounds in the last 14 months.

I ran my first 5K in October, and my second in December. I was even featured on the Runner's World website earlier this year during "Newbie Week," which featured stories for and about new runners.

So that December, I signed up for the Walt Disney World Expedition Everest Challenge. My thoughts were that:

  • It was a nighttime race, which was right up my "night owl" alley
  • It was a 5K run, which I had already done
  • It had an obstacle course, which didn't seem too strenuous from online reports but would make it more interesting
  • It was a scavenger hunt, which my experience writing mini-MouseAdventures and beta-testing and crewing full MouseAdventures would give me a leg up on the competition.

The event also would be a cool way to celebrate turning 50. And I could always walk it if necessary.

This year's Expedition Everest Challenge race shirt is an interesting shade of orange. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The Everest medal may be the coolest one awarded by runDisney, as it opens up to reveal a working compass. Photos by Mark Goldhaber.

Well, by the time the race rolled around, I was in much better shape, with the 5-kilometer distance a standard easy run for me. I viewed the race as a fun run, and as a tune-up for my first official 10K the following weekend (somehow, I had gotten it into my head that running Everest, a 10K, a 3.5-miler, and another 10K in the span of 16 days would be an even more awesome way of celebrating my 50th birthday. I could even turn it into a fundraising pitch for my March of Dimes fundraising campaign!). I had also decided to run the Wine & Dine Half Marathon in November, so this would be a good preview of what to expect from a corralled race, as I had never run a race big enough to require corrals before.

I arrived at Walt Disney World on Thursday, two days after my birthday, to get used to the heat and humidity before the race. As it turned out, the weather would cool each day and temperatures would be in the mid-60s for the race. I got to visit and dine with a lot of friends on the trip, which made it an even better birthday celebration.

Packet Pickup and the "Bazaar"

Friday morning, I headed to the race expo on the first bus from Animal Kingdom Lodge. We arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and Champion Stadium shortly before the rain arrived for the day. Well. I say "race expo," but it was nothing like what I've heard the major runDisney race expos are like. In fact, they called it a "bazaar," which was more like it. There were a set of tents set up next to the stadium concourse along the right-field line with a few select vendors, with one tent used for course talks.

I looked at the length of the line for the runDisney New Balance running shoes and decided that I didn't want the shoes quite that much. Of course, when I saw the board listing the available sizes, it seems as if they wouldn't have had my size available even at the start of the day, so it turned out to be a good decision. I'll have to try again in November during the Wine & Dine Expo, when they'll hopefully have more of the Mickey shoes available.

If you were a guy looking for Mickey or Goofy shoes, your odds weren't very good. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Finisher shirts were a popular merchandise item at the official merchandise store. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Quick note on the runDisney shoes: I really love both the Mickey and Goofy shoes, but they are different shoe models. Mickey is the New Balance 860, while Goofy is the New Balance 890. While the 860 is a good model for my feet and my gait, the 890 does not provide the proper support for me. So while I would love to have a pair of the Goofy shoes, I could never run in them.

[Editor's note: The 860 is a sturdy shoe that offers stability, while the 890 is a lighter, neutral shoe that offers a more cushioned option for faster runners who want more than the zero-frills minimalist shoe. New Balance likely introduced the lighter model into its runDisney line based on feedback from those runners who wanted a lighterweight shoe than the heavier 860.]

I went to packet pickup and got my bib (with attached a voucher for my race shirt), the final race instructions, a numbered sticker for my gear bag, my post-race party wristband, and a voucher for my pre-ordered commemorative pin. The stations were set up to claim your packet by bib number. Next, further down the side of the stadium and just past the official race merchandise location, I got to shirt pickup. I was given my official race shirt in the size I ordered, as well as my clear gear bag that was to be used for pre-race bag check, and a sample snack-size Clif Builder's Bar. The gear bag was huge, big enough to contain a large backpack.

The lines at packet pickup were almost non-existent on Friday morning. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The course talk tent was full, and not just because the rain was starting to fall. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Next up, I went out to the bazaar. There were tents from several vendors, including Fit2Run, SparkleSkirts, SweatyBands, and TomTom, as well as a tent for course talks. runDisney was scheduled to give course talks in their tent every half-hour, but when the rain arrived, all tents were closed until further notice. It was kind of disappointing that Disney left the bazaar open to the elements, and I'm sure that the vendors had a bit to say to Disney about the rainout as well.

Before the rains came, runners checked out the Fit2Run tent at the race bazaar. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

And the rain, rain, rain came down, down, down, and washed away the expo. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

With the bazaar closed, I got in line for the Fit2Run "spin to win" giveaway (got a pair of plastic sunglasses), did the CGI Yeti photo opportunity, checked out the New Balance and Lasting Commemoratives display areas, bought my official merchandise and picked up my pin, wrote my name on the race wall, and got my photo taken at the base camp photo opportunity. After all of that, the rain was still pouring down. With the likelihood low that the rain would stop any time soon, I headed back to the resort to drop off my merchandise and prepare to head to the parks.

If you follow runDisney on Instagram, you get a free CGI photo with the Yeti. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

A graffiti wall lets you add your own "Kilroy was here" to the race celebration. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

I can never get the "T" quite right. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Cast members were stationed to helpfully take photos at the base camp photo spot. Photo by Disney cast member.

A side note here: There has been much speculation that this would be the final Expedition Everest Challenge, with the race being replaced by a Star Wars-themed race tied into Star Wars Weekends. However, in the Final Race Instructions distributed at the race (but not on the same brochure linked on the runDisney website), a date for the 2015 Expedition Everest Challenge is listed. Next year's race weekend will take place May 1–2, 2015.

The runDisney table displays samples of medals from all runDisney races. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

However, a number of the medals were not the current design, including both of my upcoming races. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The Expedition Everest Challenge commemorative pin is a hefty piece of hardware in its own right. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Ready to Race!

After a fun time the rest of the day and evening Friday (including a fabulous birthday dinner at Flying Fish Cafe and some fun time with MousePlanet colleagues at the Epcot After Hours trial at Rose & Crown) and during the day on Saturday (including an awesome carb-loading breakfast at Boma with a friend), it was time to get ready to race. I got my gear on and headed over from Kidani Village to Jambo House, since the race shuttles only stopped at Jambo (in addition to Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, official resort for the race were Disney's Pop Century Resort and Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort). While we had expected the buses to drop us near the starting area, they pulled up at the standard resort bus depot and we needed to walk to the Butterfly lot from there.

This photo op made me feel a little like Hathaway Brown. Photo by helpful runner.

The polar bear will confiscate all backpacks from runners. Photo by Banks Lee.

Challenge accepted! Photo by helpful runner.

After passing through a security barricade and bag check at the Peacock lot, I dropped my bag at the gear check tent and proceeded to make the first of many visits to the huge array of port-a-potties. I wandered around, visiting with friends that I ran into, getting pictures at the photo opportunities near the start area, watching the pre-race dance party, getting my water bottle refilled in the corral area, and visiting the port-a-potties some more.

As the time approached 9:45 p.m., we all made our way into our various corrals. There was a large, barricaded pre-corral area with monitored entry points to the various corrals. I was in Corral F, the sixth of the 10 corrals for the race. Corrals were started every six minutes, which means that we started the race at 10:30. Lesson learned: When corrals are involved, plan your hydration such that you don't need another rest stop after you enter the corral, even if your corral isn't scheduled to start running for another half-hour or so.

While it seemed like there was a huge number of port-a-potties, once the runners started using them there was still a bit of a wait. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Apparently, the Macarena is still a thing, at least at the pre-race dance party. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

There were a number of announcements that were difficult to hear, followed by the singing of the National Anthem. While most sporting events see the last few measures of the song overwhelmed by cheering crowds, this may have been the first time that I heard everyone singing along through the last note before cheering.

The first corral went off right around 10:00, and additional corrals left every six minutes. We stood around waiting until Corral E was launched before we started walking up to the start line. With each corral start, the start archway issued forth Disney pyrotechnics. Not hugely awesome, but still impressive and inspiring.

The race begins as Corral A hits the course. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The pyro effect is a little more impressive when it's your corral heading out. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The 5K "Adventure Course"

At 10:30, we were off. I noted that the time clock showed 30:39 as I crossed the start line. We headed out around the parking lot perimeter road, and as we approached the cast member lot we arrived at the first obstacle. We got there so quickly that I didn't even have the thought to pull out my phone to take a picture. Suddenly the people in front of me were jumping over hay bales. I started trying to just hurdle the bales, but the combination of the odd distance between the bales and the uneven pace of those in front of me, I ended up just stepping over most of the bales.

Next, we were off and heading for the park. We went through the gates nearest Guest Services and headed up through The Oasis. There was a character photo opportunity adjacent to Rainforest Cafe for those not caring about finish time. For me, I was out to see how well I did. We raced up the left side of The Oasis and across the bridge to Discovery Island. Heading left, we went around past Camp Mickey-Minnie, and turned right as we got to Africa to head for Asia. Passing Anandapur and Serka Zong, we exited Asia and headed across the bridge to the Theater in the Wild. After passing the theater (some cast members appropriately shouted "Just Keep Swimming" as we passed), we went out the exit gate and headed backstage.

Running past Primeval Whirl ride vehicles and the lead parade vehicle from the soon-to-retire Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade, we then turned left and headed along a backstage road, running much further than I had expected. We suddenly came upon the second obstacle, a tire course. The course was made much more treacherous by those trying to rush through the course and falling down in front of other runners.

Having survived that, we continued along the backstage service road until we came upon the turnaround. We made a U-turn in front of an area where they were firing off huge propane flames. The "fire geysers" (my name) seemed to be going off an uneven intervals, which made me decide not to stand around waiting for one to go off again but rather to just keep running. I snapped a couple of pictures of the tire course as I passed it on the way back.

Falling racers can present an additional hazard at the tire course. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Eventually, we got back to where we originally turned onto the backstage road, continued past for a short while, then turned left to head back toward the parking lot. As we emerged from backstage but before we hit the parking lot, we encountered the third obstacle: the cargo net crawl. A cargo net was rigged up over a series of green mats, which we had to crawl along under the net before heading to the finish. This was where I sustained my only (minor) injury: scraping my knees, which I didn't even notice until I was on the bus heading back to the resort.

A scraped knee crawling under the cargo net was the only "injury" I sustained during the race. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

After clearing the cargo net, it was a race to the start/finish line. The time clock was showing 1:06:30 as I approached, which made me feel great. My 5K personal best on an officially measured course is 38:49, so 36 minutes was awesome (though, upon later review, my Garmin tracking shows the 5K course as about two-tenths of a mile short of an actual 5K). As we got through, we were handed bottles of water as well as our first clue, a park map, and a flashlight/marker combination. We immediately started the "scavenger hunt" portion of the race. Now it was my time to shine.

We received a commemorative LED flashlight with attached mini-Sharpie along with our first clue and a park map. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The "Scavenger Hunt"

We needed to solve the first clue and give the answer to a cast member at one of several clue stations outside the entrance to the park in the Palm Courtyard. Each station had its own name, to help separate the crowds out. Each card directed you to a specific station, so there may have been six or seven specific paths to follow rather than mixing things up. My first station was called Mirage, while others included Oasis.

Clue #1 read:

The first clue's answer required us to tell the correct color to the cast member at the next station. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

It was probably easiest for those who could tell that "flag" and "right" were in italics, not necessarily an easy task with that font and the dark lighting. The clue, of course, referred to our bib, which had five flags across the top. The flag on the right was green, hence the answer was green.

Our bibs had green flags on the right side. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Clue #2 directed us to the Pizzafari Courtyard, where the stations were labeled by character names. I was directed to Donald Duck. The clue read as follows:

This clue required us to go back and read the appropriate passage from the previous clue. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

After worrying that I was missing a third number, since there were three words on the clue, I went with "four" as my answer after adding "three" and "one" (from "boTH REEnergizes" and "dONE"). I was given Clue #3 and read it while walking to the Zambia station in Africa.

This is probably where I pulled ahead of most of my competitors. While many people were sitting on benches and the ground working Clue #3, I was able to solve it without any need for marker or much thought, thanks to my puzzle-solving experience. The clue read thusly:

MouseAdventure puzzle-solving helped me to speed right through this clue without even writing down any of the letters. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

After quickly getting THAT and YOU, I got KEEP by looking at the letters. Mentally crossing off the letters I had just used, I noted that AGHIMSW were left. THINGS fell into place quickly at that point, making WARM obvious. I raced the rest of the way to Africa, where Zambia was the furthest station from the main pathway. After telling them "THINGS THAT KEEP YOU WARM!" I received Clue #4 and read it while heading to Asia.

Fun with punching holes that match clue #3. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

I quickly folded over all matching items and sprinted to Asia, the end now in sight. Over the bridge from Asia onto Discovery Island were the Asia stations. There was a little delay here as the cast member passing out the clues took her time explaining how to use the cards from Clues #4 and 5 to come up with the final answer. It really didn't take all that long to figure it out, and I could've done it without her help. Grabbing the clue card, I read it:

Use the holes punched in clue #4 to find the answer. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

I put the Clue #4 card on top of it, and quickly saw the answer:

Hold up Number Solution from Clue #2. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

I sprinted back through Discovery Island, down the left side of the Oasis, then turned left backstage just before the front gates. We ran across and met the path we originally followed from just beyond the parade float photo-op, and then straight to the start/finish line again. We were directed "5K to the left, scavenger hunters to the right!" As we approached, the cast members asked us if we had the final answer. Flashing four fingers and getting a "Yes! Go!" in return, I poured on the speed toward the finish line. I'm assuming that anyone not giving the correct answer would have been held until the answer was provided.

Crossing the finish line, as always, is a great feeling. As I approached, the clock read 1:30:30 and climbed. My official clock time was 1:30:48, for a net time of 1:00:09. Time for the 5K was 36:26, and I finished the scavenger hunt in a blistering 23:43! While the 5K time alone would have put me in 233rd place in the men's individual division (out of 386) and 485th place overall individual standings (out of 1073), my scavenger hunt time moved me up to 109 in the men's and 199 overall. I was actually the ninth individual male finisher age 50 or over! Compared with the teams, I would've finished 66/228 against the mens teams, 64/647 against the women's teams, tied for 172/1198 against the coed teams, and 6/13 against military teams.

Once we crossed the line, there were volunteers lined up to put medals around our necks. We then walked past volunteers handing out water and tables with PowerAde and bananas. I walked over to the gear check tent, got my bag, and headed back toward the park for the after-party.

More bananas than most of us have ever seen at one time. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The After-Party

Several attractions were open to runners and their paid guests: Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids, Dinosaur, Primeval Whirl, and Triceratops Spin. Also open were some food and merchandise locations (free refreshments? Nope. Just the PowerAde, water, and bananas. Once you got back into the park, it was all for purchase). There was also a booth in front of Primeval Whirl with all remaining event merchandise. Of course, there was also another photo op.

Triumphantly raising the victory flag. Photo by helpful after-party guest.

A DJ truck was set up just outside the archway entrance to Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama, where the dance party was located and the awards were presented at 1:00 a.m. There were character greeting locations, including Safari Minnie and Safari Mickey near the DJ truck. A stiltwalking Yeti character and a couple of other stiltwalkers wandered around the area, and the party went on until 2:30 a.m., and buses ran back to the resorts until 3:00.

The stilt-walking Yeti was in attendance at the party. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The photo spot with the longest line of the evening was with Safari Minnie and Safari Mickey. Photo by Disney cast member.

Walking around in the parks wearing your medal is a tradition in runDisney races, and I certainly wanted to experience it myself. I wore my Everest medal around the Magic Kingdom all day on Sunday, and got to take some great pictures with characters while wearing my medal. It also served as a great conversation-starter with cast members and fellow guests.

Taking pictures with characters wearing a medal and an "I Did It" shirt make even better souvenirs. Photo by Disney cast member.

Ariel was very impressed by my "treasure." She was intrigued by the fact that it opened to show a working compass. Photo by Disney cast member.

It was a great first runDisney race experience despite the dud of an "expo," and I'm looking forward to my next runDisney race, Disney's Wine & Dine Half Marathon in November, and then the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in January. Bring it on!

If you'd like to see the official photos of me huffing and puffing my way through the race, you can see them online at the MarathonFoto website.

Again, if you'd like to read more about my fitness journey, check out my story on the Runner's World website.

Ariel has somehow become the go-to photo location for tracking my fitness journey. These photos are from November 2012 and May 2014. Photos by Disney cast members.



  1. By jheigl

    Just wanted to say Congratulations on your journey so far and on getting healthier! You should be very proud of your progress! For some reason, as I was reading, I was reminded of Wonders of Life and just once again thought how perfectly fitting the pavilion would be in today's healthy trend. They could incorporate a whole new bunch of 5k or runDisney events centered around the pavilion!

    Great job Mark! Truly an inspiration! You have planted to seed in me and now I want to try and get my stamina up so I can run these events! Thank you!

  2. By mckat

    Wow!!!! As a fan of your work (listener and reader from way back) seeing you get healthier warmed my heart! I agree with jheigi, you are an inspiration and your pictures have planted the same seed in me. I've passed 50 and can't believe my scale in the morning. But seeing you and these exciting pictures, I'm putting this 5K on my calendar. Gotta go exercize…

  3. By PhiSigDuchessCV

    Reading this makes me want to sign up for next year's Expedition Everest Challenge.

    Great job on your journey to becoming healthier.

  4. By Mark Goldhaber

    Thanks, all! I'm very happy that I can inspire others to begin their own fitness journey. While everybody's path is different, if there's one piece of advice that I can give that will fit all it would be this:

    Don't view this as a quick-fix ("I'm going to lose x pounds, and then I'll be good"). If you do, you'll eventually end up gaining the weight back and usually more. I've done that more times than I can count. View this as a change in how you're approaching your life. "I'm going to eat reasonable portions of healthier food." "I'm going to exercise so that I can feel better." By taking a long-term view, the numbers on the scale start taking on less importance than how healthy you feel and how you feel about yourself. While I'm down about 60 pounds from my heaviest, and I'd still like to lose another 40, that's no longer foremost in my mind. I'm more focused on how I feel, and how well my runs feel. I'm more concerned with my 5K pace than my weight. But the bottom line is, if I can do it, anyone can do it.

    I look forward to hearing about your progress!

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