The Dopey Challenge (2014)

Distance
Race Status
When
6 years 8 months ago

Two Weeks Later, A Summary 

For those just arriving at this post from a search engine — in other words, those who have not actually been following along for the last year as I trained for the 2014 Dopey Challenge in Disney World in Florida — I ran it. I ran it all. I completed it. I crossed each and every start — and finish — line, and took the photos, earned the medals, revelled in the personal glory and all wallowed in every bit that goes with it all. And… I walked away to talk about it.

And talk about it I have. Everyone — from people at work to family and friends and of course the folks I run with — are curious, have questions, and want to know: “how was it?” But then why not? 

After all, it was a bit of a crazy thing to do… four races in four days. What was I thinking, eh?

So, instead of just letting all those experiences wash away in the mists of fading memory, I thought I would take the time to write some of it down. It shouldn’t be a surprise to my regular readers (blogging nut that I am) and in fact many of you have probably been wondering why I haven’t done it already. Here I am: two weeks post-race and with a little perspective on things and… a summary. How I got there, how I trained, what I did right or wrong or plain just lucked out on. If you are reading this in a couple months or a couple years because you’ve signed up — or are thinking of signing up — for the 2015… 2016… or maybe the in 2034 for twentieth anniversary edition of the challenge — then maybe my little bit of insight will help. Or, at least it will be of some mild interest and good for a chuckle.

So, who am I?

someone who has been running for about 6 years

First, I’m just a guy. I have a desk job. I’m a father of a six-year-old girl. I was 37 years old when I ran the race, and in average physical condition, at least for someone who has been running for about 6 years (with dedication) or longer if you count the years before joining a club and focusing. I ran my first marathon in the summer of 2013, about four months prior to running Dopey, but about five months after signing up for it. Yeah, that’s right: I had never before run a marathon when I signed up for the Challenge.

My times: they’re nothing to write songs about, I admit, but I’ve earned them fair and square. I have a wall at home covered with race bibs and medals, and my drawer is stuffed with technical shirts bearing the logos of runs-gone-by. As of the race I had some solidly-average PRs (though the marathon time listed was my ONLY marathon time… counting Dopey I’ve now run just two of those.) You can judge the times for yourself, but I include them because (chances are) if you are contemplating a Dopey run yourself one of your biggest questions is probably “how do I stack up against others who’ve done it?” So this is me, and you can compare for yourself.

RACEMy Past PRMy DOPEY Time
5K27m50m
10K58m1h 11m
Half2h 03m2h 31m
Full4h 40m5h 13m

I live and I train in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: a city of about a million people that has amazing river valley trails spun like ribbons of smooth asphalt through peaceful forests and connecting huge areas of suburban sprawl, but also a city that is blanketed in snow for five months of the year and whose winter temperatures drop occasionally to -40 Celsius not counting the wind chill factor. We have a fairly high elevation, are land-locked with low humidity, and mosquitoes that will carry you away if you don’t anchor yourself to something strong.

I run with the Running Room run club here. I show up for various nights of random distances training runs, I’ve participated many times as a student (and a few times as an instructor) with their assorted clinics, and we have an awesome social group there who probably now meets just as much for the post-run coffee hangouts as we do for the actual running. They’ve turned me into a runner and I’ve done what I can over the years to give back to the group in return.

Deciding to Run a Dopey?

It was love-at-first-sight: I honestly didn’t think about it much. We’d recently discovered running vacations. I’d done Vegas. We were in a routine of weekend-getaways based around out-of-city races. And, we had pretty much already decided we were going to Florida, and had pretty much already decided I was doing a race there. It was just a matter of choosing between a Disney Half (a distance of which I’d run many times before) or a Disney Full (which would mean a summer of hard-core training.) So when Karin, my wife, messaged me one morning nearly a year ago to ask if I heard about the Dopey Challenge I think it was probably only a split second of hesitation in my mind and I’m pretty sure I decided right there. I wrote about it, yeah, and pondered it as if I was in doubt, but some of that was for dramatic effect and because I didn’t want to seem like was jumping off a metaphorical cliff without any forethought. Weird, huh? I hadn’t even really considered doing the Goofy Challenge prior to that, but something about the Dopey was just so over-the-top nutty that I knew I wanted in.

So there I was: registered, with nearly a year of planning ahead of me.

Far-Out Training

I’m going to consider everything that led up to running my first marathon in August of 2013 as the “far-out” training, the training that led into what I would consider training “officially” for Dopey. In actuality, I was training from the minute I signed up, and thought about running that way. But even though that ten-or-so months of training before the Challenge was all part of it, there were some distinct phases along the way.

I’ll keep those points simple and salient:

Just Keep Swimming… er, Running

Just Keep Swimming… er, Running – When you sign up, you’ve started. I didn’t take any prolonged breaks. I didn’t say “uh, well, I’m gonna start training in September” or plan to start sometime in the future. You’re signed up, your training now. No… really: right NOW. Lace up and get out there. Every day is an opportunity for a run — or a rest — as your plan dictates.

A Year’s Worth of Plans – I planned every training run from the day I signed up until the taper week leading into Dopey. Did I make every run? No, there were mild injuries, illnesses, unforeseen family obligations, or bad weather days. But I had a plan shortly after signing up and I stuck with it as best I could.

Illness, Injury, and Other Stuff – I was sick twice, I rolled my ankle really badly once and could barely walk on it (let alone run) and I can’t tell you how many times the weather threw me for a loop (even in the summer). Don’t mess around. Take the punch, fix what needs to be fixed, rest injuries and look after yourself… and then get back to training.

Instructing-ish – I had an awesome time instructing a clinic over the summer, and I think that while everyone wouldn’t have that opportunity, there is something about a big goal and a big group of people to train with that will keep you honest. For that first marathon, stretching my limits every week, having a group that was relying on me for their own training kept me coming out and got me across the start line.

Practice Races

I’m glad I’d done at least one marathon prior to Dopey. Very glad.

run a marathon before you run Dopey

As much as I’d read, researched, talked, learned, and training for that first marathon, there is literally NOTHING that compares to running it. And I’m not just talking about the actual experience. A marathon is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. I think that is why it appeals to so many people. While a half-marathon is tough, it’s not until you hit that point about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through a full marathon that… well, a philosopher might call it dualism: your body and mind begin to operate towards differing goals, they seem to separate from each other and you pick a side — mind or body — becoming a mere observer in the events that are transpiring with that side you didn’t pick. Your energy is depleted and every decision you make — and making rational decisions three hours into a run is not as simple as it sounds as you sit at your computer reading this — affects every step you take from thereon in. I could write an essay on my anecdotal perception of that race, but the takeaway message would be simple: I did a lot wrong in my first marathon, mistakes that almost didn’t let me finish and left me in the medical tent at the end, BUT… but I was able to recover, learn, and adapt to better run and finish Dopey.

My one word of advice for potential Dopeys… run a marathon before you run Dopey. I’m not certain, but I’m sure there were murmurs of participants in my coral who were doing their first marathon that morning in January. That’s not smart, in my humble opinion.

Close-Up Training

So.. my first marathon was in the bag, and there was I was in about Septmber-ish with jsut a few months to go. What were the key points of that span of training?

Keeping Up With Yourself: Solo Runs – If you find a training partner for Dopey, awesome. The problem with travel runs, especially around big trips like for us to go all the way to Florida, is that it’s tough to find someone who is willing to race with you. See my next note about the season, but races are pretty few and far between in winter around here and training for an epic marathon-plus run in January meant that no one else was really doing the distances I was doing. I expected a lot of solo runs and for the most part I got them as November and December arrived.

Seasonal Shifts – Summer running turned into autumn running which very abruptly turned into winter running. I capped much of my training off in the local recreation center (rather than out on the trails where I prefer) running long, boring laps around the indoor track because the sidewalks were icy, the snow was fresh and too deep, or simply because the cold was a little on the dangerous side (yes, a minus 45 windchill is dangerous) for outdoor training.

Holiday Temptations – As much fun as it was to hit Disney World AFTER the holiday rush, having the races in January did mean that the crux of the race training was going on at the same time I was expected to be hanging out at Christmas parties and eating big meals and doing family things. Squeezing in a twenty-five klick run before yet-another family party was not easy. Stick with your plan.

Mental Preparation

Between registration and the minute you step across the finish line you will experience every single emotional state you can imagine, and probably some you cannot.

Anxiety. Fear. Regret. Inadequacy. Frustration. Elation.

Everyone deals with emotions in their own way, and even me –as open and sharing as I tend to be on this blog– can only really admit to a few strategies for getting your head in the game: music, solitude, routines, friends, and focus. 

I guess the only real advice I would have here is that you need –NEED– to understand that running this kind of distance, participating in this kind of event is as much a mental game as it is a physcial one. So…

Set reasonable expectations.

Understand how you will deal with the unexpected.

Have a plan and stick with it.

You know the drill…

The Week Before

We arrived in Florida three days before the first race. I wrote a whole article on that t-minus-one-week preparation for Dopey, and I don’t really want to repeat that now. In retrospect I guess the things that really mattered to me most were:

a) planning my meal choices ahead of the game: eating almost every major meal out at a restaurant in Disney World is not exactly the best pre-race strategy. But if you’re wrapping this race in a vacation you’re kind hooped in that regard. My “club sandwhich and iced tea” strategy –as loony as it sounded– didn’t do me wrong.

b) removing the jet-lag factor: by the time we left Edmonton for Florida, I was already on Florida time. It was only a two-hour difference, but not having to deal with jet-lag AND early wake ups for the race was just one less stressor to have on the mind.

c) using a grocery service and our kitchenette: no-brainer, maybe, but not winging the whole “What am I going to eat before the races?” question by ensuring I had not only brought along a jar of my favourite peanut butter, but had a fresh sack of bagels waiting at the hotel… that was smart. Also, coffee-addict that I am, I avoided brewing fresh each morning by brewing a pot the night before, storing it in a clean bottle in our fridge, and re-heating in time to down a quick cup before dashing for the bus. It wasn’t exactly high class, but it beat caffeine withdrawl during the races.

And yeah, we did spend a couple days at the parks prior to running. But I relaxed, gave myself the freedom to enjoy myself, but didn’t burn myself out on park-hopping, thrill-ride exhaustion in those first couple days at Disney World’s enticing sirens of entertainment..

The 5K

About ten thousand people queued up in five corrals in the Epcot parking lot: that was our first impression of the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend. Stepping off a bus with my family into the dark January morning of a Florida amusement park parking lot was the first step of many that encompassed that race.

The Expected: Crowds, butterflies (of the stomach variety), dark, music, costumes, friendly strangers, ample port-o-potties, security, wave-start, photo-ops, more music, cheering crowds.

The Unexpected: Waiting, waiting, and more waiting, so few character photo-ops on the course, the blur and abrupt end at the finish line. 

The 10K

The evening before we went to Epcot for the Pasta in the Park party: very good (though they ran out of pasta for a bit right when we got there.) It meant a bit of walking, but turned out to be a great place for the character photos we’d missed on the run.

That night I was in bed a little later than I’d wanted, but still pretty early.

The second race started 45 minutes earlier than the first, but used the same coral system: 5 groups of about 2,000 people per. This time I was still feeling pretty good, but I was stepping into the fray alone.

The Expected: Lots of hype for the (mostly) Dopey-runner crowds, more characters, the music.

The Unexpected: The humidity, the first half of the route through a dark and lonely stretch of Disney World highway, and did I mention the HUMIDITY!

The Half-Marathon

The day of the ten klick run I’d gone to Hollywood Studios for the better part of the day. I took it easy, sat through a lot of quiet shows in cool theatres, stayed out of the sun, and didn’t walk around too much. Also, it gave me the chance to wear my medal around for the day.

I volunteered to take all the kids back to the hotel while most everyone else stayed for more rides. We all got to sleep pretty early that night.

The half-marathon had a lot more people. I’d heard the number 26 thousand tossed around, and it seems like a reasonable guess if nothing else. 

The Expected: Lots of stops, walks, and assorted breaks for photos, character photos, selfies, the sights, well organized and frequenty water breaks.

The Unexpected: The looooooong walk from the drop off through security through multiple checkpoints around to the corals (no really, it was like a 4km walk), the speakers by our coral only worked sporadically, the ants, the chill in the air despite the humidity, the massive crowds (no really, there were thousands of people cheering), hundreds of guys peeing in the bushes duing the first 5 k of the race, the school bands (awesome), the runners who took the race waaaaaay to seriously (I mean, it’s Disney, guys!) the humidity (again), the chafing (in part thanks to the humidity.)

The Full Marathon

I slept after the half. I had long since decided it was going to be a hang-out-at-the-hotel kinda day, and so everyone went off to Epcot without me while I watched lame TV at the resort. At one point I knew I needed some food and couldn’t stomach the thought of multiple club sandwhiches in one day, so I took the boat to Downtown Disney and ate a rice bowl.

My biggest problem — and it caused me a great deal of stress — was that despite my preparation I managed to chafe a bit of the skin on my inner thigh, a bit below the seam line of my shorts. It was raw, and painful to walk. I ended up spending a big chunk of the day nursing that (fortunately we had some cream which helped) and it turned out to be only a minor factor in the full the next day.

By the time I lumbered off the bus on that fourth morning there were not many surprises left. I had my peanut butter bagel and water in hand, and I was ready. 

We coralled, and I think I was in a bit of a cloud. I’d convinced myself (and I think I was right) that the hardest race was the half: y’know, because it was the race where I had to hold back and moderate else risk ruining myself for the run the next day… plus it was pretty humid that third day.

But then the fireworks went… and we were off.

The Expected: Being very, very tired even as the race started… and everything else I’d seen up to that point repeated.

The Unexpected: The drop in humidity, the number of fellow Canadians (I was wearing a shirt with “Canada” on it), and the numb feeling hitting me for a few hours after it all ended.

It was a hard run. There are parts of it that are vivid in my brain. There are parts that are a complete blur and of which I have no memory. I suppose any marathon will do that to you.

I carried a camera with me for all four races (definitely recommended!) and I took a whole bunch of video, none of which I’ve watched as of this writing… I may even post some of it some day… but part of me was very happy when I crossed that line, and part of me was very sad that it was all over. I’m saving the video for when that realization really starts to sink in. I mean, all the preparation and planning, all the fun… and it was done.

Afterwards and Beyond

I slept that afternoon, and we went for dinner, I with a bunch of medals around my neck.

I posted a picture of my feet (and a pair of newly-retired shoes) from somewhere in the Magic Kingdom the next morning. We went the park, and I wrote: “I promised my shoes that if they treated me well for one last race, they could retire and I’d take them somewhere special.” So, we went to Disney World.

Thousands of fellow runners with medals around their necks. Hundreds of “congratulations” passed between strangers. Dozens of conversations spun up between people who might never have said so much as hello in the vastness of the chaotic theme park bustle. 

A few days of vacation.

A pair of slowly recovering feet.

A long plane ride home. 

And then… it was just another couple of race bibs tacked to my wall.

Would I recommend it? Would I do it again? Yes. Yes. So much yes. All the training, all the cost, all the self-doubt… worth it in the end: it was an awesome experience, and anyone who has the chance to run such a crazy, insane… dopey… race, should sieze it.

And me… I’ll shut up about it now.

Dopey Prep Factors: Travel-Running & Things Considered 

January 2, 2014

With the big race just a short time away, regular readers who’ve been following along with me over the last ten months as I write about the trials and tribulations of training for a 4-day, 78 km run may be wondering what some of the things going through my mind are…

… y’know, like right now. (Besides scoring all those cool medals!)

I’ve never been what you might call a “details person” but taking on such a big challenge has left me in full-on over-thinking mode, sometimes in a good way, and other times not so much. I’d like to think, however, that by considering all the things that might go wrong BEFORE I get to the start line, at least I’ll have (a) considered them and (b) possibly spent some GPU (Grey-Matter Processing Units) on out-thinking the potentially associated FAIL that goes with. 

Those are…

Nutrition & Hydration
aka. No one actually eats properly on vacation.

“Uggh…” you groan. “I went on vacation and gained like ten pounds!” It’s the lament of the modern vacationer, right? But when you’re off to run a race, not only can’t you over-eat (a tough prospect at a theme park on a good day) you also need to make sure you eating good, nutritious food, with proper fibre, and stick-to-your-ribs goodness. Top that off with a strategic effort of a full-on hydration regimen, and that’s a recipe that is even fairly tough to follow when you are at home and focused on it. Good luck, eh?

The Plan?

Go mild or go home. I figure that I’ll be focussing on sandwiches and salads for my restaurant meals leading into the race. I’ve found that standard clubhouse is a good bet –not too crazy, balanced, and full of potential not-too-bland but not-too-strange goodness — on whole wheat with nice light side salads and unsweetened iced tea on the side. The other option will be to look for mild pastas or dishes with eggs and complex carbs. This will be assisted by the “Pasta in the Park” adventure on the evening before the second race: a pasta buffet where the trick will be to settle in for a nice meal that will act as the fuel for the upcoming couple of races and build a good foundation for the marathon, but not to over-do it and end up with a “Pasta on the Shoes” barfing adventure the next morning. Also, a fixed beverage menu pre-races: water, tea, coffee, and maybe a sports drink here and there. And, it almost goes without saying, but I’ll be the guy carrying the water bottle around with me everywhere — EVERYWHERE — too.

Sea-level sounds great, but is it?

Altitude
aka. Sea-level sounds great, but is it?

According to my GPS watch I live at approximately 670m of elevation. That’s right: about two-thirds of a kilometre above sea level. This isn’t huge, I know, but according the the air pressure calculator at altitude.org I’ve been training and running for most of my days what is described as follows: “At 670m, the standard barometric pressure is 94 kPa (705 mmHg). This means that there is 93% of the oxygen available at sea level.” So, having roughly 7.5% more oxygen available is a good thing, right? Humidity factors aside, I would argue that any time you throw more than say 5% of environmental variability into your run you need to consider it somehow. For sake of that comparison, look at the elevation of Banff, Alberta — about 1460m above sea level — which according the same calculator has “85% of the oxygen available at sea level.” I ran a half marathon there in September and it kicked my ass… so, yeah… just saying. Hopefully the change is in my favour this time, but I’m not taking anything for granted.

The Plan?

Spend the ‘altitude-credits’ for a recovery-boost rather than speed-boost. I’m hoping it works in my favour, but I’m going to ignore as much of the benefit and any associated feel-goodery that emerges from it as I’m running and rather, if the lower altitudes give me any boost at all, I’ll keep running my normal pace and use the extra O2 as a recovery benefit rather than a race benefit. Does that make sense?

Hotel Life
aka. Unfamiliar surroundings complicate matters.

For a runner, home-base is nearly as important as any other factor. It’s where you sleep. It’s where you dress. It’s where you prepare your mind, body and soul for the experience of running the insane distances. And, on a travel run, that home is an unfamiliar hotel room, with all the quirks, strange noises, lumpy pillows, tiny blinking lights, rude neighbours, and finicky coffee makers you’d expect.

The Plan?

Settle in. Unpack. Claim a “race zone” for gear and set-up. Bring headphones to help get to sleep, an extra alarm clock to avoid the uncertainty of the one provided, and make it “feel like home” as much as possible. The night before any race, make the plan clear and set up for race morning: coffee ready to brew, clothes ready to toss on, and a plan of morning attack fully formed in your head.

Transportation
aka. I’m relying on a bus to an unfamiliar place.

No car. Just a bus from the hotel to the start line each morning. It should all work out for the best, right, but even the remotest possibility of a transportation panic attack on the morning of any of the races cannot be under-stated. 

The Plan?

Avoid if possible. Get up with time to spare. Chart and time the foot route a days before and have a Plan-B on stand-by. If all else fails, call a cab or hitch-hike. Pride is over-rated, anyhow.

Temperature
aka. What’s a 40 degree Celsius differential between friends?

If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’ll have noticed a recurring theme on many of my running posts. It goes something like this: COOOOOOOOOOOLD! SNOOOOW! IIIIIIIIIICE! Yeah, it’s been about as bad as it could have been for marathon training these last couple months. The mercury (or whatever they use in thermometers these days) seemed to hang out in the sub-zero teens for many of the last nine weeks. That would have been fine and I could have dealt with that, but it seemed to alternate between a dangerously cold wind-chill factor and dangerously-trip-inducing fresh snow or icy patches. I got most of my distance in –most– but having trained at the extreme cold end of my preferred climate, it is now looking like the race is going to be warm… as in the other end of that training spectrum: the warm end, that I don’t tend to like too much.

What’s a 40 degree Celsius differential between friends?

The Plan?

Dress for success and eyes off the sun. I’ll be wearing shorts and tees, of course. Clothing is half the battle. But the other side of that is going to be paying solid attention to (a) my pace so I don’t overdo it in the heat, (b) my hydration, because that could bite me in the backside and (c) my gaze, because watching the inevitable variety of (hopefully cute, hopefully Disney-princess) butts on the road ahead of me is better than the seductive snare and brain-numbing light of the Florida sun… no, really.

Time Shift
aka. Two hours of jet lag sucks even without a marathon.

Did I mention that the races start at 5:30 in the morning? Did I mention that 5:30 in the morning is 3:30 back home? And did I also mention it is advised by both race officials and good practice to arrive about an hour ahead of the race which, factoring in preparation and travel time in the morning, means I need to get up around 4 am… or what I would now consider 2 am back home? May as well not even go to bed! That’s a helluva jet lag to contend with before a multi-day race, huh?

The Plan?

Pre-travel time-travel. Or, if that isn’t possible, I’ll just be switching to Florida time a few days early. In fact, starting after New Years I’ve begun progressively shifting my bed-time and wake-up by half an hour earlier each day. Sure, by Sunday night I’ll be in bed by 8:30 and on Monday morning I’ll be crawling out of bed at 3:30 am local, but do you REALIZE how much you can get done for two hours before everyone else gets up? By Thursday morning I’ll be waking up at the same time as the alligators… or at least with plenty of time and sleep to have a good race.

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