26.2 miles of Disney: Reporter conquers marathon

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It's not the way the guidebooks recommend it, but Joe Manuelli, of Travel Weekly's custom publishing department, toured four Walt Disney World theme parks in one day -- by running the Disney Marathon.

His recollections follow.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The best part of the Disney Marathon for me was high-fiving Mickey along Main Street USA; the worst came from the tiniest of inclines -- crossing an Epcot bridge during that long, last mile.

Covering 26.2 miles of Disney and still on my feet -- it was a great feeling, and I found myself as giddy as the many cartoon characters I had passed that morning.

And I do mean in the a.m. This race starts before dawn; like thousands of entrants, I caught a 3:45 a.m. bus to get to the staging area. But it was all worth it, especially the camaraderie of high-strung yet bleary-eyed competitors just before the gun went off.

The anticipation, the excitement, the pent-up nerves -- I admitted to a runner beside me that I hadn't experienced this type of feeling since joining a freshman panty raid in college. I don't know if she heard me, though, with all the song and dance greeting the runners.

And the entertainment had to be long-lasting; like other first-timers, my corral position was toward the rear of the masses. It took eight minutes just to reach the start line.

Yet by day's end, I, like 13,000 other competitors, had passed Disney landmarks both new and old (from Cinderella's Castle to the Tree of Life). I had earned my medal. (To complete the race officially, you must finish within seven hours of the start time.)

Furthermore, I had witnessed a series of both exhilarating and humbling episodes.

Some personal race highlights:

  • Catching glimpses (and some potent whiffs) of all the behind-the-scenes animal residents of Animal Kingdom.
  • Spotting a couple running side by side at milepost 14; their T-shirts read "Loser Pays for Honeymoon."
  • Watching runners break stride for a quick hug of a Disney character.
  • Wading with rubbery legs through a sea of trashed plastic water cups at mile marker 24.
  • The one entrant who, dressed like Tarzan, ran alongside the barriers and playfully hit spectators with a toy club.
  • Playing cat-and-mouse with another runner the last part of the race. We kept passing each other at water stops. I'll never know who finished first, but her T-shirt was notable. It read "Body by Ben and Jerry's."
  • Thankfully remembering to apply a dab of Vaseline (it helps avoid friction burns on the thighs) in the start corral.
  • Going through Epcot before dawn. The park was lighted, yet eerily still. At the finish, cheerful volunteers provided Mylar blankets, removed ChampionChips (shoe-lace timing devices) and generally looked out for those in need of a quick trip to the medical station.
  • While rapaciously sucking down fresh oranges at the rehydration tent, I realized that what makes this specific event so much fun is a combination of several elements:

  • The location helps keep this competitive race festive.
  • It attracts many first-time entrants (as well as many female runners, 45%).
  • The majority of participants are also vacationing with family, so there is a strong element of support.
  • As my seatmate on the start bus observed, "The kids are sure glad Mom took up running; we're staying the entire week."

    Throughout the 1999 Disney Marathon, cast members (employees) and characters were stationed at various points, providing encouragement along with family members.

    The January event marked the sixth annual running; it has been growing in popularity (registration closed about 75 days before the race date), and it is quickly becoming a key element in Disney's promotion of sporting events as a way to increase off-season attendance.

    The marathon was accompanied by a host of related events, including a 5K Family Fun Run, a prerace pasta dinner and a weekend Health & Fitness Expo. This year, for the first time, the route went through Animal Kingdom, and a half-marathon option was added. About 3,500 runners chose to do 13.1 miles.

    The men's marathon winner was Santiago Francisco de Araujo (2:24:29), a Brazilian defending his 1998 title. The women's champion was Marina Jones, a 46-year-old flight attendant from California (2:54:21). Participants came from a total of 32 nations.

    I made my goal of finishing in under five hours (and was still physically capable of taking my 5-year-old through Disney-MGM Studios the next day).

    Agents with clients who might be interested in packages for the Jan. 9, 2000, marathon can call the Disney Sports Reservation Line at (407) 939-7810 or access the agent Web site at www.travelagents.disney.com.

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