When I last wrote, it was the night before I left for the Disney Wine and Dine Half Marathon. My injured knee threatened to take my dream of finishing this race and smash it all over the Magic Kingdom. So did I finish? Did I lose a knee? Did I get swept? Let’s start at the beginning.
Pandora told me to forget the Mickey’s Jingle Jungle 5k the morning of the half-marathon. But we got to the race expo for packet pickup, and I saw the 5k bibs and shirts, and that little running demon inside of me started saying, “You can do it…it’s just 3 little miles. Go slowly.” I thought if I was going to skip the 5k ANYWAY, why not just start it, go slowly, use it to stretch out my body that morning, and if I got swept for slow pace at the 5k, no biggie. We got up at 4:15 am and headed to the race site. It was SO EXCITING! We had photos taken with Mickey and Minnie, music was blasting, snow was blowing in the Florida air (Disney magic!!) and we saw the sunrise over Animal Kingdom. I did :60/:60 run/walk intervals the whole time, and I felt fantastic! The race flew by. My legs felt great, my knee felt strong, and for the first time in weeks, I felt confident I could finish the half marathon by running intervals. My pace was well below 16 minutes a mile at the 5k.
During the day I ate small healthy meals, had my knee KT taped at the expo, and had a leg massage. I hydrated and took a nap, keeping ice on my knee throughout the day. I felt good. Then we opened the door to go to the race, and saw that the rain we’d feared had already become a reality. I’m kind of a wuss about weather. When it rains, snows or gets too hot, I run at the gym. I’ve seen rain in Florida, but never for hours at a time. It’s always been a quick shower, in and out. But this rain was here to stay.
Pre-race we snacked on some Kay’s Naturals cookies and I had a Celebrate Vitamins protein bar. We laughed a lot and Tammy handed out ponchos and glow-jewelry. Around 9:00 Pandora, Stacie and I headed to corral K. Behind us was the last corral, L, giving us about a 6-minute head-start on the sweepers. For anyone who doesn’t know, “sweepers” are the people who pull you off of a Disney race course if you fall behind the 16-minute mile pace. You’re put onto a bus and driven to the finish line. At the back of the corral there are ladies with light-up Mickey balloons, known as “the balloon ladies.” They keep a perfect 16-minute pace, so you know if you get passed by a balloon lady, you’re in trouble. I pushed them out of my head and worked on staying warm and dry. Every 3 minutes fireworks blasted, and another corral was turned loose onto the wet and slippery course. When we finally started running around 10:40 pm, I was already cold and my wet feet were aching from standing in a packed corral for almost 2 hours. There wasn’t even a way to really stretch right before the race, which is never good.
Pandora and Stacie let me set the pace. Because of the rain, much of the entertainment typically on the course wasn’t there. The first few miles were just on a straight roadway without much to look at except for rain. The road was slippery, and runners were still finding their grooves and there was a lot of weaving. It was a bit stressful. But we got into Animal Kingdom, and that part flew by. I’d run through there earlier during the 5k, and it made me remember how good I’d felt when it was dry and sunny. I tried to pretend the conditions were still ideal. There was no time for bathroom stops or character photos, but my pace was a good 14:00 mile, well ahead of the balloon ladies.
We came out of Animal Kingdom and headed back down that long straightaway. That’s when the wheels started to come off. I was favoring my knee, but this was adding stress to my shins, ankles and feet. I’d been so prepared for knee pain that I was mentally unprepared to deal with pain below the knees. The cold rain just made my bones ache. This was around mile 6, and I started to panic. I broke down and cried. Stacie and Pandora told me it was ok, get it out, keep moving, it would be ok. Pandora had been told that the balloon ladies were 20 minutes behind us. This was a huge relief, and I turned off the tears. With a 20-minute advance on the balloon ladies and 7 miles left, I could pace out at over 18 minutes a mile for the rest of the race and still stay ahead of them. I felt happy again, and we even stopped at a mile marker for a selfie.
And then, bad news: We’d been misinformed, and the balloon ladies were actually only FOUR minutes behind us. Things got ugly. I couldn’t stop turning around to see if I could see them. My whole mental game flew apart. I was back to only having about 16:15 per mile, and my legs were killing me during every run interval. I could deal with the pain while walking, but the runs took it to a bad place. We got to mile 8, and the balloon ladies were just one minute behind us. It was here that I told Stacie and Pandora they HAD to leave me there to be swept. Neither one wanted to, but I could NOT live with being swept AND having them swept because of me. Pandora said, “you did the 5k this morning. You have 3.1 miles in for the day. The sweepers will be at mile 10, so you’ll have your 13.1 and everything to be proud of.” She made me promise to get looked at by medical when I was swept at mile 10. I promised. I knew my race would end with sweepers at mile 10, and I said I would see them when they crossed the finish line.
The balloon ladies passed me at 8.5 miles. I could hear them ahead of me yelling, “THE SWEEPERS ARE AT MILE 9. YOU WILL BE REMOVED FROM THE COURSE IF YOU ARE BEHIND US! GET RUNNING, PEOPLE! BUSES ARE WAITING!” Well this blew my mental game all over again. We hadn’t even gotten into Hollywood Studios yet, I’d spent almost the entire race on this long, straight, boring, slippery road. I felt so sad, so ripped off. And if I was swept at 9, I’d only have 12.1 miles for the day. I don’t know how I did it, because I truly didn’t have anything left to give when I’d told the girls I had to fall back, but I dug deep and I ran up that hill past the balloon ladies only moments before security pulled caution tape across the road behind us, blocking the other runners from proceeding, and directing them onto 4 waiting buses. I missed getting swept by about 10 seconds.
So now my joy became knowing I’d get to enter Hollywood Studios before getting swept at mile 10. I still couldn’t keep up with the balloon ladies, so I let them go by and just tried to enjoy my final mile. It was so cool! We ran “behind the scenes” past costume assembly shops, disco lights with DJ’s, and then came around a corner to the most incredible Christmas scene I’d ever seen. The shops were fully blanketed in lights. I felt so thankful I’d made it past 9 so I could experience this scene before heartbreak.
So I got to mile 10 and a curious thing happened… not a sweeper in sight. Volunteers were cheering me on. “Only 3 miles to go!” I thought it was so sweet, but knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go much farther. At this point I was walking 80% of the time, taking slow jogs just to give my walking muscles a short break. My phone started to die from the soaking rain. My music gave out. I wanted to text Pandora to tell her I’d just made it past 10, but I couldn’t. I knew she wouldn’t be quite finished anyway, so I just kept walking, riding the wave (literally, with the rain) as long as I could. I saw a woman in a wheelchair, soaking wet, holding a sign that said “hello, complete stranger! I’m proud of you too!” She said “You’ve got this! So close now!” It made me cry. She didn’t have to sit out there in the cold rain for hours and hours, but she did, just to be an encouragement to the runners. It meant everything to me.
Soon I saw mile 11. I knew the sweepers would get me there, so I approached it slowly, wanting to savor my final moments on this adventure. I was so tired, cold, wet, aching, sad…and at mile 11 was a Disney worker saying, “only 2 more miles! You’ve got this girl!” I said, “the sweepers aren’t taking me?” She said, “the mile 11 sweepers already took a busload out of here, you just missed them by a minute. If you get past me now, they won’t see you.” The fact that I’d slowly approached 11 to enjoy those final moments had saved me. At this point I felt like God, Disney magic and Slender Seeker support were all working together to make the impossible possible for me. I headed toward mile 12.
I fumbled with my phone, trying desperately to contact Pandora, Heather or Stacie. I knew by now they would be finished and wondering where I was. They would be positive I’d been put on a bus 2 miles back, and concern would be setting in. I couldn’t get anything to work. My phone froze, then shut off. I powered it back on but couldn’t get the keyboard to work for text, and my calls weren’t going through. At mile 12 I asked the worker if I was safe. She said, “Nobody’s getting swept after making it 12 miles. Go finish this race, you’re doing great!” I cried for about the 15th time. There were people cheering, shaking cowbells, and shouting “you can do it!” Up ahead I saw a girl moving at about the same pace as myself. I made up my mind to catch her. I wasn’t sure I could keep putting one foot ahead of the other. I had nothing left to give mentally or physically, so I made it my mission to just get to her. When I caught up, she was as happy to see me as I was her. Her name was Beth, and we spent that last mile getting to know each other, commiserating about our difficulties with the race, and telling each other “only .75… only .50…”
Finally we came around a curve and there it was. The finish line was lit up, music playing, Mickey and Minnie waving at us. Suddenly there was a medal around my neck and a bottle of water in my hand. I was in tears. Pain, pride, exhaustion, disbelief…it all washed over me and I lost track of Beth. I was ushered to a photo stop and got dumped out at gear check. No one was around. I didn’t know where my friends were, my phone wasn’t working, I was shivering, and I was at once overcome by such excitement at finishing, and such sadness that I didn’t know how to tell anyone what I had done or where I was. I managed to pull a dry sweatshirt over my head, and then I saw Stacie. In the rain and confusion, she’d become separated from the group as well, and with our phones all fried from the hours of rain, we couldn’t get in touch with each other. Finally a message got through from Heather asking where we were, and I told her we were getting on a bus. It wasn’t until the next day that any of us were able to find out what exactly had happened out there.
Pandora was pretty upset to have missed me finishing this race, and I was sad that she didn’t get to witness the moment she’d worked so hard to create for me. I’d told her I promised to get off of the course at mile 10, so when I wasn’t at the finish line when she crossed, it was very confusing, and then there was no way to communicate thanks to the monsoon. When I made them leave me at mile 8, I just never ever dreamed I’d be given the option to keep going, behind pace. Disney clocked me at 17:41 pace, 1-minute 41-seconds pace behind the balloon ladies. It was determination that saved me at 9, luck that saved me at 11, and a miracle that got me across that finish line with a knee that was fully working.
I’ve never worked harder for anything, both in training and on that course. There were times when I desperately wanted to be swept, to be told I had no choice but to stop. But when they didn’t come for me, I just couldn’t live with knowing I’d made the decision to quit. Maybe I should have. Maybe I shouldn’t have done the 5k. But I finally went to bed at 5:30 am, 25 hours after waking up, knowing I’d gone 16.2 miles in one day, earned two medals, and completed everything I’d set out to do when I was selected as the contest winner. Not as fast as I’d planned, certainly not as easily as I’d planned. Running is such a personal thing, and the only person you’re ever competing with is yourself. So while I’d planned to do this in a 12-13 minute mile pace, finish feeling strong and spend the night partying with the Slender Seekers at Epcot, I still finished. I fought harder than I ever dreamed I could. And I have no regrets. I certainly took risks even by starting the race, especially by doing that 5k, and by continuing to move myself 5 miles past where I felt enough pain to stop running. I’m never going to say that what I did would be right for everyone. But it was right for me, I made it, and I get to tell all of you that I finished that race for Team Slender Seekers.
I ran in a shirt that had Desperately Seeking Slender on the front and all of our sponsors on the back. I carried each and every one of you with me through each mile. I knew I wasn’t only running (and walking) for myself, but for each of you and the success you’ve had or are seeking, and the belief the sponsors have in creating healthier lives for all of us. Even when I sent the team ahead of me, I was never alone because you were literally the shirt on my back. Thank you to everyone who believed in me, encouraged me, and made my dreams come true. What a way to celebrate success.
When we finished on Saturday, Stacie and I said we probably wouldn’t do another half marathon. By Wednesday, we were looking up schedules for future Disney half marathons. So this isn’t the end of the road for us, Slender Seekers. It’s only the beginning. Sincerely and humbly, thank you.
Pandora Williams author of Desperately Seeking Slender is a Cooper Approved Wellness Coach Trained in Weight Management Strategies and Motivational Speaker studying to become a Certified Personal Trainer.
Team Slender Seekers Sponsors:
Please support our sponsors!
Well, here I am. It’s 1:00 am, and in five short hours my friend Stacie and I will get on a plane to Orlando for the Disney Wine and Dine Half-Marathon weekend. When I won the How Do You Celebrate Success contest, Stacie vowed to train with me and signed herself up for the race so she could run beside me. In April we “tested the waters” by running a half-marathon in Canton, Ohio, and we made it. So it seemed like we had it in the bag.
In May, Stacie fractured her foot. She was in a boot for six weeks. This girl hobbled through the Team Slender Seekers Color Run I organized in my community in her boot, but she was sidelined from running for a while. In October, injury found me, via my knee. What I hoped was just a “tweak” became chronic pain when running or walking down steps. As this weekend loomed closer, I was torn between taking it easy and not stressing it out more, but wanting to keep my training up.
I went from looking forward to the race to fearing it. I watched my per-mile time slip from 12 minute miles to 15 minute miles. I saw my ability to really endure long runs slip from a comfortable 10 miles to 7 miles. Then 3 miles. I unofficially saw a doctor, a family friend, who told me, “I would tell a normal patient to sit out this half-marathon. But I know you’re not going to, and what’s at stake, so here’s my best advice on getting through it.” That advice was to maintain short intervals the entire way, walking as much as possible. And in the meantime, no more impact exercise…only rest, ice, compression and elevation.
So I walked out of that office knowing two things: 1) I have the ability to finish this race given enough time. 2) I could not finish this race under the 16-minute-mile pace required in order to not be swept off the course. I did some math and knew I’d need around 17 minutes a mile to walk as much as I’d need in order to keep my knee intact.
I called Pandora in a panic. We’ve trained for months, my sponsors have trusted me to carry their message through this race, my friends, family and community are all watching me and cheering for me…and I may let them down! It took several nights of phone calls and a letter to me via blog for Pandora to talk me off of the ledge. We realized I’d already completed what I’d set out to do – lose weight, run a half marathon, set goals and train for months. She reminded me that this race was simply one day of my life, not the end of the world. She also told me I should not run the Mickey’s Jingle Jungle 5k the morning of the half marathon to save my knee. I’m disappointed, but I understand.
So now my bags are packed, and I can’t sleep. I’m excited! And I’m scared to death. I keep picturing that race and what will happen if my knee doesn’t hold up, or if I get swept. I’m trying to remain positive and imagine myself crossing the finish line, but I am also trying to be realistic and visualize being swept, to prepare myself for that possibility. Most of all, I just want to make everyone proud. I want all of the people who have made this dream a reality to know they made the right choice when they picked me to go on this adventure. It’s not myself I’m worried about letting down, it’s everyone else. Pandora says, “knock that off, we’re already all so proud.”
Pandora, the Slender Seekers and the sponsors have become like family to me, and I’m sad that the end of this chapter is drawing near. Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the months of training. No matter what happens this weekend, I promise to give it absolutely everything I have to give, just as you have all given me