Last year at this time, as the Disney half marathon ended, I noticed essentially no soreness in my muscles, despite not doing any training whatsoever. Of course, I didn’t push myself particularly hard, either. The usual post-race euphoria makes people do strange things, like promise to themselves they will do a MUCH better job in the coming year training for the marathon, so therefore it will be okay not only to sign up once again, but to go ahead and sign up for the granddaddy event, the race-and-a-half Goofy’s Challenge. You do a half-marathon on Saturday, and then the full marathon the very next day on Sunday. That’s 39.3 miles in a single weekend (technically, in 10.5 hours or less, if you’re keeping up like you’re supposed to).
I dug in and started my training right away, building up to four, five, and six mile daily runs by March, and doing it five days a week. Things were going so well, and happening so early, that I had visions of grandeur at the January 2008 races. I set new goals. Not only would I finish, I’d do the whole thing running, with no walking allowed! I’d finish the half marathon in under two hours!
I guess I got greedy, because I over-trained, as it’s called, and suffered an injury that had me avoiding the treadmill for two months. Not good. With the spell broken, I didn’t feel the urgency to climb back into the saddle once my knee was good again, and laziness set in during the whole summer. After summer I tried again, but had serious problems finding time, and let it go after only two weeks.
Long story short: I was back to where I’d been before (twice now): about to race at the Disney Marathon with essentially no training. Only this time, I was set to run 1.5 marathons. And I was twenty pounds heavier, due to a year-long restaurant project you’ll hear about soon. My blood pressure had recently been assessed as high, though that may have been a fluke. I’d recently smacked my knee hard, resulting in surface bruising and swelling. All the stars were aligned in exactly the wrong way. I’d be lucky to finish the races without permanent or serious damage. In fact, I was worried about death or a heart attack. It does happen at marathons! I knew I’d have to dial my expectations way, way down, and take things easy.
My only remaining target was to finish both races in the allotted time. You get 3.5 hours for the half marathon, and 7 hours for the full. That’s a pace for 16-minute miles, sustained over the entire stretch. When I do jog, I usually don’t try for a more energetic 6 MPH (which is a 10-minute pace), but stay at 5 MPH (which is a 12-minute pace). Walking at 3 MPH is a cross between a brisk purposeful stride and an unhurried stroll, and it yields 20-minute miles. My strategy was to run (well, to jog) the first half of each race at my normal 12-minute pace, and then walk the second half at the 20-minute pace. The combination of those would yield exactly a 16-minute pace.
Put that way, it’s not so bad. The half-marathon would be reduced to just a six-mile run, with some normally-paced walking after that. The full marathon would be harder, at twice the length, and especially since it took place the day later, when muscles are sore. But by digging deeply, it could be done. Even without much in the way of preparation.
Now is as good a time as any to point out that, well, YOU SHOULD NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. People bite off more than they can chew with marathons all the time, and literal deaths are sometimes the result. I may be horribly overweight, but I walk twenty miles each weekend (we spend two full days in the parks, you see), and I used to be a prime athlete in high school. Granted, that was twenty years ago, but I really was on the cutting edge for fitness, and moreover, my sports of choice revolved around running: track, cross-country, and soccer. I could do the half mile in 2:20, the mile in 5:04, and the three-mile run in 17:10. So please be careful in emulating my stupid attempts to run these things without proper conditioning.
Saturday morning came quickly, but I had done all the right things: trimmed my sleep patterns so I’d be used to waking early, eaten properly the night before, had good gear and actual running shorts, running shoes, running socks, etc. I’d learned in previous runs that chafing is a problem, so I had Vaseline strategically placed, and band-aids over the nipples (sounds weird, but it works to prevent problems). The only thing I didn’t have this time around was a digital camera. Since this set of races was going to be hard on me, I didn’t want to carry unnecessary weight. I was carrying enough of that around my midsection, thank you very much.
Disney continues to tweak the event, and I’m pleased with the current iteration. There are still not enough bathrooms in the front, but they had a ton of port-a-potties just before the start line. That said, they still need more of them after the race has started. Best of all, they didn’t repeat the annoying mistake of holding back “waves” of runners (those slotted to start 10 or 25 minutes after the “real” beginning). Previously, that had created a bottleneck not too different from what you see at FastPass Return lines, with some people off the to side and waiting their turn, and others trying to fight through. Only here, it was worse, because the bottleneck was orders of magnitude larger, and the people on the side never were granted entrance after just a few minutes. Now, they just let everyone head toward the start line and the corrals, where people had been pre-sorted based on their expected finishing time. It went smoothly.
What wasn’t smooth was the singing of the national anthem. I became aware that the blaring, too-loud rock music had died away, replaced with silence for us back in corral E (and presumably all corrals out of normal vocal range of the start line). The singer was there on stage, the video was visible to us on nearby screens, but no audio was being transmitted. And then one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen happened. The chattering fell away all around me, almost as if on cue, and I was treated to a sight of thousands of people making no noise whatsoever. Absolute silence. Ever so faintly, the song became audible. We were hearing the speakers from the very front of corral A, some quarter mile away from us. That’s how quiet it was. For some reason, this really resonated with me. The sentiment of the moment was powerful; more powerful, I think, than any other Star Spangled Banner moment I can think of, and I’m usually a sucker for this kind of thing. It was almost as if everyone put everything aside for a moment and paid homage to the flag with silence. It lent a solemnity and respectfulness to the occasion I’ve seldom seen. People hooted and cheered at the last verse of the song, of course (are we the only country that does this?) and the mood returned to celebratory. It was a rare moment, and I cherished it.
The half marathon started normally, which is to say, with a countdown accomplished by a series of fireworks. I was hyper-aware of the ground below me. On two occasions in the past, I’ve twisted an ankle in the first mile of the marathon, so now I’m always careful. The woman in front of me wasn’t as cautious, and tripped on the mat right at the start line that electronically records our presence (we’d all tied chips to our shoelaces). She went right down to the ground, though I think she was unhurt. Hopefully she was able to continue.
My plan for only running half the race worked beautifully. For some reason, I was barely tired by the time I hit six miles, and had been running at a pace of exactly 12-minute miles. I did experimentally slow to my walking speed for a mile, to verify that the pace I thought was a 20-minute mile really was the right pace, but I started occasionally jogging again after that. I didn’t need to jog. My plan was to take “the longest time possible” on the half marathon, but still finish within the 3.5 hour limit. To do that, I’d now need to simply walk the rest of the way. But spectators line the course, and they cheer you on. Worse, they unwittingly instill guilt if you’re not running (who wants to look like they’re out of energy already?), so I’m afraid I did some running after all. This was probably not a good idea. I’d need all my energy the next day. And getting injured was a serious consideration. I forced myself to walk a couple of miles, but by then, most folks around me were also walking. At that point I noticed others around me, wearing the same orange bracelet I was wearing, signifying they were also running the Goofy Challenge and would be doing the full marathon the next day. Like me, they were walking. I suspect many of us employ this strategy.
All told, I crossed the finish line after about 3 hours and 12 minutes. Since I’d not made it to the start line until sixteen minutes into the race, that meant I was just under three hours. Not bad. This was clearly my slowest half marathon yet, but that was intentional so I would save some energy for Sunday. In fact, it wasn’t as slow as it was supposed to be. I would have preferred something closer to 3.5 hours, but it’s too late to change that now.
Everything written until this point was composed on Saturday afternoon, after the half marathon. You can sense the interplay of optimism and worry in the tone above, since I had no idea how Sunday would play out. On Sunday morning, I rose at the usual 3:00 a.m. and did as I had done for the half-marathon: just drive out to the Epcot parking lot ASAP, skipping breakfast. It hadn’t been a problem the day before, so why should it be this time? This is an old trick of mine from playing soccer. I always played better on an empty stomach. It should have occurred to my addled brain that there is a difference between a two-hour game and a seven-hour running event.
I had some aches. My thighs were a little sore, and there was some significant pain in the tendons around the outside of the knees. That one worried me. Would the soreness evaporate when I started moving? Going up and down any stairs or inclines was already painful. At least the shin splints I had had at the end of the race on Saturday was gone.
The race lead-up and start were uneventful, and more or less the same as the day before. This time there were no “waves” at the start, but there were two courses for the first few miles, so things were a lot less crowded. That’s not to say they were uncrowded. These WDW roads are simply not wide enough for the volume of runners present. There were 18,000 marathoners on Sunday. Can’t they invent a new course layout that uses wider roads at the start?
Things were going to be warm on this run. The temperature in the waiting areas was around 63, and it was going to get up to the 70s on this run, with partly cloudy conditions and the threat of rain later. Humidity was 80-90% the whole time, an unpleasant combination.
My pains did disappear very early in the run, just as I’d hoped. I was able to make decent time, which surprised me. For the first several miles, I kept my usual 12-minute pace. This was going exactly according to plan. I’d go 12 miles at that speed, which would enable me to just walk the remainder at a 20-minute pace. That’s not quite halfway, but it was close enough that I’d still make it to the finish line in time, because even during the “walk” phase, you do trot from time to time. Usually when the crowd urges you on, or shames you into it.
It turned out that it was a stretch to think I could run at my pace for 12 miles. I’d only gone six miles the day before, so it couldn’t be used as a comparison. Indeed, I failed to get all the way to mile 12 before slowing to a walk. I made it to mile 10, though, still at a 12-minute pace, and I was very proud of that. But I was pushing myself hard to make that happen, and just after mile 10, I got dizzy and simultaneously felt some of my fingertips go numb. Uh-oh. That’s a very bad sign, especially considering my weight, my recent high blood pressure reading (which may or may not have been an anomaly), and the fact that my dad suffered a major heart attack when only a few years older than I am now. I slowed to a walk for the next few miles.
By mile 13, I tried running again and discovered I was having a glycogen problem in my legs. There was no more energy! This was ridiculous. Usually that happens at mile 20 (the famous “wall”), though I suppose the fact that I ran 13 miles the day before could have helped. Most of the problem was doubtless that I had not trained in the months before the marathon.
But also problematic was my stupid oversight in not eating breakfast. I had scarfed down an energy bar at the start line, but that was 3 hours ago. I had been counting on Disney offering food on the course, but by mile 13, there was still no sign of food. Usually they had something at mile 10, but it was either absent this year or “sold out” by the time I got there, which was inexcusable considering my relatively fast pace to that point. By mile 13, we had only seen Powerade and water. I was not pleased.
So I was out of energy, my thighs were burning prematurely, and I had slowed to a walk a few miles too soon. Running through the calculations in my head, I realized that I could continue to walk at a 20-minute pace and get very close. But not close enough. I’d be at mile 16 by 4 hours, mile 19 by 5 hours, mile 22 by 6 hours, and mile 25 by 7 hours. That’s 1.2 miles short when the clock ran out. Thus, I’d have to go faster than 20-minute miles to make up the time. Even worse, the calculations here assume I could even maintain a 20-minute mile, which was not presently the case and would doubtless get worse as time went on and the marathon became harder. A 20-minute pace isn’t a stroll exactly; there’s some pep to your step. Under normal circumstances, I’d be able to do kick things up and go faster than a 20-minute pace, no problem. But the lack of food and training had taken a big toll on me. Also, I was worried about trying to push myself if that meant I risked passing out, or even something worse. That dizzy spell weighed on me, even though it hadn’t come back.
Because of the dizzy spell, I stopped by a medical tent just after mile 13, and learned my blood pressure was 139/98. That’s a very high, and very worrisome, number. In a word, it sealed the deal for me. I wasn’t going to push myself with my system untrained, unfed, and running such a high BP. I’d already had one dizzy spell, which was tantamount to my body issuing me a warning. Had I been injured in the foot or leg, I would definitely have stuck it out and fought through the pain. But you don’t fight your circulatory system. You’ll lose, and losing means something very bad, like a heart attack or death. With a very heavy and very reluctant heart, I told the nurses I needed to drop out. The time was about three hours into the race. I’d run a virtually identical race as the day before. The same 13.1 miles, and at about the same pace.
I briefly considered avoiding the medical van, and just walking in the course until the bus came along to “sweep” me for going under the 16 minute pace. It would be neat to witness that once. Since I wanted to be swept (I no longer thought I could make it to the finish line in time), I found myself thinking about Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, leaping in the air at the big bug and yelling “Eat me!”, except I was mentally leaping and exclaiming “Sweep me!” But that would take a full two hours for the sweep bus to catch up to me, and my legs were killing me. And I was ravenous.
I used instead the “sag” wagon, a van which carried folks back to the Epcot staging area when they were injured or quit. I was joined by several others with injuries. Someone clipped out my timing chip, gave us drinks, and drove us back. One of the other runners asked if we would get medals anyway, but this practice was abandoned a few years ago. Now, only the finishers get the finisher’s medal.
I was disappointed in the turn of events, but not discouraged about Disney’s decision regarding no medals for drop outs. In fact, I applaud them for it. If they had given me one, I would have found it hollow and devoid of meaning. I’d rather have it mean something, even if it results in me not earning one this year. That will make it much sweeter when I do earn one. Maybe next year.
As I walked by the post-race area, I saw many elite runners who were done already. The Mickey medal for the marathon this year was redesigned and gorgeous, presumably in honor of the 15th year of the marathon. The mouse ear shape used to be a solid gold color, but now has black ears, and there’s a full-color Mickey Mouse caught in a sprint pose in the middle. I also walked by the tent which had the Goofy Challenge medals gathered on a railing, glinting in the sunlight. I looked forlornly over the fence, feeling for all the world like a child standing outside a candy store.
I went home, showered, got some food, cleaned up around the house a bit, and then took the family to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). By this time, it was 12:00, which would have been roughly the exact moment I would have been here in the marathon, if I were still running. Check that. Given my injuries, I’d be an hour behind. But this is where I was supposed to be.
It made me sad to see the runners making their way through DHS. Having gotten some food in me and a chance to recuperate (not to mention a shower), I was feeling quite good physically, and wondering why I’d dropped out at all. There were very few pains in my legs by now. It crossed my mind that if I had my race number here, I could have pinned it back on me, jumped back into the racing crowd, and finished the race to receive my medals. I wouldn’t have a chip in my shoelaces, since that was cut out, but that wouldn’t stop the medal-awarding, since chips are removed right away after the finish line and no one would know it if I just zoomed past them and went to the medals instead. I wouldn’t really do this, since I’m fundamentally a rule-following person, and act ethically whenever I can. But it did seem to me something a cheater might be able to get away with. Easily, even. I wonder if it’s happened before?
I don’t feel remorse very often, but I felt it that afternoon, watching the athletes pass me by, and thinking it could have been me. I consoled myself with the thought that while I might have been able to make it after all, I might just as easily have given myself a heart attack, and that wouldn’t be fair to my wife or young kids. As sappy as it is to say this, my family needs me. It would have been selfish of me to continue, and endanger myself just to prove something to myself. While watching the athletes, I gave my youngest son a tight hug and did my best to forget about the medals I wouldn’t be hanging around my neck.
I’ll sign up for something next year. Clearly, the half-marathon is the right size for me if this trend of not-training is going to continue. I do want the Goofy medal, though, so I may yet try again.
In prior years, I was able to finish the half marathon without training, and one year the same was true of the full marathon. But in the Goofy Challenge, I’d finally found a race that I could not conquer with zero training. Having failed in the quest once, I’ll know not to be blase about the training the next time around. Losing has a way of sharpening your resolve.