Walt Disney World Marathon 2020 Recap — One for the Books

Every once in a while, a race comes along that creates its own collective culture — a memory shared by everyone involved in that event. The Walt Disney World Marathon of 2020 is such an event, and one that will be remembered for years. Many of us who ran that January Sunday will always have a story to tell. 

Leading into Sunday’s race, runDisney tweeted out several messages about the forecasted conditions, preparing participants for warm and humid weather. Many runners already knew the conditions would be rough. In my mind, I knew that training in the high, dry, cool air of Colorado would not prepare me for the tropical conditions of the day, so I just had to hope that I would otherwise be well trained to handle the distance.

A lot of things went south that day for the race organizers, and our podcast talks about how one thing led to a cascade effect throughout the day. But my race was a test of my mental fortitude rivaled only by one other event, Ironman Coeur d’Alene of 2015. This marathon was not about the physical training, but the obstacles I’d overcome mentally to cross that finish line.

The Plan

Jen and I would run together for much of the race. We started in separate corrals which would allow me to run at my pace until mile 10. Then we’d meet up and run the race together. However, the conditions of the morning had other ideas. At 5:00 am, 71 degrees and 90%+ humidity created still, heavy air. It was hard to breathe. As I went off the start line, I set my groove, thinking I had a good pace going. However, when I looked at my GPS, saw I was averaging slower than a 15 minute mile — 2 minutes slower than my average easy Zone 1 pace. Two Miles in, I’m already thinking, “This is going to be a long day.” Even in those early stages, I started doubting myself, wondering if this would be the day I’ll achieve my first DNF.

Phineas and Ferb, always ready for the best day ever.

My first and only character stop of this race was for Phineas and Ferb, knowing that if nothing else went right, I could at least show my son his favorite characters. Once I got running again, I started feeling pretty good — like I’d warmed up and knocked the big chunks off — but I never really felt comfortable in my natural running stride. By mile 5, Jen and I had met up much earlier than I had anticipated or planned. I really had hoped I would have a solid first 10 miles. By then, though, I knew it would not be my day. I had to find a way to reframe my expectations about myself and this race day. Mile 5 felt like there was so much left to go, and that feeling never really went away.

Jen had asked for mental support. Her struggle was the same as mine, but to have her ask me for that started putting me into a different headspace. This day would ultimately not be about me, my time, nor my effort. I was able to rally mentally and we pulled each other along throughout the day. Great big chunks of the 26.2 miles are missing from my memory, which I normally fill back in when I rewatch the video I get during the race. However, as with the Half marathon the day before, I didn’t get the camera out very much — I had other things I needed to concentrate on.

Throughout this race, we ran into many of our friends, each one giving us the boost we needed to get through the next section. If Saturday’s 13.1 Miles was bubbly, fun, and upbeat, Sunday’s 26.2 was focused, introspective, and cautious. I had no desire to push through. The deeper into the miles we got, the more we walked — and the walking got harder and harder. I had trained to run these miles, not walk them, but the conditions of the day were having none of it. A lot of my mental energy was spent warding off the inner demons telling me to quit, and I didn’t really silence them until mile 22. 

By mile 18, we were walking almost exclusively. We’d see runners collapsing from heat exhaustion at the side of the road, or struggling on the course. People were stumbling and disoriented from the heat. The medics were overrun. The volunteers at the water stations were trying to stay upbeat, but even their eternally positive attitudes were wavering. All I could think of was “Mile 82,” a point during Ironman where I almost made the decision to pull myself from the race. 

Then, Mile 20. The point during a marathon that frequently demarcates “The Wall,” this time it was the beginning of my rejuvenation. Whatever happened up to that point didn’t matter. Jen and I pulled to the side to wait for friends struggling to complete their first marathons. We high-fived and cheered as we waited, we chatted with the medics and the staff near the mile marker. Then, as our friends crossed the timing mat, for them the unknown miles lay ahead, but my mindset shifted 100% away from my own body and mind. My only purpose from that point was to encourage others to get across that finish line. It was no longer about me. I knew at that point, I would get there. Something happened in that 7 minutes waiting at Mile 20. A shift, a break, something. My body was screaming in pain. Every step hurt. I still couldn’t breathe. And I didn’t care. 

I looked to others to see what I could do to help them — close friends and perfect strangers alike. Our course was shortened by a mile and a half, which didn’t bother me a whit, and I applaud the race organizers for making that decision. 

In the last 3 miles, I knew I would get there. My body was ready for the miles, just not the conditions. We would continue to see fallen runners even mere moments before the final turn to the finish. We crossed the finish line 11 minutes ahead of the balloon Ladies — to date my closest call. 

The Challenges and the Victories

The greatest challenge of the day was, of course, the conditions. While running at sea level is my favorite, the tradeoff is the gamble on the day’s weather. For more than 75% of this race, I questioned my mental ability to rise above the heat and humidity to finish at all. I’ve never felt so mentally tested during a race.

So the corresponding victory was that I did not quit. I kept going. I put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, mile after mile until that finish line. Setting another Personal Worst at Disney, the Marathon wasn’t about a PR in fun, but rather a PR in mental toughness.

A Marathon — 26.2 miles — is always a challenge, regardless of conditions. Few people I know train for and run marathons “for fun.” People run marathons because they are a challenge. Marathons push me well out of my comfort zone for a time. I don’t care for the distance, but I know that every once in a while I’ll want to run a marathon just to know that I still can. The victory is in the training. Getting through 4-6 months of long miles and hours on the road is where success lies. I feel that just getting to the start line is Victory. And it was for me. 

No, it wasn’t a great day. The weather is that one thing none of us can control. So we run the race we are given. 85 degrees, 95% humidity, 25.6 Miles. That is what I was given, that is what I finished, and that is where I declare my victory. 

The 2020 Walt Disney World Marathon is one for the books. It is a race that, if you were there, you will say, ”at least it’s not like 2020,” or “this is Marathon day hot.” Those of us that ran that day share something with the rest of the field. We stand victorious, stronger and smarter than we ever imagined.

Heather Jergensen

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