One half marathon, one marathon, two days, four Disney parks, 39.3 miles, three medals, three shirts. It’s called the Goofy Challenge. It’s not for everyone and it’s certainly not for people who don’t like running.
If you had asked me a year and a few days ago if I thought I’d ever run a marathon and a half marathon in the same weekend, there’s no way you would have gotten a yes out of me. No way. I wouldn’t have even giving you a yes for running a marathon by itself. But, last year, my wife and I ran the Disney World Half Marathon and spent the rest of our trip in Disney seeing plenty of other people walking around with three medals around their necks, I call them “clankers.” It was at that point that we realized if they could do it, we could do it. It took months and some going back and forth before we finally committed and signed up for the Goofy Challenge, but we went for it.
Now, my wife and I aren’t always the smartest people in the world. We hadn’t run a full marathon at the time and were currently beginning our training for the Philadelphia Marathon, which fell just a month and a half before the Goofy Challenge. That’s not a lot of time to recover from your first marathon and then up the training for an even bigger challenge. But we signed up and booked a trip to Disney, we had to do it…or at least try.
Training didn’t go as well as it could of, in fact, between Philly and Disney, the longest run either of us did was 16 miles. Things could have been worse, but I really didn’t feel like either of us had built up enough stamina for the challenge. Time was hard to come by and the tendinitis that used to be in my left ankle had moved over to my right one, not to mention the fact that my knees hadn’t felt right since Philly. And to top off the fact that we had signed up to run 39.3 miles in one weekend, we also had to have enough left in our legs to walk around Disney for a few days and enjoy a “vacation.”
However, for as stupid as we were in signing up for this thing in the first place, we were smart in setting our goals. This was just for the sake of doing it. We weren’t going to try to run for time and we were going to run both races together. My wife and I don’t normally run races together, so this was going to be new for both of us, but we figured we could help each other through.
The plan for the half marathon was to take things super slow and just get to the finish without working our legs too much. By this point, we’ve had a few half marathons under our belts and having just spent the last six months training for a marathon, 13.1 miles wasn’t worrisome at all. Plus, we knew the course from last year. Our biggest worry was just trying to keep ourselves slow. Very slow.
We woke up at 2:45am and got ourselves ready and out the door to catch the bus over to the start area. The weather was chilly, and still getting colder, but we knew it would be like this from last year. As we made our way over to our starting corral, we tried to prepare ourselves mentally for what we were about to start. We had no idea how our bodies were going to respond to such a goofy challenge.
The race kicked off with a blast of fireworks and we were on our way, trying to keep a slow pace. The start was very crowded and trying to find our own space to run wasn’t easy. On top of that, I had to pee right off the bat. I stopped at a porta potty and told my wife to continue without me, I’d catch up. This seemed like the longest pee of my life as I stood there thinking about how much extra energy I was going to burn trying to catch up to my wife. As soon as I was done, I sprinted down the course to catch up to my wife. The people around must have thought I was an idiot running that fast that early in the race, but since I’m used to running a half marathon at a pace three or four minutes per mile faster than we were planning on doing, it wasn’t a problem for me to run at my normal pace to catch up. In fact, my legs loved it, they wanted to keep it up, but I didn’t give in. I caught up to my wife and we continued on our way.
From there, we spent most of the race just trying to slow ourselves down. No matter how much we tried, our pace kept creeping faster and we’d have to make a strong effort to slow ourselves. down. The worst area of the course for this, without a doubt, was Magic Kingdom. This is the most exciting part of the course. There’s a ton of energy as you come down Main Street, through Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, and through Cinderella’s Castle. We picked up a little speed, but for the most part we were able to keep it under control.
After Magic Kingdom, the half marathon course gets pretty boring for a while. You run down a back street and a highway for a while as you make your way back to Epcot. We lost a few minutes when my wife needed to take a quick bathroom break in one of the porta potties, but she was quick. As we made our way into Epcot for the last mile, things felt pretty good. Once the finish line was in site, we grabbed hands and crossed together at 2:15:54. Almost a minute per mile slower than my wife’s slowest time, so we were both feeling pretty good and knew we hadn’t burned up too much energy or stamina.
The marathon, the biggie. With just one marathon under our belts, we didn’t know how we were going to hold up through 26.2 miles after having put 13.1 miles on our legs just 24 hours prior. Again, we got up around 3am to make our way over to the starting area. The temperature was a little bit warmer feeling, but not by much. We sat for a few minutes in the corral to rest our legs while other runners were stretching and warming up. Saving the energy seemed more important than anything else at this point. Since I moved back to start in the C corral (there were eight total corrals) with my wife, we had a bit of a walk anyway when it was time for our corral to move up to starting line so that served as our warm up.
This time when the race started, we tried to take it even easier. We were on the other side of the road this time which had a little more room on it. I, again, had to stop and pee within the first mile, but this time I didn’t use a porta potty, I just ran off into the woods. Unlike for the half marathon, I didn’t burn energy sprinting back up to my wife. I picked up my pace a little and just slowly and steadily caught back up to her.
The marathon course quickly differentiates itself from the half marathon by taking runners right into Epcot after just a couple miles. At this point, my wife needed to make her first bathroom stop. There was a bit of a line this time, but again, she was quick in there and we were on our way having only lost a few minutes.
We entered the park at the front and ran around Spaceship Earth with the course separating into two halves, allowing runners to go down either side. From there, the course makes a left turn into the World Showcase and exits down a back road just after passing Mexico. After exiting around the back, the course loops back around near the starting line, which was already halfway broken down, and heads towards Magic Kingdom on the same roads the half marathon comes back on. Instead of going to the right of the Speedyway, though, the full marathon took us along the left. This section, between Epcot and Magic Kingdom, is a bit boring, but Disney tries to keep an ample amount of entertainment going on the sides of the course.
At this point, we had hit the halfway point for the Goofy Challenge. All downhill from here, or so I tried to reason.
As we made our way towards Magic Kingdom, we were feeling okay, but weary about the big distance between Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. But for now, we had a good pace going and were just a bit faster than we wanted to be. I feared that coming down Main Street in Magic Kingdom would pick us up a bit more than we wanted, but that was still a couple miles away.
As we made our way towards Magic Kingdom, the course eventually merged back with where the half marathon had taken us through the park. We entered down Main Street and did our best to keep things steady and find our space to run in the massive crowd of runners that bottleneck coming through the park. After following through Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Cinderella’s Castle, Liberty Square, and Frontierland, we made our way out of the park to the left of Splash Mountain. We escaped without picking up our pace and burning excess energy.
This was the part we dreaded, probably even more than the part of the race after mile 20. This was the start of the roughly six mile trek to Animal Kingdom. This portion of the course doesn’t have much to see other than the few characters Disney had out to take photos with. By the time we hit the marathon halfway point, I was feeling good, but my wife was starting to fatigue. I tried encouraging her as much as I could, but as we kept getting closer to Animal Kingdom, she kept getting more and more worried. As we came along miles 14 and 15, I started to feel some fatigue in my legs, but things were still manageable.
As we started to get closer to Animal Kingdom, some of the animals were out on the side of the course and this started off the boost that we needed from the park. Once we made our way into the park, the energy grew and carried us through Asia and DinoLand USA to the front of the park.
Three parks done and I was actually feeling pretty monster now.
We just had a few miles to go until Hollywood Studios. As we curved around the Animal Kingdom bus stops, we hit mile 17 and then 18 came quickly. By this time in Philly, I was fatiguing hard and working out my strategy to make it to the finish line. I was weighing the best time to drop off from the pacer I was running with and that time happened by mile 18.5. But things were different this time, my legs felt great and I had energy, lots of it. I knew we were approaching the point in the race where things can fall apart in the blink of an eye, but I knew I was feeling good now and that was all that mattered. I don’t know what the time was at this point, but I’m pretty sure by now I had been running for longer (time-wise) than I ever had in my life.
Unfortunately, my wife was not in the same kind of shape I was in. Since running with her is already a much slower pace for me, I wasn’t putting my body through as much, but we were only running a little slower than she’s used to for a long race like this so it was much harder on her body. These were dark times for her. She had a blister on her toe pop that nearly took her down. She screamed in pain and seemed like she was about to throw in the towel. I’ve never seen her in pain like that before, but she soldiered on as I did my best to reassure her that she could and would make it. Still, I could tell that she was tiring quickly. I had been gulping down energy gels and sport beans for the last five miles, but she didn’t want them. By now, I knew she needed something so I convinced her to eat the chocolate gel she had in her SPI belt. With eight more miles to go, I knew it would kick in when she really needed it.
Unfortunately, the temperature was rising quickly now. We had been taking water at almost every stop since the halfway point so we were hydrated enough, but we were starting to feel the effect of the sun on us.
Mile 21 got a bit rough for my wife and she started feeling the need for another bathroom stop. We, luckily, weren’t far from a porta potty and she was able to stop. Now, she was really fighting to keep things going, but once she was able to hit the bathroom, things started to pick up a little for her.
As we turned into Hollywood Studios, we hit the 22nd mile marker, which pretty much marked the homestretch. From now on, the rest of the course was lined with people, no more dead zones.
There was a huge burst of energy as we entered into the park. Both of us sucked this energy in and picked things up massively. We dropped from around an 11:10 mile to closer to an 8:30-9 minute mile. The combination of the bathroom break, the energy gel finally kicking in, and all the energy from the park transformed my wife from struggling to keep it going all to a running machine. She looked fresh, like she had just started the race. As we made our way through Hollywood Studios, we started passing other runners like nobody’s business. Runners that had been near us all race or had passed us a while back quickly ended up behind us.
We both were feeling great and reaping the reward for keeping things so slow in the 35 miles behind us. Hollywood Studios was over in a flash. We entered in the back of the park and ran through part of the Backlot Tour, down Streets of America, up Commissary Lane, and turned right onto Hollywood Boulevard towards the front of the park. After exiting the park, we made the sharp left to head down along the river to the Boardwalk Resort. Again, tons of people lining the side of the course. Things got tight here, but we squeezed our way through.
As we made our way onto the Boardwalk, we had tons of momentum and we were flying as we passed the marker for mile 24. We were almost there and nothing was going to stop us now.
We followed the course back into Epcot by the UK pavilion. All that was left was a lap around the World Showcase and then to make our way to the front of the park. The counties were flying by us and it felt like we were running on fresh legs. By the time we exited into Future World, we’d passed hundreds of runners since marker for mile 22. It was like we were fast-forwarding the end of the race.
Finally, after wrapping around Spaceship Earth again, we could see the finish line. We stopped passing people, grabbed hands, and made our way across the line at 4:58:16. We were only 21 minutes slower than my wife’s time in Philly and considering we had run a half marathon the day before and stopped for two bathroom breaks, that’s not bad.
The Goofy Challenge sounds intense. And it is, it’s a lot of miles, but what I learned this weekend is that if you take it easy, really easy, you can do it. And you can still enjoy a vacation after doing it. Of all the long races I’ve done (1 marathon and 3 half marathons before this), I felt the best after this. My legs weren’t very sore and my ankles didn’t hurt. I could walk pretty well. My biggest issue after finishing was just that my feet were sore (that continued for two days). Other than that, I really felt great. Even my ankles, which have been constant problems for me for almost a year and a half now, were completely fine. I did some preemptive icing on them right after finishing, but they never started to hurt.
Throughout the course of the rest of the day and trip, I really didn’t feel like I had just run a marathon and a half. I was impressed with us.
For me, the biggest change from any other races I’ve run is just the difference in running at a slower pace. It’s a really different experience. At a 10-11 minute mile, the course is much more crowded. Things only cleared out so much for us throughout the entire 39.3 miles. At any given point, there were always a few people within a 10 foot radius. At a 7-8 minute pace, races are much different, they clear out. Unless you have someone running with you, you’re much more alone, with the nearest people 15-20 feet away from you. There’s also a lot more conversation from the people around when you’re running slower. Maybe it’s because more people run with friends at that pace, but there were groups of people all over the place that seemed to be running together. At this pace, water stops are a complete mess, there are people and cups everywhere.
Additionally, running at a slower pace gives you time to enjoy the course. I’m used to flying through courses as fast as I can while focusing on breathing properly, keeping an eye on the condition of my body, and keeping myself right at the upper limit of a sustainable pace. I don’t normally notice much going on around me aside from what I need to in order to protect my safety. At an 11-minute mile, I was taking in all the things Disney had on the sides of the course. There were dozens of characters out, marching bands, etc. I even got to enjoy the parks in a different way.
I find the Marathon Weekend events to be a great experience from beginning to end. The races are fun and the courses are unlike any other courses you’ll ever run. Not to mention the fact that, despite the races starting at 5:40am, they’re very well organized. The Goofy Challenge is definitely something I want to do again, but I think I’d also throw in the 5k as well. I don’t know if my wife and I want to make a trip down next year for our fourth January Disney trip in a row, but it’s the 20th anniversary of the marathon, so I’d really like to. If she does both races again, I think I’d do them with her again, but if she decides not to do Goofy again, I might try running for a time. Maybe both races in under five hours combined.
The biggest downside to doing something like Goofy is if you’re trying to also do a full trip to the parks as well. You lose a lot of time because of the races. You have to get to bed before the parks even close on both nights and by the time you’re showered and ready to hit the parks after each race, you’ve lost a good portion of your day, especially after the marathon. We thought we could do four days in the parks, including the race days, but we really felt pressed for time. In the end, we did all the highlights and the things we wanted, but adding an extra day would have made the trip more enjoyable as a whole.
Now, with the Goofy Challenge done and two marathons under my belt, what are my goals? First thing I’m doing is taking a couple weeks off to rest my ankles. They don’t hurt now, but I want to make sure they’re in decent shape. After that, it’s time to start training again. I’ve got the RU Unite Half Marathon at Rutgers in April, but as long as training goes well, I’ll be doing another marathon after that. I’m looking to qualify for Boston in the Spring so I can run next year. It’s going to mean a lot of training, but as long as my ankles feel good in two weeks, I won’t have lost much from where I am right now. If training is going well, I’m going to shoot for a time closer to 1:25:00 at the half marathon and a marathon for May or June.
Running the Boston Marathon is my main goal right now, but after I qualify for that, my next goal is to get under three hours. Since I have to run under 3:05:00 to qualify for Boston, getting under three hours, at that point, should be attainable. You’d think.
UPDATE: My wife posted her recap as well.