I’m cynical, I hate crowds, and I haven’t got much disposable income. Those three things would suggest that the last marathon I’d ever find myself running would be in Disney World—the last place I’d ever be, in fact, would be the self-proclaimed happiest one on earth. But if anything is going to get me to go somewhere unexpected, it’s running, and since K’s middle daughter decided to do her first marathon there with her sister and K, I decided to run it with them.
I had the option of going just to cheer them on, by the way, but this being a thoroughly Disney event, they didn’t make it easy to spectate—unless you bought one of their aggressively exuberant package deals designed for that purpose. For a magical price, I too could be allowed access to the ChEar Zone! (Mickey’s oddly circular ears are the most recognizable image associated with the Disney empire, so “ear” puns abound almost as much as images thereof.) Even though the spectator packages were a lot cheaper than the race reg fees, they seemed pretty lame, so that left me two choices for marathon day: try to figure out the crazy logistics of cheering along the course on my own, or run the darn thing with them. No brainer: running would be far simpler.
K laughed when I told him this. “You’re the only person I know who would say that running 26.2 miles is the easier option,” he pointed out.
Shrug. It’s just running, right? You train as best you can, you try to get some sleep the night before and try to have a good poop the morning of, and then you get yourself to the starting line and go. What’s so tough about that?
Well, it’s a marathon. Sometimes what’s tough about it is nearly everything.
I didn’t train particularly hard for this race, but I wasn’t all that worried. K’s daughter, T, had been plagued with injuries and illness during her months of training and hadn’t been able to train well either, so she wisely targeted a conservative finish time and planned a run-walk strategy that would ensure she could make it the whole way. Surely, I figured, I could do that without much trouble. I’d done 30 marathons and ultras before this one, after all; the marathon distance didn’t scare me, I had a basic level of fitness, and I knew how to pace. Of course, you’d think after 30 of ‘em I’d also have gained an understanding of hubris, because if there’s anything a marathon teaches you—again and again and again—it’s that this distance always has the power to humble you. I would not call any of those 30 prior marathons easy, so I probably shouldn’t have figured on number 31 changing that streak. But if there’s anything else a marathon teaches you, it’s that denial is more than a river in Egypt.
The race notoriously insists on schlepping the runners to the starting line hours before the start time—and it’s a 5:30am start time, mind you. The last shuttle to the start—the last one—left our lodgings at 3:30am. For what reason, I still do not know. The shuttle dropped us off a good half-mile from where we needed to go to wait for the start, and once we walked there we realized we would have nothing to do for the next two hours but stand there in the cold. Yes, cold. It’s Florida, yes, and we’d just come from weather that had dipped into negative double-digits, but when you’re dressed to run 26 miles in temperatures that could reach the 60s, you probably aren’t dressed to stand around in temperatures that barely break the 40s. We looked for a tent where we might huddle out of the wind, but the only tent we could see was one with a big sign, “Merchandise.” Of course.
Did I mention my cynicism? Oh come on, it’s not just me. You can’t possibly go to a place like Di$ney and not be, just a little. If this is the happiest place on earth, it’s largely because of the ethos that money can most certainly buy happiness. Again, shrug. Cynicism can be fun. K and I certainly enjoyed making snarky comments about everything.
“Look, that man isn’t smiling. Darth Disney is going to appear and remove his fingernails.”
“I FIND YOUR LACK OF HAPPINESS DISTURBING.”
Here’s the thing, though: if you’re alive today, you’ve been influenced by Disney. Childhood in America is in many ways all about Disney. Mine was. We waited for Sunday evenings and Wide World of Disney. We waited for the next Disney movie to come out. We waited impatiently for Halloween so we could run around the neighborhood dressed as our favorite Disney character. And this was decades ago; the realm is exponentially more powerful today.
So when we finally started the race and got to the Magic Kingdom and saw the famous castle all lit up and gorgeously glittery against a still-dark sky, it was impossible not to be wow’d. Of course when we ran around to the back of the castle we could see that only the front part had been lit up and the back was just ordinary, but an ordinary castle is still a castle, so it was still cool.
And yeah, I actually was starting to feel happy. I was running, always a good thing because it means I still can. I was with my family. Family! I had one! I hadn’t just randomly chosen a race to run and gone off by myself to run it; I was sharing this experience. Go figure. As we passed mile 8 I began to feel quite good about the hours ahead of us. And that is precisely when Disney World brought me to my knees.
Literally. Next thing I knew I was bouncing across the asphalt. I’d tripped on one of those raised reflectors in the center of the road and landed hard on knees and elbows. It hurt. A lot. There were probably cartoon pain lines flashing all around me and my knees were likely enormous and pulsating. At least I hadn’t hit my head; the last thing I needed were stars and birdies flying around me while I writhed on the ground in agony.
I’ve always thought it was bizarre when some NFL player would take a hit and not get up right away, obviously in massive pain, only to spring to their feet a minute later just fine. Nobody would ever confuse me for an NFL player, so this is about as ridiculous a comparison as I could make, but the fact remains that after rolling around in pain for a few minutes while a helpful stranger stopped to check out my knees (she was a sports therapist who knew what she was doing, and she was one of dozens of runners who stopped to offer aid), I got up slowly and decided I was OK to continue.
That fall changed things. From that point on, the race truly became a marathon and not just an adventure I was having dressed as Prince Charming. K’s daughters had wanted to go in costume; they went as Cinderella’s stepsisters while K himself was Cinderella. Sometimes the deepest expression of love a father can show for his daughters is to wear a tutu. The three of them looked great; I looked like someone who had an accident with some gold ribbon and a bunch of safety pins. My costume failure was the least of my problems at that point, though; my stiffening knees and growing exhaustion were a little more pressing, as was the fact that I was so sick of the taste of Powerade and Sports Beans that I stopped taking in fuel. Ugly things happen when my blood sugar gets low; suffice it to say that I muttered a number of very unmagical things as the miles went on.
“You’re almost there!” a chEarful spectator yelled when we finally got to Epcot, the last of the four kingdoms on the racecourse. “This is the last hill!”
“If you’re lying I will come back and kill you,” I barked. “No more Mr. Nice Guy! Prince Charming has a dark side too.”
Marathons can teach you what you’re made of, and sometimes what you’re made of is not pleasant. K and I, the veteran runners, with scores of races between us, were about as miserable and cranky as we could be. T and J, on the other hand, the newbies, moved steadily, uncomplainingly on toward the finish. They’d even sped up, looking at an enormous negative split, and the final mile (which I swear was mismeasured and had to have been at least 5K) saw them pushing the pace hard even when the finish line was still nowhere to be seen. As K put it afterward, we’d been thoroughly schooled by the novices.
We finished. We got medals and mouse ears. We got to walk around the park the next day very, very slowly and stiffly. Even that feels like part of the glory, doing the post-marathon shuffle and wincing whenever stairs appear. More importantly, we did all that. Sometimes a pronoun makes all the difference, especially if it’s one you didn’t use for most of your life until now.
What I think we lose as we get older is the ability to be surprised. This race, this entire trip, was a surprise to me in a lot of ways. I’m not going to pretend that running is this pure, noble pursuit any more than Disney World is a magical place where everyone is happy. Running is an indulgence. Disney World is the capitol of capitalism. But you can know all this and still get something out of it. Thanks, Mickey. See ya real soon. (On TV, that is. We’ve got no money left to see you in person.)