The Half Marathon

by Sue Holland, contributing writer

Photo by Sue Holland.

When I think of marathons and half-marathons, what comes to mind are young, physically fit runners who easily run the (insane) 13 or 26 miles as if it were no big deal. Admittedly, I had never attended or participated in any type of marathon, except for working as a volunteer near the start of Disney's marathon a few years ago.

I was amazed at the diverse group of participants that day—people of all ages, sizes and abilities. That image was probably tucked away in my subconscious and when a friend suggested entering the 2005 Walt Disney World Half-Marathon as walkers, it sounded like a fun thing to do. After all, if those people I saw a few years ago could do it, surely I would have no trouble walking the course (reality set in later).

This article is about my own experience preparing for and participating in the half-marathon on January 9, 2005. Every person who enters will have his or her own unique experience, so keep in mind that what seemed miserable to me might be no big deal to most other people, and vice versa.

The half-marathon is exactly as it sounds—one half of a marathon. A marathon is 26.2 miles, so the half-marathon is 13.1 miles. For the 2004 event at Walt Disney World, the full- and half-marathoners followed a different course for the first three miles, then merged together in Epcot. At mile 13, the full marathoners continued along the rest of the course while the half-marathoners headed to their finish line in the parking lot of the Ticket and Transportation Center.

Beginning in 2006 the two races will be held on separate days over a single weekend, with a new course for the half-marathon that begins and ends in the Epcot parking lot (it will still include running to and through the Magic Kingdom). Approximately 24,000 people signed up for the 2005 event, allegedly 12,000 each in the full and half-marathons. Participants must maintain a pace averaging 16 minutes per mile and are removed from the course if that pace is not met. This can be an issue for anyone planning to walk the race, as 16 minutes is pretty brisk!

When a friend brought up the half-marathon idea, I was 45 years old and considered myself in decent shape. I have no health issues (other than being a cancer survivor of two years at that point), do not smoke, am within my ideal body weight range, and have no trouble walking distances. Signing up for the half-marathon was almost a no-brainer, as I figured it would be “a piece of cake.” Approximately 10 of us signed up, and I was looking forward to a fun morning.

As I read more of the marathon material on Disney's site, I became concerned that if I were unable to maintain the 16-minute-mile pace, I would not receive a medal. I became further alarmed when I timed myself walking on a cruise ship and found I was slightly slower than 16 minutes on my very first mile! Surely if I could not keep the pace in the first mile, I would never be able to do it by mile 10 or mile 13! What I did not know at the time was if Disney had to remove me from the course they would give me the option of being driven to the finish line, where I could run across and receive the medal without it being counted as an official finish. I knew I wanted that medal and decided I would have to jog at least part of the course in order to bring my overall average time down to sixteen minutes per mile.

Living in Florida, joggers can be seen out running every day. It looked so easy watching them leisurely jogging along the street or sidewalk. I had never jogged, and my last experience running was 30 years ago in high school, when I was never able to get more than a quarter of the way around the track without stopping. Why I thought it would suddenly be easy is still a mystery. During the 1990s and into the 2000s, a number of times strangers or new friends would say I looked like someone who ran. It always surprised me, since nothing was further from the truth. But I thought perhaps they saw some hidden ability I had not yet discovered (wishful thinking—it did not turn out to be true).

A friend sent a 30-week marathon-training plan, which had been cut in half since we were only going to do the half-marathon. Before the 30 weeks began I decided to try jogging to see how easy or difficult the training was going to be. Most of the runs were only one mile long, and while the plan called for jogging six days a week, only one day per week called for running longer than two miles. I got myself ready with proper running shoes and attire, clipped a pedometer onto my waist, and set out to do my first mile.

That first run was a clue that I had underestimated what this half-marathon would be like. I not only was unable to run even a tenth of a mile without stopping, even more importantly I learned I did not like jogging at all—in fact I hated every step. However, I told myself it would get better as I got used to it, and was determined to continue. My friend Mary Thompson Hunt took her first training bicycle ride and found it extremely difficult, but stuck with it and eventually completed rides of up to 500 miles to raise funds and awareness for AIDS/HIV (with a 585 mile ride planned for June 2005). Her experience helped motivate me to not quit, and to see what I could be capable of.

The next day I ran further before having to walk, and on the third day I actually ran the entire mile without stopping. My pace was and still is very slow for a runner (13 minute miles), and I never got to the point where it was fun or enjoyable in any way, but I at least was able to do it! A triathlete I met on a cruise told me people often asked him why he competed in triathlons (it would take him up to 14 hours to complete), and he said, “Because it feels so good when you stop.” As I trained, I came to understand that, as the one positive part of the experience was finishing the run, knowing I had reached a distance I never dreamed possible for me.

Once it was exactly 30 weeks before the race, I began following the training plan and completed every run in spite of business trips and even Hurricane Charley. My running was done before dawn, and those first couple of days after the storm were surreal—there was no electricity except what was provided by emergency generators, and storm debris blocked my path in some areas. After a hot, sweaty run I returned to a hot dark house to shower by flashlight before driving to work just after the sun came up! At the end of week 18 I was doing my “long run” for that week, which was actually only four miles. The previous week my long run had been eight miles, which ended up being the furthest I ever ran.

About three miles into my four-mile-run in the dark, I hit a speed bump that I had not seen and went crashing down to the pavement. I figured I would just get up and finish the run, but I had to walk the last mile as my right knee was not able to handle any jogging. By the end of the day, I was at the emergency room, I was in a leg brace for a week, had limited mobility for a week after that, and eventually was told to not jog at all for three to four months.

Initially that meant the half-marathon was out of the question. By that point almost all of the friends who had signed up had also dropped out due to injury, sickness, or other obligations. One other person remained, who planned to walk as far as they'd allow her, since her pace was a 20-minute mile. I eventually decided to still do the half-marathon, but walking rather than running.

Looking at the calendar, three months from my injury was about a week after the marathon, which got me thinking that perhaps I could run part of it after all. I was still under the erroneous impression that if my time exceeded 16-minute miles I would not receive a medal! A week before the marathon I went out and jogged one mile, just to see how the knee felt, it seemed to hold up just fine.

Sue Holland, ready for the half-marathon. Photo courtesy Sue Holland.

Marathon weekend was finally here, and I headed up to Walt Disney World feeling a mix of dread and excitement. Participants have to pick up a registration packet at the expo held at Disney's Wide World of Sports, which gets extremely crowded. I made it a point to arrive just as it opened, which saved me a lot of time (tip—registering on Friday is easier than fighting the Saturday crowds).

Chatting with others in line left me feeling almost like an imposter. These were real runners, people who have run marathons, and they think I do that, too! The registration process went very smoothly, and soon I had my official bib (number to be pinned to my shirt or shorts), information booklet, and my ChampionChip.

I confirmed on a computer on my way out of the area that the chip I got - the singlemost important item received - was assigned to my bib number. These ChampionChips monitor the individual times. Participants attach the little plastic round with an embedded computer chip to their shoelaces, and sensor strips laid across strategic checkpoints on the route beep as they scan the chips and record official times.

If a runner somehow and does not pass every checkpoint there would be no official finishing time. Runners or walkers who did not keep the minimum pace had their chips removed when they were picked up by the Disney van in official sweep locations. For those who finish, the chip is removed at the end of the race.

The half-marathon actually begins at 6:00 a.m. on race day, but participants are required to be there much earlier. Buses (contracted through Mears) were available beginning at 3:00 a.m., with the last bus coming at 4:00 a.m. Resorts on the monorail did not have buses, as those participants rode the monorail to Epcot. As a first-timer I was out at the bus stop just after 3:00, but next time I will wait until closer to 4:00.

The long line of buses and cars coming into the Epcot parking lot so early in the morning was quite a sight! The buses dropped the participants off (family members are not permitted on the buses before 4 a.m.) and everyone walked quite a distance to the first holding area. Here, participants could drop off any items they did not want to carry on the course, stuffed in a clear plastic bag they picked up at the expo, and tied off with a tear-off segment of the racing bib with the runner's number. Any items that fit inside the bag could be left for safekeeping and picked up at the end of the race.

After milling around without any real purpose, eventually participants are let into the second holding area. At this point, only participants are allowed, and any family or friends has to leave for one of the viewing areas. Port-o-lets line the waiting area, and cups of water are available at a central table.

Teams of participants are easily identifiable by their matching shirts and high level of enthusiasm. The teams generally support a specific charity, and some participants wear shirts with the names or photos of the people they are running in honor of.

After a period of time waiting here, the announcement came that participants were to proceed to the corrals. All participants were assigned to a different corrals based on their estimated finishing time. That way being behind the walkers or slower runners would not slow the faster runners. I found my corral and sat on the ground to wait for the last hour to pass. It was still dark, but luckily this year it was not too cold. The start-time temperature was 55 degrees, which is considered ideal. Several participants discarded some of their clothing as it got closer to the starting time, and volunteers were on hand to pick the items up.

Each runner's bib includes first name, number and starting corral. The first name was a new feature for 2005, and made it easier for spectators to cheer for people by name.

The wheelchair athletes started at 5:55 a.m., followed by a fireworks burst and countdown for everyone else. The official start time for everyone else begins at 6:00 a.m. even though those towards the rear corrals may not even be able to see the start line at that point.

The net time is also calculated based on when your ChampionChip crosses the starting line, giving you an accurate reading of your actual time. In my case, there was a 5-minute difference between the official start time and when I crossed the start line.

I had known that the course started in the Epcot parking lot, ran through Epcot, went to and through the Magic Kingdom, and ended at the Ticket and Transportation Center. Still, I was shocked when they announced we would be in Epcot at mile 3! I had assumed it would not take us three miles to get from the parking lot into the park, and since I had hoped to still be running inside Epcot, this was a definite concern. After not training at all for the past three months my endurance was gone, but I managed to run for almost the first two miles.

Being part of a crowd of participants, seeing spectators lining the course cheering for us really added some adrenaline, which I believe helped get me that far. Right off the bat I managed to pass some participants, who would later pass me, and we would keep this pattern for quite a while. Other participants passed me and I never saw them again. Some participants would chat as they were running beside me—I tried to respond coherently, but I was pretty overwhelmed.

All in all, being part of a group of up to 24,000 was pretty amazing. As far as my eye could see ahead was a sea of participants, and when we reached a part of the course where we looped down and under an overpass, I could see participants for about a mile behind me. That was exciting—until then I was afraid to look behind me because I did not want to discover I was at the rear of the pack. I was far from the front, but being ahead of so many was very encouraging.

Along the route, the miles were marked with big signs and clocks that showed the official time. In my case I was unsure whether the mile marker was at the start of that mile or at the end, so I was still not sure if my pace was going to permit me to finish within the 3.5 hours allowed. I remained unsure of that until almost the end! There were bands playing music for us in a couple of spots, which was really nice, and we thanked them as we ran or walked by.

Volunteers at aid stations passed out water and Powerade at every mile, and at certain miles they also had snacks or Vaseline available. Medical tents were set up along the route, and I felt bad for the people who had to stop there for medical help—particularly those who were unable to finish their run.

Restrooms were grouped at each mile, but it seemed like more people used the great outdoors than the port-o-lets. I was amazed that even in the first mile dozens and eventually hundreds of men and some women would leave the course to go relieve themselves facing the woods off the side of the road. Even when the sun came up, this continued—evidently it is normal practice in marathons, from what I overheard.

The beverage stations were a challenge for me. Since I was afraid of not finishing in time, I could not stop to drink, and drinking from a cup while running or speed walking can be rather messy. With thousands of participants ahead of me, their discarded cups and spilled water made for a slippery patch of road at each aid station. Fortunately, I never saw anyone fall, so I figured this was another of those things that marathoners just know about and deal with.

By far the most (or perhaps only) enjoyable part of the run was the time inside Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. Although I was not still running by the time we entered Epcot, I did manage to run most of the time inside the park. The course took us backstage behind the Living Seas and up to Future World, where we ran through several of the countries while the Illuminations lights and torches were lit. It was still dark outside, the music was playing, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the half-marathon. Once we left Epcot it was a long run to the Magic Kingdom, which was located at mile 10. Nearing the Contemporary Resort is a little tunnel that goes under the waterway the boats use to get to the resorts on Bay Lake. I had been dreading that part of the course, as running or walking up a hill 9 miles into a half-marathon was not my idea of fun!

The Magic Kingdom was the second highlight of the run for me, and most likely for everyone else as well. We entered next to Tony's Restaurant and the course took us up Main Street towards the castle. The street was divided, with participants on one side and guests using the other. Many spectators were lining our side of the street, cheering us on. Throughout the course it was really nice when people read my name on my bib and called out encouraging words to me. I knew since they were calling me “Susan” they had no idea who I was (anyone who knows me knows me as Sue), so the fact that they were cheering on a total stranger was really nice. Since I had nobody there, these strangers really helped.

After running up Main Street, we ran through Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, exited through Cinderella's Castle and then into Liberty Square and Frontierland. Characters were stationed in different spots and some participants would stop for photos with them. I was determined to run through the castle, and by that point that short distance was all I was able to run at any one time. My feet hurt; my legs were hurting, and all I could think about (besides swearing I was NEVER doing this again) was I could not stop because I had to get that medal! Some of the runners who had already finished had run back in and were encouraging the rest of us—showing their medals and telling us ours was just a short distance away.

The course exited next to Splash Mountain and continued backstage for a while. We saw some of the parade floats and eventually left the Magic Kingdom. Cast members from the Wedding Pavilion were along the route wearing the bride or groom Mickey ears, cheering us on.

Finally, one of the volunteers along the route said we just had a quarter-mile to go, which was the best news I had heard all morning! I could see the finish line and decided I was going to start running again. Unfortunately, I did not have the strength or endurance to do that quarter mile and had to stop short of the finish. It was a very low point to be that close, with people sitting in the bleachers watching, and being unable to continue running. However, at that point I should have just been thankful to still be standing.

After walking as quickly as I could for a bit, I was close enough to run again and finished the half-marathon running. My official time ended up being 3 hours and 15 minutes, which ended up being better than I thought I would do. The next moments were a blur—a volunteer cut the chip off of my sneaker, another gave me a Mylar space blanket to retain body heat (not necessary since it was such a warm day), water and food was available, and all around participants were being greeted by family or friends. For me, finishing was a huge accomplishment and felt great, but at the same time having nobody there was a disappointment—one which I had not anticipated being important to me. I wasn't able to hear from the most important person for almost two hours after the run, and when I called a friend from the finish line to say “I finished,” he had forgotten about the run and didn't know what I was talking about. I let someone in line behind me use my cell phone to call her friends, since I was striking out!

During the run, I noticed my hands and fingers were getting swollen, which had never happened during training. Later in the course a trainer for one of the teams was telling one of their participants to keep her hands above her heart because if she dropped them down the blood would pool down there. Evidently I had not kept my hands up high enough! I found my running shoes that were quite comfortable up to an eight-mile run were not comfortable for 13 miles. I was on my third pair of the same running shoe, since training was tough on them and I did not want to risk trying a new brand or style for the race. I have one more new pair of this style in the closet, and will switch to a different one once those are finished.

Another silly thing I did was carrying a water bottle with me, thinking I would not want to have to wait a mile for a water table. It did enable me to skip several water stops, but I don't think I really saved any significant time and I rarely drank anything more than a couple of swallows once a mile anyway.

After the run, buses were waiting to take us back to Epcot, where we could transfer to other buses back to our resorts (if we were not on the monorail route). Once seated on the first bus, I became dizzy and nauseous, feeling like I was going to pass out. Fortunately the lady next to me was a nurse and knew that most likely it was just a case of my electrolytes being out of whack because I only drank water during the run. After some of her PowerAde I started feeling much better, and was good as new by the time the bus arrived at Epcot. Well, good as new except for the funny way my legs made me walk—but there were a lot of people walking funny!

Wearing that all-important finisher's medal. Photo courtesy Sue Holland.

When I finished the half-marathon, I had a great sense of accomplishment. I had done something I never would have believed I was capable of doing, and did it under less than ideal circumstances. However, I was adamant that I would never do it again. I hated running every day I was training, and felt the same way almost every one of the 13 miles of the half-marathon. By the next day a couple of people who know me well mentioned I would have to do it again because otherwise I'd never know what my time would have been if I'd been able to train those last three months. By the second day after the run I realized they were right, so as much as I still hate running I most likely will try it one more time in 2006 unless another speed bump gets me!

There were nearly 3000 people who signed up for the half-marathon and either did not participate at all or were picked up from the course for not keeping the minimum pace. I learned many people sign up to honor a lost loved one, knowing they will only be able to finish a short distance. Some set a goal of walking three miles, and the next year strives for four miles. I learned it's not about finishing as much as it is about meeting whatever goal you set for yourself.

Everyone who participated, including the thousands of volunteers, should feel great about what they did that January morning. Hopefully I'll be back in 2006, will finish in a better time (although I will always be a slow runner), and will have someone with me at the finish line. Then the half-marathon portion of my life will be complete!

Interested in more information about the event, or thinking of giving it a try next January (it's not too late to register yet)? For more information about the 2006 Walt Disney World Marathon and Half-Marathon, read the “Walt Disney World Marathon Guide,” Lani Teshima's year-long series (link).