It almost didn’t happen.
After a combined total of 9 hours sleep over the last 3 days, I was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep. So when my alarm clock went off at 2:30 I didn’t hear it. I slept on and on until my mom happened to hear it and woke me up. She literally saved the day. I flew out of bed, got my clothes on and made the trek across the parking lot to the bus stop. There was already a bus there and one pulling up right behind it. I climbed on, sat down… and waited. And waited. This bus driver decided we weren’t leaving until we had a full bus. I started to get nervous as I’d heard horror stories about how traffic starts getting ridiculous and late buses sometimes barely make it to the start in time. My stomach was in knots when I heard a voice asking if the seat next to me was open. I glanced up and did a double take. It was Derek, a friend from my running club. Small, small world. He sat down, as calm and friendly as ever and it was my first sign that all would be well.
The bus deposited us in the parking lot of Epcot and I headed over for the meet-up spot for our PbRC meet-up. After our group photo I found myself enveloped with exactly what I needed: hugs. Lindsey, Jane, Tony, Pete, Mike, Lisa, Robyn… people who had believed in me and helped get me to the starting line. It was so surreal to be standing there with them at the culmination of this crazy adventure of mine and the only thing that kept me grounded was being surrounded by my running family.
I went into the Race Retreat which I had access to as part of my Runner’s World Challenge package (a separate post on that later). I grabbed a bagel and some water and forced myself to eat. My stomach wanted to rebel. My nerves were off the charts. I couldn’t really converse with anyone, I just needed to stay calm. Suddenly it was time for the private walk out to the starting corrals that RWC participants had and I was walking out of the tent. It occurred to me that I had completely missed my chance to enjoy the private restrooms. Whoops.
Instead of the long, crowded trek everyone else took to get to the corrals we took a shortcut through the front route. It was truly special to walk past the throngs of fans lined up along the route who cheered as we walked by. To walk past the news crews set up with their vans and equipment. To walk past the start line and the elite runners stretching in solitary silence. After a brief pep talk and final instructions from the Runners World folks, we were on our own. I headed to corral K to get ready and go.
It’s hard to explain what I felt as I sat in the corral waiting. Excitement, fear, hope, elation… it was such a mix of emotions. I found a spot by myself (or as much as I could in a throng of people) and just sat there with my thoughts. Before I knew it the Star Spangled Banner was played, the fireworks went off and we were off. With the new corral structure there was a quick turnaround time between each corral and K’s turn came quickly. I crossed the start line with the music of “Planes” playing and it made me think of my son and how I needed to show him that we’re all capable of pushing our boundaries and going after our dreams. It was the perfect way to start.
My game plan for the race was to run conservatively. I was absolutely exhausted from spending the last 3 nights up with my son who had been battling his asthma. My 9 hours of sleep in 72 hours combined with the 10k on Friday and Disney craziness meant I was not operating anywhere near 100%. I knew I had about a 25 minute head start from the sweepers. So I told myself I just needed to average a 17 minute mile. I decided to try to do the first half around a 16mm and then use the extra cushion to get me to the end. It worked. My first two splits were 16:00 on the nose – I’m generally pretty good at knowing my pace but couldn’t believe I nailed it that close!
The first few miles took us outside of Epcot and up World Drive towards Magic Kingdom. It was crowded but not so crowded that I couldn’t keep to my intervals. In my spirit of conservatism, I started running 30 seconds and walking 40. I plugged into my music and just let the miles go by, watching runners around me and enjoying the costumes and craziness.
Before I knew it we were running through the Ticket & Transportation Center and finally making the turn into Magic Kingdom. This was my 3rd time running up Main Street towards Cinderella Castle but I have to say I could run it a 100 times and I don’t think it would ever cease to be a special, amazing experience. Crowds are lined up cheering you on and music is playing… it’s just magic.
I refrained from making stops as it was still early in the race and I wanted to play it safe. I again regretted not using the bathrooms before the race because the bottle of powerade I’d downed that morning was making me more than a little uncomfortable. On the course, the lines for porta potties and bathrooms were too long to allow me to stop. Still, I just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.
After running through the castle I headed downhill to the best scenery I would see all day: my mom standing there cheering for me. It was heaven to see her face out there, a source of comfort during a scary time. I stopped and got a hug and grabbed a picture then headed on my way.
We ran past Frontierland and all too soon we were out of the park. Immediately after exiting I noticed all of the boats for Splash Mountain were parked out there on the backlot (the ride was closed for renovations). I looked past the boats and saw the second best thing I would see all day: two lone porta potties half hidden behind the boats that were set up for the construction workers. HALLELUJAH!!! I ran over and sure enough, they were unlocked and empty. Score!
We then headed past Shades of Green, The Grand Floridian, and Polynesian Resort. It was crowded but still doable. I was starting to feel a little more confident and when I saw the reindeer with no line, I couldn’t resist a quick picture. Some things never change!
After that we ran onto the Richard Petty Speedway and did a lap around the track. Very cool! A lot of classic car clubs were there and they had there cars out on display and were cheering us on. I had to take a Lightning McQueen picture for my little guy.
From here, the course got a little tedious. We ran down an access road with not a lot of scenery and virtually no entertainment or characters. We also ran by a waste facility that smelled pretty horrendous. I took the time to take stock of how I was doing: got my nutrition in, took some endurolytes and Energybits and looked at my phone to check the stats of my friends that were running. Finally we were in Animal Kingdom and past mile 13. Halfway there! I was feeling tired but steady. As I ran past Expedition Everest I saw several runners break off to go ride it real quick. I wish I had the speed to do it, but that’s a privilege I’ll earn later after I get fast enough. I found Mel, a buddy from my running club, outside of AK and a quick hug from him was medicine for my soul.
And then we hit the part of the course I had been dreading all along. It didn’t disappoint. We ran down the highway towards ESPN Wide World of Sports. By this time it’s hot and the sun is high in the sky. It’s endless road in front of you. And on the other side of the highway you see runners that have already passed through WWOS and are heading down the home stretch. It definitely played with my mind. WWOS is a winding, never-ending section of the course. Because of all the turns and curves and change of terrain you have to stay alert. My body really started hurting during this part of it. One curve brought me a lot of joy, though. Jack Eaddy, an old college friend of mine, was there with his Oak Ridge High School band cheering us on. Seeing a familiar face from my FSU days, some of the happiest times of my life, was a godsend. After gifting him with a disgustingly sweaty hug (sorry Jack!), I headed back on my way, revitalized for the moment.
My splits were up to 16:40 by the time I hit mile 20 and I was ok with this. Physcial and mental exhaustion were setting in. I knew I couldn’t do much about the physical part but I also knew I did have some control over the mental side of things. I reminded myself I was strong. I reminded myself I wasn’t a quitter. I reminded myself that this was worth it. I reminded myself that I was worth it. I checked my phone again and I had a message from my coach, Mike, telling me I was going to do it and he was proud of me. Those words were so desperately needed and helpful. Suddenly I was running through Hollywood Studios and I knew I was getting close. The last sweeper point is at mile 23, just outside of HS. All along, I ran the race as if it were a 23 mile marathon. I knew if I could just make it to 23 without getting swept, I would walk or crawl or whatever it took to get to the finish line if need be. It’s funny because at the beginning of the race I broke things down in increments of 13 miles. After 13 miles, I broke it into 5 miles, then 1 mile… eventually I would just focus on an object I could see ahead and make myself keep going towards it. It was literally taking one step at a time.
And then I was there. I turned out of the HS parking lot, past the “parade buses” standing by waiting to kill someone’s dream and onto the path towards Epcot and the finish line. And I became overwhelmed. I slowed to a walk and wept. And wept. I tried to stop because I was afraid somebody would pull me off the course fearing I was injured. But the feeling in my heart was overwhelming. I texted my mom one word: SAFE. I wanted her to know I would make it. From there to the finish, my memories are hazy. It’s probably a good indication that I wasn’t in a really good state at that point. I just remember Stacey jumping out and hugging me near Morocco and how happy it made me. I remember the way even a gradual incline felt like climbing a mountain. I remember seeing Lindsey and Erica waiting near the end for me and realizing after I’d passed them that I should’ve stopped and thanked them for waiting. I remember vague disappointment that the gospel choir wasn’t there. I remember seeing my mom in the bleachers and waiving. But I couldn’t smile. I couldn’t even process what was going on. I wasn’t feeling any emotion (which y’all know is weird for me!) I just crossed the finish line. And it was done. I was a marathoner. My abysmal finish time was 7:28:05. But it was a finish. I made it. It was a dream come true.
This whole experience really taught me two things. First, it taught me that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and do the work that’s required of you. Second, it taught me that I am beyond blessed by the family and friends I have in my life. It truly took a village to get me through this race. My mom cheering me on, my friends on the course giving words of encouragement and the countless friends and family cheering me on from afar. I was absolutely shocked and humbled by the support I received. It honestly meant as much to me as that medal around my neck. Still does.
Obviously, the time wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I was aiming for somewhere around 7:00-7:15. But there were some factors beyond my control that didn’t help and it gives me something to aim for in the future.
Well, I choose to think of it as funny. I got passed by a man playing a sousaphone, a barefoot dude wearing a pink tutu, Luke Skywalker carrying Yoda on his back, a guy dressed as a candlestick and a firefighter in full bunker gear among others. It was definitely entertaining and a little mortifying!
The closing thoughts:
At the end of this chapter of my journey I have a lot of emotions. Happiness at accomplishing my goal. Wistfulness that I didn’t have the time to do some of the fun things other people did on the course. Embarrassment that I didn’t run faster. But overwhelmingly, the feeling I keep coming back to is gratitude. A little over 3 years ago I was crippled by postpartum depression and the loss of my Casey. The future was bleak and I was worried at what kind of mom I could possibly be to my Gavin. But here I am. Healthy and happy. Seeking out my dreams. And making sure that I am strong, mentally and physically, for my son as well as myself. I look back and wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t put on my sneakers that one fateful day and huffed and puffed to the end of the street. Thank you, God, for 26.2 miles and for all the blessings that have come along with it. I can’t wait to see what’s next.