Thursday, September 27, 2012

Charleston Distance Run 15 miler - Capitol Punishment

The Charleston Distance Run celebrated its 40th birthday this year on the banks of the Kanawha River in West Virginia.  I celebrated my 37th a few days prior to the race.  Twenty years ago, near my 17th birthday, I emerged from the Kanawha River after competing in the 1.5-mile Charleston Distance Swim and watched the start of the Charleston Distance Run 15-mile race.  Back then, the events were part of weeklong Charleston Sternwheel Regatta festivities that brought hundreds of thousands of revelers to the Kanawha Valley and downtown Charleston.  In 1992, watching the start of the race, I was in awe of the throngs of mostly men as they chugged past me, running towards the mountain looming in the distance, as they tested themselves on a challenging 15 mile race.  Even though I had just swam over a mile, the thought of running 15 miles in our hilly valley astounded me.

Beautiful Capitol of West Virginia
Fast forward to 20 years later, and I am sprinting from the parking lot to the starting line, barely reaching the crowd of participants before the cannon goes off.  I step in, we lurch forward, and the race has begun before I even have the chance to process the fact that I was actually amongst the runners attempting to run the 15 mile race.  The night before, we arrived from South Carolina to my parents' house in my West Virginia hometown, just downriver from Charleston.  In a flurry of activity, we got the kids to bed, our running gear gathered, our packets inspected, and bib numbers distributed.  I ate my traditional night-before-race-day giant bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios as I mentally went through my running gear checklist.  My entire family was to participate in Charleston Distance Run events:  my mom and dad would do the 5k walk with our 3 year old, my 7 year old son would run the 5k with my brother, and my husband and sister-in-law would be running the 15 miler.
Bro & Sis-in-law before the start

All of these logistics made for a frenzied getting-ready process the morning of the race.  I am usually extremely organized, with sharpie-labeled baggies of nutrition and gear.  This morning I just grabbed my dedicated running duffle bag and hit the door.  We arrived at the Laidley Field parking lot with only minutes to get ready and hit the bathroom.  We ran to the start in the already-hot and muggy morning, with temps in the upper 70s and 100% humidity.  I was immediately slicked in sweat.  Eww.

Bro & my 7yo son running 5k
The Charleston Sternwheel Regatta is sadly no longer, but the Distance Run has survived despite the festival's demise.  At this 40th running, it has maintained its draw: America's 15 miler.  The race directors have been pressured in the past to make the run a 13.1 half marathon, or to take the Hill of Death out of the course, both strategies in order to attract more participants.  But, I am glad the race organizers have stuck to their guns: the 15 mile race is unique, and The Hill makes for a tremendous challenge and a breathtakingly beautiful ride down the other side.  Those of us who have participated in Half Marys in the past welcome the challenge to race "just two more miles," and will find that those last two miles will be some of the hardest in the race.  Marathoners love the shorter distance, and the challenge of The Hill is a great test of even the strongest marathon legs.

Hubs looking strong at mile 11
Photo by Dan Todd
Speaking of marathons, many folks I talked to prior to the race were using this race as "a training run" for an upcoming marathon.  Hubs and I also took this strategy as we train for our first marathon this winter.  My goal was to run an actual race, at marathon pace, testing hydration and nutrition strategies, as well as clothing and gear.  I learned a whole lot on this race, and despite the heat and humidity, posted a pace that was close to my goal marathon pace.  I also learned that my long slow distances are making me a long slow runner.  I even had a wise friend tell me so, which was very helpful.  I learned that in order to not lose my speed during marathon training, that I need to work more speedwork into my training, and register for some shorter distance races in the meantime.  I also got the chance to test out the saltsticks during this race, as the high humidity made the hydration very tricky.  In longer endurance events, I have a tendency to cramp in my legs, causing what my brother and I jokingly call the "fainting goat" cramps...our legs stiffen and we literally almost fall over, with straight legs.  The saltstick strategy worked, and I had no cramps during the race.  My nutrition and hydration strategy was:

  • Honey Nut Cheerios and coffee at 5:30am
  • Ensure at 6:30am
  • Gatorade and water on the way to the race
  • Clif Shot Double Expresso 10 mins before the start
  • Saltstick at 40 mins
  • Clif Shot Strawberry at about 50 mins
  • Saltstick at 1:30
  • Clif Shot Strawberry at 1:45
  • Saltstick at 2:00
  • Alternated Gatorade and Water at each relief station
  • Saltstick and Gatorade after finish

My hurried start to the race caused me to forget several items, but running without them turned out to be fine, and was a good test as to what I really needed on a long race.  I forgot my calf sleeves, sunscreen (thankfully it was cloudy), patellar strap, and sunglasses (again, not needed).  The rest of my gear consisted of:
  • Headsweats visor (which I ditched at mile 11)
  • iPod shuffle (used intermittently during the race when I needed a music boost) 
  • Under Armor tank, Champion sports bra (my favorite from Target)
  • Under Armor compression shorts
  • North Face shorts
  • Hippie Runner expandable pouch belt
  • 3 Clif Shots, Strawberry and Double Expresso
  • 4 Saltstick caplets
  • iPhone
  • Thorlo Experia socks
  • Asics Gel Nimbus 13
Me at mile 11ish
Photo by Dan Todd
I was not happy with my expandable pouch belt and shirt combination.  The shirt was billowy, and the belt had to go under the shirt, and it bounced and irritated my bare skin.  Everything else worked great, even when soaking wet with sweat.  My shoes squished as sweat ran in rivulets down me into my socks.  The Experia socks are by far my favorite, they have not let me down yet!

The Course
The race course is a beautiful representation of the city of Charleston WV.  Runners start at the stunning capitol building, one of the prettiest in the nation.  

The Boulevard
The first few miles are along the flat Kanawha Boulevard, a favorite route of local runners.  The view from the Boulevard is breathtaking: stately homes and buildings to the right, the Kanawha River to the left, and the mountains rising from the riverbank on the other side.  Then runners cross the South Side Bridge, and run downriver on the Old Kanawha Turnpike until turning up The Hill.  

The Hill
The Hill (affectionately known locally as the Hill of Death, or HOD for short) is a long straight uphill along a main thoroughfare, Corridor G.  Nothing scenic about this part of the run at all.  Just a good two miles of uphill chug, staring at the pavement in front of you.  Then the hill breaks, and turns left into South Hills, an established affluent neighborhood with an eclectic assortment of creatively-built hillside homes.  The hill continues on for another mile or so, and just before the summit, the George Washington High School band plays, encouraging runners up that last steep section.  

The Downhill
Then, finally, runners start their cruise downhill, along a beautiful shady road.  Spectators line the route in their driveways, cheering them on.  The last section of downhill reveals a spectacular view of the river, capitol, and city skyline with the mountains behind it.  Back across the South Side bridge, the run takes you through the flat East End, among Charleston's largest and oldest homes.  Residents were standing in front of their homes and on their porches, cheering on the runners, and a few lovely souls had their garden hoses out, spraying us off as we ran by.

The Capitol and Boulevard (again)
The East End section ended and the Capitol grounds began.  A scenic but quick run through the capitol complex, a turn right, and by mile 9 we were back on the Boulevard where we started.  Fortunately the aid station here offered cups of ice, which reenergized me for the last 10k.  A long run along the Boulevard, and runners turn right into downtown, past the mall, and a final turn right toward the finish.

Final 2 miles
Probably the hardest section of the race, the final two miles was demoralizing and tough.  Again, I have run several 13.1s, but these last two miles proved to be tougher than I anticipated.  Spectators dropped off, runners were spread out, and the scenery turned into the warehouse district, which is not exactly a scenic area to run through.  The buildings blocked any hint of wind that may have been stirring in the valley.  Runners can hear Laidley Field (the finish line) from this part of the run, the announcer calling the finishers' names as they make their way around the track in the stadium, with spectators cheering from the bleachers.  Knowing I had to run that last 300 meters in front of a large crowd, I found myself taking frequent walk breaks in those last two miles, mainly to make sure I could finish strong.  I also was starting to experience chill bumps, an indication that I was getting too hot and had to slow down.  Boo.  By this time, in these conditions, runners had been sweating profusely for over two hours, the sun was high (but luckily it was cloudy), temperatures were heating up, and gumption was running out.  

However, my final two miles were probably less ugly than others', because my brother showed up to ride with me on his bike, having finished the 5k, offering funny stories and a much-needed towel.  His comic relief helped me forget my aches and pains and trudge on.  And yes, at this point, it was a trudge.  

My friend Tracey and me cooling off at the finish
Photo by Dan Todd
I was so happy to finally enter Laidley Field.  The place where I ran my track meets as a high schooler, this track has many memories embedded in it for me.  I watched my brother play high school football here, and spent many hours here myself, running the 400, 800, relays, and 200 and 300 hurdles in my super awesome racing spikes.  The good ole days.  I rounded the last turn for the finish line, where the finish line was for track meets as well.  A flashback to the early 90s hit me as I crossed that line.  A volunteer handed me a cold wet towel, and I was glad to finally have the Charleston Distance Run behind me.  And guess what?  I immediately thought, "I cannot wait to do it again."  Ok, I can WAIT to do it again, but I definitely WANT to do it again. 

I was proud to finish the race, and I was very proud of those who also finished that day.  My husband finished with a strong time, my sister-in-law finished speedily, as always, and my long-distance running friend Tracey finished well, topping off just over a year of running.  My parents and 3yo finished the 5k walk, and my brother and 7yo son finished the 5k race.  Race medals were earned all around.  The volume of folks out being physical that Saturday morning made me proud for my family and proud for West Virginia.  

Overall the race was a great experience.  Yes, the conditions were miserable.  The humidity was stifling and to be sweating for that long is agonizing.  The mental challenge of running up The Hill is a significant test of will and toughness.  Training for such a race throughout the hot South Carolina summer is not easy.  I learned that many trials await those who take on this race, and those who finish come through stronger and more confident for their future races.

It took me 20 years to work up the guts to run the Distance Run.  Now I hope I'll still be running it in another 20 years.  New goal.

7yo & 3yo show off their muscles and medals after finishing 5k

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Going to the Dogs: Dirty and Dancing

This was my third year running the Dirty Dog 15k in Charleston, West Virginia.  This race is special to me, because it was my first race longer than a 5K and my first big challenge as a runner.  This is also the race that I registered my husband and brother for in 2010 (without their permission), so that they would be forced to train and run it with me.  Our first Dirty Dog kicked off a passion for racing challenges which led to our first triathlon and half marathon.  And if those aren't reason enough, my friends are the race directors, and the t-shirt is awesome.  Oh yeah, and you get to run with dogs.

The Dirty Dog 15K is a fun but incredibly challenging race set in the beautiful and mountainous Kanawha State Forest just outside the state's capitol city.  KSF is especially rugged and remote, spanning well over nine thousand acres.  The trails are mostly single-track and challenging, with boulders, creek crossings and fallen tree hurdling.  The best part about the race is that runners can run with their four-legged running partners off-leash.  The presence of the dogs knocks the seriousness of the race down a few notches.  It's hard to get uptight about running performance when the sound of a baying bloodhound is echoing through the valley, a golden retriever is sniffing your rear, and a lab is joyously splashing through each creek crossing.  Dogs of all shapes and sizes come out for the race, along with their runners of all shapes and sizes.  Many of the duos look amazingly alike.

The Dirty Dog 15k was written up in Runner's World Magazine as the "Best Doggy Race."  The race had a record attendance year, with almost 300 runners and over 50 canines.  Major kudos to Tracey and Dan Todd, race directors, who managed the throngs efficiently.  Robert's Run Shop in Charleston hosted a race day eve packet pickup party which helped reduce the registration line on race morning.  Volunteers directed traffic and a jamming pre-race party mix helped everyone get on site happily and easily.

Post-race Ice Bath
The race is very well organized yet delightfully informal, with lots of great food at the end, and a park atmosphere at the start-finish line.  The trail has absolutely no flat places in it...runners are either climbing or descending the whole way.  The route is shaded by the dense forest, and the mostly single-track trails are muddy, bouldery, or mossy.  The spectating is family-friendly.  There is a playground for the kidlets and a crisp cold creek that many of the dogs and runners took advantage of post-race, including myself.  

My four-legged partner, Daisy, unfortunately did not get to run this year.  She was limping the morning of the race and I didn't have the heart to run her for 9.3 miles not knowing what was causing her soreness.  She has a hot spot on one of her footpads, so I was hoping that is all it was.  (turns out it was just that)  Regardless, this was no race to take any chances.  So, my husband and I were to run it without our furry friend this time.  

My Dad and Alex taking their job very seriously
A huge bonus that almost made up for Daisy not running with us was that my brother, dad, and 7 year old son volunteered for the race and manned aid station 3.  I looked forward to seeing them, and knew that around mile 6 or 7 I would see their smiling faces as they handed me much-needed fluids.  Seeing them gave me the adrenaline boost I needed to get through the final three miles with a smile.

Last year I improved my first-year time by a significant amount.  However, this year, even though I felt fitter, I did not believe I would be faster.  A few months after the Dirty Dog 2011 my family and I moved to coastal South Carolina from our hilly West Virginia home.  I knew that the lack of available hill training would affect my DD15K performance.  I was prepared for that.  I knew this race was going to hurt.  Bad.  But what I didn't realize was how much my yoga training would help my race.  Yoga is no substitute for hills, but I did learn some key techniques in my Baptiste-style yoga class that improved my race and my recovery.

Here's the story:
I joined a yoga studio when I moved to Beaufort South Carolina which promotes the Baptiste style of yoga.  For lack of a better way to put it, Dancing Dogs Yoga Studio teaches power yoga for athletes as part of their menu of classes.  I have done yoga for almost ten years, but I have never reaped the benefits like I have in the classes at Dancing Dogs.  These power yoga classes are a form of cross-training that I would recommend to any runner or triathlete.  The yoga practice not only strengthens and tones muscles, but teaches body awareness and a presence that translates to everyday life in a powerful way.

Top Dog Macey Warner
awesome photo by Joel Wolpert,
So what makes Baptiste yoga different?  I asked Shelley Lowther, owner of Dancing Dogs this question.  According the Shelley, "The Baptiste method speaks to True North Alignment by emphasizing stacking your joints and bringing your spine and body into optimal alignment.  This translates so well into all sports.  If you keep your spine long, tailbone tucked, core engaged, you gain access to your body's strength.  You lose strength when you fall out of alignment."  As a yoga student of hers, I can attest to the fact that bringing awareness to your body's alignment helps you engage your muscles and lift the pressure from your joints.  I have a tight pre-arthritic knee that has bothered me for years.  Being aware of how my quadricep muscles can either bang on that knee or lift the weight off of the knee has been incredibly helpful to me and how I not only do yoga but how I run and bike.

Shelley explains further, "True North Alignment is being true to yourself, and physically it’s bringing your body to anatomical neutral.  The easiest way to think about this is to look at a skeleton hanging on hook like you see in doctor's offices.  The joints naturally stack on top of one another.  While your body is aligned, it is easier to access your strength potential.  When your shoulders are back, core is in, it enables you to find all the power that you have.  The stacking of the joints is especially important in injury prevention and it helps minimize abuse.  Joints get pounded while running, but if you stay in alignment, you allow the muscles and tendons to do their job and absorb it." 

In the weeks leading up to the Dirty Dog, I attended a workshop hosted by Shelley's studio and taught by Mark White, who is a Senior Baptiste Teacher and owner of Baptiste Affiliate MBody Yoga in Jacksonville, FL.  The workshop was called "Creating Tadasana" and it was all about how to create balance within your body and learning True North Alignment.  The workshop made so much sense to me, and I found myself reflecting on I continued to train for the Dirty Dog race. 

The finish line...I'm in lime green
During the race itself, I heard Shelley and Mark's voice in my head telling me ways to get over the tough terrain.  Key phrases like, "keep water on your joints," "keep your spine long," "SMILE!" and "engage your core" helped me maintain an awareness of my body as I traversed the rocky and hilly terrain.  Other runners stiffened and fell all around me, but I stayed true, applying what I had learned in my yoga classes.  I spread my toes and stayed on the balls of my feet, grounding into the four corners of my feet.  I kept my thoracic spine lifted and shoulder blades down and back to allow for full breaths.  I stayed aware of my breathing and forced myself to keep an even, steady breath.  My balance was great, and I did not fall, although I had a few close calls.  

Dirty Dog Daisy
I learned to be nice to my body, even while I was in the middle of a technically challenging and pounding race.  This, above all the miles of trails and roads I had run leading up to this race was the key to my success this year at the Dirty Dog.  I did not shave many minutes off of my 2011 time, but I definitely improved my overall performance.  This year it was not about finish time.  It was about body awareness, injury prevention, and true enjoyment and celebration of strength and power.

Dirty Dog 2013 is already on my calendar.  I will always love this race!    


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stand Up Paddleboarding as Cross Training

If you ever get the chance to go Stand Up Paddleboarding, drop what you're doing and GO.  This activity is by far one of the most fun, adventurous, peaceful things I have ever done.  I'm lucky enough to be able to go paddleboarding with a group that meets regularly, but going solo is a very zen way to tune in with yourself and nature.

Even though it's easier than it looks, paddleboarding is quite a workout.  In order to propel yourself through the water you have to fully engage your core and pull the paddle alongside the board.  How fast and hard you paddle affects the intensity of the workout, as does environmental factors such as tide/current and wind.

I use paddleboarding as a form of cross training between running and biking sessions.  I love the impact-free workout that works arms, shoulders, obliques, abs, and back muscles much like a weight training session.  Quads are engaged, as are ankles, knees, and inner thighs while balancing on the board.  Combine a Bosu ball, free weight session, and an intense full ab workout and you start to get close to the benefits of paddleboarding.  Get out of the loud stinky gym and out in the fresh air on the quiet water with a paddleboard!

Side benefits of paddleboarding include:  up close and amazing wildlife sightings, views of shore that cannot be seen or appreciated by large boats, the "cool factor" of driving around with a board on top of your vehicle, the cute outfits (think Athleta catalog) and being part of a relatively new sport.  And my kids think I'm a pretty cool mom for doing it too.  Score.

Many outdoor outfitters are now carrying paddleboards both for purchase and as rentals.  I prefer flat water paddleboarding, but some boards are made for breaking waves and for paddling beyond the breakers.  Next time you're tempted to rent a kayak to explore the waters, try paddleboarding!  You'll love it, and you'll get an outstanding workout.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Magical Sisterhood

I have long neglected my blog.  I just got tired of writing race reports, I preferred instead to read others' reports.  I have done some fabulous races in the past few months, the St. Mary's Triathlon, The Nation's Triathlon, the Savannah River Bridge Run, Hunting Island Paddlefest, the Melbourne Half Marathon, and several beautiful 5K races.

But, I was not motivated to write about them.  Until this race.  The Disney Princess Half Marathon.  There is a story behind this race, a pretty good story too.  Almost as good as the race itself.

Here's the story.

Preparing for this race began over a year ago.  My friend Tracey called me one day out of the blue and said she had started running.  She was a few weeks into her training and was tackling lots of miles already.  I was blown away and impressed.  Tracey is a busy working mom of two active girls, a Girl Scouts leader, an actress and stage mom among countless other responsibilities that come with her life.  She said that she was loving running, and wanted to train for the Disney Princess Half Marathon.  I was so excited (both of us being big Disney buffs) I promised her that if she did this, I would run it too.
Throughout the year of training, we kept in touch on how it was going, and in no time, race day was upon us.  Tracey's long runs reached 14 miles, and mine reached 12 miles.  I ran hot and humid tune-up Half Mary at Melbourne Florida in anticipation for Disney Princess.  

Tracey, the theatrical one, came up with the brilliant idea of running as Cinderella's evil stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia.  The closer we got to the race, the more excited I got about our characters.  We consulted each other on outfits, and began texting each other in character.  Tracey found the must-have sparkle skirts online.  I would venture to say that this part of planning for the race was more fun than planning for my high school prom.  I also probably would not have been nearly as well dressed for this race if it had not have been for her.  I am all about comfort and high performance clothing.  Anyone who knows me would never believe that I ran a race in a giant hair bow and sparkle skirt.  And I LOVED it!

Shannon, Drizella, Lady Tremaine, Anastasia, Tracey
Finally, Disney Princess race weekend had arrived.  Twitter began buzzing about the race, and the excitement was contagious.  My family and I planned to drive to Disney after #1 got out of school, putting the four of us there at about 9pm.  Saturday my parents would arrive and we would tour Magic Kingdom in the morning, go to the Expo in the early afternoon and, thanks to Tracey, had a princess dinner planned at the Grand Floridian later that evening.
Royal Carbo-Loading

At Park Fare at the Grand Floridian, we met our characters!  Tracey expertly planned this dinner for our families so that we could enjoy an incredibly tasty buffet while watching our characters in action.  This was more fun than I would have imagined it would be!  The "real" Anastasia and Drizella Tremaine were very excited that we were running as them in the race the next day.  We definitely carbo-loaded in style that night!

Doing Disney World with your family before and after a half-marathon, I realized, is a true physical and mental challenge.  Touring the parks is not exactly relaxing, it's downright exhausting.  As I told Tracey on our hike to the corrals on race day: "Holy cow, this is an epic endurance event!"

After our wonderful dinner at Park Fare, I returned to the room to lay out my race day gear:

  • Giant teal blue bow
  • Matching blue bondiband
  • Hairbands
  • Princess barrettes
  • Blue Asics run shirt with lime green sleeves sewn on
  • Nathan run pack filled with: Gu (prerace), Clif Shots Gel (during race), Haribo Gummy Bears, Chapstick, Snotrag, iPhone, iPod shuffle
  • Fuelbelt with bib attached (with my name on it! Princess Shannon haha)
  • Road ID
  • Garmin watch
  • Timex watch
  • Sparkle skirt
  • Underarmour compression shorts
  • Patellar strap
  • Zensah calf sleeves
  • Thorlo experia socks
  • ASICS Gel Nimbus 13
  • Spray Glitter (of course, it's a princess run!)
  • Pre race baggie with nutrition: Ensure, Gatorade, Clif bar, water
  • Checked run bag: towel, back up run shirt (in case my sewn on sleeves were too much
  • Body Glide
Drizella and Anastasia ready to race!
My parents spent the evening strategizing their spectator plan.  This was not an easy thing to do.  The spectator information in the race brochure was meant to be helpful, but it was quite confusing to those who aren't familiar with the race day logistics.  Having done the race now, I am much better informed on how to watch the race.  I gave my kids and husband a pass on spectating the race, I'd rather spend time with them later in the parks, which would be more enjoyable for them too.  

Tracey and I arranged to meet the race day bus at her resort at 3:15 am.  I set my phone to go off at 2:30 am and tried my best to go to sleep that night at 9:30 pm.  The excitement of the day seeped into my thoughts, and the anticipation of race day made it hard to sleep.  But, I got good rest despite sleeping with a wriggly 3 year old's feet in my neck (hubs slept with #1), and was wide awake at 2:15 am.  I got up, rinsed off in the shower, dressed, and ran over to Tracey's hotel.  

We squealed with delight upon seeing each other in costume.  We boarded the bus and shared funny stories while checking out everyone else's outfits.  This was so much FUN!  Folks were taking pics and posting on Facebook and Twitter.  

The bus dropped us off a short walk away from the finish line venue.  This party was rockin' at 3:30am.  It felt like we'd been out all night and were still dancing the night away.  A DJ on stage was leading the arriving tutu-ed and fairy-dusted runners in dances like the Dougie, and it was irresistible to not join in.  The scene reminded me of a flash mob dancing in unison.  Announcements on stage kept us well informed of the race day progression.  

Corral A before the start
I was stunned by the sheer number of porto-lets on the scene.  Hundreds of them lined the area, and they all looked brand new.  For the thousands of runners who were there, this was a huge, er, relief.  Literally.  We also learned that using a porto-let in a tutu is an act of coordination and grace in and of itself.  

Runners happily sashayed around the venue, complimenting each other on their outfits and fueling up for the race.  At 4:15am or so the announcement came to begin walking to the start corrals.  This is where I wished two things: 1. That I would have started this trek earlier to avoid the bottleneck of the crowd moving to the narrower path 2. That I would have started my Garmin to see how far we walked to the corral.  It seemed like we walked FOREVER to the corral...every bit an hour.  But this is not a complaint:  it was a fun walk, surrounded by fellow runners.  I would much rather be moving than standing around all jittery.  The path was lined with yet more porto-lets so we had another chance to hit the potty before being corralled.  Randomly, a flying squirrel divebombed the crowd, to the cheers of many.  Wonder how much Disney paid for that entertainment? 

I got to corral A just minutes before the start of the race.  The corral was crowded and heavy with anticipation and thick with the awful smells of excited runners.  Folks on stage, including Jeff Galloway himself, pumped up the runners with fun banter while we awaited the big moment.  They made us feel like rock stars.  Finally, the Fairy Godmother gave a few waves of the wand just before the fireworks went off and the race began at 5:45am.          

And we were off!  The first mile of the race was like any other, and we were quickly introduced to why this race is NOT like any other.  Performers, DJs, characters, lighted hot air balloons, comedians, firemen, and Disney Cast Members lined the route, cheering and high fiving us as we went by.  It truly felt magical.  Water and Powerade stations were every mile, and yet more porto-lets were strategically placed along the way.  The water stations were on both sides of the road, and a huge number of volunteers made the stations easy to navigate and reduced chaos. 

Me with the train engineer
Me with Cinderella & Prince Charming
Runners waited in short lines to get their pictures taken with favorite characters.  I unfortunately missed my big character...Drizella.  She and her evil stepsister were hidden by a line of runners waiting to get their pictures taken with them.  It wasn't until I was past the line that I realized it was her.  I threw up my arm in a big wave, and she actually saw me!  She waved back, and cheered for me.  This strengthened my pace as I ran under the water bridge and toward Magic Kingdom.  I ran through Magic Kingdom, slowing down to enjoy the ride.  I stopped to get my photo taken with Cinderella and slowed my pace through the big moment through the castle.  In an unfortunate moment of excitement, I slung my arms out for a photographer and caught another runner in the face with my outstretched hand.  I think my finger actually went up her nose.  Oops!  Whoever you are, I sincerely apologize.  Although I hope they got the picture, I'm sure it's a funny one.  We rounded through Frontierland, and ran past the WDW steam train so I had to get a picture with the engineer for my train-enthusiast 7 year old.

At the halfway point, a big sign said something to the effect, "You're half way...time to get STRONGER" and a huge speaker belted out the Kelly Clarkson song, "Stronger."  It actually worked, I ran negative splits the rest of the race.  I'm a total sucker for motivation during a race.  Little things get me going.  

We ran past groomsmen proposing to us, many more characters, comedic DJs, and near mile 11 we approached an onramp to an overpass.  At mile 11, inclines look like hills, so Disney didn't miss the opportunity to motivate us.  A green soldier from Toy Story was standing there, barking orders at us: "C'mon soldiers, we're going TAKE THIS HILL!"  Again, it worked.  I charged up the hill easily.  
At the finish line reunion area w/my rose
The whole way I felt great.  I worried about my feet in the first two miles, they felt fatigued from hiking the parks the day before.  But they soon went numb and I felt light and fast.  I walked fast through each water stop and alternated Powerade and water.  I took my Gu before the race, and ate a complimentary Clif shot from the booth at mile 8 or so.  I ate a few gummy bears along the way, and overall felt outstanding.  The weather could not have been better.  Cloudy and a breezy 55 degrees, it was perfect.  The final mile took us through EPCOT and the finish line was spectacular.  I high-fived Mickey on my way across the line.  I looked through the crowd and saw my parents, and my dad handed me a rose.  It was so wonderful seeing them there, it meant so much to me that they made the trip.  I proudly received my medal and I couldn't believe it was over so fast.  I really felt like I could have run the course again.  I resolved that when I do my first marathon, it will be with Disney.    

The race was awesome, I was never by myself, there was never a moment of boredom, and the miles literally flew by.  After a race, typically there's a sort of let-down.  You trained hard, you got there at the crack of dawn (or the middle of the night in this case) and when it's over, you mill around for a little bit, then head home or back to the hotel and change and it's basically over.  This is not the case at a Disney event.  For those of us lucky enough to be able to stay and go to the parks after the race, the glow of the finish line followed us throughout the parks.  Many runners wore their race t-shirt and/or medal to the parks and Disney Cast Members, other runners, and random strangers congratulated them on the race.  It was like we were instantly a part of a magical sisterhood who were proud of each other and supportive of what we had accomplished.  

#2 and me with Marie wearing my race tee in the park
Not to mention I personally felt pretty badass tackling the parks after the endurance event itself.  I believe, though, that my body recovered better from this race because I was out walking around immediately afterwards and not all folded up in a car.  I continued to feel great, and my soreness was minimal.

Overall, it was a truly magical experience that I would recommend to anyone.  This was my third half marathon and was by far my best ever, even though it wasn't the fastest.  I did not PR, although my time at 2:11 was well below my goal of finishing in under 2:15.  My current half mary PR is 2:09.  I ran negative splits and felt great the whole way.  I did not have pace expectations because I wanted to enjoy the race (and the ensuing weekend at the parks) and be able to stop for pictures without worrying about my overall pace.  This race would be a great first half-marathon to train for.  The support and the race environment is outstanding and motivating.

After all this, I am most proud of my friend Tracey.  The thought of her crossing that finish line brings proud tears to my eyes and chills to my skin.  I kept track of her progress during the race via text messages on runtracker, a complimentary service for the race.  I jumped up and down when I got the notification that she finished.  She accomplished a year of dedicated tough training, running in a neighborhood on the side of a cold mountain, alone, listening to her Disney playlist.  I thought of her during my own training often, her dedication motivating and inspiring me to keep going, even when I would have rather taken it easy.  On one particular weekend, she texted me "14 miles done!"  I had been putting off going out to do my long run that day, even knowing my window of opportunity was short.  I was cozy on the couch watching my Kentucky Wildcats play basketball.  Her text came in, and I obediently put on my run clothes and headed out the door for my own long run.  This happened several times throughout our training, and I cannot be more thankful for her enthusiasm for this race.  I am SO happy for her.  And what better place to make your dreams come true than at the Happiest Place on Earth, Walt Disney World.