The Dopey Challenge From A Front-Mid Pack Runner's Perspective

2017 will be my fourth year running runDisney's Dopey Challenge. You know, that sadistic weekend of covering 48.6 miles over four consecutive days via a 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon. But, the real pain in the keister isn't the mileage, it's going on vacation only to wake up when most barflies are just passing out. Yep, that part's the real bitch. 

Seriously though, running that much really does take its toll on the body and the mind. Even though, we are blessed with (some) miles traipsing through the theme parks, it still requires quite a level of training to ensure you don't end up with something broken (like I experienced in the 2013 Goofy Challenge). For the most part, it's understood that participating in the Dopey Challenge voids any chance for a serious PR, however for those first timers or those who want to score good times for all four races, it's a tricky weekend to navigate. If you're used to being up front, how do you know when to turn on the gas and when to keep it in reserve? 

But, first let's address the post title, I feel like I need to clarify a little bit. Look, I'm not the fastest guy in the world, or even my age group. Especially this year, given my absolute lack of effort has shown me anything, it's that without the work the times suffer (I'm fixing that come 2017). However, when it comes to runDisney races, I've been blessed to have talent that puts me near the front. Why do I mention this? Believe me, hubris has nothing to do with it. It's because the experience at the front of runDisney race is wildly different than further back. Some would say the experience is better, while others would say the back of the pack is more fun. From my perspective, being upfront with runners equal to my pace and experience make the race more enjoyable for me. 

It's also about control. The earlier corrals afford runners a better chance at minimizing the variables of their races. These front corrals have less runners, the luxury of room and the opportunity to pick out a spot on the course and settle into a groove. As the corrals move back they get tighter, squeezing some runners into tight placements that don't offer a chance for space. I've also heard some of you have had to wait to walk through the castle. Wow, that's something I never want to experience. 

I'm doing just fine. My running compatriot behind me, well, not so much.

But the front corrals also pose a hidden problem. Given runDisney has recently started to taper corrals from A-Z, it inadvertently promotes a fast race mentality. The less people in your corral, the more competitive you get (yes, we all say we only race the clock, but you know you're paying attention to the runners around you. It's okay to admit it). For us, Challenge runners, it's actually a disaster waiting to happen, especially if it's your first time running a multi-race weekend. Each race poses the threat of encouraging runners to exert maximum effort, effectively dashing the overall performance of every race. So, when you do that four days in a row, how can you navigate it? Well, here's what happens to me nearly every damn year. See if you can relate.

Race #1 (5k): "I'm going to take it easy and have fun, since it's not timed." (At the corral) "Hmm, I haven't run in awhile, maybe I'll dial it up a bit more." (Race starts) "Eff it, I'm gonna run." 

Race #2 (10k): "Okay, a little stiff from yesterday, but it was only a 5k. I'm good for an easy jaunt today." (At the corral) "Stay disciplined, you have a lot of miles left." (3k into the race) "Lotta people are passing me, that's okay. Stay strong." (5k into the race) "Eff it, I'm gonna run."

Race #3 (Half Marathon): "Okay, probably shouldn't have run so hard yesterday. Definitely shouldn't have closed Magic Kingdom. Oh well, take it easy today." (At the corral) "Just gonna move back a few corrals today. Wait, no. I've earned my corral, I'll just stand in the back of it, though. (5k into race) "Ah, okay settling in. Man, are my legs stiff. And, I'm so tired." (10k into the race) "Still tired, actually didn't think I was going to be this tired. Man, this course is lame. Just going to pick it up a bit and get it over with." (15k into the race): "So bored. Eff it, I'm gonna run." 

Race #4 (Marathon): "So damn tired. My brain feels like mush. Why oh why did I close down Epcot last night? Why are my feet the size of beach balls?" (At the corral) "Okay, this is your race, stick to your strategy (even though your strategy never took into account the effort you put in for the other races)." (10k into the race) "Legs were stiff, but now feel pretty good. Think everything is going to be okay." (21k into the race) "Okay, stiffness is back, but I'm good. Eff it, I'm gonna....I'm gonna....umm my legs aren't moving. Why aren't my legs moving? Why are they so heavy? It's like I'm stuck in neutral" (30k into race) "My feet are numb. I have no energy. I feel like I'm moving backwards. I just want this to end." (37k into race) "WHY ARE SO MANY PEOPLE PASSING ME!!!? Why did I sign up for this? Running sucks. Disney sucks. The prices are too high. Hey, jerk don't look at me. DON'T LOOK AT ME!" (40k into race) (inaudible swearing and crying). (Finish Line) "Give it your all for the photos. Just try not to pee yourself." 

Don't pee! Don't pee! Don't pee!

Sound familiar? If it does I feel you. 

You see, the problem is every time I race, I want to give it my all. Even after years of running and countless runDisney multi-race weekends, I couldn't get that stupid pride out of my head. Every time the fireworks shot off, I instinctively ran my little legs off. Just as such, every year ended up being a total disappointment and me ending up with a sour attitude and even more sour race times. That was until last year's Dopey Challenge.

What turned the corner for me was to stop thinking about the weekend overall and focus on a sole race that was to be my A race over the weekend. That way it kept me honest about my expectations for each race. For any race that came before my A race, I would know to keep the maximum output low as any extra effort would take away from my goal race. For any races that followed my A race, I knew I had already put in the effort and got what I wanted out of the weekend and everything else was just gravy - which meant more picture time, if you're into that stuff. 

Last year's Dopey Challenge, I focused on the 10k as my A race, meaning the 5k was just for fun. Knowing that, I walked the course with my mom and enjoyed the course. That following day, I set mindset to "race" mode and attacked the course like a theme park guest to a turkey leg. Although, the rain forced me to pull back a bit, I was still happy with the time and for all intents and purposes my racing weekend was over. The following half marathon and marathon were just experienced as "running vacations" where'd I stop at bathroom, or to talk to family in the crowd, or take pictures - again, if you're into that stuff. 

At least it was a brisk walk.

Overall, that strategy really put me in better spirits for the whole weekend. The uncertainty of how I was going to perform on the course was mitigated all by selecting one race to rock and just enjoying the rest. So, my recommendation to you is, lighten up and select just one race to focus on and let all the others be the gravy for putting in all the hard work over the preceding months in preparation for this awesome weekend. 

I guess my advice could work for those who are in corrals farther back. But, I know there are less opportunities for you to be in control of your race experience than runners up front. But, the strategy is sound. Or, if there is a race where you feel like you have more control of the outcome of your race maybe make that your A race. 

Regardless of the corral you are in, set your expectations appropriately about the races and the weekend, overall. As mentioned above, getting up early takes a massive toll on your system, as does the massive intake of running fuels and theme park food. I can't think of anyone in my running network that has purposely decided on Dopey weekend as a PR weekend. Yes, PRs may happen (I PR'd in drinking around the world at Epcot), but don't set your watch to it. It's unlikely and may alter your race weekend experience. Believer me, I've been bitten by this callous monster numerous times. 


At the end of the day, it's Disney World. Running tends to be the last thing on my mind when visiting (churros, anybody?), so I'm learning to roll with it and just enjoy the atmosphere and back off being Mr. Serious. Now, I'm not advocating that you don't give it your all. Rather, just be realistic about how much you are actually running in such a short time, and set your goals accordingly. 

I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised with the outcome. Happy running and I hope to see you at the events!

Run fast. Run smart.