Don't Fear the Sweeperby Adrienne Krock, contributing writer
runDisney required—as many timed running events do—that Tinker Bell 10K participants maintain a minimum 16-minute-per mile pace, with stragglers at risk of being "swept" and transported directly to the finish line area (so race officials can close the course and open the roads to traffic) without official recognition of race completion.
Almost immediately after the 6.2-mile race in Disneyland this past January, message boards and social media blew up. runDisney, they said, had swept the course early.
Had runDisney in fact swept participants who were moving faster than 16 minutes per mile? Not according to its official online results posted after the 10K.
Those whose entries lacked a finish time (indicating that they may have been swept) showed an average pace of 18:42 or slower per mile, almost three minutes per mile slower than the allowed 16-minute pace, and interestingly, mirroring the sweep time of runDisney's other road races.
At any typical runDisney event, officials typically sweep about 1 percent of participants—but for the Tinker Bell 10K, it comprised 3 percent. While still a statistically low number, this represents a threefold increase.
Reports, both anecdotal and on message boards, reveal that many slower participants seemed unprepared for a timed event, and were genuinely surprised that they were swept at all. Perhaps race officials were caught off-guard and were overwhelmed by the unusually high number of slower participants—but many who were swept expressed frustration at being treated poorly by cast members at the sweep points.
When I registered for my very first half-marathon in 2009 for the Disneyland Half, I set my #1 trainig goal: not getting swept. I knew I was just barely at the pace, so I was paranoid that I'd be swept. I joined message boards and asked questions, not just to prepare my body to complete 13.1 miles, but to maintain a pace that kept me ahead of the sweepers. Almost five years and nine Disney half-marathons later, I no longer fear the sweeper, even though I still maintain a barely minimum pace. You, too, can be prepared to not fear the sweeper.
What happens when you get swept?
Despite the best plans, preparations and strategies, you may be swept during an event. Knowing the process may better steel you for the inevitable disappointment, and motivate you to push a little harder along the way.
Race officials ride bicycles along the course. Towards the back of the pack, they usually announce how far behind pace the participants are. The mile markers have slots to hold flags. Officials place brightly colored flags, often orange, in the mile markers to alert runners when they are behind pace. If you see the race officials and flags, you are most likely cutting it close. During one race, I saw race officials ride by and called out "Oh, no! I don't want to see you!" The official laughed and said, "Don't worry! You're still 2 minutes ahead of pace." His reassurance helped.
When race officials stop runners, they have a van or bus to transport the runners to the family reunion area near the finish line. The bus may be parked across the path to let runners know that they are being swept. Runners needing medical attention when they are swept, may receive it right away or at the finish line.
Several runners I spoke to about their experiences being swept agree that, in their experiences, the runDisney crew treated them well. Terri White and her family have participated in several runDisney events in both Disneyland Anaheim and Walt Disney World. Terri has been swept at three runDisney events, among others she completed. Terri said, "At the Walt Disney World Half in 2009, I was the last person… and I had my own posse! Police cars, buses, vans, bikes, all encouraging me to continue. It was amazing. In the end, they did pick me up, and told me they'd been following me for a while, cheering from the van," she said. "I've never been swept without lots of warning."
Before completing several runDisney and Half-Ironman events, Brandi Morgan was swept three times as well. At the 2009 Disneyland Half 10-mile mark, Brandi boarded a bus with about 10 to 15 runners. "In 2010 I was swept in the snow tundra at Walt Disney World Donald (half-marathon) at the mile 4 marker. There were lots of us, maybe 200-300 people by the time people caught up. We had to wait about 10 to 15 minutes for the buses to arrive." If runDisney sweeps a larger group than they expect, the wait time may be longer. Consider that even with a 30- to 45-minute wait, without being swept, at an almost 19 minute pace, most swept participants are still at least an hour away from the finish line. Being swept in a large group will not delay your finish line arrival by much, if any, time.
runDisney events over a 5K are not "fun runs"
If the only runDisney race you have done is a 3.1-mile 5K, you may not appreciate the seriousness of the 16-minute-mile pace at the longer, timed events. I know friends and family who completed runDisney 5K events in over one hour, clearly over pace. The minimum age for 5K participants is younger than for the longer races, and they really do cater more towards a relaxed atmosphere. runDisney markets the 5K distance as "family fun runs," usually entirely within parks and away from city or resort streets, so the impact on road closures is much less complicated.
At 10K events and longer distances, the runDisney times much more strictly to the minimum pace. Do not plan to stroll through a 10K or longer with the same mindset as a 5K fun run. These are more seriously timed distances.
There are many reasons for time restrictions at the longer distances, most of them related to vehicle road traffic. Keeping roads closed costs money, and causes traffic congestion and aggravation with nearby businesses and their customers, as well as the neighboring community. Disney tries to minimize the impact on park operations and road closures with pace limits as well as early start times (runDisney events notoriously begin well before dawn).
Unlike its longer races, runDisney historically did not time its 5K participants, although this has recently changed. For example, for the 2015 Star Wars Half Marathon weekend at Disneyland, runDisney has added this note in its pacing guidelines: "The Star Wars 5K is NOT a timed event but in order to receive a finisher medal, participants must maintain a 16 minute per mile pace requirement." Therefore, keep in mind, while participants will still be allowed to finish the 5K at a slower pace, apparently they now plan to enforce the pace when awarding medals at this distance.
The author with her son Matthew and husband, Kevin with their medals after the 2014 Tinker Bell Half Marathon. Matthew finished his first half marathon in less than half the time as his parents, but all three wear the same beautiful bling. Photo by Adrienne Krock.
Prepare to pace yourself
You need to monitor your own pace along the way, especially if you are close to the 16-minute pace. There are many different tools available to monitor pace. If you have a smartphone, you can use an application like RunKeeper but there are others available, too (many are free). That said, be aware that you get what you pay for. Smartphone apps can be unreliable. Anecdotally, some apps have enabled an "auto-pause" feature during races, rendering them useless to accurately report your pace. Many runners I know personally experienced frustration with phone apps and upgraded to the next level, GPS-enabled watches from companies like Garmin and Timex.
You may not even get past the starting line until 15 minutes or more after the elite runners at start of the race, so calculate accordingly when you see the timer clocks at the mile markers, which reflect the time elapsed from the race beginning. And while you an sign up for text alerts announcing your pace, they are not a reliable method for monitoring your pace due to the high volume of messages the system must process.
The course is longer than you think
After the Tinker Bell Half Marathon, my friends and I compared the distances our various devices recorded. My Garmin watch recorded 13.6 miles. My husband walked with me and his watch recorded 13.8 miles. Our friend recorded 14 miles on her RunKeeper app. These distance differences will affect your pace. When I passed the 5K mark, my watch said that I already walked almost 3.4 miles. This is due to a combination of things, including both technical and physical; your app or watch may track slightly differently, and the course is measured at its shortest points—most people add extra distance to the course by not taking the closest corners on turns (tangents).
If you train to the 16-minute pace, you should not expect to get swept, even with this discrepancy. But this is one reason you should not count on too much of a cushion. Factors beyond your control can affect your pace. For this reason, many coaches, experienced runners, and even runDisney, recommend training to a 15-minute pace.
You may get side-tracked, especially at a runDisney race. Many people stop for photo opportunities. From characters along the route to sights such as the castle or favorite scenery throughout the parks, these opportunities cost time. Spots with lines such as character photos take more time, but even selfies can slow you down. I limit most of my personal photos to opportunities with no lines or selfies. You may have time for a photo or two, but keep your pace in mind.
Even if you do not plan to stop, you may still have access to photos of yourself from the race, taken by a professional photo service for the event and available for purchase. The photographers will capture your picture on the course without you needing to stop for the photos.
Restroom stops also cost time. I have to confess: For my first several events, I never stopped for a restroom break. Ever. I feared stopping for a restroom break, losing time taking off my clothes or worrying about electronics falling into toilets (or, worse, porta-potties). The first time I stopped for a restroom break, I had no choice. When I returned to the course, I felt so much better that my pace improved. I turned to my husband and announced: Never underestimate the power of an empty bladder. But, remember: Restroom stops eat up time, too.
If you run with a group of people, here is one strategy my friends and I often use: If only one of us has to stop, or if at least one person does not have to stop, the rest of us keep moving forward on the course. The person that stops then pushes up the pace to catch up with us down the road. It means a little more work for that person to catch up but our overall pace stays mostly on track.
Plan for crowd management strategies
You may find yourself managing crowds during events. Plan to expect it and expect to plan for it. Before the race even begins, arrive at your assigned corral early. Many runners start lining up in the corrals as early as an hour before the race begins. Move as far forward into the corral as you can, in order to give yourself more time.
Will you run or walk with friends? Do not plan to run or walk side-by-side. Side by side means that people who need to pass you will need to pass between you. Worse, if you need to pass someone, it is much harder to pass side by side. During the Tinker Bell Half, my group of three walked in tandem, that is, in a line, for most of the event. This allowed us to pass others easily and gave others a path around us. At times we had people in between us, but we all stayed within line of sight of each other. During less crowded parts of the course, we stayed closer to each other and even sometimes side-by-side. We could talk to each other when we wanted to, without much problem, even in tandem.
Do not be afraid to pass people. If the entire course stops, obviously, pushing past people will not help you. But when you have room to pass, do not limit yourself to the speed of the people around you. When you need to pass someone, running etiquette suggests announcing your approach to the person who might not see you coming. This may also prevent someone from stepping to the side and inadvertently cutting you off. I usually say something simple like "On your left!" Some runners put a hand in the air when they pass others, to increase their visibility. Don't forget to add "Thank you!" if you can.
Make an adult decision
I always share my standard disclaimer with anyone in my group at the start line: At any time if my pace becomes too slow, my friends may continue ahead without me. Likewise, if I find my friends' pace too slow for me, I may decide to pick up the pace and continue without them. We call these "adult rules" .
I have had friends stay behind with me, even when they could finish faster without me. I have walked slower than my ideal pace because I decided ahead of time not to push myself too hard. But I know myself: If I were ever swept because I stayed behind with a friend, I would be very angry and upset. I do not want to cause someone else to be swept or be swept because I stayed behind with someone too slow. That strategy may not work for every runner. But be aware of this ahead of time and decide beforehand how you might handle that situation. Think about it before the race begins, when you have time to make the right decision for you.
The mile markers have permanent flag decorations. The pace warning flags, not shown here, are fabric. I have no a photo of the mile markers with the warning flags because if I see a flag, I do not stop to take a picture. Photo by Adrienne Krock.
May the course be with you
Do not be discouraged—be empowered. We back-of-the-packers are a courageous lot. Those elite runners may quit after only an hour and a half, but we persevere, taking two times as long (or longer). But at the end of the race, we complete the exact same distance as the fast runners, and runDisney gives us the same beautiful finisher's medal.
If you need encouragement or have questions, visit the Team MousePlanet forum at our MousePad message boards. You will find many helpful runners—and walkers—with experience to share, willing to answer your questions and cheer you along the way. Plan, train, and prepare and you, too, can bring home the beautiful runDisney bling.