Saturday, January 16, 2010

GUEST POST: The Walt Disney World Marathon Experience by Jason Jaworski

I’m breathing hard, yet not moving an inch. It’s 5:39 in the morning and at this moment the only thing racing is my pulse. The minute before the start of my first marathon offered surreal clarity – I am actually doing this, here and now, and there’s no turning back now – I’m committed.

Commitment is not my forte. A decision I made eight months ago during one of my more audacious moments had finally caught up to me. I’m finally going to sign up for a marathon. Ten long years of toiling with the idea of “Did I have what it takes?” reached a pinnacle. There was only one way to find out.

So I accepted this challenge long ago in the comfort of my apartment, on my PC in my PJ’s in between spoonfuls of cereal. My date with destiny had always seemed so far away…until now. Now it was eye-to-eye. If a challenge is what I wished for, I should not have been disappointed at these circumstances.

5:40 arrived. Fireworks engulfed the entire sky. I took my first step. I didn’t feel a thing. My foot had gone numb sometime within the last hour. We all know 29 degree frigid weather tends to do that. Florida wouldn’t act like Florida today. The Disney World Marathon course was offering no respite for the warm-blooded. I didn’t account for this - I just wanted to run 26 point 2 miles, isn’t that enough?

I made a defining decision at 5:41 - to covet every moment of this journey no matter what. I didn’t have to suffer. I didn’t have to worry. I didn’t have to pay the price for a cockamamie decision. I chose positive resolve. From therein, focus and fascination were my permanent traveling companions. Disney was going to put on the production of a lifetime, and I wasn’t going to let hitchhikers like doubt and pain rain on my parade.

The first hour of the race is completely in the darkness, which actually enhances the allure of the course. Large torches, illuminated structures, soft music, and holiday decor aligned the dark and empty trails of Epcot – tranquility at its finest. Inner peace extinguished into raw energy as I looped back out near the starting line. Massive screens and speakers were pumping AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long” into my ears and through my veins. The crowds were electric, my runner companions were fired up - the place was just rockin’!

Surprisingly I adhered to the tried-and-true advice – “Don’t start out too fast or you’ll be sorry.” I kept a moderate pace, letting the crisp air gently fill my lungs. Further up World Drive we crossed paths with the race leaders who were beginning their decent from Magic Kingdom – it must be nice to see an open stretch of road. I was still packed in a congested sea of bobbing heads and shuffling feet. It didn’t matter because the anticipation was growing – my family awaited me on Main Street a few short miles away.

Main Street USA, the quintessential backdrop of the Disney World Marathon – it’s the part of the course that each and every marathoner dreams about. Spectators eagerly gather along these few short blocks of the most perfectly-fabricated town on the planet. One right turn onto Main Street is a glimpse at celebrity status – people everywhere: cheering, holding signs, jumping up and down just to get to see the action. I had no problem spotting my support crew and stopped for a few seconds to hug my mom, brother, and my girlfriend. There’s just too much pleasure to feel any pain during this part of the course. As quickly as we arrived, we looped underneath Cinderella’s Castle and exited the park.

There’s a 7-mile open stretch to get my bearings. I took a quick inventory and I knew the bottom of my feet were not going to be in the best shape. I could feel blisters starting to form around the tape - my weak attempt at plantar fasciitis prevention. Too late to adjust that now, I’ll worry about that later.

Undoubtedly the backbone of the event were the volunteers, all 6,000 of them. To say they offered encouragement at each of the 22 stations along the course would be a drastic understatement – their support was simply unrivaled. It was if the freezing conditions actually energized them. And today we were witness to yet another important volunteer responsibility – safety.

As soon as I got within earshot of the station, volunteers would be calling out something other than “water” and “Powerade,” but strangely enough were shouting “Ice!” and pointing in certain directions. All the excess liquid dispelled by the runners ahead had actually froze along the pavement and added yet another element of challenge – like we needed something else to contend with!

Outside of the stations, I saw ice one other time. I’m cruising along behind two guys at Mile 18 and the one wearing the 70.3 Ironman shirt yells, “Holy sh!t, I wish I had my camera right now!” He’s pointing at the back of the other guys head. This “other guy” had been sweating profusely and was now sporting a slew of icicles stringing off the ends of his hair – I’m coining the term “ice dreads” – you heard it here first.

I chatted with my Ironman friend through Mile 21, the hardest hill on the course – believe it or not, there are actually some hills in Florida. We separated during the next mile where I had my first encounter with the infamous “Wall,” which is the dreaded runners’ term for glycogen depletion plus lactic acid build-up equals not good.

This was the challenge I wanted – a test of my mental fortitude. My legs tensed up, from my quads to my hamstrings to my glutes. It’s like continuously tightening a vice – it’s gradual, but it doesn’t loosen at all. I managed to keep my cool as I snatched raisins, candy, Powerade, and Lord knows what else from the next few stations – my stomach hates me I’m sure.

Mile 24 felt as long as a visit to the DMV. And even though the seconds seemed like hours, I was in for a pleasant surprise – there was no Mile 25 marker. As Epcot’s defining centerpiece, Spaceship Earth, loomed in the near distance, I instantly got re-energized as I realized that a mere 385 meters separated my aching feet from the finish line.

Disney anchors a full choir singing at the top of their lungs as a farewell sendoff before the home stretch. Many runners just lose their composure at this point, but I was way too fired up. Thousands of spectators came into view as I turned the corner. A muffled commotion soon turned into an audible roar – showcasing the true majesty of the marathon – everyone’s rooting for the same team. I spotted my family along the sidelines, but there was no time for stopping - plenty of time for hugs later.

I always envisioned a sprint to the finish, and I did not disappoint. Whatever I had left, I was going to leave it on the course. I blasted through the last 100 meters waving my arms to the crowd while flashing my pearly whites from ear to ear, capped off with a double-biceps pose at the finish – 3 hours, 47 minutes, and 58 seconds after my first step.

16,883 pairs of frozen feet galloped over the Disney World Marathon finish line on January 10th 2010. It’s a personal title my fellow runners and I can carry with us the rest of our lives – I’m a marathoner. People run for so many different reasons – mine was a vehicle to commit to commitment, driving to become a better me.

I’ll remember my first marathon for the rest of my life, yet also remember to keep challenging myself to be a better me. We’re all a work-in-progress striving for perfection, BUT unlike art, we don’t have to be a finished piece to be regarded as a masterpiece.

Thank you to my friend, Jason Jaworski, for sharing his first marathon experience with us. It's an honor. When I was reading this, I actually felt like I was on the course with him.