On Jan. 9, I completed a long-held dream to run a marathon at the Vacation Kingdom of the World, central Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort.
I had always loved the idea of running a race through the four theme parks scattered across the massive Disney World property, but was never in shape to attempt it.
That started changing a year ago when I began training for my first 5K (3.1 mile) race, which I completed last May in Forsyth County.
From there, I decided to tackle a 10K, which I completed on Labor Day in north Atlanta.
I began to wonder if the goal I had held for several years was finally within reach.
Starting in September, I committed myself to an 18-week marathon training plan and never looked back.
This month, all the work paid off with an amazing experience. Here’s a brief rundown.
Off early at Epcot
I woke up at 3 a.m. on race day to get to Epcot on time for the start, and made it to my corral on Epcot Center Drive to the east of the park about 4:50 a.m.
At the moment the race officially started, the sky exploded in a blaze of fireworks. I should have expected it from Disney, but it caught me off guard and gave me a huge surge of adrenaline.
As each wave took off, there was a smaller burst of fireworks and giant torches along the start line erupted into flame.
I was very pumped in these opening minutes, and kind of forgot the huge challenge ahead.
The first couple of miles went by quickly and easily. Before I knew it, I had finished two miles in about 25 minutes and was heading into the Epcot parking lot to enter the park.
In the darkness, the massive Spaceship Earth loomed ahead. Running beneath the iconic dome lit up in the predawn was exactly one of the moments I had wanted to experience during this race.
With Epcot finished, we headed back out onto the highway and eventually started going north toward Magic Kingdom.
The sun was well up as we approached the park. Monorails soared overhead and Space Mountain loomed ever larger.
It was about 8 a.m., a little more than two hours and 10 miles in, as we entered the park and turned up Main Street.
The park wasn’t open yet, but there were crowds of spectators lined up tightly along the ropes, all yelling encouragement and offering high-fives. At this point, I was high as a kite and felt like I could run forever.
We cut right into Tomorrowland, made a left turn into Fantasyland, and approached another of the race’s defining moments as Cinderella Castle rose around a corner.
There were royal trumpeters along the castle’s upper balconies as we approached from the rear, and they played ceremonial heraldry as we entered the castle.
Seriously, our own trumpeters? How cool is that?
At 11 miles, Magic Kingdom was behind me, and this was where I got into a spot of trouble.
The stretch of course just after the park was pretty bleak. I was starting to feel the miles now, and wondered — not if I would finish — but if the last 15 miles or so were going to be a real fight.
I still had three hours or so left, and I didn’t want it to be a miserable slog to keep going.
Near mile marker 14, I got a big pick-me-up. A Davy Crockett character stood out along the course promising “potassium” ahead, which I knew meant volunteers would be handing out bananas.
It was perfect timing. I was about three hours into the run, mentally beat down, and craving something hardier than a mouthful of 100-calorie runner’s goo.
The banana was just the thing to put me back in the game, and it did.
At 16 miles, we reached the gated backstage area that marked the northern boundary of Animal Kingdom, the third theme park.
It boasts a huge geographic footprint, largely because of the space needed to house the animals, and we spent more than a mile running through its backstage and guest areas.
Eighteen miles in, and I started wondering how my body was going to hold up. Somewhere between 18 to 22 miles is when many runners “hit the wall” as their muscles become depleted of crucial glycogen and their bodies try and force them to stop moving.
I just kept moving along the long highway stretch past the Animal Kingdom parking lot, and waited to see if things would get more difficult.
It was a strange reversal. Instead of flagging in the race’s final miles, I started feeling stronger.
Through ‘my’ park
On the 23rd mile, we headed into the fourth theme park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the very park in which I had worked many moons ago.
Cast members yelled “Welcome to Hollywood!” as we entered. Knowing that “my” park was welcoming me and pushing me on to the finish line was another big boost.
Leaving the studios, we ran toward the boardwalk and finally entered Epcot for the second time.
Five hours earlier, I had crossed through in the dark, with no one but early clocked-in cast members cheering. Now the place was lit up and full of people.
Out of World Showcase and on into Future World, heading back toward Spaceship Earth.
At this point, we were well into the 26th mile. I knew there was less than half a mile to go, and felt a huge surge of motivation.
Surge to finish
As I passed Spaceship Earth for the second time, I started running as fast as I could, passing dozens of other people.
The crowd’s reaction was incredible. What had been a buzz of pleasant cheers erupted into a chorus of full-throated roars, like they had just seen a winning 3-point shot.
It was an amazing moment, as close as I’ll likely come to knowing how an all-star athlete must feel in front of a friendly crowd.
Out of the park, into the parking lot, and within a minute or so, the finish line was in plain sight.
A gospel choir was assembled, and I heard a very appropriate “Hallelujah!” as I crossed the line.
I had finished the race in a hair under 5 hours and 37 minutes. It was 11:30 a.m. on the dot.
This race was the culmination of months of training, four days a week without fail. I ran in 20-degree and 80-degree weather, day and nighttime, rain and snow.
In short, it was an adventure every step of the way — and it ended with one of the biggest adventures of my life.
For more on Staff Writer BJ Corbitt’s marathon experience, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.