Sometime back in April, my friend Chris sent out an email announcing his intentions to run the 2012 Wine & Dine Half Marathon at Walt Disney World, and he invited anyone who was interested to come run and stay at his family’s time-share condo in Orlando. I’d never heard of this race, but I knew that Chris has good taste when it came to running – we had both run the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011 (I slept on his couch that weekend), and I’d traveled with Chris to Traverse City for the 2012 Bayshore Marathon.
The race itself was expensive ($150 for a half marathon ain’t chea), but that registration fee also included entrance into Disney’s awesome EPCOT park for a post-race party that would run until 4am. When I took into account the cheap airfare (<$250 round-trip) as well as the fact that I’d be staying in Orlando for 4 nights for practically nothing, then suddenly running the race didn’t feel extravagant. Sensing that I would be ready for a break from the Chicago cold in November, I signed up for the race back in April. I hadn’t been to Disney World since I was a little kid – this could be pretty cool.
Of course, a lot can happen over the course of 7 months, and shortly after the Chicago Marathon I became hobbled by a knee injury. Determined not to let my lingering injury keep me from enjoying my vacation, I packed a bag for 4 days of sight-seeing and park-going , and I flew down to Florida on Thursday after work as I’d intended.
There would be a total of 5 of us staying at the condo, with everyone getting their own bed (and we had room to sleep at least a half-dozen more). Aside from myself and Chris, there was Alexis, a mutual friend I’d met in July who was now Chris’s roommate; Amelia, Chris’s longtime friend from back in high school; and Kelsey, Amelia’s sister. Among other things happening, Kelsey would be running her first ever half-marathon.
Over the course of the next 3 days, both before and after the race, we saw just about all of Disney that there was to see. Staying at Disney’s Old Key West resort, we were among the first people to enter Animal Kingdom on Friday and Hollywood Studios on Saturday, and we were among the last to leave the featured Magic Kingdom park on Sunday night. We rode all the rides, ate all the food, and drank all the drinks. The girls were gung-ho about seeing as much of the parks as possible during our time there, which was fine by me; I barely remembered any of the parks from the last time I visited. Hell, the Animal Kingdom hadn’t even been constructed the last time I was down in Orlando.
But we did have a race to run. After leaving Animal Kingdom on Friday afternoon, we made our way over to the ESPN Wide World of Sports for the expo and the packet pick-up. The packet pick-up was in a different building from the expo itself, which was a bit confusing at first but turned out to be wonderfully efficient. The expo was large, but not huge – they had vendors that sold Gatorade Prime pouches and my preferred GU flavor (Vanilla Bean 4 lyfe), so I was a happy camper.
Oh, and they let you drink at the expo. I got the feeling all weekend that Disney wants to make it as easy as possible for you to drink, all the time. More on that later.
On Saturday, the smart play for an evening race would have been to stay off our feet as much as possible during the day….but we were at DISNEY, so of course we were first in line to enter Hollywood Studios and ride the Aerosmith roller-coaster twice before most people had even entered the park. After a long day of rides and shows, it was time to head back to the condo and get off our feet. Of more importance than anything was for everyone to grab a quick nap before dinner….it would be a late night.
The race was slated to start at 10pm, which presented a bit of a conundrum regarding when to eat dinner; we settled on scarfing down a light meal from the resort restaurant at 6:30pm. Not caring much about my race performance, I satisfied myself with a Cuban sandwich, plate of fries, and a local beer. After dinner, we headed to the buses that would take us to the starting line at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
The race organizers communicated that the last buses from Disney resorts would leave at 8pm for the 10pm race start, and we hopped aboard a charter bus from the Saratoga Springs resort sometime around 7:30pm. We disembarked from our bus just 8pm, and we openly wondered what we would do with ourselves in the 2 hours leading up to the race.
It turned out that we wouldn’t have to wonder long – the set-up at the ESPN Wide complex was one giant party. There was a well-meaning (but impossibly white and corny DJ) playing pop music with accompanying dancers projected on a giant video screen, and we were surrounded by thousands of runners all laughing and dancing and in general acting like they were having the time of their lives. There was a long line at the concession stand, and the beer vendor was twisting off caps as fast as he could.
Were we really supposed to be running a half-marathon in 2 hours?
The time passed quickly, and at around 9:15pm, the race organizers started herding people to the start corrals. Both Chris and I had qualified for Corral A, but we had decided to drop down to Corral B to run with the rest of our group. My decision to drop down was forced out of injury concerns, while Chris’s decision to drop down was motivated more by sympathy than anything else. Our group’s (very) loose plan was to run in the 10:00-11:00/mile pace range for the first couple miles, and then each person would settle into their own groove.
The wheelchair division took off right around 9:55, and the ‘A’ corral was released promptly at 10:00pm. Our ‘B’ corral moved to the front, and we were off and running within 10 minutes.
As our wave crossed the starting line and broke into a run, it became evident that I didn’t have the straps on my knee brace adjusted just right – I tried to run through it, but within a ½-mile I was in agony as the top strap positioned itself directly over my kneecap. Unable to bear this direct pressure, I had to pull over to the grass on the side of the road to adjust my brace. Not exactly the start I was hoping for.
I told Chris and Alexis that they should feel free to go on without me if I didn’t catch up, but they willingly slowed their pace to allow me the chance to catch up, and I ran faster than I should have in order to rejoin the group. My brace felt fine, but I was regretting my decision to reel them in right away with a quick burst rather than catch up gradually.
The first 3 miles would be all highway, and I’d advise anyone looking to run this race next year to accept that coming in and mentally prepare for it accordingly. The various Disney parks are all close-ish to one another, but they’re still a couple miles apart, and runners will invariably have to run on the highway to travel from park to park. The Disney folks were good about generally having on-course entertainment of sorts every half-mile or so, but highway running is still highway running. There were always enough runners around me that it never felt lonely, but runners hoping for 13.1 miles of nothing but DISNEY DISNEY DISNEY would do well to temper their expectations somewhat.
By the time we reached the first mile marker, I felt my goose was cooked. This wasn’t going well for me at all, and I begrudgingly advised Chris and Alexis to go on ahead without me. I didn’t even know where Amelia and Kelsey were. I was embarrassed. My knee had felt as good as it had in weeks in the days leading up to the race, but I couldn’t even hang at a 10:30/mile pace for five thousand feet.
Over the course of the 2nd mile though, I loosened up considerably. Suddenly, I could run again. I don’t know what happened, but I found myself going from limping/shuffling to running along with an open stride. I caught up to Chris and Alexis at Mile 2, and then passed them as I turned in a sub-09:00 effort over the course of Mile 3. As we neared Disney’s Animal Kingdom, though, I realized the following 2 things:
- It was probably a pretty dumb idea to be running this “fast” given my condition; and
- I really didn’t want to run another 10 miles all by myself, passing through Disney parks with no one I knew to share the experience with.
And so I slowed my pace, took an extended walk break, and waited for Alexis and Chris to show up. I didn’t have to wait long, and when I waved and dropped in to join them, they were visibly surprised to see me – neither of them had noticed me going past them at Mile 2. I assured them that my knee was feeling good (at the time, anyway), and we cheerfully entered Disney’s Animal Kingdom park.
The following mile would take us runners on a fittingly serpentine path through the Animal Kingdom, and the path narrowed shortly after we entered the park. As we runners were all brought into closer contact with one another, Chris and I took turns setting the pace and weaving through the crowd, with Alexis gamely keeping up. Running through the park at night was legitimately cool – there were sidewalk performers every couple hundred yards, and a number of park employees turned up along both sides of the path to enthusiastically offer their support. At one point I saw the Pluto off in the distance, and remembering a promise that I’d made to my friend Marla that I would take a picture with Pluto at some point, I sped up so that I had time to stop and get a mid-race photo:
As we left the park, the time came to let Chris go ahead alone. He had been gradually upping the tempo as we progressed through the Animal Kingdom, and after a quick consultation with Alexis, we decided to scale back our pace rather than try and keep up with our fleet-footed friend.
The next 4 miles would be highway once again, as we traveled from the Animal Kingdom to the Hollywood Studios theme park. It was somewhere around Mile 5 that my knee discomfort announced to me that it would be here to stay, and for the life of me I just could not get my brace in a comfortable position where it would stay. As the highway miles rolled along, I found myself constantly stopping to fix my brace, then speeding up to catch up with Alexis again. At one point, I tried running without the brace altogether, which had disastrous results.
My knee discomfort aside, the course was still surprisingly entertaining. We stopped so Alexis could take her picture with some pink dancing hippo characters, and one of the green toy soldiers from Toy Story barked encouragement at runners climbing the only real “hill” (highway on-ramp) of note. When one runner playfully told him that he looked good in green, the character responded with, “Of course I make green look good, I invented monochromatic style!” without missing a beat.
Somewhere around Mile 8.5, the race effectively ended for me as an athletic endeavor. After having run the previous 8 miles faster than I’d run any distance since a week after the Chicago Marathon, my knee discomfort grew to be too much. Rather than risk a long-term injury setback, I shut it down to a run-walk race strategy as we entered Hollywood Studios.
The Hollywood Studios theme park features 2 of my favorite rides outside of the Magic Kingdom, the Tower of Terror ride and the Aerosmith rollercoaster, and we ran by those 2 attractions first. The course then ran down “Sunset Boulevard” after the 15K mark, and then oddly brought us running past a few dumpsters before we turned to run past the area where costumes are designed and crafted. We then passed a sign notifying us of Christmas lights up ahead, and I was not disappointed:
The course then took us out of the park, and after a much shorter run along the highway, the course turned and took us down onto a boardwalk that ran alongside a lake within one of the Disney resorts. The crowd support along the highway miles was sparse at best, which was to be expected, but the support picked up noticeably once we were within resort territory. Flanked by picturesque vacation homes on one side and a lake on the other, it struck me as a very pleasing way to end a race.
We ran into Disney’s EPCOT park (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) somewhere after Mile 12, and I limped to the finish line as best I could. I heard someone say, “Oh, that guy is in pain” as I loped down the final straightaway, and they weren’t wrong. I crossed the finish line in a time of 2:18:48, which was a good 12-13 minutes faster than I’d run in Des Moines 3 weeks earlier. While far from a PR, this was also far from a PW, and it was good enough for 3,203rd out of 11,599 finishers in an admittedly lead-footed race field. I was pleased with myself that I’d run a time under 2:20, which was the random benchmark that I’d assigned myself somewhere around Mile 9, and the knee pain went away completely as soon as I started walking again.
I accepted my rather fetching finisher’s medal and headed in the direction of the post-race party at EPCOT. It took all of 20 seconds to pick up my gear-check bag, and I was pleased to find that they had tents set up for separate men’s and women’s changing areas. I stepped into the men’s changing tent and peeled off my stinky race shirt and shorts; I wasn’t expecting to sweat that much, but the humidity had other plans for me.
Putting on fresh boxer-briefs and shorts, I froze as I realized I had forgotten to pack deodorant in my gear-check bag. Fortunately, at that moment of my panic, a kind soul announced to no one in particular, “If anybody needs some body spray, I’m leaving this can of Old Spice right here, and anyone is welcome to use it.” Weighing my options, I decided it would be better to smell like a douchebag than like someone who had just run a half-marathon, and so I spritzed my pits and chest and threw on a fresh shirt. I found Chris, Alexis, Amelia, and Kelsey outside the tent, and we headed to EPCOT for the post-race party.
It is the post-race party at the International Food & Wine Festival at EPCOT where this race really separates itself from a lot of other races. Included in every runner’s entry fee was one voucher for a complimentary drink before entering EPCOT, and then a $10 gift card for use inside EPCOT, which for most runners would be sufficient to buy an additional beer and a food item from the country of their choosing.
The 5 runners in our merry band all finished the race between 12:00-12:30am, and the post-race party in EPCOT would remain open until at least 4am. I felt like I could do a lot of damage in that time.
We headed immediately to the World Showcase area to get the party started, stopping first by the craft beer station and then heading to the Canada stand to pick up some chipotle chicken sausage. And so the night went on, walking around the lake and stopping to sample food/drink from each country’s stand. We had wine from France, Morocco, and South Africa; beer from Germany, Florida, Ireland, and Poland; crepes from France; waffles from Belgium; margaritas and churros from Mexico; sushi from Japan; and lamb meatballs from New Zealand. I was fat and drunk and happy. With all the food portions being the size of tapas (and all reasonably-priced, to my surprise), it was possible to munch and walk without ever really feeling weighed down.
Kelsey and Amelia left the fest sometime before 3am, as Kelsey’s stomach was not cooperating with her after the race. But Chris, Alexis and I soldiered on. We rode a couple float rides sometime after 3am, learning valuable cultural facts about Norway and Mexico. The Mexico float ride, for example, would lead you to believe that Donald Duck and the Tres Caballeros are cultural lynchpins on par with the Aztecs and the Mayans. On the whole, the post-race party was ridiculously enjoyable, and 4am came around way too soon.
The true mark of how well a race is run is whether you’d recommend it to a friend, and then whether you yourself would run it again the following year. The Disney Wine & Dine half marathon passes both tests emphatically; all 5 of us that ran are already making plans to run again in 2013, myself included. At a cost of around $150, it’s certainly one of the most expensive half-marathons you’ll ever run, but the race experience and the organization of the event are really second to none. Walt Disney World in Orlando has built a resort/vacation empire on providing an excellent consumre experience, and their impeccable customer service and attention to detail extends itself to the half-marathon as well. I can be an insufferable prick sometimes when it comes to critiquing races, finding faults wherever I want, but I honestly can’t think of much that Disney could do to improve the race experience.
In the same breath, though, it can be expensive as hell if you’re not hooked up. I’d be hesitant to run again in 2013 if we didn’t have the sweet deal through Chris’s folks that we currently have, which allows us to stay at a resort on Disney property for 4 days/nights at a negligible cost per person (<$100 total). The Happiest Place on Earth can get expensive in a hurry with resort/hotel costs, park tickets, food, souvenirs, etc., but if you love Disney and have the cheddar to burn, I’d heartily recommend the Wine & Dine Half Marathon. And if all goes according to plan, I’ll see you there.