Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Running with Force (Star Wars Half Marathon)

"Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is." -- Yoda

A not so long time ago in a galaxy pretty close to here... I finished the Star Wars Half Marathon! Yes, my friends... I finished my half marathon, slowly and surely. This is probably going to be a long post, so I hope you bear with me. A few friends were curious what this particular half marathon was like, so I want to make sure to capture everything I remember. 

I kicked off the weekend with a very early drive to Disneyland. Although I have an annual pass, my friend Maggie does not, so we wanted to get there early enough to fully enjoy the park. While it was a holiday weekend, Friday was remarkably quiet. We nearly walked on to every ride, and finished every ride we wanted to before 5pm. It was quite odd. While I was able to capture the above picture of the castle in its Diamond Celebration glory, access to it was actually limited due to the placement of a really big stage and a red grand piano...

We later discovered that the grand piano belonged to no other than Sir Elton John! He was going to perform a few songs later in the evening as part of Disneyland's 60th Anniversary television special. As soon as we made this discovery, we quickly decided it was worth waiting to check in to our hotel late so we could catch the performance. We did not have the best "seats" for the show, as you can see above, but it was a free performance! Can't get much better than that! You can read more about the show here (including a short clip of his performance). Quite a start to marathon weekend!

Neither of us signed up for the Rebel Challenge (completing a 10K the day before the half marathon sounded crazy 6 months ago), so we opted to take it easy on Saturday. We started the day at IHOP, meeting up with a friend of mine from Houston who was also in town for the marathon (Happy birthday, Megan!). Following breakfast, we walked over to the Disneyland Hotel to pick up our race packets and explore the Race Expo. This thing was so cool! The official merchandise booth was fun (I picked up a mini medal pin and some ears for my car), but Disney is proud of their merch! So pricey! Some of the shirts were cute, but at $40 each, I decided I could leave without them. The rest of the expo was neat to explore - everyone was friendly, and it was fun to check out all of the running gear. Disney scheduled speakers to talk on a variety of topics (from running to Star Wars history) in the middle of the Expo, so that was kind of fun to listen to while we waited in line for pictures. All in all, the Expo was perfectly organized to get us pumped up for race day. 

After the Expo, we hung out, napped, had dinner, and prepped for race day. RunDisney races start very early, so I wanted to make sure I had everything laid out and organized before I went to bed. By 8pm, I had taped my knee, packed my CamelBak, and laid down to sleep. At roughly 9pm, I was shocked out of bed by a thunderous sound. Thinking it was kids running on the balcony outside my door, I quickly threw the front door open to investigate and give my best Clint Eastwood impression. I was surprised to find no children in sight - just the roar of fireworks from Disneyland across the street. CRAP! Being the amazing fireworks that they are, these shots rang out for a good half hour before finally ceasing. Unfortunately, the damage was done. I was awake... and I didn't fall back asleep until well after 11pm. Sigh.

Morning came quickly. I woke up before my 3am alarm, and started getting ready. Another friend (Janelle) was also in town for the race (from Denver), and she was kind enough to send me a text to make sure I was awake. Indeed, I was awake, albeit very slowly moving. I made a game time decision and didn't eat my full Clif bar - I opted to eat the mini bar Disney threw in my race packet instead. Sometimes, you have to listen to your body and not overeat (even if smart advice dictates otherwise). 

At 4am, I arrived at the pre-race area to meet up with my Janelle and her family. She had completed several RunDisney races, and was working with me to come up with a plan for us to meet up on the course. I had confided to Janelle during the Holiday Toy Run last month that I was terrified of being swept, and she encouraged me to trust my training. She typically walks these races (very quickly!!), so the plan was for me to run and catch up with them to ensure I didn't get swept. They were in Corral C, so I figured they'd have a head start of at least 5 minutes. I nervously made my way to Corral D and waited. It was here that I found a quiet spot to say a little prayer, both for strength and for the friend that I was running in honor of. [Note: One of my best friends is battling a health issue privately, but I told her that I was going to run this race in her honor. Out of respect for her privacy, I am not going to provide more details.] A kind woman in my queue (likely seeing this prayer and sensing my nervousness) handed me a mini light saber, telling me "The force is with you, young lady. You got this!" Oh, I could have hugged her!

It was finally race time! The shotgun start was pretty underwhelming. In fact, many people in my corral didn't realize that the race had even started when they finally started moving our group up to the starting line. The pushing and shoving I've experienced at other race start lines was fairly non-existent here. Everyone was still very friendly, and just ready to get started. After a bit of banter between the announcer and some of the people in our corral, they finally let us go. (Again, an underwhelming experience but c'est la vie). Trusting my training, I set my interval timer and hit the trail running. 

One of my biggest challenges in running is the first two miles - those first two miles suck. They do! They hurt, and I always want to give up. Sadly, the first two miles were two of the only four miles that the Star Wars Half Marathon runs in the Disney parks themselves. Determined to enjoy them, I decided to not push myself too hard as I got moving. I was still concerned about my pace, mind you, but I wanted to enjoy the park too! I was heavily cautioned by others to not stop for pictures at this point, but I couldn't help myself. Who doesn't want to get told off by a StormTrooper for taking a swift selfie? The Small World Ride was still in all of its holiday glory - I couldn't miss that! Storming the castle with my fellow runners was a tight squeeze, but I was delighted by the carousel on the other side. I finally hit my stride as I made my way through Disney California Adventure. This part of the course was pretty, but less Star Wars themed. I loved running through the faux canyons of Radiator Springs, and I got to give a quick wave to BB-8 on my way out of the park. 

Janelle called twice during my Disney park miles to check on my progress. I had barely passed the Small World ride the first time she called (I had to make a quick pit stop). Her group was already in California Adventure, which was discouraging to hear. Janelle and her team called again as I was running through the streets of Radiator Springs - I was surprised and delighted to discover they were just around the corner at the Tower of Terror/Hollywood part of the park. Yes, they had stopped a few times, but I was making up my time. I finally started to feel like finishing was within my reach.

The course leaves the parks between the 4th and 5th miles, and jumps out into the streets of Anaheim. I was curious if I'd lose momentum here - Disney can't control this area as much, so the sights and soundtrack we had in the park would be gone out here. Oh, how mistaken I was! The citizens of Anaheim and the surrounding areas were amazing! Mile after mile was filled with spectators, cheerleaders, bands, cosplayers, and more. The signs were so clever - I wish I had taken a picture of my favorite ("This is the worst Disney parade ever! Horrible choreography, folks!"). I finally thought to take pictures of others, a small sampling of which is located above. I got a huge kick out of the orange one in the bottom right. The course double backs on one road, so the spectators you saw on miles 5 and 6 repeat when you come back for miles 11 and 12. The orange double sided side reflects that... and it made me laugh out loud! A laugh much needed when you're 11 miles in, my friends. 

I did catch up to Janelle and her team around mile 6. They had just finished a quick stop, which gave me time to actually run up and catch them. I was so relieved! I had planned to finish the race walking with them, but they walk at such a quick clip that I couldn't keep up. I trained under the Galloway walk/run method, and wasn't prepared for fast walking. I thanked her again for her encouragement and support, and decided to go back to my intervals. Mile 8 goes through the cute downtown district of Garden Grove. This was by far my favorite part of the race! The downtown area is adorable, and the spectators were terrific! 

There's a spot between miles 8 and 9 where you end up passing the racers behind you... and it was this spot that I had my first tears. After spending months of fearing the balloon ladies, I stopped briefly at this point to see if I could spot them. I didn't... And so I cried. I cried because I couldn't believe I was running at a pace that exceeded the pacers. I cried because one year ago I couldn't have dreamed of making it 8 miles without stopping. And I cried because I couldn't believe I only had 4.5 miles left to go!

The last 5 miles were my favorite part of the entire course. As I mentioned above, Garden Grove was great. It was at this point in the race that I actually started noticing the costumes of the people around me. I could not believe that a guy ran in short shorts and gold paint! He was such a good sport though - he was running with his friend, and was definitely the Janelle of the two :). I met an X-wing Rebel Pilot around this point, and he was kind enough to pose with me. Several of these cosplayers had awesome matching cars (including this pilot) - I wish I had taken a picture of his car!!! At one point, there was a line of roughly 30-50 (?) cosplayers all in one area. There were a ton of StormTroopers here, several Boba Fetts, some droids, lots of Vaders, Kylo Rens, and Darth Mauls, and a few old school Leias and Han Solos. I only saw one Finn, and no Reys (although there were several running Reys). Who needs the long lines within Disney parks when you can get pictures with these amazing fans? 

I got my second wind after the Garden Grove route, and miles 10 - 13 flew by. In fact, I made it all the way to mile 13 before I started experiencing any pain at all. It was at this point that I finally felt a blister forming under my big toe... it was a bummer, but I was glad it didn't start until then. Being the rookie that I am, I got confused at the finish line. You run over two chip readers at this point - one to give the announcers your name, and the other to mark your actual finish. I heard my name called, however, and thought that it meant I was finished even though I could still see the finish line banner ahead of me. Confused, I slowed down... only to have the photographer gently remind me to keep going, giving me time to pick up my pace and jump more enthusiastically across the finish line. 

I didn't want to cause a roadblock, so I took a selfie while running as I made my way to the finish line medals. My volunteer was so sweet - I insisted that we take a selfie to mark the occasion. I could really feel my blister when I finally stopped moving, and trudged my way through the blanket, photo, banana, and snack box lines. It was during this walk that I cried a second time - I just could not believe I finished it! I said a little prayer thanking God and the friend that I raced in honor of, and silently wept for a brief moment. I then wiped my tears, took my finishers photo, and left the finisher's area. 

I found a bench near the medical tent to sit down and check out my blister (blisters, actually.. and they were teeny tiny). It was here that I snapped my first medal selfie to send to friends and family. I waited around for Janelle and her family so I could thank them for their support and say my goodbyes (my friends Maggie and Megan had finished long before us). While I waited, I decided to check out the 80s band on the Star Wars stage. They were quite good! Janelle's mom found me shortly after, and I joined her in finding Janelle. Janelle convinced me to have my blisters treated before we parted, and I limped my way back to downtown Disney to meet up with Maggie to return to our hotel. 

So... the highlights? 

The Good
  • Great weather
  • Sir Elton John!!!
  • Fun course - great support from the local community!
  • Finishing with personal bests! (Fastest 1K, fastest mile, fastest 5K, fastest 10K, and fastest only half marathon)
  • No pain for 13 miles! 
The Not-So-Good
  • Fog/humidity
  • Dark beginning (narrow pathways + tons of runners - light = accidents)
  • LONG walks to/from starting and finish lines (my total mileage = 17.45 miles)
  • No soundproofing in hotel
  • Rude Clif volunteers on course (I get it - the fast people took more than they should have. I don't want your gu anyway!! Just let me get through!)
  • Stupid blister on mile 13 (really? the last 10th of a mile?)
Lessons Learned
  • Run your own race and trust your training. 
  • Don't eat if you're not hungry, but bring fuel in case you get hungry during the race. I'm glad I did both!
  • Stretch, stretch, stretch! I should have done more of this after the race. 
  • Take a break if you need a break. Drink water if you need water. And don't forget to replace your electrolytes! 
I am so thankful that I have such a wonderful support system that encouraged me to sign up for and complete this race. A lot of people thought I was kind of crazy to do this (especially people who have only known not-fit-Becky as opposed to crazy-fit-college-Becky), so I really appreciate the support of friends who kept encouraging me along the way. Shout out to my online fit fam , my work fam, my real fam, and my amazing friends. I'm truly a lucky girl to know each of you! I especially want to thank my parents. My dad is the reason I love running so much, but my mom was a runner too! Both of them provided hours and hours of support when I started doubting myself, and I can't thank them enough for encouraging me to do this. 

This is not the end. I have another race this coming weekend (Run to Remember LA 10K), and another RunDisney race in May (Tinkerbell 10K). I also start working with a personal trainer next week. Is this the end of Becky's Occasional Fit life? Probably not. I'm sure I'll pick my couch more often than I should, and I'll still eat cupcakes when I know that I shouldn't. The last 13 months have been amazing, however, and I'm encouraged by the transformation I have seen. Do I look different? Not really, but I feel amazing, so that's got to count for something! 

Thanks for hanging in there with me on this very, very long post. And thank you for following my journey from couch to half marathon in only 6 months! Haha! If you're going to dream, might as well dream big! Until next time, my friends. 



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