Miles of smiles @ Disney – Dopey Challenge 2018

Quick recap of the last 12 months: My 50th birthday challenges are over. I ran a bit and walked a lot. Then there were the tears, mostly when things were too hard but occasionally because words weren’t working and I needed an outlet. 1300 miles logged on Strava more than double that on Garmin Connect over the last year. 4 Marathons, one ultra and a Dopey Challenge plus a few other memorable races <cough> Cardiff Half Marathon it wasn’t just about me really <cough>. I finished every challenge although my knee will never be the same but I have learnt so much – about myself, about running and about people too.


The castle at dawn, marathon day

Let’s rewind to this time last year to just after I had finished my first Disney Marathon which was my first challenge. It was every bit the magical experience I had hoped for because no one does it better than Mickey Mouse. I was really happy but also a little bit jealous. I really wanted to be Dopey. The marathon weekend at Disney World is one of the few races where runners are embarrassed to admit they are just running the marathon. If you want to be epic then you have to be Dopey and I wanted those six medals so badly. By the time registration opened in February I had persuaded Jon that it would be a fitting end to my year of running challenges to attempt the Dopey Challenge. To my surprise Jon announced he wanted to be Dopey too.
To put this in perspective Jon has always been adamant that he would never run a marathon. He didn’t think he would have the patience or perseverance for all the training. He likes running but it is just something he does to keep fit. After watching me train for my first marathon he was convinced it wasn’t for him – who wants to run for more than two hours at a time? Personally I think it was because his Disney half marathon had been cancelled and he really wanted to experience the magic for himself. Just a tiny bit of race envy. Do you think I should have told him it was rubbish?
Back then it felt like we had plenty of time to prepare, I had a very full race schedule to get through before I could think about my final challenge.I didn’t think I would get injured so badly that I couldn’t walk for a week or that I would spend a month crying every time I tried to run because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to run my ultra. Dramatic me? Not really. I shouldn’t have run my ultra or Snowdonia and I am still paying the price for it now. But I am stubborn and I learnt a lot about pain. I also learnt that not giving up sometimes leads to amazing things. You just have to have faith in your training plan.
I wrote Jon’s Dopey training plan for him. He tried a few times to work it out then decided that he would let me be in charge. We agreed on a few rules regarding his blood pressure and that we would run at least the marathon together. He started training in September in plenty of time, what could go wrong?
When I returned from from Snowdonia I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I had put so much pressure on myself just to finish the last three races I really wanted to stop running altogether. I knew I had been far from amazing or inspiring. I certainly didn’t want to start all over again for Dopey. I stopped feeling sorry for myself within 48 hours because Jon became seriously ill.
I can honestly say I have never been more frightened than I was that night. When Jon passed out from the pain and I carried him into the hospital I forgot how tired I was or that I had just run a marathon less than 2 days before. All I could think was I was going to lose him. It didn’t help we were in Cornwall in the middle of the night and I had to drive the motorhome through some really dark narrow roads whilst Jon raved deliriously by my side. I suddenly realised that in spite of my many mistakes I was actually quite lucky. I was still able to run…sort of.
We both got very frustrated while he recuperated but I took things easy and allowed myself the first real recovery week I had had in over a year. I stopped running and just concentrated on positive thoughts. I spent the time reassessing my running goals and put together a new plan to carry me forward for the next six months. I will let you know how that works out in April. Once Jon started running again he quickly got back on track and within a few weeks he was running 20 miles with ease. It could have been so much worse.. I just kept plodding but Jon was flying again. Right up until he tore his hamstring because he ran when he should have rested. I will admit to being really angry with him – what a plonker! My exact words were ‘I am still running even if you stay home, I will go alone’.
I kept telling him to keep positive and just let his body heal. We had done all the serious training and were just starting to taper. I had a strange feeling of deja vu, it was like my ultra all over again. The advice was 4 to 6 weeks recovery. We had just over three weeks until the Challenge started.

5k @ Epcot

The Dopey Challenge isn’t just about running. For a start there are the four mornings where you have to get up at 3 am and then stand around in your corral for at least 30 minutes waiting for the race to start. Mickey Mouse has a weird sense of humour and don’t get me started about the bizarre Florida weather. Every morning waking up is a bit harder, maybe if I was 20 years younger and still able to pull an all-nighter then it might have been easier. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun when you have to walk nearly a mile from the race village to the start pen with the wind cutting through you and you can’t see anything because the sun doesn’t rise for another two hours! My feet didn’t have any feeling all the way through the 5k. My lips were cracked and bleeding by the end of the 10k. There was some sort of stomach virus going around. I was ill just after the half marathon. Unless you are dedicated over the Christmas period then it’s a bit of a shock to the system after all the chocolate and rich food. It all adds to the challenge.

Plenty of layers every morning

It’s a lot of miles but also it takes hours. The first morning we left the condo at 4am and were eating breakfast by 630 am The next morning it was nearly 8am before we got back. The half took much longer than anticipated so we didn’t sit down for breakfast until nearly 10 am. Then you start your day. We were sensible and were in bed by 9pm every night. But I did log all the miles every day including how much we walked. Over 40 miles in first 3 days. No wonder we were tired. I do love Disney though. I am a real sucker for the kids rides. However by the end of the third day when you still have 26.2 miles to go it’s hard to be full of energy and enthusiasm.

Mary Poppins Penguins

The first day I sang as I ran through Epcot, high fived the choir, thanked every volunteer, admired the pretty lights and talked to other runners too. I laughed a lot. I really enjoyed the first two races because I was actually running! Not very fast but that didn’t matter. Best runner’s high ever! I remembered why I wanted to be Dopey and what running really meant to me. It’s doesn’t get much better than this. It was like running my first half marathon all over again or the first time I ran 10k in under an hour. Sometimes we get caught up in running to improve but it is so much more satisfying just to enjoy it for what it is. Disney races are an experience and everyone smiles.

10k is Minnie’s race

There were lots of photos, over 300 for the 4 days. I think I am smiling in every single one. Jon didn’t smile much for the first two races. He ran them by himself and hurt his hamstring again on the first morning sprinting to the finish line. Silly boy! He was also getting anxious about the marathon. So it was probably the best thing for him to run the half marathon with me at my speed not his. It also meant I could share his first time running through the Magic Kingdom which you only do for the half and full. Running up Main Street with the castle lit up in front of you. It’s a priceless moment never forgotten.

Main Street, Magic Kingdom

Every mile is magic! Honestly that’s the truth, apart from the mile 6 to mile 9 of the half Marathon. They were awful. I stopped smiling. I hated running. I didn’t want to do the Dopey challenge. It was the slowest half marathon I have ever run. Then we saw Jack Sparrow who was on my list of must have character photos and had some magic beans and it started getting lighter and warmer.

I love Pirates!

I think men wearing kilts should be compulsory – for lots of reasons. I love Jon’s new kilt and he didn’t hesitate when I asked him to wear it. He says it was comfortable. You shouldn’t try anything new on race day it’s a recipe for disaster but I was fairly confident it would be okay. It’s made by the same people that make my Sparkle skirts. The photos are great from the marathon and he’s laughing a lot in them. It didn’t start like that though. He was very anxious. A marathon is a big deal by itself but after 3 days of running it’s much harder and if you have never run further than 20 miles it’s a leap of faith too. I know my husband well enough to know when to shut up and when to distract him and when to give him space. I was in a good place the last morning almost zenlike which is unusual for me. I am always nervous before a race but I was more worried about Jon. Running your first marathon is amazing but running through Disney as well just lifts the experience to another level. I wanted him to enjoy every moment and we had agreed it was a run for fun not for time.

It’s a small world

Luckily we spotted our 4 friends from the Pontypridd Roadents just as we got out of our car. ‘It’s a small world’ is one of my favourite rides at Disney and seeing Jo and Fiona with their husbands for the second time that weekend had us smiling. There are 20,000 plus runners and about 1000 volunteers so accidentally parking a row behind someone you know at a race halfway round the world is quite a coincidence and it happened twice! It really is a small world. Plus everyone looked the same wrapped up in Disney foil blankets to keep the cold at bay. We walked to the race village and stopped for a photo then parted ways to go to our corrals. Last time to stand around in the dark and the cold.
Every wave of every race starts with fireworks but the marathon display was the best. It didn’t seem as long to wait as the day before. Everything had gone very smoothly and our pre race timing was getting pretty good with the minimum standing around.
The first 8 miles of the marathon are the same as the half marathon but with slightly different characters. Running through the castle as it is getting light is so magical.

Running through the castle

I could do that every day and never be bored. Once we got through the first six miles we settled down for some steady effort. I had warned Jon mile 7 to 23 were a bit boring in comparison to the first six apart from the petting zoo at Animal Kingdom. I really wanted that photo, as I hadn’t stopped last year and regretted it. It was getting warmer too. The sun was shining but Jon was still tense. He kept pushing to go faster when I wanted to slow down. We nearly missed the pig because Jon was running in front of me even though I told him we were about to stop for the photo. He ran past it, I got cross. This wasn’t as fun as I expected it to be. We were less than half way and I just wanted him to leave me alone to enjoy the magic of Disney. I knew he could run the marathon faster but that wasn’t why we were running 3000 miles from home. If you want to run a fast marathon there are cheaper ones closer to home like Newport. Animal Kingdom is a very short section and the scenery is unimpressive going along the highway. I will admit I deliberately dragged my feet. Finally, Jon gave up pushing me to go faster and we entered the worst four mile stretch of the marathon.
Everyone hates ESPN, it’s pointless, you go through twists and turns, but essentially it’s a big loop. You can see other runners on the opposite side of the road looking happy as they leave it. It’s where some people cheat and cut the course. It’s also the worst in terms of miles – 17 through to 21. Just when you are getting tired. I hated every step last year and I braced myself for an hour of torture.
There was a banana station coming up and Jon kept asking where it was, I think it was the best banana I have ever eaten. We ran around a sports track and stopped for more photos. I love Neil Diamonds ‘Sweet Caroline’ so when I heard it playing I began to smile. I was bellowing it out totally off key within seconds and immediately felt better. We went into ESPN fed up, tired and not really feeling the love. That’s about par for any marathon at mile 18. By the time we left I couldn’t stop laughing and smiling. I want to share with you a moment I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It makes me smile and it makes me cry simultaneously. I wish I had thought to video it but I was too busy laughing.I get warm fuzzies every time I remember it.

We had reached Mile 20, and finally Jon believed we were going to finish.

Mile 20

You go though the Stadium with a choir and a big screen so you see yourself running. Jon started to high five all the supporters, stopped to chat with the DJ, asking people to try and pronounce ‘Pontyclun’. He zigzagged back and fore across the path in front of me, his kilt flapping cutely against his knees as he played with crowd. He got wolf whistles and more than one lady called out ‘nice kilt’. It was so out of character I was entranced watching him. The look of sheer pleasure on his face as he ran knowing he was going to finish his first marathon. Absolutely priceless. Best mile of the weekend. A golden moment that encapsulates why I run, why I love running, and why Disney is the happiest place on Earth. Moments like that are infrequent not just in running but life in general.
Both of us felt lighter of spirit as we began to count down the last few miles. There was even a hill before we entered Hollywood Studios but we didn’t care. There were even more people here and the place had a real buzz to it. Quite a few runners stop to ride the Tower of Terror at this point. We weren’t quite that brave. Something to consider for next time perhaps.

I don’t think I have ever seen Jon happier than when he was running that last six miles.

Finishing strong

Disney Magic, it’s real. He never laughs when he runs as he is always trying to run his best. He is very serious when he runs. Every time we passed a photographer we laughed and smiled more. The last three miles of a marathon are painful, you just want to stop, everything hurts if you have run as fast as you can. It isn’t easy. But it doesn’t have to be miserable either. That’s the Disney magic for you.
After 4 days it was such an achievement. A lot of people stop for drinks and carry them across the finish line, a few even stop for food. We just wanted to finish it together, holding hands. Sharing the moment of Jon’s first marathon. The one he said he would never run because running for more than 2 hours is boring. Never say never. Never give up because something is hard. If it’s hard it’s probably worth doing. Life throws obstacles in your path, they slow you down but you don’t stop. You have to believe in yourself and keep trying. And if that doesn’t work there’s always Pixie Dust – Disney has plenty of that too!

Monsters Inc
Steam train @ Magic Kingdom
Goofy @ ESPN