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How I Walked Around the World

How I Walked Around the World

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It's 5:30 on a Sunday morning, and I'm at Walt Disney World. Most people on vacation at the World early on a Sunday morning would be fast asleep under a set of warm covers in a hotel room, but not me. I've been awake since 2:30 in the morning and since then, I've been bussed, walked, and otherwise moved several times from one place to another on the WDW property. Now, I'm sitting on a section of blacktop surrounded by a plastic fence, freezing half to death wearing some very light running clothes and a ratty old sweatshirt, but the cold is the least of my worries at the moment.

I'm worried about an incredible physical and mental challenge that will be starting in just a few minutes. I'm worried that, in spite of months of preparation and years of anticipation, I'm not ready for this challenge. I'm worried that some minor aches and pains in my body might be harbingers of a major problem that might develop in the hours ahead. Mainly, though, I'm wondering what I was thinking when I decided to do what I'm about to do. What possessed me to think that walking in a marathon was a good idea? What the hell am I doing here?

Two years ago, my fiancée and I were on vacation at WDW when I met my first marathon runners and got my first look at the Mickey Medallion. When I talked to those people and first saw the medallion, I began thinking that participating in the Walt Disney World Marathon wasn't just something that a world-class athlete could do, but something that anyone with enough heart and desire could do. To make a long story short (for the long version, you can read all about it here ), I decided that I had the heart and desire to make my dream a reality, and I started on a long regimen of training to make it happen. Two years of practice walks, several races (including a successful walk in the Los Angeles Marathon), a couple of injuries, and a few personal setbacks later, I'm only minutes away from living my dream of walking around the World. And I'm panicking.

Fortunately, I'm not alone. There are about 24,000 people on this same stretch of blacktop just outside of the Epcot parking lot, waiting for their chance to make their marathon and half-marathon dreams come true, and they're just as anxious and nervous as I am. They're not packing up and going home, so neither will I. I try to relax, stretch to limber up for the race ahead, and try to tune out the incredibly loud dance music playing over the loudspeakers as I wait for the final countdown.

5:59 a.m.: Mickey, Minnie, and two Disney hosts who are perkier than should be legal at this hour of the morning start counting down the seconds remaining until the start of the race. The crowd counts along, and when the count reaches zero, a shower of fireworks lights up the early morning darkness. The crowd starts edging forward. Showtime.

6:07 a.m.: It takes a lot of time to go a few hundred feet when there are 8,000 people in front of you, but Mickey and Minnie are finally in sight. I cross the starting line, and my race has officially begun. Here goes nothing.

6:21 a.m.: After walking down a road to the Epcot parking lot and being encouraged by several hundred cheering people on the side of the road, I reach a sign with a picture of Mickey and a motivational quote. It's the Mile 1 marker sign. One mile down, 25.2 more to go. (Oh, yeah - I really shouldn't be reminding myself how far I have to go at this point!)

More than a few of my fellow walkers and runners are celebrating this milestone by heading a few hundred feet past the side of the road and going to the potty. This isn't due to poor planning by the WDW marathon organizers or boorish behavior on the part of my fellow racers. It's just that once you start moving and the initial excitement of the race hits you, you just feel like you've really gotta go, and there aren't enough porta-potties in the world to meet the needs of 24,000 people who all decide they've got to answer nature's call at the same time. Personally, I've decided to hold on for a while longer rather than join them- I've head about all the critters that live out in those woods…

6:42 a.m.: I'm almost 3 miles into the race and I've reached my first theme park. I walk past another several hundred people cheering the racers on and under Spaceship Earth on my way through Future World. The Disney cast members get their first chance to show their support for all of us; as I walk under the holiday canopy between Future World and World Showcase, cast members from all of the World Showcase nations applaud and cheer me on. In World Showcase Lagoon, the Illuminations torches burn brightly and the globe from the show displays an image of a man and a woman running. On the park's PA system, I'm being serenaded by "One Little Spark" from "Journey into Imagination". It's going to be going through my head - with some new marathon-inspired lyrics - all day today.

Passing Future World, I swing past the Mexico and Norway pavilions (past the statue of a famous Norwegian marathoner - nice touch, Disney), and hang a left as the course takes the walkers backstage for the first time. I get to see the back side of the Mexico and Norway pavilions and Test Track before I pass through the Epcot security gate and…wind up right back on to the same stretch of road where the race started! 4 miles in and I'm already feeling déjà vu…

7:27 a.m.: The first challenge of the morning - a hill. Well, all right, not a real hill - after all, this is Florida - but the WDW Marathon equivalent, a freeway bridge. Walking uphill isn't too much of a challenge (at least not at this point), and at the top of the bridge, I get my first inkling of how large a group 24,000 people really is; looking down from the bridge onto World Drive, I can see a river of people running and walking toward the Magic Kingdom. A few minutes later, having completed 6 miles, I'm down on World Drive myself and I can see even more people still crossing the bridge. I have no illusions of being a fast walker, yet I've got hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are going slower than I am behind me!

Knowing I'm not going to be dead last in this race unless I get trampled on is a nice bit of ego gratification that keeps me going all the way to the Transportation and Ticket Center. Once there, I find another large crowd of people cheering me on and calling out words of encouragement to me by name. No, they're not all friends of mine or psychic - the race bib (that's the thing the runners and walkers wear with their race number) has the participant's name on it. The WDW Marathon has a reputation for being a very friendly race for runners and walkers, and touches like this really help.

8:17 a.m.: I make a left turn at the Contemporary Resort, pass the marker for Mile 10 and a security gate near Space Mountain, and as I walk through an underpass I see it - the spires of Cinderella Castle. Welcome to the Magic Kingdom. A quick dash through a backstage area and I'm walking down the middle of Main Street U.S.A., with yet another gigantic throng of people cheering me on! I'm amazed that so many people would come out incredibly early on a Sunday morning (they would have had to get here long before the theme parks open to the paying public) just to show their support for the runners and walkers.

Cinderella Castle is just ahead, but the course doesn't take me there just yet - first I've got to walk through Tomorrowland and Fantasyland before I get the big Kodak moment of walking through the castle entrance. There are plenty of other Kodak moments to keep me and everyone else busy in the meantime, though - the Disney characters are out in force to meet and greet the runners. I decide I can afford to add a little to my official time and stop for a picture with Lilo and Stitch.

I pass up on photos with Alice and the Tweedles, Goofy, and the Country Bears, but I can't resist taking a picture with a train crew and a Walt Disney World Railroad engine before going backstage again in Frontierland. This is definitely a race where you want to bring a camera with you, folks!

8:52 a.m.: I walk out of the backstage areas of the Magic Kingdom and down Floridian Way past the Grand Floridian and the Wedding Pavilion (where there cast members are out to greet the runners in bride and groom Mickey and Minnie ears). The voice of Mickey echoes down the road, telling the runners and walkers to split up depending on whether they're participating in the half-marathon or the marathon. The half-marathon runners are picking up speed and the crowds at the side of the road are going positively wild - and why not? The half-marathoners are only a few feet away from the Transportation and Ticket Center parking lot and their finish line. They've made it! So far, the weather's been perfect - the sun is out now, but up to now it's been a little chilly, which is perfect running weather. I'm feeling pretty good - I'm little sore and stiff in the shoulders, and my left ankle's bothering me just a touch, but I feel pretty good.

The thing is, I'm only half done. There's still 13 miles to go, and it's starting to get a little warm…

9:05 a.m.: In the space of a mile, I've gone from being in the middle of all the action to being in the middle of nowhere. I'm walking down a little two-lane road that most guests normally wouldn't travel on unless they had made a wrong turn; we're in the back woods, the undeveloped section of the WDW property. I find myself trying to get the theme from "Deliverance" out of my head.

Actually, the WDW Marathon organizers have recognized how lonely this stretch of the race is and have arranged for a few diversions to keep the racers' minds distracted from the quiet and the increasing soreness of their bodies. First, there are Disney trivia questions on signs (quick, who's the only Disney title character that never speaks?). Not distracting enough? Well, next up are several "critter crossings", where Disney characters are standing on the side of the road giving encouragement and posing for photographs; I decide to pass on Uncle Scrooge, Launchpad McQuack, Flik, and Atta, but can't resist getting pictures with the White Rabbit and Br'er Rabbit as well as Koda and Kenai.

There's a local high school band and drill team out playing fight songs to keep us in the spirit. But I think my favorite distraction during this part of the race is the stuff that Disney is hoping the racers won't notice - the backstage facilities, like the tree farm, the maintenance shops, and the composting facility. (Let's be honest here - there aren't enough Disney characters and bands in the world to distract you from the smell of the composting facility. Phew!)

9:32 a.m.: I'm past Mile 16, and I've made it to the guard gate of my third theme park of the race - Disney's Animal Kingdom. You don't really get a feel for how big this place really is until you go backstage, folks; by the time I've gone through the park and left via a cast entrance not far from the main entrance, I will have walked another two miles.

The other thing I notice about the park right now is how well Disney has hidden the fences and the enclosures from the guests; I've hardly ever noticed the barriers when I've gone through the guest areas at DAK, but backstage the place reminds me a lot of something I saw in "Jurassic Park".

At this point, I'm surprised I'm noticing much of anything other than the heat and my aches and pains. The Florida sun is making its full force felt, and even with all the water I've been drinking from my bottle and from the water stations, I'm starting to feel a little parched. My body's making it clear that it's not very happy with me at the moment; parts of my body I hardly notice most of the time are starting to ache. Fortunately, my body's only mildly displeased with me right now, and there are no signs of any real injury, so I press on.

I walk into the guest areas of the park - being careful to watch for the narrow paths, as Minnie's warning me via the park's loudspeakers. After a quick dash through Harambe and Anandpur, I get my first look at the skeleton of an iron mountain. In a year or two, this tall iron structure will be thrilling guests as Expedition: Everest. Even now, when it's nowhere near completion, it looks to me like it's going to be one wild ride.

10:23 a.m.: Having left the Animal Kingdom parking lot, I'm now walking the longest straight legs of the race - about 4 miles up and back down Osceola Parkway. I've got another freeway bridge to deal with here, only it's a lot more of a challenge to walk up the bridge this time. 19 miles of walking will do that to you, even though I've been careful to consume the packets of power gel that I've brought with me in my pack.

(Before we continue, I guess I should take a moment to explain: Because you're burning about 100 calories per every mile you walk in a long-distance race, your body's own stores of energy become more and more depleted the farther you go, and you need to eat something to keep you going - preferably something with a lot of sugar and/or caffeine that's small and easy to carry. The most common solution is to eat packets of "power gel" or "goo", which is an incredibly sweet, pasty gel that comes in small packets and tastes like yogurt that's been left in the sun for too long. If you're really curious about this stuff, you can pick up a packet at your local sporting goods store. Don't say I didn't warn you about the taste.)

I pass giant balloons of Disney characters like Nemo and Mr. Incredible, but by now I'm getting too hot, sore, and tired to care. By now, I'm grabbing two cups of water at each water station - one to drink, one to pour on my head. Then, I see something that really excites me - a small sign at the side of the road reading "Mile 20". I think I'm going to make it. No - I know I'm going to make it.

11:05 a.m.: I walk on a couple of overpasses, noticing that even slight inclines are now getting to be a challenge, and then enter the Disney-MGM Studios. I'm not sure what's keeping my feet moving at this point, but, hey, as long as they're moving! People are lined up all along Hollywood Boulevard cheering me on - I swear they get more enthusiastic as I get more tired, but I love getting their support. I have to stop for one last photo opportunity before I leave the park with Hercules, Phil, and Megara. I think it's another nice touch for them to be out here greeting the racers. Call it the Disney character challenge - Hercules can go the distance, how about you?

11:55 a.m.: After walking through the BoardWalk, over - groan - another pedestrian bridge and past the Yacht and Beach Club, I pass through a gate near the International Gateway and re-enter Epcot. All I have to do is walk around World Showcase, past Spaceship Earth, through the main entrance, and I'm done. The end of the race is tantalizingly close - I passed Mile 25 entering the park - but right now, I'm as willing to stop as I am to keep going. (Later on, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel who's running the marathon will write that at this point he wished he'd had a Fastpass for the remainder of the race. You and me both, buddy.) At this point in the race, I and many other racers go into "one more mile" mode; that's the point where the only way you can keep moving is by telling yourself, "I feel pretty awful and I'm exhausted, but I know I can go for just one more mile." The folks watching me from the side of the path are going crazy and keep yelling how much farther I have to go to the finish line. Funny, Epcot never seemed this big all the other times I've been here…

12:07 p.m.: I walk out the Epcot main entrance, make a couple of quick turns, and there it is - the finish line! There's a row of bleachers lining the path, and they're full of people going wild, and at the end of the row, Goofy and Pluto are giving out high fives to the folks who are just about to cross the line. I'd love to sprint right over there, but I haven't got the energy for it; I'm just going to keep walking, slap some paw with Goofy and Pluto and savor the moment. I've done it! I've finished the Walt Disney World Marathon! A volunteer hands me a Mylar blanket, another volunteer takes the time recording device off my shoe, and most importantly, a third volunteer comes up and hands me this massive medallion with Mickey Mouse ears hanging on a multi-colored ribbon. It's probably not worth more than a few dollars, but at this moment, it's worth more to me than its weight in gold, silver, and platinum combined. I'm so tired and so excited that none of this seems real. Then various parts of my body start feeling stiff and sore. Yep, it's real.

The rest of the day passes in a daze. I get a post-race massage at the medical tent to help lessen the pain and the soreness, I find my fiancée in the post-race meeting area, and we head off back to our room so I can take a shower, get a well-deserved nap, and cover about half my body with Icy-Hot. I'll be walking a little stiffly for the next couple of days, and I'll be dealing with muscle cramps and spasms in places where I didn't realize I had muscles, but I don't care. I've done something I've wanted to do for more than two years - something that a lot of people never do.

The next day, I walk around all day wearing my Mickey medallion. I'm not doing it to brag or to show off, though .I'm hoping that it'll inspire someone the way seeing that Mickey medallion in 2003 inspired me; I'm hoping that maybe somebody will look at me and my medallion and decide that maybe, just maybe, if this average-looking guy can manage to run a whole marathon, he or she can do it, too.

If you've been inspired by this story to make your dreams of walking around the World come true, registration is now open for the 2006 Walt Disney World Half-Marathon and Marathon; the races will be held on January 7th and 8th. More information and online registration forms can be found at http://www.disneyworldmarathon.com.

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