On Sunday morning, at a time when most sane people still slept soundly, I boarded a bus with my best friend, making our way to the start line of our first half marathon, the Disney Princess Half. At 5:45 a.m., after the Fairy Godmother cast a spell and sent us on our 13.1 journey, I took my first step across the starting mats. About one hour and forty-three minutes later, a cheerful volunteer hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. As soon as I saw that tiara-shaped medal, I burst into tears – I’d done it. I could now officially call myself a half marathoner.
All day Saturday leading up to the race, I tried to stay calm, keeping my anxious excitement and nerves tucked away. After an easy shake-out run along Bayshore Blvd, we got on the road to Orlando.
I’d read that Disney expos get crowded the later you go so I wanted to get there as soon as possible to avoid any unnecessary stress. When we arrived at the Wide World of Sport complex around 11:15 am, tons of people were already milling around due to the expo, kids’ races (so cute!), and standard sporting events.
runDisney has an efficient packet pick-up process, but we still had to wait in a long line to receive our bibs. I’m glad we printed off our waivers ahead of time to spare us from yet another line. Once I got my bib – green in honor of my favorite Disney princess, Ariel- it began to hit me that I’d finally be running a 13.1 mile race.
On a whim, I decided to ask Runner Relations if I could move to an earlier corral. Apparently my Army 10 Miler time placed me in the very first corral, which I nervously switched to once I realized my friend and I couldn’t start together anyway. Looking back, this last minute decision made my race. I’ll be starting in the first corral at all future runDisney events to prevent over-crowding and to start the race earlier.
After getting our bibs, we made our way to the massive expo to get our race shirts (women’s fitted tech tees by Champion) and browse the vendor booths. I’m such a sucker for race expos because I love learning about new races, shopping for running gear, and – naturally- getting free samples. It’s also fun to be surrounded by so many people who share my passion for running!
This expo didn’t disappoint. Despite its size, I weaved through all the vendors in less than an hour and only purchased a couple items (two official race shirts to commemorate my first half marathon experience and some nuun because I’m obsessed). I picked up a few pamphlets and coupon codes for a couple races that I’m eyeing… let’s just say I’m dreaming big for February 2013.
When we left, I noticed the lines for bibs and t-shirts were much longer and the expo itself more crowded. The key seems to be the same as it is with the Disney parks – go early or go late to avoid the crowds.
With several hours to kill before dinner, we ventured to the runners’ mecca: the lululemon outlet. I’d never been to this store before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of deals and products, especially late on a Saturday afternoon. This lulu store is set up by size making it easier and faster to shop. I didn’t find any crazy deals – it’s essentially your typical store only everything is marked down to the sale price. While checking out, I received an additional discount for showing my Princess Half race registration e-mail.
We ate a nice pre-race dinner at Bongos in Downtown Disney, but we had to sit outside under heat lamps. During the meal, I felt the temperature dropping steadily and grew worried that my planned race outfit wouldn’t be sufficient if the air continued to get colder. I began checking the weather and saw that the temperature was going to stay the same, but the forecast showed rain starting at 6 am. Trying not to freak out once we got back to the hotel, I went along with my pre-race ritual: lay out clothes and gear, plan breakfast, and get ready for bed so I could begin visualizing (yes, I’m a huge dork) the different stages of my race.
It’s no secret most runDisney events start early – the Disney Princess Half had a start time of 5:45 am. To make it more interesting, all runners have to be in their corrals by 5 am and on buses from the resorts no later than 4 am. While my corral’s scheduled start time was 5:45, my friend’s was 6:30 and she still had to be in her corral by 5 – this was the first sign that I made the right choice in changing my corral.
Sleep did not come easily due to nerves. I tried to fall asleep quickly, but my mind wouldn’t stop. Eventually, I dozed off and, surprisingly, jumped right out of bed when my alarm went off at 3:10 am. I got ready and knew I was ready to race. We made our way to the buses (I highly encourage runners to stay in Disney resorts that provide race transportation as it prevented a lot of race-day stress) and headed off to Epcot.
From where the buses dropped us off, we had about a 10-minute walk to the bag check. The typo on this sign still breaks my heart…
I didn’t check a bag so I took a seat on the ground and got cozy in my oversized throwaway sweatshirt, which proved to be the best $5 I’ve ever spent at Walmart, especially since Disney donates all tossed gear to charities. This area had tons of port-a-potties as well as water for runners waiting to get to their corrals.
We hung out here for about half an hour until volunteers allowed runners to make their way to the start line. I had no idea how far we still were from the start – it was probably another 20-minute, crowded walk. I’m glad we started the trek when we did because I barely made it to my corral on time.
Once I got into my corral, a wave of emotions hit me. In a matter of minutes, I’d be starting my first 13.1 mile race. Even though I’d run the distance several times in training, I was mostly concerned about pacing myself so that I’d run smart and strong the whole time. I hoped to finish in under 1:50, which should have been doable based on my training runs.
As I’ve mentioned before, I had my eyes set on achieving a 1:45 half marathon before the end of the year. However, running 13.1 miles at an average pace of 8:00 seemed a little too-good-to-be-true for my first half marathon, especially when this time last year I finished 5-6 mile races with close to 9-minute pace. Unsure of what to expect from myself, I lined up near the 1:50 pace group and started focusing on getting across the start line.
This is the only race I’ve done where the Fairy Godmother announced the start. Once she bippity-boppity-booed us, fireworks boomed overhead and I crossed over the first mat, signaling the start of my race. I spent much of the first mile settling into my pace and dodging some slower runners, but compared to the Army 10 Miler, the beginning of the race wasn’t overly crowded with a hodgepodge of paces and walkers. By the second mile along the back roads of Disney, I had comfortably settled into a groove and kept my eye out for Disney characters along the course. Because I started in the first corral, there were no lines for any of the characters. I kept thinking about stopping to grab some photos, but I didn’t want to lose any time.
The next couple of mile markers kept sneaking up on me. Each time I checked my watch, I received a bit of a shock to see that I was right on target for a 1:45 half marathon. I tried not to get too excited as I have a tendency to fade in the latter miles of races (chalk it up to still being a newbie who falls victim to start-line adrenaline far too frequently), and kept trucking along, passing people here and there.
Finally, I saw Cinderella’s castle looming on the horizon and realized I was already coming up to the Magic Kingdom. As I ran through Disney World, I thought about my family and all the childhood memories I had from this park. This served as nice inspiration as I passed through Tomorrowland and Frontierland and, finally, into the castle. Thinking back on this part of the race, it all seems like such a blur that went by far too quickly.
Did I really run through Disney? I guess so…
Leaving the Magic Kingdom, the race takes runners along some more back roads, but I found them very pretty and peaceful. Usually, I crave crowd support and cheerleaders while racing to help me push through tough times, but I didn’t miss that too much during these miles. I vaguely recall running by some of the gorgeous resorts, swamp-like lands with trees decorated with Spanish moss, a golf course I’d never seen before, and speakers blasting Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.”
Miles 7 and 8 ticked by and I was still right on pace for a 1:45 finish time. I tried to push out the negative “I can’t do this” thoughts that started creeping in and kept moving along the course, smiling for the photographers and high-fiving the few spectators I saw.
Halfway through mile 8, things started to hurt. My legs grew fatigued and I began cursing the slightest changes in elevation (and, you know, there’s not much topography in Florida). My legs wanted to slow down, to give up, to just go for that 1:50 finish time, but my heart and mind challenged them, fighting for faster turnover. I began pulling from all the motivational mantras I’d been stockpiling on Pinterest and jotting down in my training log, repeating them over and over until “Pain is temporary, pride is forever” turning into a jumbled mess of “pain…ary…pride…ever…”
For me, miles 8 and 9 seemed to last forever. People started passing me, even though I felt like I was still moving at the same speed. I clung to this one group of runners who were slightly in front of me, telling myself I would not let the gap between us grow larger. Keeping my eyes on their backs, I refused to slow down as I neared the 10-mile marker.
Mentally, mile 10 was not as tough for me as miles 8 or 9. Physically, it was a different story. This part of the course featured a few killer Floridian hills, also known as highway on-ramps. The toughest climb is a circular on-ramp that forces you to run on an awkward slant for quite a while – my legs were screaming for even ground by the time it finally ended, only to be greeted immediately with another “giant” hill (hey, it’s all relative and this felt giant to me!).
After that, I saw the sign noting I had reached mile 12. I don’t even remember looking at my watch, I just kept running. We entered Epcot and did a small lap around the park. I could hear the race emcee somewhere in the distance, but I had no idea how much further I had to run. 800-meters? 1200-meters? How much further could my legs go? In my head, voices kept screaming “slow down!” but I continued to silence them as I exited the park to sounds of the Disney choir and volunteers cheering me toward the finish.
I came around a bend and saw my boyfriend yelling and cheering for me. Right after that, the 13-mile marker came into view. I willed my legs to move faster, to carry me to the finish line as quickly as possible. The crowd noise increased. I could make out the numbers on the race clock… did I see 1:43 ticking across the screen or had my vision gone blurry?
Finally, after 13.1 miles, I crossed the finish line of my first half. Looking down at my watch, I saw I’d finished in 1:43 – a time I didn’t think possible for many more months. Smiling and half-crying, I made my way through the finisher’s shoot and allowed the volunteers to drape the medal I’d worked so hard for around my neck. I remember seeing my boyfriend standing next to a gate and tearfully exclaiming, “I DID IT! I REALLY DID IT”
With a medal as proof, I can finally join the half marathon finishers’ club. Chip time: 1:43:28.