Running a half or full marathon is a great accomplishment that thousands of runners complete every year. I’m one of those runners, and like many of you, I needed a place to start. It was 2007, and what better way to celebrate my wife’s pregnancy of our first child than to sign up to run a marathon? I thought I did all the right things. I downloaded a marathon training app to my phone and found a pre-prescribed training plan from Hal Higdon and Jeff Galloway. I joined a running club, did the track workouts, and the long runs on Saturdays, but I completely botched it on race day. I didn’t eat enough before the race, ran too fast at the start, and fell apart at the end. A crumpled ball to be exact.
My First runDisney Race
My second marathon, in January 2007, was going to be different. I was going to prepare better this time. I would make it up to my wife by taking everyone to Walt Disney World (even the in-laws!). Our hero, right? Not so fast, runner boy. It’s a lot harder to train with a two-year-old in the house. Hmmmmm, go figure!
In the end, I didn’t end up running the training miles I should have, so my cardio level was lower than it should’ve been. My race day performance was a lot better, though. Due to all the difficulties during training, I had to adjust my race day plan. I realized I couldn’t wear myself out during the race because I had a family depending on me to tour the parks with them and be pleasant doing it. So I backed off the tempo, hydrated a lot more, and came away with a much better experience than my first attempt, but it still wasn’t right.
Flash forward 11 years, a handful of half marathons, a few marathons, a couple of Goofy’s Race-and-a-Half Challenges later, and I have learned a few things that get me to the start line prepared and with confidence. Most of my races have taken place at Walt Disney World in January. As a result, the bulk of my training happens during the colder, winter months. It is a challenge to train in the cold for a warm weather race. I have put together my top five tips for training that will help you get to the start line with the same confidence.
These tips are meant to be in addition to following a training plan that follows an appropriate mileage progression for your skill level, not a replacement. Before undertaking any endurance training, please seek medical approval from your physician.
Practice Running at the Race Start Time
Let’s face it, 5:30 am is early for a race start. Without practice, starting a race at 5:30 am can put the body in greater distress than you planned for and ruin even the best-laid race plan. If you are participating in a runDisney race, know that runners are required to be at the staging area by 4:00 am for the half marathon and 3:30 am for the full. That means you are getting up at 3:00 am or earlier!
Part of any good training plan needs to include both a build-up in mileage over several months but multiple practice race starts. Take a weekend morning and pretend it is a race day. Layout your outfit. Set your alarm for the appropriate time, head out the door and run for about an hour. This shouldn’t replace your long run, only be a supplement or part of it. If you can and want to, by all means, use it as your long run. Once you are home, write in your training log how it felt. Were you hungry, sloggy, achy? Did you feel the need to rush home to go to the bathroom? Write down all the little things you can remember. You will use these notes to build on in the following weeks.
In addition to the weekend starts, talk to your local running stores to see if they have morning running groups. My local store has 3-5 mile runs starting at 5:30 am Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was a great opportunity to dress rehearse my race starts. It allowed me to develop timing of when to drink water, how much water to drink, and how my body reacts with or without food before running.
Drinking During Training Results In a Better Race Day
For me, the biggest take away was that I needed food and caffeine. I can run much longer, farther, and better if I maintained my daily non-running routine. However, I know many runners that cannot eat before a run at all. That is OK. The point of the exercise is to find out what works for you.
One great advantage about running outside in the winter is the lack of humidity and sweating. Though I am layered up, I don’t come back home and have to drip dry my clothes as I do in August. However, I don’t think to bring water with me, especially on shorter runs. This really hurt me on race day early in my runDisney career. I mimicked my training and didn’t drink until later in the race when I felt thirsty. By then I was too dehydrated. Practicing to hydrate when training for a runDisney race is vital. Yes, there will be water on course, and you could drink when you feel thirsty, but if you don’t practice when you hydrate and develop the habit of drinking at a certain rhythm during your training runs, drinking on course will not help you meet your overall goal.
At the Disney Marathon 2018, where I ran the Goofy’s Race-and-a-Half Challenge, it was 45 degrees at the start of the marathon, and by noon, it was 70 degrees! I was used to running in 45-degree weather, not 70. If I had not incorporated drinking into my training, I would have repeated my 2007 mistake and bonked.
RunDisney Course Maps Provide Great Information
Disney has well-established race courses. They don’t tend to change year after year. Since I am running in the Star Wars Half Marathon in April, I looked up the 2018 race course map to see where the water stops were. They were placed roughly every mile.
I don’t have any reason think this years’ event will be different. Now that I know that there is water every mile, I can calculate when I need to drink and practice that pattern.
According to timeanddate.com, the temperature at the race start in 2018 was 68 degrees. If I take into account the high April temperatures, the fatigue from walking around the parks the days before the race, and stopping at some of the on-course entertainment (who doesn’t love character meet-ups during a runDisney race?!). It’s smart to plan to take on race course fuel about every other mile. If I am running 10 – 10:30 minutes per mile, I will be taking in fluids after the odd miles. Drinking after mile 1 may seem early, but I am drinking for the end of the race, not the beginning.
No matter how much I practice, I will be fatigued by mile 10 due to the heat. If I start drinking early, when I am not as tired, I have a higher probability of finishing strong.
Train Yourself To Eat To Make It Through Your Race
I know that I run better with solid food and caffeine in my system. The reason I know that is because I didn’t eat or drink before my first Disney marathon. Eating or drinking at 3:00 am wasn’t appetizing. All I wanted to do was get to the start line and run.
With the way a runDisney staging area is set up, you arrive, check a bag if needed, and wait. You wait some more, then at about 5 am, you and 30,000 of your closest friends walk about a mile to the corrals where you, you guessed it, wait for the starting gun. At this point, I had been up for 2.5 hours and I was now supposed to run 26.2 miles on an empty stomach. Whoops!
I now practice my race starts. As described above, I get up at the same time I plan to on race day. When I lay out my clothes, I layout my food and drink. I pre-make my coffee, put out a bagel, peanut butter, water bottle, and a banana on a table. When I get up, I stumble to the table and slowly consume my buffet. I chose these items because I knew they would be available at any resort food court to buy ahead of time. The last thing I want is to eat food that I had not trained with.
Have Realistic Expectations for Your Finish Time at a runDisney Race
Be realistic about pace and finish time. There are many features of a runDisney race course that you cannot find anywhere else. Fireworks, for example, start each wave of the marathon.
The first few miles of the race course are on Disney roads and are only lit by street lights. You do not need to bring a headlamp, but it is something to be aware of.
Another runDisney course feature is character stops. There are many opportunities to stop and take a photo with some of your favorites, or rare characters. From Jack Sparrow to Jack Skellington and Cinderella to Storm Troopers, you never know who will be on the course. I build these stops into my predicted finish time.
If I am running a Goofy’s Race-and-a-Half Challenge, I run the half marathon on Saturday with little to no character stops and stop as I want on Sunday during the full marathon. While I don’t build this into my training plan (No, I don’t have my kids dress up and wait for me on course during my training runs. What kind of Disney villain do you think I am?!), Character Stops are a part of my race day strategy.
Lastly, don’t train for what’s not on the course – hills. According to the course map on halfmarathons.net, the Star Wars Half Marathon has 126 ft of elevation gain and loss over the 13.1-mile course. That means no hill training! If you live in a hilly area like me try and find a rails to trails converted path and take advantage of the miles of flatness for your long runs. If you don’t have any long flat running trails nearby but have the mental toughness, a treadmill is a useful tool for this.
Don’t Forget You Are At Disney World, Have Fun and ENJOY THE VIEW!
You’re paying a lot for a Disney race entry, so enjoy it. Have fun doing it. Take a few minutes to take photos with characters, the Grave Diggers from Haunted Mansion are always fun. Soak in the crowd cheering you on as you run down Main St, USA toward Cinderella Castle.
You also never know who you will run into while running either. One year, as we headed into Hollywood Studios, we literally ran by Joey Fatone from the boyband NSYNC. We said our hellos and congratulations, took a picture and off we went. As we reveled in the thrill of meeting a boyband superstar, we ran through Hollywood Studios and headed into EPCOT. This year we had decided to start a tradition of having one of our cheer squad members meet us out front of the Mexico pavilion with Margaritas to toast our success of finishing another Goofy Challenge. Little did we know that Joey had a similar idea and came up behind us, he was already feeling the effects of drinking in Germany and shared a much happier moment with us (I got to take the photo).
Ride A Roller Coaster During a Disney Marathon!
If you are running the full marathon and enter Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park after the park opens, slip onto Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain. We timed it just right in 2015 and got on one of the first rides around park opening. The photo of us going down the drop in our race outfits is one of the best race photos ever.
Share your tips for race training in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!