I can’t tell you how many times I was fortunate enough to visit Disney World as a kid. Mickey & Minnie Mouse were a part of my household, and we never missed a new Disney movie in theatres. Call me a child, but that never truly left me.
I’m well into adulthood now and as my tastes have changed, my heart still belongs on Main Street walking towards the Castle. The nostalgia is very real and brings me to such a beautiful place. And, now that I’m an adult that can make my own decisions, I’ve decided to take my running shoes to the happiest place on Earth, Walt Disney World.
The Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend has been around since 1994, always held in January. Over the years the race weekend grew exponentially. Soon, the “weekend” consisted of 4 different races on 4 different days. The 5K kicks off the weekend on Thursday, the 10K on Friday, the Half Marathon on Saturday, and the Marathon is the grand finale on Sunday morning. Someone at runDisney had the bright idea to market the 4 races as the “Dopey Challenge,” growing the popularity of the race series.
Here I am, a 34-year-old female that melts whenever she sees a picture of Minnie & Mickey Mouse who also happens to be an endurance junkie. Any guesses what I did last weekend?
In July of 2021, I set up my computer and refreshed my browser more times than I care to admit and forked over all of my hard-earned money to runDisney for the chance to run 4 races, on 4 consecutive days, at 5am each day (you read that right). Race weekend approached and I had treated my training similar to marathon training, with a few aspects of Ultra training mixed in. Training over the holidays is never perfect. And, “racing” 4 races consecutively meant throwing out any sort of time goals. Finishing was the ultimate goal. Because who can actually say that they taper a marathon with a half marathon the day before?
If you stay on Disney property, they make it more than easy for you. You walk outside your hotel room at 3am to find multiple busses waiting to transport runners to the Epcot parking lot, the starting line of all 4 races. The staging area is stocked with porta potties galore and even includes a stage and big screen to get athletes excited for the race. Gear bag trucks are meticulously placed where you can easily grab your things after you cross the finish line. Garbage cans are everywhere. Water stations are scattered about the area. Hand sanitizer galore. Food trucks. Merch tents. A “baby center” (still unsure what that was for?). And of course, a runner information tent. In case you didn’t know, details are what Disney does best. And there wasn’t a single detail of this race that was overlooked. Each morning looked very similar yet very different, let me explain.
This was by far when I saw the most costumes at the starting line. Yes, costumes. So many people run dressed as princesses, Minnie Mouse, Mickey Mouse, and any Disney Character you can imagine. The crowds were massive at 3:45am as I approached the staging area. Body glitter and tutus were everywhere. The vibe was magical and so inviting. Runners were encouraged to enter their corrals by 4:30am for the 5am start. I found my way to the start line and by 5am on the dot, I crossed the starting line and instantly discovered I was running through my childhood dream. The majority of the race runs through Epot, visiting all of the countries in the World Showcase. My mental picture still doesn’t do it justice. The entire park was lit up with twinkle lights. The fountains were running on repeat, adding to the enjoyment of the race. The finish line came pretty quickly after 3 miles. But it wouldn’t be long before I was back for more.
Finish Time: 25:18
I was lucky enough to have a few friends join me for this race. We woke up (they were a bit fresher than I, as this was my 2nd 2:30am alarm in a row) and hopped on a bus to the start line. This time I decided to sneak a little closer to the start. The gun went off and the first 3 miles were a bit uneventful, running towards Hollywood Studios on the highway. But let’s not forget about all the character photo opportunities! Disney characters of all kinds popped up on the side of the course, complete with a fun background so runners could run right up the mark on the road, strike a pose, and then keep on running. Sometimes you were greeted with a line of runners 10+ deep. Other times you could sneak right in, it was complete luck of the draw. Soon we entered Hollywood Studios through the backlot near the Tower of Terror. Park employees were scattered everywhere, cheering you on and acting their part. Everything was as lit up as could be. The energy was simply electric. Th next part of the course included running through the Boardwalk and finally entering Epcot. Once again, the magic put a smile on my face, and I couldn’t wipe it away. There really aren’t words to describe how beautiful Epcot looks in the dark. Here I was, my Dopey Challenge was officially half over. But let me tell you, the fun hadn’t even begun yet.
Finish Time: 52:55
Donald & Daisy Duck Half Marathon
Waking up on the 3rd day for the half marathon was when I truly started to notice the fatigue settling in. After all, I was in Disney World and I didn’t just “hang out in my room” during the day. I visited all the parks, ate and drank all the things, and walked more miles than I ran. The Half Marathon is my favorite distance, so I wanted to make it extra special. So, when I arrived in my corral, I snuck my way all the way to the front so I was able to toe the link of the Walt Disney World Half Marathon. The gun went off and we made our way to the Magic Kingdom! Entering the park and running down Main Street with the most perfect view of the castle is a vivid memory I promise that I’ll never forget. Characters popped up the entire 13.1 miles, park employees greeted us with their biggest smiles, and soon we entered Epcot for the final mile. I had checked off 3 of the 4 days, but the biggest hurdle was still on tap. The marathon.
Finish Time: 1:52:54
Mickey & Minnie Mouse Marathon
I won’t lie to you, I woke up on Marathon morning and my legs were far from fresh. They were actually sore, too. I took a few running steps towards the bus at 3am and it didn’t feel great at all. It was then that I was concerned that this marathon wasn’t going to be pretty. I found the start line and the first step proved to me that I was going to have to truly focus if I wanted to get through this day as quickly as possible. I made a few friends, enjoyed the sites of character photo opportunities, and soon the fun really started. We entered the Magic Kingdom, and the adrenaline was flowing. Eventually the sun came up and we entered the Animal Kingdom and I felt like Simba while I ran through the park. Curious and stumbling over my feet! The race finished up running through Hollywood Studios and Epcot. My smile was as large as could be as a made my final turn to the finish and I found my support crew. I had done it, 48.6 miles over 4 days. Not exactly something to shake a stick at. Before the race started, I was convinced I’d be walking half the marathon, but that was far from what happened. The atmosphere and energy carried me so far, even after I crossed the finish line. I snapped a few pictures, changed my clothes, and promptly entered Epcot as a park guest and found my spot in Germany, complete with a pretzel and a beer while I cheered on the rest of the marathoners.
Finish Time: 4:08:01
I can’t say enough about this event. Disney lover or not, this venue might be one of the best to host a marathon. Even while you ran on the highway, there was some form of entertainment. Sometimes it was music. Other times it was a movie playing that you can see and hear from a quarter mile away. Being able to see the backlots of all the parks was another thing I loved. Sure, they’re boring and that’s where the employees can prep for their day, but it’s so fun to see behind the scenes of the magic. And I won’t lie, I found every single finish line in the time I’d hoped for. Although, my legs are still barking at me for even starting that marathon. Until next time, Disney.