Cheering Adventures at the Disney Half Marathon

Recently Walt Disney World held it’s 2010 Marathon Weekend – a 4 day event consisting of Mickey’s Marathon Kids’ Fest, Disney Family Fun Run 5K, Half Marathon, Marathon, and Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge (Marathon + Half Marathon yields 3 medals).  I’d chosen not to attend as a runner, but rather to go and cheer on two of my newest Disney friends Katie (kidanikatie) and Ed (superedo) as they ran in the Half Marathon.  To do this I signed up to be a member of the ChEAR Squad which earned me some swag that I have [p2p type=”id” value=”212″ text=”previously posted about”].  And I just wanted to take some time to tell you about my adventures on the day of the 2009 Half Marathon.

My goal was to do as much cheering for Katie & Ed as I could manage (you can read about their journey at Katie’s blog), with some cheering thrown in for many other runners along the way.  In addition to a booklet giving me a rough idea of where I could view runners from, there was an online tool that really helped me gauge how to do it.  After talking with another Disney friend, Bonnie, I decided that I would be at the start of the race in Epcot, then head on over to Main Street in the Magic Kingdom (Bonnie had promised to hold me a space for viewing), and then back to Epcot for the finish.

Disney and CIGNA provide a way to track runners via text messaging and/or email alerts.  They look like this:

Skippy McRunner @ 5K in 00:40:04 (NET). Pace: 12:53. Predicted: 2:49:03. presented by CIGNA, Disney Destinations LLC

Thinking that this would be an invaluable tool to me throughout the day I had chosen both, but I’m really glad that I didn’t rely on it for a two reasons:

  1. The alerts were not working quite right until the race was more than half over.  What’s supposed to happen is that when the runner passes certain checkpoints their shoe tag will trigger the alert.  Texts did not happen until the 10k mark.  Emails did happen at 5k.  Neither happened at the start of the race.
  2. The alerts should be occurring far more often than every 5k to be truly useful. Marathon information tells a spectator (or runner) that Main Street was roughly the 8k mark on the trail, and that the TTC (Transportation and Ticket Center) was roughly where the 5k mark was.  That leaves a huge gap in time as to when your runners might be upon you while standing on Main Street.  And while the texts mention distance, they don’t mention where the runner is.  For example, I’d rather have been told Katie & Ed were “Entering TTC at 5k” then “Reached 5k”.  And then right as they enter Magic Kingdom a message of “Entering Magic Kingdom” would indicate that it’s time to get your camera out.  Context would make the alerts much more useful.

Overall, it’s a system that Disney and CIGNA need to work on to make better in the future.

Other than the cold, snow, sleet, and rain that runners and spectators had to endure there was nothing else that I would claim as wrong with the event (except that I should have worn two pairs of socks).  Being a spectator was a lot of fun, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to experience a Disney Marathon without actually being a runner in the marathon itself.  Keep in mind that you don’t have to go as crazy with this as I did, you can simply be at one spot, cheer, and then go about your day.  There are no stipulations, the amount of cheering you do is completely up to you.  Now let me tell you about my day.

While spending the prior week enduring insanely cold weather for Central Florida, I managed to adjust my body clock so that I could go to bed early enough Friday night to be able to get up on Saturday January 9, 2009 – the day of the Half Marathon at 2:15am.  You really have to get up early because you need to be at Epcot before they start closing off the roads for the Marathon, which usually happens around 4am, but they start closing around 3am.

At the Start

To make sure I didn’t delay myself in the morning I did some important prep things the night before: shave, dig out my scarf and gloves (not worn in 6 years!!!) and pack my park bag.  Knowing that  it’d be a cold wet day, so I made sure that the things inside my bag were all separated out into ziplocs.  The contents of my bag included a Disney poncho (never had to use it), a few hats to swap out as they got wet throughout the day, a bagel pre-smeared, some snacks, my ChEAR Squad swag, and my Zagg Sparq so I could charge my iPhone as needed throughout the day.  I also laid out my clothes.

After waking up (2:15am), I showered right away and got dressed.  It was very cold, but I was prepared, wearing 3 shirts with my ChEAR Squad shirt being on top, and the middle layer being thermal.  I actually ate a bowl of cereal and I think this helped a lot during the day.  Afterwards I synced my iPhone one last time, threw on two jackets (Floridians don’t really have winter coats), and I headed out the door.

Epcot Parking

The drive over was uneventful as I listened to Trust Agents, at least until I hit Disney World.  Taking my normal exit for Epcot, I discovered that Epcot Center Road was already closed.  Freaking a little I got off on to Buena Vista Drive, past Epcot, to World Drive and came in from the other side.  Eventually parking in the Explore lot.  As I always suggest I took a picture of the Row as the first shot of the day so I could find it easily later.

Spaceship Earth

There I am at 3:30am, standing in the parking lot at Epcot, and before me there is one of my favorite sights: Spaceship Earth all lit up. Unable to resist, I went over to take some photos.  There was a throng of people arriving in Epcot, that it was impossible to cross for a closer shot than the ones I took.

Who's Inside?

On my way back to my car, I spotted a vehicle that based on it’s markings could only contain one person as sprawled across it was “We wants the Redhead!”, “WDW Radio Racing”, and “Disney or Bust!”.  Inside was none other than Lori, someone who I first met at MagicMeets in 2007, and have seen many times since.  We chatted briefly, and then I wished her luck knowing that she had a grueling day ahead of her with a leg that was massively taped up with kinesio tape as evidenced by a picture she had posted on Facebook from the night before.

Race Entrance
Costumed Runners

After a quick stop back at my car, I headed into the “Family Reunion Area” as it is where the runners were all gathering before they headed off to their corrals.  Inside there were a lot people milling about, clearly dreading the cold – at the time it was about 30 degrees.  But there were many runners dressed up in costume, which is a common occurrence for Disney Marathons.  In addition to the pictured Mr. Incredible, “Petra” Pan, Green Army Man, and Wonder Woman, I also saw a few Elvises, a bride & groom, Stitch, several Jack Sparrows.  In addition those running the Goofy Challenge tend to have Goofy incorporated into their costume, and there was one fellow who had apparently stolen Goofy’s clothes.

Ed & Katie

Somehow, in the large group of people, I managed to find Katie & Ed, and along with Mike from the Be Our Guest Podcast.  I don’t honestly remember everything that was said, but I do remember trying to be both light hearted and encouraging – after all I was there to support them.  And despite the cold they were positive, excited, and ready to go.  It was about this time that it started to snow.  Seriously, snow right here in Central Florida.  And let me tell you it was weird, as a Florida resident, I’d not seen snow in about 6 years.  The only thing I could really think to mention at that point was that if it was snowing, then it’d warmed up a few degrees.

Snow!!!

I escorted Katie, Ed, and Mike to the entry way as far as a non-runner was allowed to go to the starting point of the race.  I said good-bye, wished them all luck, gave them all hugs, and told them I’d see them at the finish.  From there I really had no idea what to do or where to go.  I’d never done this before.  And somehow the DJ must have known this because he made an announcement about a sign that would lead me to the start of the race at the edge of the parking lot.

Path to the Start

Making my way to the starting spectator area, I got to do something really cool… well okay really cool to me anyway… walk through some Disney woods and get to stand on a Disney road (Epcot Center Drive).  By this time the snow was changing over to sleet, so I threw my hood up and prayed I wouldn’t catch pneumonia.

Epcot Center Drive

Standing there, waiting, I did what I generally do when standing in a crowd with a bunch of strangers: make friends.  We were taking pictures of each other, chatting, and telling stories about “our” runners.  I helped the couple to my left cheer on their brother, the lady next to me cheer on her husband, and made some room so a little girl could see her mother.  It was cold, bitter, and nasty outside as we were getting pelted with sleet, but we made it fun and had a great time.

Fireworks!

Before we knew it the race had begun.  The first wave of runners are actually those in wheelchairs.  After the first round of fireworks, they sped by us in these fabulous contraptions that were a cross between a wheelchair and a bicycle.  You wouldn’t think they could go as fast as they were, and it was glorious.  I screamed.  I cheered.  I used my ChEAR Squad clapper – which came in very useful that day considering I had on gloves and was trying my best to take my usual array of both terrible and surprisingly good pictures.

Runners at the Start

After that there were four waves of runners.  It was explained to me that the first 2 waves of runners contained people who were placed based on their times from prior Marathons, and that the 3rd and 4th waves were everyone else.  I was also told that there were supposed to be 5 waves of runners that day, but they dropped one due to people not showing up – due to the weather I imagine.  And then it struck me, while I knew Katie & Ed’s numbers and their corral, I had no idea which wave they were in. And I had a sinking feeling that I’d never spot them as we’re standing on the opposite side of Epcot Center Drive from the runners who are effectively 4 lanes away from us.

In order to spot Katie & Ed, my plan was to scan the crowd looking for a runner with an orange hat (Ed) paired with another runner with pigtails (Katie).  It was dark, I was cold, and it was a crazy idea.  That day was for them, and I was determined to find them in that crowed.  As time drew on, I became concerned that maybe they had already passed me or that I’d just never spot them.  Then, suddenly, there they were.  Side by side, and probably equally cold and miserable.  I screamed their names as loud as I could.  And a miraculous thing happened: they heard me.  I saw them slow down, and look around.  I waved.  I jumped up and down.  I clapped my clapper. And I shouted again, “Go Katie and Ed!” And they did.

For me, the start of the race was over, so I said my good-byes to the people I had met, and headed for the monorail – it was time to go over to Magic Kingdom.  On the way over I got to see the first of the wheelchair marathoners cross the finish.  The monorail queue was not nearly as crowded as I’d have expected, but it was 6am.  Now, I’d been on the monorail hundreds of times before, but this time it was different.  Special.  A whole new sort of magic.  Below me, the still dark World Drive was full of people.  Not in cars like they normally are, but running.  Ordinary people performing this great feat together.

As directed, I met up with Bonnie and some others in front of the watch shop on Main Street.  I can’t thank her enough for doing that for me.  I’m a short guy, so being able to walk right up to the rope like that and see the runners was amazing.  On the sidewalk opposite us were Disney castmembers dressed for life on Main Street, posing with runners, cheering them on, etc.  I knew there special moments along the marathon route for the runners, but I didn’t think I’d get to experience them and I really appreciated it.

Sunrise on Main Street

Getting to experience a sunrise on Main Street was very cool, and something I’d not gotten to do before. It was really hard to get good pictures with everyone so close, so I took to scanning the crowd for Ed & Katie.  I was also watching the runners as they stopped for pictures, etc.  And then, all of the sudden, in a really dense group of runners, this face with an orange hat comes flying at mine shouting “Todd!!!” I remember screaming back “Ed!!!” And then running along with them for a short bit cheering them on.  It was for me one of the most memorable moments of the day.

I turned around to thank Bonnie again for the spot and behind me is standing Lou Mongello (@loumongello), but he wason the phone.  Wanting to head back to to Epcot for the finish, I briefly said hi, shook his hand, and then said my good-byes – figuring I’d see Bonnie and Lou at his meet later.  I took a quick pit stop, then headed off to the monorail, while noshing on a bagel I had brought with me.

Monorail Green Broken Down

What I found was that the express monorail was not opened, and that meant taking the resort monorail.  This meant sitting through an extra stop at the Contemporary before getting back to the TTC.  While heading up that ramp I got to see the monorail tow car in the process of hooking up with a broken down Monorail Green.

Once I was seated on the monorail, I texted Matt Hochberg (@studioscentral) as we had been planning to meet up at the finish line to watch Katie & Ed finish – he is after all Katie’s BFF.  Conveniently, Matt was just parking at Magic Kingdom and we agreed to meet at the top of the ramp to board the monorail to Epcot.  Despite a crowded monorail, we got seats.  We talked a bit about iPhones, chargers, how the marathon was going, and that I’d actually seen Ed & Katie at both view points so far.  From the monorail we could see the runners heading back down World Drive toward Epcot.

One thing about standing on Main Street vs standing out in the parking lot at Epcot is that on a cold day its a lot colder in the parking lot.  The reason is because the buildings on Main Street block the wind.  You’re a lot more exposed in the open space of the parking lot, and being wet and cold wasn’t helping any.  Unlike Matt I had gloves and a hat, so I was a bit warmer – I did offer both to him, but he stuck it out without.

We got off the monorail, and found a nice viewing location at the 13 mile marker to watch for Katie & Ed at the end of the race.  This was a real win because again, I was right up at the rail.  My grand plan had been to earlier, on Main Street, take note of other easily identifiable runners that came before them in order to try to judge when they were coming at the finish.  That was an epic fail moment really, because they had really shifted we were back to frantically looking for them in the packs of runners.

While waiting, I took to cheering for any and all runners as they passed by.  There was “Team Purple”, “Team Diabetes”, “Brazil Guy” who had run the race carrying the Brazilian flag, and many more.  There were people walking in to the finish, and others sprinting.  Some were looking up, and others were looking down still watching their footing.  Many stopped for a photo opp at the 13 mile marker sign.

Standing there, at the end of the marathon, I learned something watching the runners go by.  For so many, the finish of the marathon was an incredibly emotional experience.  Some were so excited they were working the crowd for cheers.  Others broke down crying right there as we cheered, and the spectators coached them on, told them they were “okay” and that that they were “almost done”.  Many smiled and laughed, letting their accomplishment run over them.  And, while I can’t speak for the other spectators, these emotions washed over me, and I gained a respect for runners and running that I did not have before.  Even now, thinking about it, writing this, I well up thinking about it.  The emotions and memories I have tied to this moment is are strong, beautiful, and pure – I hope to carry them with me always.

Katie & Ed Arrive
Katie & Ed at the Finish

After about 30 minutes or so of freezing in ways that I had not felt in six years, there they were, Katie & Ed.  Ed was very calm and collected, and Katie was all smiles.  They passed us by and I cheered, and shouted their names, congratulations, and that they were winners.  My pictures of this are them could be better, but I’ve got them and the memory to hold on to.

Ed's Medal (taken by Ed)

And once they were past Matt and I regrouped, and had the same thought – move and get warm.  So we headed back over to the reunion area to meet Katie & Ed.  We spotted them in the crowd, and waited a short bit while Mike interviewed them for his podcast.  Then all three headed out of the post finish line area, and out to meet us in the reunion area.  We spent some time finding Katie’s parents who fortunately had a backpack with some Gatorade that Katie was craving.  Katie told us all that they never stopped, and they showed off their medals.  It was a very happy moment for them both, and I was honored to be sharing it with them.

Sadly, my time as a marathon spectator was over.  I said some quick good-byes to Katie, Ed, and Matt – I knew I’d see them soon as there was a WDW Today meet in Magic Kingdom later that day.  I was still cold and needed to warm up, so I quickly ducked into Spaceship Earth.  Afterwards, I took the monorail back to Magic Kingdom, arriving there a short bit after 10am, and it occurred to me that this was my third monorail trip between Epcot and Magic Kingdom that day.  Which was scary because my day wasn’t even close to over as I was planning on staying it until after dinner that same evening, and my car was still parked at Epcot which meant one more trip back.

Next year I’m going to have even more friends running, and I plan to cheer them all on – though this time I think I’ll be staying on property.  If you’re planning on running the Half Marathon in 2011, and are looking for people to talk with and maybe run with, there is a Facebook group that has been started by my good friend Kelly (@kchristine).  Kelly is also looking for team and/or charity suggestions as she wants to be able to turn her run into a giving moment as well.

Also, some of the “box people” from Lou Mongello’s WDW Radio podcast may have seen me talk about being part of the ChEAR Squad briefly on his live streaming event later in the day.  And I remember that there was some interest shown in the chat room about the ChEAR Squad.  If you’d like to ask me any questions, please do so and I’ll do my best to answer them.

4 thoughts on “Cheering Adventures at the Disney Half Marathon”

  1. I was doing a search on Google and came across your blog. I am Mr. Incredible in the picture of costume runners. I have done 4 Goofy Challenges and looking forward to more. If you go to rCharacter.com on Facebook you can see what else we are doing.

    Thanks for the fun read!

    Mark

    1. Cool! That was a very inspirational day for me. I’m now running 3 times a week myself – and back in January when I took that picture I was not a runner – though I did walk. I started running in March, and I’ve taken off close to 25 lbs so far. I weigh less than I did as a freshman entering college.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *