As many runDisney veterans can tell you, when you run a Disney race you are never really alone even if you start out that way. The spectators, on course entertainment and overall friendly atmosphere make it the perfect place to run if you are a solo runner or if it is your first long distance race. Well this past weekend, Holly found all of that to be very true as she ran The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror 10-Miler! If you have ever hesitated to run a race because the distance seemed to long or because you didn’t have a running partner, you MUST read this story!
10 miles…52,800 feet…633,600 inches…Could I really run that far? All by myself? In a crowd of 12,000 people? YES! How do I know? Because I DID it! And you can, too!
Saturday, October 4, 2014 was my first ever runDisney event, my first ever competitive distance over 3.1 miles, and most importantly, the first time I’ve ever run a race without a friend along for encouragement. My husband and I were vacationing at Walt Disney World for 11 days and my race was scheduled for day 10 of our trip. After nine and a half days of beating up my feet in the autumn heat, humidity, and rain, I was about to say goodbye to my husband and start on a two-and-a-half hour journey all on my own. This wasn’t just any race for me. There was a lot riding on this finish.
After running a 5K last year, I wanted to try a longer race, but I hate to run, so I really needed something that would motivate me to keep lacing up my sneakers again and again. My friend Jessica suffers from a chronic form of cancer that she will be battling for the rest of her life, and I found that motivation when I decided to run for Jessica’s benefit. Every time we come home from WDW, Jessica anxiously awaits my report of all of the new things that are happening in our favorite place. But as her cancer recurs again and again, I’ve started to notice a change in Jessica’s eyes when we talk about these trips. It’s not jealousy or sadness, but a steely acceptance that she’ll only ever experience these things vicariously through me. With such an uncertain future, allocating money to a Disney vacation is just not something that her family can do. So I decided to take action. I decided that I would run a race to raise money to send Jessica and her family to Disney. When we arrived in Florida, we had already exceeded our fundraising goal of $5000 and all that was left was for me to finish the race.
On race night,we took the Mears event bus from Saratoga Springs Resort at 7:45pm and arrived at the staging area which is in the Film parking lot at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We entered the event venue via the makeshift bag check line, but no Disney Cast Members were there to welcome us or give directions. The giant parking lot loomed in front of us with lines to sign the guest registry, lines to take a photo, lines to take a last minute potty break.
I was too nervous to be in the mood for dancing, but a DJ was warming up the crowd and playing lots of familiar, inspiring tunes from both Disney and popular repertoires. While waiting in line, we met up with two other solo runners, but they were starting in different corrals, so I would have to say goodbye to my new friends once the race began.
At 9:15, my husband and I went our separate ways. He went off to watch the start of the race from the big screen and I headed into my corral dreading the 10 lonely miles ahead and wishing that I had chosen the 5K instead so I could have been on my way to the Villain’s Bash instead of embarking on the torture trail. I kept my phone with me for comfort and because I didn’t want to do this run without access to a camera!
At about 9:45, the corrals started to move out to the starting line. I had submitted my estimated finish time of 2:15:00, which had earned me a starting spot in corral H. Usually I can find someone to chat with in any Disney situation, but during the 30 minutes that I spent in the corral, I didn’t speak to anyone. I was just too nervous. Then at 10:00, the first corral was released. I wanted to run away, but I had come this far and there was no turning back now. As each corral was released on 2-minute intervals, I felt more and more nervous. Then suddenly about 20 minutes into the race, our time had come! This time the fireworks were for corral H!
At that moment, I was missing my training buddies. I wanted to chat away the 10 miles with them as we alternated between jogging and walking. I wanted to look forward to sharing the joy of crossing the finish line with them. I wanted their support and encouragement for the moments ahead when I was going to want to quit.
Typically, I run 1-minute intervals, but as all of the people around me started to run, I got caught up in the excitement. I ran for nearly a mile and a half straight before I realized that I had better pace myself if I hoped to survive until the end. We ran all the way to Animal Kingdom before turning around on Osceola Parkway and heading back to ESPN Wide World of Sports. Between the mile markers, characters, music, and water stops, it was easy to get lost in the atmosphere and not pay attention to the distance for the first five miles or so.
Somewhere around mile 6, running started to become difficult. I had only done three runs that were longer than 6 miles, so I expected to be tired by this point. Then the most amazing thing happened. We turned the corner into one of the baseball diamonds and spectators were lining the stadium to cheer for us. From the time we left that stadium, volunteers and families lined our route shouting words of encouragement, smiling, waving giant Mickey hands at us. Suddenly I didn’t feel alone anymore. These people were cheering for me! Encouraging me to keep running! I wanted to stop and hug each and every one of them individually for giving up their time to help motivate 12,000 strangers to accomplish something a goal.
We made a left turn back onto Osceola Parkway and down the home stretch to Hollywood Studios. I wasn’t alone anymore. These people were rooting for me and my husband was waiting at that finish line, ready to tell me how proud he was of me. I was unstoppable! I had long since thrown the intervals out the window. I was running for as long as I could and walking when I needed to conserve energy. When we passed under the Hollywood Studios welcome sign, Hades was waiting for us and announcing that we only had a mile and a half to go!
As we wove our way through Hollywood Studios, both onstage and backstage, the excitement started to build. We ran past the hat and past Toy Story Mania before looping around backstage to the finish line. All the while, people were cheering and it was such an amazing feeling! As soon as I crossed the finish line, a volunteer was waiting with a cool towel. Then another volunteer handed me a medal and another presented bottles of water and powerade. Down the line, more volunteers were waiting to hand me a snack box and a banana and someone else wanted to take my picture.
Twelve thousand people crossed the starting line for this race and when I crossed the finish line, every single person that I encountered made me feel like I won the race. It was a hero’s welcome so grand that I could barely feel the pain in my legs and feet. All of the feelings of being alone and scared at the start had vanished. I was inaugurated as a member of the runDisney club. I wasn’t alone after all. I had this huge network of strangers who cared enough to make me feel like I had scaled Mt. Everest. My time of 2:07:11 was good enough to finish 432 out of 1102 participants in my age group, better than I could have hoped for at the start of the race.
In the end, I’m glad I was running by myself. I could set my own pace and shift my position on the course to avoid traffic without the burden of pacing myself to the group’s speed and ability. I was able to run when I wanted to run and walk when I needed to walk. The festive atmosphere and music was enough to keep the course fresh and interesting. I did not stop for any character photos because the lines were long and I didn’t want to risk falling behind the required pace, but seeing Jafar, Captain Hook, Queen of Hearts, Big Bad Wolf, Stitch, Dr. Facilier, the hyenas, and others on the course certainly helped to keep that atmosphere light. I will do a runDisney event again and I would readily run alone again. It was intimidating at first, but the tremendous volunteers and all of the fanfare made it a fantastic and memorable experience!
Holly Liska never thought she would be a runner. As a gymnast, she grew up competing in an anaerobic sport and struggled with the endurance required to run long distances. After one season of high school track, she didn’t care to ever run again, but a community event sponsored by the Real Estate Agency where she works inspired her to try to run a 5K. She’s been running regularly ever since and she just completed her first 10-mile race.