This is part two of my report of the 2018 Dark Side Half Marathon weekend – I again did the First Order Challenge, which means I ran the 10k on Saturday and the half marathon on Sunday. I talked about the expo and the 10k here. This is the race report for the half marathon.
So – a recap of where we are: I had just hit a massive PR on the 10k, in a crowded runDisney race. I was feeling really good about life in general, really. Saturday after the 10k I was able to legitimately rest. I took a nap with my three-year-old, and my wife made a spaghetti dinner. Because I’m still working on that last stubborn 20 pounds to lose, I hadn’t had spaghetti in a while and it was nice to be able to enjoy it guilt-free … including the seconds.
My goal for this whole weekend was to PR the 10k (check!) and then just get out there and have fun on the half marathon. I ran past some photo ops when I ran the half last year, and so I intended to make sure and get those this year during the run. The ice cave on Hoth, in particular, was a picture I regretted missing out on in 2017. So I wasn’t too worried about preparation or anything for this race – mostly I was just planning to survive it.
The weather wound up being a pre-race story. I’d intended to go to bed around 8pm, but I was pretty wound up for whatever reason, and the forecast wasn’t looking so good. All week they’d been calling for a good chance of rain on Sunday morning around race time, but by 8pm the night before they were saying a 70% chance of thunderstorms between 6:30am and 7:30am – right at the time when they would have nearly every runner on the course. If there was going to be lightning they were going to have to call this off, or at least delay it – and then, of course, there was the question of whether I wanted to go run in the rain at all given that I wasn’t taking the race all that seriously. In particular, I didn’t know (still don’t, really) how they would handle the character photos if it was raining. So I stayed up too late researching how and when we would know if they called the race off and finally went to sleep sometime around 9:30pm.
So the 2am alarm sucked, as you can imagine. I immediately pulled up the weather … and they had pushed the rain forecast all the way out to 10am at the earliest – some services had it pushed out until the afternoon. The race was on! I had some coffee, fixed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and toasted a bagel, and headed out to Epcot. Same deal for parking as we had on the 10k – park at the finish line at Epcot, long walk over to some busses, bus over to the start line in the Magic Kingdom parking lot.
Because I was early again, and because I had been early the day before, I only had one character photo to get – BB-8 this time. The line was longer earlier this time, but it only took 10 or 15 minutes for me to get up to the picture. There are certainly more people who run the half marathon than the 10k. In particular, I noticed that there were a lot more people running only the half marathon. If you are doing the First Order Challenge you get a different bib that calls that out – and I think a much higher percentage of people that are running the 10k are doing it as part of the challenge than is true for the half marathon. So after my photo-op, I got a coffee and a blueberry muffin at the Joffrey’s truck and made myself comfortable in the corner to people watch and wait for the start. runDisney has a DJ and general entertainment while you wait, and they do a pretty good job of keeping the energy level high.
I was in corral D for the half marathon start. Again I tried my best to manage my bathroom situation – at least three stops in the port-a-potties – and then made my way up into the corral. National Anthem, wheelchair start, fireworks, and then they started letting the waves go. I think they let corral A go all at once, and then split corrals B and C into two groups each – so from the front of corral D I was in the 6th wave to start. According to my watch, I was running at 5:38am in a race that starts at 5:30am. Not bad for a race with over 15,000 finishers.
The first part of the course matched the 10k, so we wound around construction and headed over toward the service station just outside the Magic Kingdom. We headed over to the service road that runs from MK over to the Animal Kingdom, and mile one was right at the entrance to that service road. With a crowded start and concern for going out too fast, the first mile here was all about control, and I felt pretty good with it – finished that mile in 10:25.
At the end of that first mile, though, my race fundamentally changed. Last year, I spoke about how I’d gotten into a weird pattern with a Galloway pacing group, and how it was a little odd. The Galloway method is a run/walk strategy – timed running intervals at a faster pace than goal pace, followed by short walk breaks. When I ran into the group last year, I was at about mile seven and was starting to badly fade. I’d be running along, and then the next thing I’d know somebody very near to me would yell “Walk!” and startle me out of whatever kind of flow I’d managed to mentally get myself in. At that point I would run away from them, and then maybe three or four minutes later it would happen again. Occasionally they’d get past me enough that I would be in the middle of their group, and then when the pacer yelled “Walk!” everybody around me would raise their arm and stop running, causing me to have to weave and dodge. While it is easy to get annoyed at something like that, I don’t begrudge the strategy. I am a firm believer in running your own race, and they were handling it just like they were supposed to – they catch no hell from me. It’s just that, for that stretch, it was throwing me out of rhythm pretty badly.
Well, at about the end of mile one this year, I was running along, starting to settle into my own little world, and suddenly … “Walk!” You can imagine what went through my mind – multiple, and less family-friendly, versions of “Here we go again…” I kept going, and, sure enough, about three or four minutes later, it happened again. And then a third time.
And then I got to thinking.
Which is dangerous.
This pacing group was in exactly the same place I was on the course. We had to be going at roughly the same average speed, since every three or four minutes we were next to each other. The difference was that they were being afforded the opportunity to stop and walk for short periods of time. That pattern – short(ish), intense bouts of exertion followed by short breaks – is one I am very familiar with through my training with CrossFit. We do it all the time. This was the 2:15 pace group, which was a pace for a big PR – but I was not going to reach my first must-get photo op until mile six or so, in the Animal Kingdom parking lot. Maybe these guys could get me there faster.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I said “Screw it” and fell in with the 2:15 Galloway pacing group.
Honestly, the next nine to ten miles are a bit of a blur after that. I have never trained with a run/walk strategy, so it took me some time to get accustomed to the rhythm. While I was focusing on not screwing up, we ran past the medical station that saved my race last year, and then through the Battle of Endor (again a very cool thing) – but I was so intent on keeping up with the pacers and not running anybody over that I didn’t notice too much. R2-D2 was set up somewhere around here, and then the Ewoks were out with a very long line somewhere around the mile two marker. But the crowds meant that the pacers had to run around people in order to keep their pacing, and so I was very focused on not getting dropped and didn’t notice much. Mile two came in at 10:18.
The next seven miles were like a metronome. I’m just going to put the mile splits here so you can see how good these pacers were:
Mile 3 – 9:58
Mile 4 – 9:56
Mile 5 – 10:08 (inside Animal Kingdom)
Mile 6 – 9:57
Mile 7 – 9:49
Mile 8 – 9:58
Mile 9 – 10:04
Mile 10 – 10:40 (this one has the cloverleaf hill off of World Drive)
Mile 11 – 10:30 (inside Hollywood Studios)
One of my coping mechanisms when I’m running long is that I’m constantly doing math in my head. I have 4.5 miles to go, and I’m already at this time, and I am currently running this pace, and if I hold this pace I’ll finish in that time, but I if I want to finish in a faster time, this is the pace I’m going to have to run … that kind of thing. Math is happening, as well as a constant stream of decision making about current pace – how do I feel? Am I going too fast? Am I going too slow? Maybe I can speed up a little? One slow-ish mile and then I’ll pick it up? There is just a steady stream of that kind of mental churn.
But with pacers, it all goes away. The experience was odd, frankly. Once I fell in with the pace group, my decision making was done for the next two hours or so. They told me when to run and when to walk. They chose the speed at which we were running. They did all of the math and all of the mental work. I didn’t even look at my Garmin until probably mile seven, and when I did some quick math and realized we were on exactly a 2:15 pace, I decided there was no reason to look again. All I had to do was stick with them and focus on not running anybody over … and run.
I loved it.
I got to have one of those running experiences where I checked out mentally and thought about other things. I listened to my music. I plotted this blog post. I made mundane plans for the next week or so, and grand plans for future vacations and adventures. For those ten miles, I thought about just about everything except running. Miles three and four were on the approach into the Animal Kingdom, including everybody’s favorite jaunt by the Disney World solid waste facility – what they call Environmental Services. The course was a touch different as we approached – last year we turned and came in behind the Maharajah Jungle Trek, but this year we skipped that little section and came into the Animal Kingdom right behind the Harambe Market in the Africa section of the park.
When we visited Animal Kingdom recently, we walked on the path from the new Pandora land over to where the Lion King theater is, and I actually remarked to my wife that this feels like the kind of thing they’d run a race route on. I called it. Once in the Animal Kingdom, we circled around through the Africa section, ran right past the Lion King theater and headed on the boardwalk over to Pandora. One of the downsides of the pacing group became apparent in this section. The course constricts pretty hard here, and the running becomes crowded. But the pacers were still doing their thing, weaving in and out of people if they needed to. It took a lot of focus just to keep up with them. What that meant practically is that as we ran through Pandora, in front of the Tree of Life, and over into DinoLand is that I didn’t spend any time soaking in the vibe of the Animal Kingdom. It was kind of a blur. The marker for mile 5 was in DinoLand, and then we exited out the back of the park the same way as last year, past members of the 501st Legion again, and emerged in the parking lot to weave our way over to Osceola Drive.
At this point I had a decision to make. The ice cave photo op is in the Animal Kingdom parking lot, right around the mile six marker, just before the 10k split. At that point, I was with a pace group that was going to bring me in at a massive PR – five or six minutes. I was feeling pretty good, even though I really had no right to, and I felt like there was an opportunity here. It only took me about two seconds to decide to stick with the pacers and see if I could make something of the running part of the race itself. I hit the 10k split in 1:04.06, which would have been about 30 seconds off of my PR before the Dark Side 10k, and then we turned onto what I last year called the doldrums of this race.
The stretch down Osceola Parkway and on World Drive that gets you from the Animal Kingdom over to Hollywood Studios is pretty brutal. That’s not a complaint, by the way – I love this course, and they’ve got to get us over there somehow. But you leave AK just after mile five, and you enter Hollywood Studios right at mile ten. That’s nearly five miles of running in the middle of a race on a boring, tree-lined road with no spectators and only your doubts about your current pace. It was here that my race blew up last year, and I was concerned about it this year. I needn’t have been, though – my new friends with the 2:15 Galloway pacing group just kept right on churning, and before I knew it we were on World Drive, and then turning onto Buena Vista Drive headed toward the next park. I don’t even know what to say about this section – I don’t remember much, other than chatting a bit with a couple of people around me and loving how fast it seemed to be going. The 15k split was in here somewhere, and I set a new 15k PR of over three minutes at 1:35.31.
Ran right past Darth Maul going in to Hollywood Studios, and then we circled around to enter the park behind the Tower of Terror, going through more members of 501st at the top of the short, steep hill just inside the grounds of the park. The run through HS was another blur – you’re only in the park for about half a mile – and it was here that I started feeling my lack of training in a very real way. I began to struggle to keep up with the pacers when they ran, which meant I was trying to power walk to catch up when we were walking. That made it harder to adequately rest for the run, and it happened all over again. Just outside HS another runner asked me how we were doing on pace, and I told him I thought we were right on but that I was dying. He agreed with me. On the path over to the Boardwalk area, just across from the Swan & Dolphin, the course constricts and gets crowded again, and then we go through a water stop. At that point I made the decision to let the pace group go. I was through mile eleven in a cumulative 1:51, which meant I had a full 30 minutes to run the final 2.1 miles and still PR. I knew I could do that, but 2:15 was going to be a stretch – and the wall hurt when I hit it.
So now I was on my own, walk / running and generally trying to not fall over. For mile twelve we took the course that the 10k took last year through the Yacht Club and Beach resorts, and then into the back entrance of Epcot. The mile twelve marker was almost exactly at the entrance into the World Showcase, and I finished that mile in 11:44, a nearly two minute drop-off from what I was doing with the pace group. My walk breaks were longer, and when I ran I didn’t run as fast. But I was still on pace for a PR.
Mile thirteen, around the World Showcase, is by far the best mile of this course. The World Showcase is awesome, Epcot is awesome, the music is awesome … it is all just so awesome. We emerged behind the Rose and Crown in the Great Britain pavilion, and then hung a right and headed over toward France. There were cast members out in most of the pavilions, waving and encouraging us on. The lady in Germany was running – she would walk up to a point, and then pace with a runner down to the little Africa section, and then walk back up and do it again. The folks in the French and Italy pavilions were cheering us on … in French and Italian. Really a hell of a way to finish up a race.
In front of the China pavilion, I started feeling a strange tightness in my left hamstring – it felt like a cramp was coming on, but I’d never gotten a cramp there before. I slowed way down from what I was doing and tried to be ginger with it, and it mostly went away. Just past the Mexico pavilion – right in front of the Three Caballeros topiary set up for the Flower and Garden Festival – my right calf cramped hard. I yelled and pulled up, just like I’d done in the Celebration Half. That calf also cramped on me during 18.2 of the CrossFit Open. I don’t know what it is that is causing it – but it hurts like hell. I limped along, and tried an easy run again as we approached Spaceship Earth, and it let go and let me run. At this point, I could also feel my sock bunching under the toes of my left foot. I was certain that was going to be a blister, but I was entirely too close to the end to care – I needed to gut this out.
I finished mile thirteen in 11:59, by far my slowest mile. The mile marker was in the service area behind the restrooms near Spaceship Earth. And then for the final 0.2 miles we wound through that service area, through some more members of the 501st Legion, and turned for the finish line. The DJs were at the finish calling names … it is always fun to hear “Congratulations, Matthew Woodall from Celebration!” And I was so toast as I crossed the finish that I didn’t even make my standard fist pumping gestures for the photographers. I can’t tell you when I’ve been more happy to be done running.
My watch said 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 2 seconds. My timing chip came in at 2 hours, 19 minutes flat. That time is a two minute and fifty-two second PR. Nearly a three minute PR! Holy crap – really?!? I had not run more than five miles since January, and yet here I was able to pull off a massive PR, in a crowded race that does not lend itself to PRs – I am still shocked by this result. I think there are two things that I can attribute this to:
- General fitness and weight loss – while I will never be a world-class half marathoner, and especially if I don’t train for half marathons, my CrossFit training and some more recent weight loss just bring me a general level of fitness that is higher than it was before. Once we get past the hurdle where we can say that it is physically possible to do these things better and faster … the rest is just pain tolerance and mental toughness. I held it together for eleven miles, but that was enough to get me across the line with a PR.
- That Galloway pace group was an absolute gift. I almost felt like I let the pacers down when I let them go, and I still hate that I couldn’t hang with them until the end. But those guys got me all the way to mile eleven faster than I ever could have on my own. I learned an awful lot with that experience – first and foremost, that I should be open to other strategies and techniques – and by making the decision to run with them I wound up with a massive PR. One thing I never got to do was thank those pacers – the last I saw of them was the 2:15 pace group flag disappearing around a bend in front of the Swan & Dolphin – but, if they are reading this or if anybody reading this knows them and can tell them – thank you. You were great, and helped a fat guy get to a place he didn’t think he could go.
Once I crossed the line, it took several dozen yards to get my breathing right again. I collected my medal, a cooling towel, a bottle of water, and a Powerade before I made my way over to the area where I was able to get my medal for the First Order Challenge. Then the snack boxes, “I Conquered…” pictures, and out into the public area. Last year I took a picture with Captain Phasma wearing my medals – and it turns out I want to make that the annual must-get picture, regardless of line. So I waited maybe 25 minutes for that picture, and then limped back to my truck. I was home before 9am, where I spent the rest of the day nursing very (very!) sore quads and blistered feet.
But that’s as happy as I’ve been in a really long time. I love this race. See you guys next year!
- Again, cannot say enough about the organization for this race. Over 15k people finished this year (down from last year – I think the threatening weather may have had something to do with that), and while there was some congestion at times, I never had any issues with anything related to the organizers on this race. People everywhere, medical everywhere, lots of water stops, just an incredibly well run race.
- This was my sixth half marathon, and I still can’t get over how different this one was to the first five because of that pacing group. The mental game is completely different if somebody else is making the pacing decisions for you, and the walking breaks were a legitimate game-changer that allowed me to run faster. I don’t think I would like this strategy for a shorter race … on a 10k, for instance, where I don’t need to worry as much about hitting a wall, I think I’m still better off just running … but wow, did I enjoy the running in a very different way.
- This is the second time I’ve run past that ice cave picture, though. At some point, I’m either going to have to put aside that part of me that gets competitive with times, or I’m going to have to let go of the idea of getting that picture. But, just like last year, I’ll probably run this whole race again next year with the idea that it will be for getting that picture specifically.
- The weather wasn’t nearly as bad as last year. It was still very humid, and pretty warm – warmer than it has been lately. And for the folks from out of town, I imagine it was pretty brutal. But unlike last year it wasn’t something that struck me as a factor. I’m hearing that they moved the dates for this race UP by two weeks next year because Easter falls on this weekend in 2019 … that could be a fantastic thing for the weather. I may not be getting that ice cave picture next year after all…
- One of the best things about these races is the people watching. I love seeing the various folks that turn out for runDisney races, especially the costumes. The Star Wars love is real, and being here makes me feel like I’m with my people.
- SWAG was the awesome shirts I talked about in the 10k post, the runDisney snack box, incredible medals – Captain Phasma for the half marathon, Kylo Ren for the First Order Challenge – and I bought the pins, because pins. runDisney races are expensive, but they are also really high-end.
- Next race: So, at this point, I have no races planned. I’ll probably run the 5k (maybe the 10k) that the Rotary Club does here in town in October, and then for Thanksgiving I’ll be with a bunch of runners so I won’t be surprised if they pick something to go do. But unless something strange changes, I’m taking a break from running for a while. My next legit race might be the Dark Side Half Marathon 2019 – but right now I plan to do that. See everybody next year.
And may the force be with you.