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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Race Report: Tinkerbell Half Marathon 1/19/14 - Why YES You Can RACE a Disney Event!

Three days ago I completed my first runDisney event.  I remember the moment I registered for this race, because just a few weeks prior, my husband came home from work to tell me that we were moving (from Portland, OR) to Orange County at the end of July.  Registration was early in July, and I had heard that the Disney races all sell out swiftly, so I logged onto from my phone while sitting on the bench outside my daughter's ballet class.  I thought to myself, well, since I'll be living down there anyways, "when in Rome...".  It is funny how sometimes you do things without really knowing the huge impact that can result.  It is scary to move to a new state without knowing another soul, and I had no idea that when I registered for that simple Tinkerbell Half Marathon, I'd be waking up in an Anaheim hotel room at 3:15 AM to prepare silly costumes and discuss race strategies with some fantastic new Orange County friends. 

Yes, I said 3:15.  Since the race had to be totally completed prior to the opening of Disneyland for the day, the official start time was 5:00 AM.  Luckily, several of my awesome new friends from our Moms Run This Town chapter and I stayed in a nearby hotel the night prior and utilized the free shuttle service to avoid traffic and parking.  Logistically, this made it super easy and a total blast.  We chatted and laughed the night prior until 11 so needless to say, we were not prepared for the alarm clock the next day.  Everyone woke up happy and excited though (hello, we were about to go RUN at DISNEY) and we put on our various wings and tiaras and in my case, cowboy hat, and got on the shuttle.  I dressed as Jessie from Toy Story, complete with her signature red cowboy hat piped in white, blue Team Sparkle skirt and cow-print knee socks.

Deer in Headlights With Several of my MRTT Girls Before Finding our Corrals.

I had been warned just how thick the crowd would be and it certainly was.  However, with over 14,000 runners, I was impressed with the organization of the event.  Each runner was corralled via a confirmed time from a previous race, so I made my way up to the "A" corral, as designated by my bib.  Since the bib numbers were also assigned by previous race times, I knew I needed to start close to the front since my bib was number 36. 

My view at the start.

For several months leading up to this race, I actively participated in a national Tinkerbell Half Marathon Facebook group.  Most of the other members had done several other runDisney events so I learned a lot about what to expect.  Here is where I learned what makes runDisney races VERY different than all other races.  A large number of the Disney race participants are not there to race, in fact, MOST participants have no desire to run fast or focus on time, and that is just fine.  Many mentioned that this is not a "PR race", and instead to focus on taking pictures with the various cast members along the route, and just to take in the entire experience.  But I had an internal struggle with this advice.

I love Disneyland, I truly do, but I love running more. 

Since moving to Orange County, we frequent the parks, and have ample opportunities to explore without the feeling of needing to rush through every ride and scene since we can just go back the next week as a local.  I had no idea prior to the start of this race if I would participate in all of the set aside photo opportunities, or treat the race as any other race.  I dressed in a costume like all the other participants, but I knew deep inside that the FUN for me is actually in the running.  I knew that morning of the race that I wouldn't be stopping for pictures along the course, and that is equally just fine.  I know many loyal runDisney fanatics look down upon my method, but to me, this truly is a race, one that should be preceded by a training plan and dedication to crossing the finish line in the best possible shape.  Just because I chose to actually run the race does not mean I did not have fun.

So I weaved my way to near the front of the start with 15 minutes to spare, and prepared for an experience I knew would be like no other race I'd ever done.  The National Anthem was concluded with classic Disney fireworks, and this set the tone for an over-the-top Half Marathon.  Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck stood on the podium with the announcers and in the pre-dawn darkness (which lingered until after I finished the entire race) at precisely 5 AM, under an over-sized screen portraying Tinkerbell herself, we were off! 

Minnie Mouse Announcing the Start.

Passing Under Tinkerbell at the Start.

Because I got to start so close to the front, I never experienced the typical elbow fighting and jockeying for position that usually occurs at the beginning of every race.  I know this was not the norm for a Disney race, and I found it refreshing.  This calmed my nerves, as I was anxious about that crowded start.  I must state though, that the only reason I started so close to the front is because my bib number was 36.  If it had been something higher, I would have given other runners the front, just out of common courtesy.  I have heard horror stories of those that actually wanted to run this race yet found themselves stuck behind pockets of walkers lacking the decency to stay to the right.  This is infuriating for someone who has trained hard for a race. 

Disney provides Corral A bibs to special VIPs and in that first minute I ran by Sarah and Dimity, authors of the book Run Like a Mother and Train Like a Mother.  I have met these ladies several times so I ran parallel to them for a few seconds to say hello and tell them that they looked gorgeous in their Queen Elsa (of the movie Frozen) costumes.  And then I kicked ahead.  The race started in the California Adventure Park.  We weaved up and down the various areas of the park, from the Paradise Pier to Cars Land.  We saw cast members and parade floats and the music of the park was blasting.  It truly was magical.  Each person and character lining the streets cheered us on, yelling "Go Jessie, Go!" to me as I ran by in my distinguishing red cowboy hat and cow print knee socks.  World of Color was running, and I loved that since I've never stayed at the park long enough to capture the spectacle.  Since the story of Peter Pan is filled with tales of pirates, there was an abundance of pirates along the course too.  We made our way through the back lots, past the animal barns that house the park's horses, the employee buildings, the maintenance sheds, and through Disneyland.  The darkness of the early hour was electrified by Disney's magical lighting in pink and blue and green.  I saw Cinderella, Rapunzel (I yelled hello!) and Merida.  My daughter would have swooned.  I saw more pirates, and Mike and Sully from Monster's Inc..  My son would have chased them down!  Since I was up front, I basically ran all alone, the nearest runners ten yards ahead and behind.  This made it special because everyone cheered as if I was the only one there.  I held my pace right at 7:30/mile.

I never stopped smiling the entire time.  Never.  Though I did not stop for pictures, I had FUN!

Marathon Foto Captured my Neverending Smile in my Toy Story Jessie Costume.

About halfway through the race, I downed my Surge Espresso Gel as we left the parks and looped our way through the streets of Anaheim.  Even though we had exited the "Happiest Place on Earth", the positive energy followed.  From the Red Hat Society ladies who lined a corner to the various High School bands and cheer squads, to the hundreds of Anaheim Police volunteers, my goofy smile remained intact.  Interestingly, I never turned my music on the entire race.  There were several lonely miles too, just listening to the sound of my own feet hitting the pavement.  Looking back, I am very proud of myself for maintaining the 7:30 pace through these long stretches.  I never ran out of energy though, and was able to pick up the pace in the final two miles, passing a few women along the way.  The only people to pass me the entire race were a handful of guys, every single one of them dressed as Peter Pan, which I found quite comical. 

The race concluded near the Disneyland Hotel, with Mickey and Minnie and Chip 'n' Dale there to provide endless high fives at the finish line.  Again, I was impressed with the organization of this race, but considering I was only the 67th person (31st woman!) to cross the finish line (5th in my division!), it was not a chaotic traffic jam of finishers trying to claim their snack boxes, mylar blanket and the glittering Tinkerbell medal.  The finisher's chute lead to a large area where an Army band sang well-done covers of popular songs.  Since I was alone, I did not remain and instead made my way back to the hotel shuttle.

Displaying my First runDisney Medal!

My conclusion of this, my first runDisney race, is that I had an absolute blast.  It was a unique, unparalleled experience to run through the empty yet still vibrant Disneyland parks.  The crowds raved over my Jessie costume and that fired me up even more.  My net time was 1:39:04, which is still four minutes above my PR, but I was happy with the result nevertheless, especially considering I ran in a non-aerodynamic cowboy hat, danced along to the High School bands, and high fived all the cast members along the entire 13.1 miles.

Because I am a Numbers Girl.

Just this morning I registered for the Disneyland Half Marathon in August, and I am already so excited to repeat this day.  Now I need to start planning my costume!  The only soreness I felt post race was in my cheeks from my permanent smile and I am counting down the days until I feel it again.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Race Report: SoCal Half Marathon 1/11/14

I'll be honest.  When I registered for the SoCal Half Marathon a few weeks ago, I did so solely because the starting line was about a half mile from my front door.  Turns out I received a lesson much more valuable than gaining a few more minutes of sleep.

The day began unlike the typical race morning.  Instead of setting my alarm several hours before loading my car, before driving at least 30 miles, before standing around freezing for a few more hours, before finally selecting "start" on my Garmin, I simply woke up, enjoyed my usual leisurely breakfast of oatmeal with chia seeds and coffee, and then met my friend and her husband (who are also my neighbors) for an easy warm-up walk over to the crowds.  We met fifteen minutes before the gun, I'm not even kidding.  We meandered right past the port-a-potty lines, laughing about our ability to take care of business in the comfort of our own homes just minutes prior.  Oh runners, not a modest bone in the body!

Natalia, Mitch and I, skipping those pesky port-a-potty lines!

The race began at 8:00, and the gorgeously reliable Southern California sunshine promptly thawed our bare shoulders.  I wore my Nathan Intensity pack and Brooks Pure Cadence.  I carried a disposable hand warmer in each hand to stave off the Raynaud's without needing to wear a "throw away" long-sleeved shirt.  This was an effective plan, one that I will repeat in the future.  I just tossed the hand-warmers in the first water station's garbage boxes.

The course was flat.  Well, all courses are flat to me after running a full marathon in San Francisco.  But this course was flat, and swept along the San Diego Creek Trail, where I spend many hours every week logging training miles.  It was home. 

The start was not too crowded, though there were 4,352 runners that completed the half marathon, and another 902 5k runners that shared the same start time.  One of the best aspects of this race was that it served as a training run for thousands of Los Angeles students training for the Los Angeles Marathon with the Students Run LA program.  According to the SRLA website, the organization strives (or strides?) to "Inspire at-risk youth to achieve their dreams through a life-transforming experience: The training for, and completion of, the ASICS LA Marathon."  Wow.  What an inspirational morning it was, to be alongside these students in the brilliant yellow shirts and specially made Nike sneakers, donated from their powerful sponsor.  To see kids falling in love with running truly moves me, as it was at this age I found running as a release and outlet.  Seriously, go check out the link above to discover this wonderful program.

Truly, the weather conditions could not have been more perfect at 60 degrees with very little wind.  But I'll admit it, I'm so easily pleased when it comes to running.  As a recent Southern California transplant from the webbed-feet requiring Pacific Northwest, we are so spoiled down here.  And I love every second of it. 

This particular race is over 23 years in existence, and benefits the Woodbridge School District.  Various sports teams from Woodbridge High School volunteered their time at each aid station, and the spectators along the course were abundant and cheerful.  Never did I feel a lull.

At about mile five, I glanced at my Garmin and noted that I had been keeping extremely regular splits around 7:30/mile pace.  I was very proud of this feat, as it meant I didn't go out too quickly, as I usually do.  I was feeling great, despite having battled a stomach virus two nights prior.  I downed my espresso-flavored 2nd Surge Gel (yum!), guzzled some water and pressed on, aiming for the 7:30/mile pace.

Suddenly, I felt a presence just over my left shoulder.  I could tell he was wearing a blue shirt, was at least 20 years my senior, and was somewhat invading my "personal bubble".  At this point, the crowds had thinned enough that it seemed a bit strange really.  His cadence fell into step with mine, and our arms moved in the same rhythm.

We continued like this for minutes, then a mile, then another mile, around corners, down hills, through aid stations, our feet striking the ground in the same tempo.  It stopped feeling awkward and started to feel like a dance; we synchronized our pace.  I glanced at my Garmin, still pegged on 7:30/mile.  We exchanged no words, our common language was simply our sequenced stride.  I still felt physically comfortable, but that little devil that teases your confidence started to make an appearance.  But my silent partner by my side forced all negative thoughts away, by picking up the pace a bit, quietly begging me to join.  I had no choice, I was committed to this stranger, I was committed to finishing strong with him. 

Finally, around mile 10, I found the nerve to strike up conversation.  "Wow what a nice day!" I started generically.  He nodded, still holding the quick footstrike we shared.  I spoke again, "You are truly pushing me this morning, and keeping me going."  In a thick Hispanic accent he responded, "You have wonderful form, a truly great runner."  I thanked him, and we continued our sneaker-clad quest for that finish line. 

Another mile, this time at 7:40 pace.  I knew we were nearing the end because we were back on the San Diego Creek Trail.  A few strides in front of us, I spotted a female runner, obviously running out of energy.  I glanced at my new running inspiration and when our eyes met, he knew what I was thinking.  We picked her off, the defeat feeding my energy even more.  We continued to pick other runners off, our pace now around 7:20/mile.  Then finally, we hit the last mile.  I told him to go ahead and kick, I knew I was holding him up.  "No way!" he exclaimed.  "I want to see you finish, let's do this!" and we did just that.  We picked up the pace even more and finished strong, side by side, without even knowing each other's name.  Before even claiming our medal, we hugged.  I thanked him profusely, for giving me the mental stamina to finish my first race of 2014 STRONG.  My official time was a 1:39:34, for 6th place in my age group and 25th female overall.  I was ecstatic.

My motivator in blue!  Turns out that even my phone was sweating from the effort.

I have NEVER had a negative split Half Marathon before until last weekend.  What an exciting accomplishment it was, one I surely could not have done without my running Yoda by my side.  During those silent miles we ran together, I got lost in my thoughts about the camaraderie that is running.  So many running organizations, from SRLA, to various running clubs and teams, to Instagram and Facebook and Twitter bring runners together, of all ages and various skill levels.  But we are bonded by our mutual passion for the sport, our need for endorphins and self-improvement, of goal accomplishment and sweat.  So to my new friend, (turns out his name is Art) I cannot thank you enough for the reminder that we are all in this together, silently soldered by our collective love for running.
Nothing.  I repeat, NOTHING makes me happier than seeing my family at the finish.  THANK YOU HUSBAND!!! Now go play 18 holes of golf!