The 2015 Wine & Dine Half-Half Marathon Weekendby Lorree Tachell, contributing writer
In 2014, race participants in the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon slogged through a nasty rainy event now known as the "Splash and Dash." How do you top running in a downpour? Well, on Saturday night November 7th, the 2015 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon runners and walkers experienced not only lightning, high temperatures and humidity, they were also part of the first official runDisney race course evacuation.
Top that off with the course cut from 13.1 to 6.72 miles and you have the "Inaugural Disney Wine & Dine Half-Half Marathon" (also referred to as the "Wine & Dine Quarter Marathon", as well as the "Slice & Dice")! Needless to say, it was one very memorable weekend in so many ways.
Shop, shop, shop…
New in 2015 was the Welcome Party, held Thursday night at ESPN Wide World of Sports. The price of admission covered munchies, entertainment, and gifts that included a tote bag and special wine glass. As an added bonus, partiers were treated to an early (and more relaxed) shopping experience at the Official Race Merchandise expo booth. Given the expos are becoming more and more a race to grab merchandise as opposed to a fun shopping experience, the early access was more than worth the event's $100 ticket price.
As usual, my race weekend started bright and early Friday morning with the runDisney official merchandise shopping scrum. I managed to get to the expo location at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex around 8:15 a.m. and was seventh in line for the 10:00 a.m. opening. Just before 9:30 a.m., the doors opened and we were allowed into Jostens Center, where the fun started—the rack of new runDisney running shoe ornaments were completely stripped within 10 minutes.
The poor cast member tasked with keeping the display stocked finally gave up and started handing out ornaments straight from the packing boxes. The ornaments were so popular that by 10:30 a.m., 30 minutes after what should have been the official expo opening, they had sold out. Also proving popular were wine glasses, women's jackets, and "I did it" shirts for both the 13.1-mile half marathon and (3.1-mile) 5K fun run.
After a quick tour of the merchandise booth, I headed out to the expo floor to find the runDisney booth in hopes of seeing the new Star Wars medals. However, there was no sign of runDisney. Jeff Galloway, who usually shares space with runDisney, had his own area, as did GET Travel, which was promoting the inaugural Disneyland Paris Half Marathon in September 2016.
I figured they must have moved over to the HP Field House building where bib pickup was located; on the way out the door, I came across a table with two runDisney medal racks. Believe it or not, this was the sole runDisney presence. No cast members talking up runDisney races or encouraging sign-ups of still-open events like the Tinker Bell Half Marathon in May. Frankly, no one was even watching to make sure the medals didn't wander off.
Over at HP, bib pick-up lines for both the half marathon and 5K were relatively short, but unfortunately, the wait time for the line for pre-ordered commemorative items (such as pins and jackets) was between 90 minutes and two hours. More people had apparently taken advantage of the pre-order bundle options available during registration, contributing to the substantial queue. Additionally, a few of the 5K lines started bleeding over into the merchandise line, causing gridlock for anyone trying to get through to the other booths such as Guest Relations.
runDisney also stocks a smaller Official Merchandise booth in the HP building and while the merchandise was limited, they did include a small area for a Disney artist to set up shop selling Wine & Dine Half Marathon artwork which was only available at that merchandise location.
I figured I would come back on Saturday and pick up my pre-order pins so I headed back over to Jostens to pick up my packets and race shirts. By that time, the merchandise checkout line was out of control: it not only filled the switchbacks set up in the booth but it now wound out the door, around half the booth with the end of the line actually bleeding out into the expo floor blocking access to several vendors.
With most people holding multiple items to purchase, it was obvious yet again that there would be very little merchandise left for anyone coming that evening or on Saturday. I grabbed my race shirts (a very nice red cotton T-shirt for the 5K and a gorgeous, dark blue long-sleeve tech shirt for the half marathon) and headed out to the parks for an afternoon wander and parades.
Let it snow… ewww…
When I left the hotel around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday to catch the bus to Animal Kingdom for Mickey's Jingle Jungle 5K, the weather was already hot and humid. As always, the costumes were incredible. The Prep and Landing team was out in full force, as was a trio of man-eating wreaths from Nightmare Before Christmas. A few Olafs were in attendance, but their numbers were much lower than last year (perhaps the Frozen frenzy is finally fading). Santa was there with his lead elf and four reindeer, who managed to run most of the 5K in flight formation.
One very creative person even dressed up as a giant dreidel. I caught up with good friends Kristen and Todd just before the start of the race: Kristen comes out for almost all the WDW 5K fun runs (with an occassional 10k thrown in for fun) and Todd is currently in training for his first 5K at the Princess Half Marathon Weekend in February. It wouldn't be a WDW race weekend without spending time with them.
One of the highlights of the 5K is the "snow" that blows at the start of every corral. I'm not totally sure if it was the weather or just a really bad batch of snow, but half the start line of corral B was covered in a gloppy soapy mess that was going to make for a slippery start for anyone in that corral or the two following. While we didn't get a snowy sendoff, Christmas carols did play as we crossed the start line which was both festive but odd, considering that it was already hot and humid.
Since I had 13.1 miles ahead of me that night (or so I thought) and the weather was already over my comfort zone, I took the run slow and snapped pictures of characters along the way. Donald and Goofy were at one picture stop. Pluto and the Country Bears were also out on the course. Even a fake crocodile (complete with loud-speaker sound effects) got into the holiday spirit with a bright red Santa hat.
As I came across the finish line, workers were busy spreading out sawdust on the ground. That usually means one thing—someone's breakfast came back to haunt them in a very bad way. That seemed to be a common issue that morning; one poor woman unfortunately lost it just before the finish line—nothing like having a crowd watch you hurl.
I found Todd in the crowd and we had fun watching the runners come in until Kristen finished the course; then it was off to the hotel for a traditional breakfast of Mickey waffles.
By the time I returned to the expo around 10:30 a.m., it was clear that very little merchandise remained for anyone coming in on Saturday. Most of the women's items were long gone (including the "I did it shirts") as were any of the collectibles, such as wine glasses or pins. Over in the HP building, merchandise was even bleaker, with racks filled with ESPN and runDisney generic jackets and shirts. While I understand runDisney doesn't want to get stuck with unsold merchandise, it would be nice if they would hold out some of the traditionally more popular items such as wine glasses for those who are unable to arrive on day one.
The remainder of the day was spent checking out the new Disney Springs and trying to rest back at the hotel before the evening half marathon. By 7:30 p.m. I was on a bus heading towards the race start at ESPN Wide World of Sports. There was a brief traffic cluster that added an extra 15 minutes or so to the trip, but as usual, there was plenty of time before the race to kick back and relax. The weather reports had called for a tropical storm to blow in around 6:00 p.m. which fortunately hadn't materialized. And while it was hot and humid, it appeared that we would miss another wet and wild race.
It's going to be hard to beat this story
Around 9:00 p.m. just before we headed to the corrals, an announcement came over the speakers: severe weather was in the area. Everyone—all 14,000 race participants, as well as hundreds of volunteers, runDisney staff, and spectators—were ordered to evacuate to the HP Field House (others headed over to Champion Stadium). On the way, we saw not one but two lightning bursts nearby.
The runDisney weather policy clearly states that all runDisney races will be held rain or shine, but that if there's lightning in the area, the race will either have a delayed start or, depending on the intensity of the weather, be cancelled, with the final decision made by event management staff. Mickeygirlforever, a member of Team MousePlanet, was at the event and had planned on running her first Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon. As a former Walt Disney World College Program participant, she was very familar with the Disney lightning policy and was concerned her family had made the trip from Utah for nothing. Up until this point, the only runDisney race to have been canceled due to inclement weather was the 2009 Expedition Everest Challenge. Could the 2015 Wine & Dine Half Marathon be the second?
Race participants made themselves comfortable, sprawling out on the floor of the Field House and taking up all available seating space in the seats and the hallways. Those at Champion Stadium had a bit more fun as they spent their time running the baseball diamond bases.
Race updates were sporadic, with the majority of official communication coming via social media. This method is all well and good, assuming that everyone has their cell phone with them and that evertyone could manage to get an Internet connection on their phones, with thousands of simultaneous connection requests on the network.
Almost an hour passed and rumors were running rampant that the race would be canceled. We were also hearing that there was damage over at Animal Kingdom (part of the half marathon course) from the storm as it just missed the race start area. And of course, there were those who were following race participants via race tracker; Thomas was going to really wonder what was going on, as I had no way to get ahold of him.
Finally, about an hour from the initial evacuation announcement, we received notice that we could return to the start area. At that time, the start time was still "in flux" and the rumors were that the course may be cut due to debris (the "I have a friend who knows someone who works at runDisney" version of communication). There was also the issue of reopening Osceloa Parkway which is a county road by 2:00 a.m. And yet another severe weather warning was in place for another storm coming into the area.
Given all the above as well as the fact that the first corrals wouldn't be on the road until 11:00 p.m. (and the back corrals wouldn't start until almost midnight), the decision was made by runDisney to modify the half marathon's course by removing the run through Animal Kingdom altogether, removing over 6 miles from the race. Given it was still a hot and humid night, I honestly wasn't heartbroken to hear about the change. Now I could kick back and just enjoy the sights.
There was obviously no time to change the mile markers on the course so race participants were treated to times that most of us could only manage to hit in our wildest dreams. Traditionally, we come across the first hill and Green Army men about 7.5 miles into the race: tonight we took the hill just after my GPS said we passed mile 1.
Although keeping track of the miles was a bit challenging, the characters were still out in force for pictures, the volunteers were out not only managing the water stops but were also along the course cheering on the race participants, and of course there was the treat of Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in Disney Hollywood Studios. This will be the last opportunity to experience running through the display as the lights are sadly in their final year. They will be greatly, greatly missed.
We finally hit the Boardwalk and made our way to Epcot, where we did a quick run by Spaceship Earth before making the final turn to the finish located just outside the park. Once across the finish line, volunteers were yelling for everyone to drink up—hydration was a real issue because of the heat and humidity; several people were being treated for what looked like heat-related issues as I went by the medical tent.
I collected my medal and made my way to the "Perfect" tent, where I was given my "Perfect" lanyard in celebration of now six years of finishing the Wine & Dine Half Marathon. Or at least I've finished five half marathons and one 6.72 'half-half marathon'. We'll make sure there is an * in the record books for this one.
It is what it is
There has been great debate on social media about runDisney handled both the weather issue as well as communication. Disney does not control the weather, and its policy on lightning is very clear. Unfortunately, not everyone saw the lightning or was aware of the policy, leading to speculations such as Disney shortening the race just to get everyone over to the Food and Wine Festival in Epcot so they would spend more money.
Ultimately, runDisney is responsible for the safety of everyone in and supporting the race. Their call to evacuate, delay the start, and cut course miles was made with best intentions for a safe and sane event; the race could have been canceled altogether, so just being allowed out to run was a blessing.
Communication, however, is another matter altogether. runDisney must review and evaluate its disaster management communication protocols. While the changes surrounding the race were unprecedented, it is impermissible for runDisney to rely on social media like Twitter to make serious and urgent emergency-level notifications to the public.
As a project manager myself, I would like to think that runDisney holds after action reviews after each event to assess and make changes to continually improve the experience for everyone involved; let's hope the next time this happens (and given Florida's reputation for lightning storms it more than likely will), there will be less confusion and a better communication plan in place.
Overall, I believe runDisney did a great job of moving thousands of people on very short notice to safe areas. I know many are upset that the race was cut short; I can truly understand your disappointment and frustration if you were running your first half marathon, doing your only runDisney race, or trying to set a personal record.
Several discussions popped up on social media—should we even wear our half marathon medals to the park for the traditional "day after" congratulatory walk (heck yes!)? How about wearing our "I did it" shirts? (why not?). A few sad souls were even selling anything that mentioned 13.1 miles on it that they had purchased at the expo.
In the end, runDisney could have cancelled the race, but didn't. We were still allowed to run, and had the chance to not only say good-bye to Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Best of all, we also have a very unique running experience to discuss and debate for years—a story that beats the weather story from last year's race.
So congrats to all the 2015 Mickey Jingle Jungle 5K and Disney Wine & Dine Half-Half/Quarter/Slice & Dice Marathon finishers and cheers to everyone who made the best of a bad situation. Big thanks as always to the volunteers who give their time each year so that we can play in the parks. While this wasn't the dream half marathon Mickeygirlforever had invisioned, she's vowed she'll be back as she 'can see why this is a favorite for many runners'. I'll be returning again in 2016 to keep the race streak alive and to see what fun the weather gods will throw at us then. Will I see you there?