Walt Disney World Marathon weekend is arguably THE weekend for runDisney races. Since the weekend offers up to four races, two challenges (and numerous get togethers), the resort enjoys a robust and diverse cross section of runners all hell bent on scoring some bling. My wife and I like to go since we have such a large Orlando network (my wife being from Orlando and me spending countless years as a Disney/Universal Studios employee) and it's great to see everyone and to run. A little.
Because my office was closed between Christmas and New Year's, we had the opportunity to get to Orlando on Christmas Day and not leave until last week, giving me a very much needed relaxing end to an incredibly difficult year. Getting into Orlando so early also gave us a chance to see some dear friends of ours, many with families of their own, and to see where life has taken them. No matter how long the time apart, seeing them always puts a warmth in my heart that's seldomly matched.
After spending time between my mom's house and my wife's folks' house, we made our way to Walt Disney World property to start our race vacation. As we have done for the past five years, our home base was Disney's Wilderness Lodge, arguably the best resort on property. Now that we live in the pacific northwest I was curious as to if the charm of Wilderness Lodge would be lost. I am happy to report the resort is as charming and wonderful as ever.
First to the Expo. Never Again.
As I had done for the preceding three years, my weekend would chock full of racing as another Dopey Challenge lay in my crosshairs. This challenge, named for only the craziest of runners, runs a gauntlet of events; a 5k on Thursday, 10k on Friday, half marathon on Saturday, with the crazy culminating with a full marathon on Sunday. My wife, of saner mind, was participating in what I call the "Bashful Challenge," consisting of a 10k and half marathon. She would also be participating in the 5k with her dad on his first 5k. Of course, my mom would be tackling her third 5k, a feat that continues to impress.
As much as the Dopey Challenge requires a level of endurance only matched by Pheidippides, himself, ask any habitual runDisney runner what the real battle is and they'll almost always tell you the challenge isn't on the course. It's at the expo.
The expo is held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex and is a must visit to pick up one's bib. But, it also houses various running retail goodies, from runDisney branded New Balance shoes, to "must have" items runners may have forgotten to pack, all the way to purchases that somehow make their way to the race course, breaking the cardinal rule of nothing new on race day.
Usually, I do my best to avoid the expo until the last possible minute. Like many of my running friends, I'm not one to pile in the moment the doors open to get my hands on the latest rD merchandise. However, this year I found myself amidst the runDisney loyalists at opening time to get my hands on some runDisney New Balance shoes that were themed - for the first time - for Disney Parks attractions.
Normally, I would avail myself to not buying the rD shoes, but this year brought Haunted Mansion designed Vazee Pace, a shoe model I had run in and one of my favorite Disney attractions. Therefore, I tried my hand at New Balance's virtual queue a few nights earlier, scoring a prime position but unfortunately putting me at the epicenter of all the, um, excitement.
I won't get into all the salient details of the pushing, elbowing and clawing. And that was just to get into the parking lot! Let me just say this, my original strategy of going to the expo right before it closes will continue to be the right move for all future races. If you are wondering if I scored my coveted Haunted Mansion kicks, well, sort of. You see, unbeknownst to me at the time of sign up the Haunted Mansion Vazee Pace were actually women's shoes. Yep. Damn. So, my wife was the winner of the day while I settled for somewhat cool men's Space Mountain ones. But, along with the rD branded kicks I was able to score some New Balance 1400v4 racers, the 1400 series being one my absolute favorite racers. So, let's call it a very expensive wash.
Expo aside, I had even bigger plans that day. As mentioned in previous posts, I had been asked by Achilles International on behalf of Cigna to be a running guide for the upcoming 5k and I was off to meet my runner and her family at a dinner at the Grand Floridian. Going into the dinner I was actually pretty nervous. After all, I'd be responsible for the success of someone who had already gone through a tremendous struggle to get back to where she had been before the accident. As the fates would have it, all of my trepidation washed away the moment I met the team.
My runner, Nicole had been in a pretty bad skiing accident that left her in a pretty tough place after her concussion and other injuries, making it tough to be around light, loud noise and other stimuli associated with day-to-day life. She had spent the last year recovering and was now ready to take on her first 5k. She and her daughter had made the trip from Oregon, save for a few emails, we had never met until that night at the Grand Floridian Cafe.
Accompanying Nicole and her daughter to dinner were members of Achilles International and Cigna. I would come to learn that evening that Mark, who was head of and responsible for the Cigna/Achilles partnership would be running with us. During dinner we all talked about our experiences with running, but moreover it seemed like a bunch of old friends getting together to chat. I had used my experience of running the Epcot 5k numerous times in the past to give Nicole the best advice I could to make her feel comfortable. Truly, the night was engaging and a joy to attend.
During dinner Nicole's daughter asked me about my bracelets which were my Momentum Jewelry inspirational bracelets - staples of any race weekend - to which I mentioned it was interesting she had noticed. Earlier in the month I had reached out to my rep at Momentum and let her know of upcoming plans and thought if anyone needed motivation it would be Nicole. Momentum was gracious enough donate two bracelets to Nicole and her daughter for added inspiration. That was incredibly nice of Momentum Jewelry and on behalf of the group at the table that night, thank you. We called it a night and I settled in to my bed in anticipation of the start of race weekend.
I can't say I slept a lot that night, there was too much going through my head. Truth be told, it tends to happen the night before a race, any race for that matter. There's just something about the quiet anxiety that happens when a multitude of runners get together.
The following morning I wished my mom good luck and made my way to the athletes with disabilities tent to meet my team.
In the tent the sights I saw were inspirational and beyond humbling; there were runners who all had different challenges that appeared to make running a 5k an insurmountable challenge. But, in that tent it was like those challenges didn't even exist. Everyone was milling about, talking about training, splits and anticipated outcome, just like any other race. I had never been so inspired. Truthfully, I was in absolute awe and meekly managed to keep my composure. I knew this race wasn't so much about them, Nicole or my personal experience. It was so much more. These racers were doing it for a larger purpose; they were participating for themselves, yes. But, although it went unmentioned, it was understood they were racing for those who couldn't race. Writing about this now, tears fill the wells of my eyes thinking about those athletes. Races will come and go; good times and bad times. But, the real win is getting to the Start line. These folks are my heroes.
As we took our place in the corral, I took the outside lane of Nicole, asked her if she was ready and off we went. This being Nicole's first 5k I mentioned how it's easy to get caught up in the moment and spend too much energy early. Well, forget that; Nicole and her daughter were all energy the whole race! Nicole took off like a rocket and for a moment I thought I may not be able to keep pace. Nicole had decided to use the run/walk method: 2 min run/1 min walk and like a total pro, she stuck to it like glue.
We traversed the course like experts, me giving the team a Disney tour of the backstage Epcot areas I used to walk daily during my cast member days. But, when we hit World Showcase Promenade, everyone's eyes lit up as the sun peaked its head over the trees embracing the lagoon with a reddish amber kiss, kicking up everyone's pace a little bit.
The rest of the race was pretty much cruise control as we talked and joked all along the course. All the while keeping a speedy, yet comfortable pace. Coming to the finish, we had it all to ourselves as Nicole and team crossed the finish line to fanfare, tears, high fives and hugs. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the Cigna tent and then it was time to say our goodbyes. In all the races I've run and challenges I've endured through the sport, this 5k may have been the most proud I have ever been to be a runner.
I have to give a heartfelt thanks to Cigna and Achilles International for the opportunity to be a part of something great and much bigger than what normally comes with an individual sport. Most importantly, I'd like to thank Nicole and her family for trusting me to get them through their first 5k intact and in good spirits. I look forward to seeing them again next time I head to Oregon.
Little did I know the weekend would have a few more opportunities to test my running/mental strength. But, that's tomorrow's story. Tonight, I just want to leave it here, because it's really not my story. It's Nicole's and the inspirational athletes of Achilles International.
If you are interested in learning more about Achilles International, visit them here.