The Happiest Place on Earth

How could an Avengers themed half marathon at Disneyland not be fun?

I posed this question to a few friends, and it turns out they had a rather long list of reasons.

Most seemed perturbed by the half marathon aspect, but wished me luck anyway. Those not averse to the thought of running 21.1km thought that Disneyland was generally excessive and not very serious. – but were ‘sure I’d enjoy it’.

Still being the ‘collector’ type, I signed up anyway.

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Now, if you have been following my blog (if you haven’t, where have you been?), you will know that having signed up for this race in the spring, my training rather got derailed over the summer. Four weeks out, as I checked my calendar, my longest run had been 9km. Not even half of my upcoming half marathon.

This of course, is the danger of destination races – whether I ran or not, I still had a California vacation booked. I decided to make the best of it and attempt some kind of run/walk strategy.

After a short chat with Coach Luke, we had a plan: 5 minutes run, 1 minute walk, repeat for 21.1km.

I hadn’t used this kind of strategy since I had learnt to run six years ago. Then it had been necessary as I didn’t have the ability to run further. As I had got fitter, I had left it behind to become a ‘proper’ runner that didn’t need to take breaks every few minutes.

As much as it felt like a step backward, I knew it was a smart choice if I was to attempt this distance without the requisite training. And whilst an x-ray had confirmed that the fracture was officially healed, there was still doubt about the strength of my ankle over 21km on the road.

I got on the plane in -10 degrees and stepped off a few hours later in Los Angeles to perfect running temperatures. The day before the race I was due to pick up my race package at the expo. Which, once I located it amid the sprawl of Disney, was very well organised and enjoyable.

Whilst at the expo, I took in a presentation by Jeff Galloway, Olympian and writer of a number of running books. Obviously he was promoting his preferred run walk run brand of training, which it turns out, involves a lot more walking than I was planning. His message was to take walk breaks right from the start, reasoning that any energy saved early on is available for use during the last few miles.

Remember that

All in all, it was a very interesting talk. I might not be switching to the 15/15 seconds he claims to use these days, but it definitely gave me more confidence in the plan we had selected.

The race itself starts at the eye-wateringly early time of 5:30am. Presumably to accommodate the extensive road closures and protect park revenues. So, at 4am I woke up, ate breakfast and walked over to the start. I spent a tense few minutes on the way over, trying to get my Garmin to co-operate and pair with its heart rate monitor; I decided we were no longer friends.

I lined up amongst the costumed runners, a plethora of Captain Americas, Thors, Ironmen (the Marvel kind, not the triathlon kind – though, who knows?) and other assorted superheroes. The race has around 12,000 participants, seeded into starting corrals based on anticipated finishing time. I was in corral H, the last and largest; populated by slowpokes, walkers, first timers and anyone else who had been unable to prove their pedigree by providing a result from an acceptable prior race. Of the 12,000, probably 11,500 started ahead of me.

The only way was up.


As it turned out, it was easy to pace slowly at the start, as going any faster would have meant dodging between walkers. Even during my walk breaks (which I took from the start – thanks Jeff) I was faster than many of these people. I decided that even whilst walking, I would make it a goal to keep passing people.

The first 5km of the race winds through the two Disney parks. Actually it was rather less glamorous than it sounds and we took in a significant number of back lots. We did however run through Cars land, towards Paradise bay inside Disney California Adventure. We then entered Disneyland proper taking a route through Frontier land and Fantasyland, up through the castle and onto Main St USA before heading out onto the streets of Anaheim. Progress was occasionally hampered by runners occasionally unexpectedly darting off across the route to join a line (this is Disney!) to take a picture with Thor or Captain America.

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Later as I hobbled around the park, I tried to identify the route we took and was amazed at what I must have missed as I focussed on the job in hand.

I do remember almost breaking the other ankle on this tram line!

As we left the park, the wind started to pick up. I kept running and walking, running and walking, trusting the plan and obeying the Garmin every time it beeped. It became my new best friend, holding my hand through this challenge. I forgave it for the stress it caused before the start.

The wind got stronger, soon we turned onto a path which ran alongside a large expanse of sand. The sand was being blown across the course painfully hitting exposed skin and making it very difficult to see or breathe. I was reduced to running with my eyes closed, hoping not to run into someone else doing the same. Capes were snapping in the wind and shields and hats flew by. I held onto my race number for dear life as it flapped in the wind, it represented my access to the finish line and more importantly, my official timing chip was stuck to the back of it, so it was clearly a vital piece of kit!

Respite came as we approached the Angels baseball stadium where we entered through the tunnel and ran around the home plate before leaving.

How cool is that?

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No seriously, I have no idea how cool it is, and I have not even a passing interest in baseball, but I have to admit, images of a dozen movies ran through my head in that moment – yeah, it was pretty cool.

An announcer helpfully informed us that we had only four miles to go, which was useful as the mile marker had blown over just like most of its comrades throughout the course. I took a peek at my watch

Big mistake!

When will I learn?

I think it was a bit of half marathon brain addled maths. But in that moment I calculated that I was on track to finish in over three hours.

Disappointed didn’t even cover it, this was the hardest part of the race for me. I decided the best thing to do was to keep going and hope I was wrong.

Three hours would be a good achievement because I knew I was doing my best.

I continued to remind myself how many people I had passed already and was continuing to pass. I felt pretty good

Perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough?

No! Don’t change anything now.

By mile ten I was feeling better. I took my last walk break at mile eleven. When my trusty Garmin, which had brought me so far, dutifully beeped to alert me of my upcoming walk break, I ignored it.

Soon afterward, I questioned this decision. But I knew it was the right one. Every beep I ignored, galvanised me further. I tried to speed up, in fact this turned out to be the fastest kilometre of the race. It felt good to open up; I was passing people like crazy now, I just needed to keep it up to the finish.

I crossed the line and collected my fancy Disney medal. Someone handed me a Disney branded space blanket which would no doubt have been more effective if it hadn’t immediately turned into a parachute. The wind was so high that tents were flipping in the finish area and they had to cancel the awards ceremony and move everyone on.

My final time was 2:37:19 – well under three hours, which was a relief

I don’t know if I could have gone faster, though, I think it was probably the right decision not to try on this occasion.


Things I learned:

I can run a half marathon.  I know that a lot of people claimed to know that about me beforehand, but I certainly wasn’t sure. It is also reasonable to believe then that I could also run a marathon in the not too distant future. Even if it will be slow going.

Jeff Galloway was right, saving at the start pays of at the end. That was a new experience for me.

Trying to walk around Disney after a half marathon is a bad idea.

Do not attempt maths on the course, and never look at your watch.

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