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Race Report: Walt Disney World Half Marathon

Posted Jan 10 2011 11:41am

My first race of 2011 is in the books.  It was a very surprising result and I hope it is a sign of positive things to come from my year of running.  I ended up hitting a PR by 10 seconds with a 1:39:14.  Considering that I went into the race not wanting to try and PR and with not aggressively training it was a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been debating over the past few days how I would present my review of the Disney Half Marathon and I realized that I have to be as honest as possible.  I am going to preface this by reiterating what I said in my race preview, and that is that I love Disney World and spent many wonderful times there as a kid.  I was excited to run Disney since I heard from countless people that it was one of the elite big races and that its crowd, expo, transportation and experience rivals other big races.

(Big races from here on out will be considered the NYC marathon/half , Chicago marathon and Rock n Roll races.  If Disney puts themselves in the elite big race category then they need to be compared with the others in this category. I have run the NYC marathon/half, Chicago marathon and Rock n Roll Philly)

The Expo: Not what one would expect from a large race, especially one that had 27,000 half marathoners and 15,000+ marathoners in one weekend.  I liked how they separated the bib pick-up with the expo section.  Getting your bib was seamless and pretty standard to other big races.  I thought that the bib design was a bit funky, not your standard size, pretty big and not sure what the wasted space was for.  I ended up folding over the bib to create a standard size bib to clip to my shirt.  After bib collection you make your way to the expo building; I now know why they had bib collection in a different building and it was not by design.  The expo was in a very small building and was too small to accommodate over 40,000 runners and families during a weekend.  Packed into the space was all the standard people you expect to see at an expo, the quality was definitely there. What wasn’t available was the inventory, the Timex booth said it would be sold out of watches and one guy said he sold the watch on his wrist.  The Nike booth was one of the most anemic I have seen at any big race; limited gear and not much selection.  The space was cramped and there was too many people- I almost felt like I was on a crowded NYC subway platform during rush hour.  Other big races have ample space, fantastic/unique booths that have loads of room and no crowd control problems.  This expo was not big race worthy.

Race Transportation: As I said before one of the reasons I wanted to run Disney was to experience a big race in a place that was totally unique.  One of the selling points to Disney was that I was told they were “masters” of people transportation and logistics.  In my opinion and from experiences during the weekend the Disney people failed multiple times.

Runners were told to board a bus from their resort between 3:00-4:00 am to ensure they got to the staging area with enough time to check bags and get to the corrals.  Disney warned that they would close corrals at 5:00 am for a 5:30 am start.  Okay, easy enough, I could follow these directions.  We boarded a bus from our resort at 3:45 am; they loaded us up and put people in the aisle to stand.  When we left there was at least another 200 people in line waiting for the next bus.  The person at the loading area was clueless on the logistics and timing as he sent a bus away completely empty.  At 5:00 am we were still on the bus sitting in traffic.  There were other buses all around us sitting in traffic.  Why didn’t they have one lane designated for buses into the staging area?  Why did we have to sit in the traffic? There was no traffic on the other side of the road.

We ended up getting dropped off at the staging area at 5:05 am, 5 min after the corrals closed- we still had to check bags, go over a half mile to the corrals, get a final stretch and final pee.  I checked my bag and literally ran through thousands of people to get to corral A.  Along the way you had Disney employees saying “hurry up, you are not going to make it to your corrals, they are closing”.  Talk about unnecessarily causing stress! Wasn’t like I overslept or missed the bus….your stupid transportation put me in this position.

After the race there was zero information or direction on how to catch buses back to hotels.  One person said to walk a half mile across the parking lot of Epcot, once there no bus.  No signs.  Nothing.  We walked with other frustrated runners to another section of the parking lot that rumored to have the buses, nothing.  We ended up taking a cab back to our Disney hotel.

Let’s compare this to NYC, which was efficient and worked like a well-0iled machine.  It brings more runners than Disney to Staten Island  via boat with no issues or confusion.  Disney can not A) charge runners $135 for a race that has such terrible transportation and B) consider itself a big race when there is such confusion from runners.

The Race: This was the best part of the day, actually running.  I knew it would be dark for a majority of the race and I was okay with that.  I was okay with the dead areas as you ran between parks because again I was prepared for that.  The course entertainment was good, when there were crowds they were supportive and loud.  The course has lots of twists and turns and the course narrows in many sections causing bottlenecks; almost to a walk (even from corral A). Running through the Magic Kingdom was awesome- great crowds, characters everywhere and fun to run through the park that I loved so much as a kid.  It was a great feeling and was the highlight for me.  I felt that the course was great, there really are no major elevation changes but from mile 10-12 you cross some overpasses that make the final miles of the half very challenging; they were well placed.  Running in Epcot at the end of the race was a bit disappointing as there were no crowds cheering in the park; you quickly exit to the Epcot parking lot to the finish with thousands of cheering fans.

My Race: I went out at about an 8:15-8:30 pace over the first three miles; since I rushed to the start I wanted to start slowly.  Just before mile 3 I stopped to go to the bathroom- when I got back out I glanced at my watch to see where I was at over the first 5k; I did not look at my watch again until mile 11.  I took the advice of Shalane Flanagan, I was patient and let the race come to me.  When I did look at my watch I realized that I had a pretty good shot to finish with a strong time.  I ended up making up about 2 min on the final 2+ miles and had a strong kick to the finish.  I felt strong throughout and was thrilled with how my body reacted each time I tried to push myself.  Overall it was a great race and solid race experience. Water stations were plenty and stocked, course logistics (including the start and finish) were perfect.  The Donald Duck medal was very, very nice, too.

Final Word: You can’t charge runners $135 to run your race and have the issues with transportation that we saw.  You can’t charge $136 and stuff in as many runners as Disney did and have an expo with the deficiencies that we saw.  Disney calls itself a major/big race, well compared to NYC marathon/half, Chicago Marathon and Rock n Roll Philly half, Disney failed on many many levels.  This is my opinion, I know many others love Disney.  I just don’t think that it should be ranked up there with NYC, Chicago and Rock n Roll races.

Also, not only was $135 the race fee, but we spent an absolute fortune!  Disney must have made out like kings! Why didn’t half finishers get reduced entrance into a park on Saturday? If, and this is a big IF, I run Disney again I would probably stay at a local hotel and not in the park which has a marathon special.  For example the Hilton Bonnet Creek had a deal for runners that included reduced room rate, transportation to/from event, pasta dinner, reduced spa fees and other.  No way would I have given all that money to Disney, I likely would have gone to Universal and avoided Disney altogether. We did enjoy a bar crawl through the Epcot countries later in the day.

This is tough for me to say considering how much I love Disney.  I really, really wanted to write a good review and have positive things to say- but I can’t.  In my opinion it was very disorganized and too expensive for the experience.  In fact, I would not recommend this race to a first time runner of a marathon or half marathon.  Imagine if you trained for your first half marathon, paid to go to Disney and were sitting on a bus at 5:05 am when corrals have supposedly closed.  Imagine the stress you would have felt during your first race.

I just could not believe how unorganized Disney was.  On Sunday when we were trying to see my sister run the full, the monorail went down with people stuck trying to get to the finish area to see loved ones cross the finish line.  These problems do happen, I get it, but just too many things happened for me to think that this race is a well-oiled machine like NYC, Chicago and the Rock n Roll series.

Congrats to the wifey who ran a solid half and also congrats to my sister who ran a marathon PR by 5 min and her friend Tabbi who also ran a PR by 41 min.

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