Thursday, February 13, 2014

Groundhog Day Came Early this Year

The parallel to Groundhog Day was obvious: waking up to an early alarm for four straight mornings to face the same routine over and over again. At the Dopey Challenge in Walt Disney World, I was much like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, with reality and dreaming intermingling as the days went by, sometimes wondering which was which. (But alas, no Andie McDowell.)

Well, okay, it wasn’t exactly like that, but there were a few similarities. From January 9 to 12, I arose hours before sunrise each day to run, in turn, a 5K race, a 10K, a half marathon, and then a full marathon, all on Disney property, in the quest to surpass the traditional Goofy Challenge (completing the half and full marathons on consecutive days) and gain the new Dopey Challenge status with a finish in all four races. Each day this involved early fueling and hydration, putting on the running clothes laid out the night before, with the appropriate bib on the shirt, catching the bus from the resort to the race check-in area, followed by the walk to and the wait in my corral until called to the start line. But I liked it a lot. Running is easier and more fun with the variety of first-rate on-course entertainment, including the Disney characters, bands, DJ music (I still can’t get that Katy Perry song out of my head, or that song from Frozen), and wisecracking race announcers. And each day was unique, just as no two runs are alike in any circumstances.

The 5K (the Pluto) and the 10K (the Minnie) were staged in parking lots much closer to the check-in area. The fields were smaller (with the 6,000 Dopey runners constituting the majority of each), and each was run in the dark and finishing before sunrise. EPCOT is awesome at night when World Showcase is illuminated with bright lights and torches, and we ran through most of that area, as well as, in the 10K, around the Boardwalk in the adjacent resort area. Several characters were available along the way for picture-taking, including the most popular, Dopey, who attracted an insanely long line for pictures. I took plenty of pictures and some videos with my iPod, but avoided standing in the lines. I felt a little chilled at the start of these two races (fighting off a mild bug that was wanting to give me a cold), but with the humidity en route it took no time to heat up and require throwing off layers, even as the sky was spitting out bits of rain. After each race the Dopey runners then headed to a designated queue to get a wrist band as proof of finishing each race, ultimately leading up to the Dopey medal (and the Goofy) on the fourth day, after the marathon.

As runners learn, what you wear at a race tends to make a statement, whether you plan it that way or not. The Disney-themed costumes were everywhere, more than I’ve noticed in other races. Maybe the Dopey theme attracted the biggest fanatics. I also chose my race shirts with some purpose, I suppose. On the 10K, for instance, I wore my shirt from the 2011 Bighorn Mountains race. Wouldn’t you know it, but a guy comes up to me in the pre-race corral wearing the same shirt. (He allowed as how Wyoming is getting a lot of snow this year and that the trails in June might still be pretty wet. Just as they were in 2011.) Then a woman who noticed the shirt came up to me and told me about growing up in Wyoming and having run the Bighorn race, and we chatted a bit more before our corral was called. Maybe the Bighorn races and Dopey races have something in common on some subtle level.

The half-marathon (the Donald) and the full (the Mickey) require a longer walk from the check-in area out to the corrals on EPCOT Center Drive. The wait for the start was substantial, but this year the corrals were smaller and moved more quickly. Each of these races heads north up to Magic Kingdom on another road, World Drive, and then up through Main Street USA, where spectators are allowed in the park without tickets to cheer everyone on. My goal each year is to get a good corral placement and arrive at MK while it’s still a little dark, since it’s very pretty under the lights. (I need a better corral next time.) After MK, the half heads back south, paralleling the route up to MK, giving everyone two chances to see and/or pose with Jack Sparrow and other pirates alongside a mocked up ship, once in the dark and once well after sunrise. The half then heads back for a short run through a corner of EPCOT, past the singing and dancing gospel choir, and on to the finish and back where you had checked in before dawn. The full, of course, is more varied and covers more ground. Going south from MK, it takes a detour inside the Tom Petty NASCAR Speedway, then down for a loop through Animal Kingdom, and, in the last two years, a few miles through the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex (where you had been to the Expo and packet pickup four days earlier). The WWS part includes a stint on the track, and a run inside the ballpark where the Braves have their spring training. Then it’s a couple more miles of highways, with various entertainment, including the Toy Story Army guy (who is glad to count off as you drop down and do pushups), until you get to Hollywood Studios. You hit mile 23 in Hollywood Studios, and even if you’re pretty well cooked by then your mood is likely to improve with the “smell” of the nearby finish line.

That was the case with me. We had our best weather on marathon day and, feeling good and more energetic that day anyway, I was really savoring the last few miles. We proceeded on along the Boardwalk, World Showcase, and again past the gospel choir (how do they keep doing that all weekend?), all along with me pulling out my iPod taking pictures and videos of characters and even the cheering crowd (finding out, however, that shooting videos while in motion requires practice). I further savored the party atmosphere of the finish area, and especially the pint of local brew that aid in post-race hydration. (For the beer tent purchase, I was thankful that I wore the new “Magic Band,” which serves as your room key and credit card, and other things Disney World, all in one.) Speaking of savoring, I topped off the day with our traditional dinner buffet with friends Santa Steve, Joyce, and Kc, at the Boma restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge. I will say that is worth waiting and saving your appetite for.

So how did I like the experience, and would I do it again? Affirmative. I might do some things differently next time. I really should get more sleep, and maybe spend a little less time roaming the theme parks after the races. But I am fully open to another go at it, should that work out. This four-day venture included my fifth Disney marathon and fourth Goofy, and I think I still have more in me. I’m running marathons and ultras anyway, so getting in the training to make it relatively comfortable is not a big factor. Doing these races, particularly in the laid-back atmosphere of WDW, proved to be more doable than expected – just as Jeff Galloway was telling us in pre-race pep talks -- and I was able to run slight course bests in both the marathon and Goofy components (to the extent a personal best at WDW really matters).

There’s a huge diversity of running talent in these races. The overall Dopey champion, Mike Wardian (from nearby Arlington, VA), who surely ran all four races with a clear purpose and a focus, mentioned in a recent podcast interview how much fun he has racing at Disney, with all its bells-and-whistles entertainment. This is an elite runner, who trains very hard and races very fast, race after race. But you could hear in his voice how much fun he has with the sport. There’s room for everybody in these Disney races, the fast and the not-so-fast. So long as you’re willing to have fun.

My flickr pix from Dopey weekend:


  1. Nice report from a Marathon Maniac. Or just a maniac. I hope all the medals didn't cause your baggage to be over-weight.