For those just arriving at this post from a search engine — in other words, those who have not actually been following along for the last year as I trained for the 2014 Dopey Challenge in Disney World in Florida — I ran it. I ran it all. I completed it. I crossed each and every start — and finish — line, and took the photos, earned the medals, revelled in the personal glory and all wallowed in every bit that goes with it all. And… I walked away to talk about it.
And talk about it I have. Everyone — from people at work to family and friends and of course the folks I run with — are curious, have questions, and want to know: “how was it?” But then why not?
After all, it was a bit of a crazy thing to do… four races in four days. What was I thinking, eh?
So, instead of just letting all those experiences wash away in the mists of fading memory, I thought I would take the time to write some of it down. It shouldn’t be a surprise to my regular readers (blogging nut that I am) and in fact many of you have probably been wondering why I haven’t done it already. Here I am: two weeks post-race and with a little perspective on things and… a summary. How I got there, how I trained, what I did right or wrong or plain just lucked out on. If you are reading this in a couple months or a couple years because you’ve signed up — or are thinking of signing up — for the 2015… 2016… or maybe the in 2034 for twentieth anniversary edition of the challenge — then maybe my little bit of insight will help. Or, at least it will be of some mild interest and good for a chuckle.
So, who am I?
someone who has been running for about 6 years
First, I’m just a guy. I have a desk job. I’m a father of a six-year-old girl. I was 37 years old when I ran the race, and in average physical condition, at least for someone who has been running for about 6 years (with dedication) or longer if you count the years before joining a club and focusing. I ran my first marathon in the summer of 2013, about four months prior to running Dopey, but about five months after signing up for it. Yeah, that’s right: I had never before run a marathon when I signed up for the Challenge.
My times: they’re nothing to write songs about, I admit, but I’ve earned them fair and square. I have a wall at home covered with race bibs and medals, and my drawer is stuffed with technical shirts bearing the logos of runs-gone-by. As of the race I had some solidly-average PRs (though the marathon time listed was my ONLY marathon time… counting Dopey I’ve now run just two of those.) You can judge the times for yourself, but I include them because (chances are) if you are contemplating a Dopey run yourself one of your biggest questions is probably “how do I stack up against others who’ve done it?” So this is me, and you can compare for yourself.
|RACE||My Past PR||My DOPEY Time|
|Half||2h 03m||2h 31m|
|Full||4h 40m||5h 13m|
I live and I train in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: a city of about a million people that has amazing river valley trails spun like ribbons of smooth asphalt through peaceful forests and connecting huge areas of suburban sprawl, but also a city that is blanketed in snow for five months of the year and whose winter temperatures drop occasionally to -40 Celsius not counting the wind chill factor. We have a fairly high elevation, are land-locked with low humidity, and mosquitoes that will carry you away if you don’t anchor yourself to something strong.
I run with the Running Room run club here. I show up for various nights of random distances training runs, I’ve participated many times as a student (and a few times as an instructor) with their assorted clinics, and we have an awesome social group there who probably now meets just as much for the post-run coffee hangouts as we do for the actual running. They’ve turned me into a runner and I’ve done what I can over the years to give back to the group in return.
Deciding to Run a Dopey?
It was love-at-first-sight: I honestly didn’t think about it much. We’d recently discovered running vacations. I’d done Vegas. We were in a routine of weekend-getaways based around out-of-city races. And, we had pretty much already decided we were going to Florida, and had pretty much already decided I was doing a race there. It was just a matter of choosing between a Disney Half (a distance of which I’d run many times before) or a Disney Full (which would mean a summer of hard-core training.) So when Karin, my wife, messaged me one morning nearly a year ago to ask if I heard about the Dopey Challenge I think it was probably only a split second of hesitation in my mind and I’m pretty sure I decided right there. I wrote about it, yeah, and pondered it as if I was in doubt, but some of that was for dramatic effect and because I didn’t want to seem like was jumping off a metaphorical cliff without any forethought. Weird, huh? I hadn’t even really considered doing the Goofy Challenge prior to that, but something about the Dopey was just so over-the-top nutty that I knew I wanted in.
So there I was: registered, with nearly a year of planning ahead of me.
I’m going to consider everything that led up to running my first marathon in August of 2013 as the “far-out” training, the training that led into what I would consider training “officially” for Dopey. In actuality, I was training from the minute I signed up, and thought about running that way. But even though that ten-or-so months of training before the Challenge was all part of it, there were some distinct phases along the way.
I’ll keep those points simple and salient:
Just Keep Swimming… er, Running
Just Keep Swimming… er, Running – When you sign up, you’ve started. I didn’t take any prolonged breaks. I didn’t say “uh, well, I’m gonna start training in September” or plan to start sometime in the future. You’re signed up, your training now. No… really: right NOW. Lace up and get out there. Every day is an opportunity for a run — or a rest — as your plan dictates.
A Year’s Worth of Plans – I planned every training run from the day I signed up until the taper week leading into Dopey. Did I make every run? No, there were mild injuries, illnesses, unforeseen family obligations, or bad weather days. But I had a plan shortly after signing up and I stuck with it as best I could.
Illness, Injury, and Other Stuff – I was sick twice, I rolled my ankle really badly once and could barely walk on it (let alone run) and I can’t tell you how many times the weather threw me for a loop (even in the summer). Don’t mess around. Take the punch, fix what needs to be fixed, rest injuries and look after yourself… and then get back to training.
Instructing-ish – I had an awesome time instructing a clinic over the summer, and I think that while everyone wouldn’t have that opportunity, there is something about a big goal and a big group of people to train with that will keep you honest. For that first marathon, stretching my limits every week, having a group that was relying on me for their own training kept me coming out and got me across the start line.
I’m glad I’d done at least one marathon prior to Dopey. Very glad.
run a marathon before you run Dopey
As much as I’d read, researched, talked, learned, and training for that first marathon, there is literally NOTHING that compares to running it. And I’m not just talking about the actual experience. A marathon is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. I think that is why it appeals to so many people. While a half-marathon is tough, it’s not until you hit that point about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through a full marathon that… well, a philosopher might call it dualism: your body and mind begin to operate towards differing goals, they seem to separate from each other and you pick a side — mind or body — becoming a mere observer in the events that are transpiring with that side you didn’t pick. Your energy is depleted and every decision you make — and making rational decisions three hours into a run is not as simple as it sounds as you sit at your computer reading this — affects every step you take from thereon in. I could write an essay on my anecdotal perception of that race, but the takeaway message would be simple: I did a lot wrong in my first marathon, mistakes that almost didn’t let me finish and left me in the medical tent at the end, BUT… but I was able to recover, learn, and adapt to better run and finish Dopey.
My one word of advice for potential Dopeys… run a marathon before you run Dopey. I’m not certain, but I’m sure there were murmurs of participants in my coral who were doing their first marathon that morning in January. That’s not smart, in my humble opinion.
So.. my first marathon was in the bag, and there was I was in about Septmber-ish with jsut a few months to go. What were the key points of that span of training?
Keeping Up With Yourself: Solo Runs – If you find a training partner for Dopey, awesome. The problem with travel runs, especially around big trips like for us to go all the way to Florida, is that it’s tough to find someone who is willing to race with you. See my next note about the season, but races are pretty few and far between in winter around here and training for an epic marathon-plus run in January meant that no one else was really doing the distances I was doing. I expected a lot of solo runs and for the most part I got them as November and December arrived.
Seasonal Shifts – Summer running turned into autumn running which very abruptly turned into winter running. I capped much of my training off in the local recreation center (rather than out on the trails where I prefer) running long, boring laps around the indoor track because the sidewalks were icy, the snow was fresh and too deep, or simply because the cold was a little on the dangerous side (yes, a minus 45 windchill is dangerous) for outdoor training.
Holiday Temptations – As much fun as it was to hit Disney World AFTER the holiday rush, having the races in January did mean that the crux of the race training was going on at the same time I was expected to be hanging out at Christmas parties and eating big meals and doing family things. Squeezing in a twenty-five klick run before yet-another family party was not easy. Stick with your plan.
Between registration and the minute you step across the finish line you will experience every single emotional state you can imagine, and probably some you cannot.
Anxiety. Fear. Regret. Inadequacy. Frustration. Elation.
Everyone deals with emotions in their own way, and even me –as open and sharing as I tend to be on this blog– can only really admit to a few strategies for getting your head in the game: music, solitude, routines, friends, and focus.
I guess the only real advice I would have here is that you need –NEED– to understand that running this kind of distance, participating in this kind of event is as much a mental game as it is a physcial one. So…
Set reasonable expectations.
Understand how you will deal with the unexpected.
Have a plan and stick with it.
You know the drill…
The Week Before
We arrived in Florida three days before the first race. I wrote a whole article on that t-minus-one-week preparation for Dopey, and I don’t really want to repeat that now. In retrospect I guess the things that really mattered to me most were:
a) planning my meal choices ahead of the game: eating almost every major meal out at a restaurant in Disney World is not exactly the best pre-race strategy. But if you’re wrapping this race in a vacation you’re kind hooped in that regard. My “club sandwhich and iced tea” strategy –as loony as it sounded– didn’t do me wrong.
b) removing the jet-lag factor: by the time we left Edmonton for Florida, I was already on Florida time. It was only a two-hour difference, but not having to deal with jet-lag AND early wake ups for the race was just one less stressor to have on the mind.
c) using a grocery service and our kitchenette: no-brainer, maybe, but not winging the whole “What am I going to eat before the races?” question by ensuring I had not only brought along a jar of my favourite peanut butter, but had a fresh sack of bagels waiting at the hotel… that was smart. Also, coffee-addict that I am, I avoided brewing fresh each morning by brewing a pot the night before, storing it in a clean bottle in our fridge, and re-heating in time to down a quick cup before dashing for the bus. It wasn’t exactly high class, but it beat caffeine withdrawl during the races.
And yeah, we did spend a couple days at the parks prior to running. But I relaxed, gave myself the freedom to enjoy myself, but didn’t burn myself out on park-hopping, thrill-ride exhaustion in those first couple days at Disney World’s enticing sirens of entertainment..
About ten thousand people queued up in five corrals in the Epcot parking lot: that was our first impression of the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend. Stepping off a bus with my family into the dark January morning of a Florida amusement park parking lot was the first step of many that encompassed that race.
I wrote about the 5K experience that night in another post.
The Expected: Crowds, butterflies (of the stomach variety), dark, music, costumes, friendly strangers, ample port-o-potties, security, wave-start, photo-ops, more music, cheering crowds.
The Unexpected: Waiting, waiting, and more waiting, so few character photo-ops on the course, the blur and abrupt end at the finish line.
The evening before we went to Epcot for the Pasta in the Park party: very good (though they ran out of pasta for a bit right when we got there.) It meant a bit of walking, but turned out to be a great place for the character photos we’d missed on the run.
That night I was in bed a little later than I’d wanted, but still pretty early.
The second race started 45 minutes earlier than the first, but used the same coral system: 5 groups of about 2,000 people per. This time I was still feeling pretty good, but I was stepping into the fray alone.
I wrote about the 10K experience that night in another post.
The Expected: Lots of hype for the (mostly) Dopey-runner crowds, more characters, the music.
The Unexpected: The humidity, the first half of the route through a dark and lonely stretch of Disney World highway, and did I mention the HUMIDITY!
The day of the ten klick run I’d gone to Hollywood Studios for the better part of the day. I took it easy, sat through a lot of quiet shows in cool theatres, stayed out of the sun, and didn’t walk around too much. Also, it gave me the chance to wear my medal around for the day.
I volunteered to take all the kids back to the hotel while most everyone else stayed for more rides. We all got to sleep pretty early that night.
The half-marathon had a lot more people. I’d heard the number 26 thousand tossed around, and it seems like a reasonable guess if nothing else.
I wrote about the half-marathon experience that night in another post.
The Expected: Lots of stops, walks, and assorted breaks for photos, character photos, selfies, the sights, well organized and frequenty water breaks.
The Unexpected: The looooooong walk from the drop off through security through multiple checkpoints around to the corals (no really, it was like a 4km walk), the speakers by our coral only worked sporadically, the ants, the chill in the air despite the humidity, the massive crowds (no really, there were thousands of people cheering), hundreds of guys peeing in the bushes duing the first 5 k of the race, the school bands (awesome), the runners who took the race waaaaaay to seriously (I mean, it’s Disney, guys!) the humidity (again), the chafing (in part thanks to the humidity.)
I slept after the half. I had long since decided it was going to be a hang-out-at-the-hotel kinda day, and so everyone went off to Epcot without me while I watched lame TV at the resort. At one point I knew I needed some food and couldn’t stomach the thought of multiple club sandwhiches in one day, so I took the boat to Downtown Disney and ate a rice bowl.
My biggest problem — and it caused me a great deal of stress — was that despite my preparation I managed to chafe a bit of the skin on my inner thigh, a bit below the seam line of my shorts. It was raw, and painful to walk. I ended up spending a big chunk of the day nursing that (fortunately we had some cream which helped) and it turned out to be only a minor factor in the full the next day.
By the time I lumbered off the bus on that fourth morning there were not many surprises left. I had my peanut butter bagel and water in hand, and I was ready.
We coralled, and I think I was in a bit of a cloud. I’d convinced myself (and I think I was right) that the hardest race was the half: y’know, because it was the race where I had to hold back and moderate else risk ruining myself for the run the next day… plus it was pretty humid that third day.
But then the fireworks went… and we were off.
I wrote about the marathon experience that night in another post.
The Expected: Being very, very tired even as the race started… and everything else I’d seen up to that point repeated.
The Unexpected: The drop in humidity, the number of fellow Canadians (I was wearing a shirt with “Canada” on it), and the numb feeling hitting me for a few hours after it all ended.
It was a hard run. There are parts of it that are vivid in my brain. There are parts that are a complete blur and of which I have no memory. I suppose any marathon will do that to you.
I carried a camera with me for all four races (definitely recommended!) and I took a whole bunch of video, none of which I’ve watched as of this writing… I may even post some of it some day… but part of me was very happy when I crossed that line, and part of me was very sad that it was all over. I’m saving the video for when that realization really starts to sink in. I mean, all the preparation and planning, all the fun… and it was done.
Afterwards and Beyond
I slept that afternoon, and we went for dinner, I with a bunch of medals around my neck.
I posted a picture of my feet (and a pair of newly-retired shoes) from somewhere in the Magic Kingdom the next morning. We went the park, and I wrote: “I promised my shoes that if they treated me well for one last race, they could retire and I’d take them somewhere special.” So, we went to Disney World.
Thousands of fellow runners with medals around their necks. Hundreds of “congratulations” passed between strangers. Dozens of conversations spun up between people who might never have said so much as hello in the vastness of the chaotic theme park bustle.
A few days of vacation.
A pair of slowly recovering feet.
A long plane ride home.
And then… it was just another couple of race bibs tacked to my wall.
Would I recommend it? Would I do it again? Yes. Yes. So much yes. All the training, all the cost, all the self-doubt… worth it in the end: it was an awesome experience, and anyone who has the chance to run such a crazy, insane… dopey… race, should sieze it.
And me… I’ll shut up about it now.
This, like every post about Dopey, has been tagged with the keyword “dopey” so you can click through and read more. Or, you can just click on the running topic and dig around for even more training-story goodness.