I had not had an injury that prevented me from running since September 11, 2011. We received heavy, wet snow on December 21, 2012. Like I had done many times over the past several years, I simply grabbed a shovel and went to work. With strong winds out of the north, our driveway was packed high and tight. It required digging a path to get our walk behind snow blower through.
I reached forward and lifted. I felt something give in my back. I cursed a little but simply readjusted my attack on the drift and kept working. The next day, I had to start all over again as the wind drifted it back in overnight. For 5 hours, the family and I worked to clear the driveway.
By the end, I was limping severely and could feel the sciatic nerve all the way down my left leg. I had issues with this nerve several years ago when I wasn’t stretching properly. With massage and stretching, I had recovered and moved on without a recurrence.
The sciatic nerve is a large nerve that begins in the lower back and runs through the glute/buttock down both legs. It is the widest and longest single nerve in the whole body and I could feel it down to my left big toe. The nerve supplies nearly the whole of the skin of the leg, muscles of the back of the thigh in addition to those of the leg and foot. It is derived from spinal nerves in the lower back.
Searching on the internet, I deduced that the pain was caused by either a muscle pinching the nerve or a ruptured disc in the spine pressing against the nerve roots. “Crap”, I thought. “It better be a muscle. I don’t have time to deal with a ruptured disc.”
I hobbled through the holiday weekend. Where I previously had been able to touch my toes, bending over the sink to brush my teeth was painful. On December 26th, I got in to see my doctor. He couldn’t tell for sure whether it was a muscle or disc. He smiled when I told him I was scheduled to run a half marathon on January 12 and a full marathon on January 13.
The doctor suggested rest and no running. While inviting, I had little time so I asked for him to approve a visit to a physical therapist. Dave Rapson at Northwoods Physical Therapy in Traverse City, Michigan had an opening the next day. So, bright and early, I hobbled into his office for my first session of physical therapy ever.
Dave put me through some tests while listening to my goal of completing 39.3 miles in one weekend in a mere 3 short weeks. My heart sank when he told me that in his opinion it was probably a disc issue. He was upbeat and encouraging, stating that I certainly had a chance. It would all depend on how my body responded to the treatment.
Treatment consisted of various exercises, abdominal work and stretching. The best part was what I called being put on the “rack”. Once strapped in a harness and lying on my back, I was hooked up to a winch that stretched my spine, released and stretched it again. This would go on for 10 to 15 minutes. I felt good enough to run 2 marathons when I was upright and walking again. The euphoria would be gone in a short time after sitting in the car and arriving at home.
After 2 treatments and some begging, I got “approval” to workout on an elliptical machine. I did 2 workouts of 60 minutes each on December 29 and 30 with no ill effects. Then, after a third and final visit, I hit the treadmill on December 31 for a total of 3 miles. I felt like I was about 80% and climbing.
To hedge my bets, I also went to see the best deep tissue massage therapist in Traverse City, Dan Zemper. Dan had fixed some other issues for me over the years. He thought it was all a muscle issue and worked me over good on two separate occasions prior to the New Year. While helpful, I did not feel the relief I had in earlier visits. Silently, I finally accepted the fact that I had a disc problem. At this point, it didn’t matter. I was on the road to recovery.
January 1, 2013, I joined my regular running partners Jim Carpenter and Dean Bott for my first run outside since the injury. We covered 5 miles at a 9 minute pace that felt good. I could feel the sciatic as I warmed up but it gradually disappeared when running. (My big toe would feel like it was asleep for 45 more days!)
Thus the debate began over whether or not to actually attempt both races. My goal had always been 50 marathons in 50 states. If I did the half the day before, would I jeopardize my chances to complete the marathon? Over the next 7 days, I was able to run 29 miles and probably debated the issue every mile.
When we left for Florida on January 9th, I felt like I could do both. But, in my mind, the option to bail on the half marathon if I had a set back was always open. January 10 and 11, I didn’t run at all. I walked around Disney with Mary and Collette, enjoyed a few rides and more food. I also got in the pool and hot tub every day. In the water, I worked on my range of motion and simply relaxed in the sunshine.
Whether it was the water, the walking, temperatures in the 70s or simply mentally getting away from the stresses of a Michigan winter and work, my body responded. Those two days were exactly what I was looking for. Still not 100% however, I decided that the attempt at back-to-back races would happen. Goofy? Certainly.
The Friday race expo was at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex on Disney’s expansive property. The HP Fieldhouse and Jostens Center were packed with runners. There were 28,000 registered for the half and 24,000 in the full marathon. Luckily, I was directed to the line for the 7,000+ who would be attempting both. Being “Goofy” meant a much shorter check-in line. Browsing the expo was an attempt in futility as the crowds were jammed and slow moving.
I went to bed around 8 p.m. on Friday night and the alarm rang at 2 a.m. Saturday morning. Disney doesn’t want to interrupt its money making machines any more than it has to so the races would both start at 5:30 a.m. Mary and I arrived at the runner’s village well before the 4 a.m. suggested time. I kissed her good-bye and started the mile plus walk to the starting corrals around 4:30 a.m.
I was close to the front in Corral C. Corrals would be released every 7 minutes at the start of the race. I was relieved to not be in Corral H at the end of the large crowd. After a nice national anthem, Mickey, Donald and Goofy started the runners under the dark skies and temperatures in the 60s. Dressed in my best M4K shirt and superman socks complete with a small cape on each calf, I felt refreshed and ready to run.
We started on the road outside the Epcot parking lot and eventually ran up World Drive towards the Magic Kingdom. Off the back roads, the course entered the park passing through Tomorrowland and Cinderella’s castle. After that, it was back down World Drive the opposite way to make our return to Epcot through FutureWorld.
Thus, the half marathon route only covered 2 parks. While well organized, it felt very commercial. Most of the spectators on the back roads were simply Disney volunteers. There were 9 well stocked beverage stations and ample picture taking opportunities with various Disney characters. I stopped for Mary Poppins at mile 8 and the soldiers from Toy Story at mile 11. I found Mary at mile 4 and at the finish.
The entire time, I kept telling myself to hold back the pace and remember that I was running 39.3 this weekend. Mentally, I felt great. I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was “just” 13 miles and I would be done in a mere 2 hours or so. It was a strange and almost “cocky” feeling of, “This is it?” – “This is all you got?”
Cinderella’s Castle was very impressive lit up in the darkness. I stopped for a quick picture as I thought about an electric meter spinning out of control somewhere. As I made my way down the street, I thought about all the Sundays as a kid when we would sit down in front of the black and white TV to watch the Wonderful World of Disney at 5 p.m. Tinker Bell would always fly over the colorless castle spreading pixie dust. Now, here I was, at the doorstep of the castle in full living color.
The sciatic problem was not a factor during the half marathon. I finished in 2 hours and 11 minutes and the 9:53 average pace felt easy. Still, I could also feel that I had lost some of my conditioning during the injury layoff and reduced effort of the recovery runs. My left hamstring was tight and if I tried to run faster it would remind me, “39.3 not just a half.”
In the end, 23,126 runners completed the half marathon. I was 4,474 overall and 2,971 out of 9,998 men. With all the distractions and picture taking opportunities, I can’t honestly say that it was a race. It was simply an enjoyable running event. Finishing is all that mattered to most of us behind the front line of Corral A.
Collette was still asleep when we arrived back at our room. After a shower and dip in the pool, we had lunch at the Universal Studios Hard Rock Café. Mary and Collette did some shopping on the Universal street walk while I found a soft chair in a movie theater. I relaxed while the good guys shot up and beat up the bad guys in Gangster Squad.
Saturday evening, we had a problem. It was Packers versus the 49ers in the playoffs. I set the alarm back an entire 30 minutes and settled in for the game. As luck, fate or simply lack of effort would have it, the game did not go in the Packers favor. For the first time ever, I turned off a Packer playoff game in the third quarter. It was almost 10 p.m. I hoped I hadn’t waited too long.
Getting to the Epcot parking lot just a little later than the day before put us into a massive crowd. There simply wasn’t enough space or time for Mary to enter the runner’s village. We split up at the gate and I waded in to find the all important open porta potty.
In Corral C once again, I chatted with a man from New Jersey who had lost 70 pounds after taking up running. Then, there was a man with a shirt that read “26 miles for 26 angels” on the back. Below that, he had printed the names of every victim of the Sandy Hook shooting. With music and Disney merriment in the air, it was a very sobering moment. I asked him if he knew the victims and he stated that he did not. He simply had family in education and wanted to show his support.
The course was very crowded. While fighting the crowds, I also had to fight to see my watch in the early morning darkness in order to attempt to manage my pace. The first 4 miles were outside the park on various roads.
Entering the Magic Kingdom, I saw Mary and shouted, “Katarina!” She shouted back, “Arturo!” This had become our “thing” in tribute to the movie Overboard that we have enjoyed together for years now. I also found it fitting as Kurt Russell was a regular child actor on many of those Disney Sundays of my youth.
Once again, I was on the streets of the Magic Kingdom enjoying Tomorrowland and the spectacular display of Cinderella’s Castle. Trumpets were playing the Rocky theme from a castle balcony as I passed underneath. Somewhere around mile 7, the first of the theme parks was behind me.
Mile 9 had runners circling the Walt Disney World Speedway. The track was circled with classic cars of all kinds. The owners watched the runners and the runners enjoyed the cars. I stopped to take a few pictures while listening to Rascal Flats sing “Life is a Highway” over the loud speakers.
Just outside the speedway, my right calf knotted up to the point that I almost had to stop. I cursed and briefly wondered if my journey was about to end short of the goal. I hobbled on and in a half mile or so it eased up. I deduced that the sciatic issue on the left side was likely making me compensate on the right side and the calf was letting me know about it. Why then did it let up? I have no clue but while present the rest of the day, I was never in enough pain to consider quitting again.
Miles 11 and 12 took me to the Animal Kingdom and through Expedition Everest. “Katarina” was there once again near mile 12. I exited the park near mile 13 while eating the orange she had for me and enjoying the coolness of a washcloth that was included. Temperatures were in the 70s and climbing while the sun went higher in the sky each minute.
Miles 14 through 17 were on back roads that lead to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. The course circled a running track with a nice rubber surface that felt wonderful for the short lap around. Then, it was over to the baseball stadium for a lap on the warning track in front of a smattering of spectators. “Katarina” wasn’t in the stands because she had learned that it would be difficult to make it back to the finish. Disney, an entity masterful at moving large crowds of people, hadn’t conquered an easy way to get from one end of their territory to the other in under an hour in order to accommodate spectators.
I arrived at the wall around mile 18. The sun was full and the thermometer had to be near 80 by then. Unable to pickup the washcloth that I had dropped a couple miles earlier, I was relieved to get a second opportunity for some coolness in the form of a sponge handed to me by a volunteer. My pace was clearly slowing at this point. Taking a walk break, I did a rocket blow to clear my nose and about went down. The blowing action tightened up my muscles and one (or all) of them grabbed the sciatic nerve. It sent a needle like pain down my leg. I never blew my nose while walking again! ESPN was in the past at mile 20.
The next 2 miles were back on the outside roads with only a few spectators and more Disney characters. I have to give Disney credit for putting something or someone on almost every mile of the course. The crowds may have been sparse but the Disney magic was in full display and working well.
Before mile 23, the Toy Story soldiers were out and shouting motivation to struggling runners. “If you are walking, give me pushups!” they shouted. I smiled, avoided eye contact (I was walking) and started to slog along once again.
Shortly thereafter, I was in Hollywood Studios and running down Washington Square Garden, New York Street and by the Sorceror’s hat. One back alley section took me past a costume area for a quick glimpse behind the scenes.
Somewhere near mile 24 and the Disney Yacht and Beach Club, a Galloway pace team caught up with me. They were walking for 1 minute and running for 3 minutes at a 4:30 marathon pace. Somewhere in the depths of whatever running foundation I had, I found a burst. When the leader shouted “WE ARE WALKING!”, I walked. When she yelled, “WE ARE RUNNING!” – I ran! It was a lifesaver and helped me finish strong.
Passing through Epcot once again, I found mile 26. I also found “Katarina” one last time but I didn’t have much shout in me at that point. I crossed the finish line with a time of 4:39:42. I was officially “Goofy” having finished the entire 39.3 mile weekend. I grabbed a bottle of water and accepted my marathon medal then went over to the Goofy table to collect a second medal.
With my hard earned “bling” clattering on my neck, I was reunited with Mary in the family reunion area. All things aside, I was managing to stand. Due to the concrete on the course, I had used some Dr. Scholls cushioned insoles for the first time and my knees seemed to be thankful. They were even more thankful as we witnessed one runner hobbling back to her car with a sack of ice on each knee!
I looked down at my Goofy race bib. After 2 days of running, it looked well worn. While the medals were shiny and new, the race bib told a silent story that only 7,000 others could tell. It felt really good to be in the minority. It was also humbling to learn that almost 3,000 registered marathon runners did not complete the course.
Officially, I finished 4,604 out of 20,679 men and women marathon finishers. In the men’s age 50-54, I finished 268 of 968. Tossing age brackets aside, my placing was 3,018 of 10,061 men. Again, it was a Florida running party and not really a race. Every finisher had their own battle and their own story.
After 1 hour in bed and another in the pool, I kept my promise to Collette and we headed over to the Animal Kingdom. The more I walked the better the knot in my calf felt. Of course, I wore my Goofy shirt even though it had long sleeves. It was a badge of honor that would have the most meaning on the day it was earned. Other fathers (and mothers) were doing the same. Strangers, we simply nodded and smiled as we walked slowly past.
While the walking truly helped, after a time, I was desperate to sit down. So desperate, I relented to riding the Yeti roller coaster with Collette. I am not a big fan of high places and less a fan of high places at even higher speed. She also commented that it went upside down at one point. “Upside down? REALLY?” I thought to myself. However, I was desperate. Later, the slow ride through the park to see gators, giraffes, rhinos and other creatures was much more pleasant and didn’t involve a grown man screaming!
The finale of the day was the 4 p.m. cool down party at Downtown Disney on the west side. Over the years, I haven’t attended too many post race parties. It seems like I am always jumping in a car or plane to get back home. This party was a true highlight of the Disney weekend.
There was ample shopping, places to sit and most of all – beer. I only had one but it was awesome. You could also carry it in and out of stores. There was live music all along the street. Marathon shirts were the fashion garment of choice. Every time I walked by another Goofy shirt, I got a smile and a high five. Sore, tired and wanting a bed, I was still sorry to leave.
Would I do the Goofy Challenge again? The answer is “Yes”. While the half marathon doesn’t show you much of the Disney magic, the full marathon certainly does. Disney is clean, efficient and accommodating. Expensive? Certainly. In the end, was it worth it? Certainly.
Florida in January was simply wonderful. The warm temperature and warmer hot tub water was just the relief I needed at the time. It was probably the most relaxing 4 days I had enjoyed in a long, long while.
It was also a rare getaway with the two ladies in my life. Collette, our baby, was headed to the University of Michigan in the fall. Too soon, it was going to just be “Katarina” and me. Back at the starting line of the wonderful “Goofy” marathon that has been our life. “Yes” – I would do it all over again.