Mar 9, 2011

From Magic Kingdom to Rainbow's End: The Disney Princess Half Marathon

My account of running the Disney Princess Half Marathon on Sunday, February 27, 2011 with my cousin Yvette and her friend Carrie: A series of vignettes accompanied by selected lyrics from the songs on my run playlist.

Carrie, Yvette and I at the finish line of the Disney Princess Half Marathon. Sunday,February 27, 2011.

Not the Easy Thing

It’s 3:02 A.M. and I’m finding it hard to get up. The alarm went off moments ago, and with only four hours of sleep, the simple act of getting out of bed seems far more daunting then running 13.1 miles. How much easier it would be to just roll over and go back to sleep. But today is about the hard things, not the easy ones. Today is about the hard journey from grief and loss to remembrance and healing. Today is about the hard work of cancer research—hard work that takes money, a lot of it, for a long time, until a cure is found. Today is about running to raise money to fund the work, all in memory of a woman who worked hard for years upon years just to stay alive. Today is about 13.1 long, hard miles, a token distance in comparison to the hard turns life—and death—can bring. In light of this, getting out of bed at three in the morning turns out to be pretty easy.

“Love is not the easy thing. . .it’s the only baggage you can bring, all that you can’t leave behind."
--“Walk On” by U2

A Sort of Homecoming

Some forty minutes later, I’m driving the near empty streets of my hometown. An orange crescent moon hangs low in the sky. The street-lit palmettos and live oaks draped in Spanish moss remind me of high school, out late with friends, up to adolescent hijinks or buzzing down to Tampa on a whim. In those days I hated running. In those days my family was an annoyance, a duty that kept me from my all-important friends. In those days, I found Orlando the most unimaginative place possible—couldn’t wait to get out and live somewhere that hadn’t been Disneyfied, somewhere that had a history. And now, here I am 37 years old, pumped up to go running. At least one old high school friend will be among the throng of runners, and while I’m glad I’ll be able to see her, I’m here for my family—for my cousin, for my aunt—and thankful for the weekend, short though it’s been, with mom and brother and sister. And as I race along I-4, I muse to myself: This wouldn’t be such a bad place to live.

“Here I am, back where I began. . .all of these roads that lead me to roam lead me back home, back where I began”
--“Where I Began” by Caedmon’s Call

Zoo Station

4:23 A.M. The first thing I see when I get out of the car in the parking lot of Epcot Center is a scrawny Asian man in a muscle t-shirt (the ones with massive biceps, imposing pecs, and six-pack abs painted on), Captain America boxers, and large cartoony boxing gloves. Right away I know this will be no ordinary half marathon. I follow the Asian-American hero , and join the crowd streaming in the direction of the thumping music and white bag-dropoff tents. There are tutus & tiaras everywhere, sequins and sparkles, matching pink outfits, Snow White in spandex running shorts. Some are even running in full-on Cinderella ball gowns. I hear there are only six hundred men running out of something like fifteen thousand participants. More than a few of these princes, as the race organizers call them, are wearing tutus themselves; big, strapping football player types, strutting around in tulle and glitter. I know of at least two fellows that came dressed as frogs. In this carnival atmosphere, I feel rather plain in my San Francisco Marathon t-shirt and black running shorts. But the fun is infectious and the open friendliness among the runners warms me against the morning chill.

“I’m ready. I’m ready for what’s next. I’m ready to duck, I’m ready to dive, I’m ready to say I’m glad to be alive. I’m ready.”
--“Zoo Station” by U2

Princesses gather for a photo at the staging area for the half marathon (Photo taken from Yvette's iphone)

The Gathering

5:10 A.M. It seems like we’ve walked a couple miles already and we haven’t even gotten to the starting line! An endless ocean of runners has crept along a lengthy route towards the starting corrals. I’ve been texting my cousin Yvette Saliba and long-lost high school friend Pamela Foard Jansen pretty much since I’ve arrived, but so far I’ve not seen either one. I finally reach the corrals—here the sea parts, with rivers flowing to my left towards the first corrals and to my right towards the later ones. Yvette and Pamela both text me that they are at their respective corrals. I peel off to the left—I’m assigned to Corral C, but I won’t be going there. I’ll be running with Yvette in Corral F, but first I want to touch base with Pamela—a friend I haven’t seen in over fifteen years. She’s waiting at the entrance to Corral D with her sister-in-law: a friendly greeting, it’s been a long time, a big hug, look at you—we both look so different, childhood has long been left behind. We make small talk, and promise to catch up after the race. It reminds me of another crowd, more numerous than the sands of the sea. There’ll be reunions there too—friends and family we haven’t seen in such a long, long time. Perhaps, we’ll barely recognize each other then too, having been changed in a twinkling of an eye—no longer children and yet forever young. We’ll promise to catch up later, because then, we’ll have all the time in the world.

Me with high school chum Pamela Foard Jansen. This photo was taken when we met up again after the race.

“All God’s children of love and light, every heart will be unified. . .on the day of the Gathering”
--“The Gathering” by City On a Hill

Run Together

5:15 A.M. In F corral with Yvette and her purple-clad Team In Training comrades. I’d begun to worry of late that perhaps I’d feel out of place—that Yvette would have her close knit team of TNT runners and I would be the fifth wheel. But Yvette is so genuinely glad to see me, and her fellow runners, each sporting on their shirts the name of someone they are running to honor, make me feel right at home. Perhaps these especially know that life is too short to leave any one out in the cold. Yvette and I lean on each other for warmth and we all pass the time in friendly conversation. Within half an hour the first wave of runners is off, and we begin to inch towards the starting line. Yvette and her friend Carrie leave the corral and race off for one last bathroom break. I look back anxiously for them as we continue to move towards the starting line and I move closer to the barricades at the edge of the corral where they can see me when they come back—I want to be sure they are not left behind. And this is how we’ll run. Looking back, making sure the other is okay, taking care of each other. We won’t leave each other behind.

Yvette and I hanging out at the starting line.

“Come take my hand, we’ll walk this road together”
--“Not Afraid” by Eminem

I Want to Run

6:20 A.M. We’re off in a burst of fireworks and a cloud of fairy dust. Immediately I encounter difficulty. My right foot is hurting. The top of my foot feels pinched as if my shoe is tied too tightly. I’m not hobbling yet, but I can’t imagine that I won’t be soon if it hurts this much and I haven’t yet run a mile. I didn’t expect this. I confess, I thought this run would be easy--a mere half-marathon, running at a much slower pace than I had trained for. This would surely be a walk in the park, a no-sweat lark. It would be easy. But now, quite unexpectedly, 13.1 miles feels very long indeed. I joke to Yvette and Carrie that it looks like I’m going to need those inspirational songs on my ipod more than I thought. I want to run, but I will crawl if I must.

“I will hold out hope. . .I will find strength in pain.”
--“The Cave” by Mumford & Sons

In the crush of the crowd as we move towards the starting line (Photo from Yvette's iphone).

The Foolish and the Wise

The five foolish virgins. That’s what Yvette, in reference to the Biblical parable, calls the women who stop off for photo opportunities with a bare-chested Aladdin and square jawed John Smith. It seems terribly nefarious of Disney to plant this endless array of distractions along the race route—a full size pirate ship, with a motley crew of Caribbean pirates led by a very authentic looking Johnny Depp impersonator, a pumpkin carriage with Prince Charming standing by, male gymnasts bounding about on a trampoline, a stock car attended by rakish racecar drivers. Gathered around each of these are lines of runners waiting to have their pictures taken. But all we can think about is the 2000 plus runners who ended up being cut from last year’s race barely four miles in, because they fell behind Disney’s required pace and were stopped by the dreaded fence they pull across the course to blockade slowpoke runners. We remember the yellow flags that pop up to warn runners that they are behind the required pace, and the buses that swoop in to scoop up runners that have been disqualified. I joke that they are probably driven by Disney villains, though I doubt even Disney would be that cruel. Of course not everyone stops for photo ops. Just an hour after the race began we see the first runners coming back with just a few miles to go until the finish. Somehow I doubt these women--lean-muscled with grim looks of determination on their faces, powering forward at unbelievable speeds, unimpeded by foolish tutus and party-favor decorations--took the time to stop for a picture with Goofy and his golf cart. We might not be as hardcore as these serious athletes, but we are determined to be as wise they are, determined not to be distracted, determined to finish the race no matter the cost.

“It’s a beautiful day. Don’t let it slip away.”
--“Beautiful Day” by U2

I don't think this is the same Pirates of the Caribbean ship that we saw along the course. There are some pretty good pictures out there of the ship and the pirates, the handsome princes along the way and so on, but most of them were posted by other bloggers who ran the Princess half that day and I felt bad to use their personal photos without permission (especially since we were somewhat critical of our fellow runners in that regard).

The Magic Kingdom.

Five miles in and we enter the Magic Kingdom. I haven’t been here since I was a kid. The Salibas would drive down from the frigid Michigan winters at Christmas time and a trip to Disney World was often part of the schedule of holiday events for the family. The last time I’d arrived at the gates of the Kingdom, I’d probably piled out of the Saliba’s blue-toned GMC van, excited at the prospect of a day of Disney. The last time I’d run these fantasyland streets, I was probably racing to be first in line at Pirates of the Caribbean—the animatronics rides were always my favorites. I got sick on Thunder Mountain Railroad and dared not even consider Space Mountain. The Pirates, and even the nerdy Hall of the Presidents were more my speed. Yvette was there, but I barely noticed her running about with my kid sister and her other cousin Nicole, busy as I was trailing her older brothers William and Nabih with my brother Vince. Uncle Slimen had the chunky VHS video camera to capture the memories. Aunt Patsy kept us laughing with her wit. Grandma, ever the thrifty one, brought contraband egg sandwiches repacked in the bread bags. Uncle Roland and Uncle Robert were cool as always. Aunt Colleen was as pretty as any Disney princess. Mom was there to comfort and care. And Grandpa, the patriarch, presided over the whole brood with dignity and wisdom. Disney was fun, but the best part was being with family.

Running through the Magic Kingdom

And now here I am again. So much has changed. Everything seems smaller than I remember, even the centerpiece Sleeping Beauty castle. There is no blue GMC van, no VHS camera, no egg salad sandwiches. The family has grown up and grown old. Aunt Patsy and Grandpa live only in our memories. But some things haven’t changed. Yvette is still here, running beside me, no longer the kid cousin but instead a good friend. Running through Disney is fun, but the best part still is being with family.

"This was not your dream
But you always believed in me.
I want to go home. "

--“Home” by Michael Buble


"All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arrive.
Blackbird, fly."

I don’t suppose I ever knew Aunt Patsy as well as I feel as I do now, as we leave Frontierland behind, and the course winds through the backstage areas of the Magic Kingdom. That’s no slight to Aunt Patsy—it’s just how our family is. We are close in that we always make time to be together—Sabbath lunches for those that live in town, regular holiday gatherings for those who don’t. We are close in that we look out for one another—just about everyone has shared a roof with someone else in the family at one time or another. But beyond the immediate families there is little in the way of heart-to-heart talks and deep sharing. We keep things light, we laugh a lot, but the troubles and heartaches are passed along in respectful whispers, in third person.

"Do you remember when we used to sing. . . "

I had asked mom the night before if she knew of any her sister’s favorite songs that I could add to my playlist for the run. These are the songs she gave me—“Blackbird” by the Beatles, “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel, and I’ve grouped them together to create a moment of reflection in the midst of this run. These songs. . .these songs are the bridge. They give me a glimpse of the heart of Aunt Patsy—a parent’s heart, something I can now very much relate to. Like her, I know the heartbreaking joy that comes at watching your brown-eyed child dancing, laughing, and playing innocently. I know what it is to hope to see your child fly. And I know too the longing to comfort and protect. And in knowing all this, I feel that I know her.

"When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side
Oh, when times get hard
Like a bridge over troubled waters
I will lay me down"

Though this entire run is a tribute to her memory, we’ve not dwelt long on the reason for the run. I can imagine Yvette’s mother would have had little patience with13.1 miles of teary eyes and gloomy hearts. And Yvette, ever stalwart and cheerful in spite of her loss, would not have been one to indulge her sadness that way. But at this moment, with Aunt Patsy’s favorite brown-eyed girl trotting beside me unawares, my eyes mist over and I allow myself to miss her.

“I see you now and then in dreams. Your voice sounds just like it used to. I know you better than I knew you then. All I can say is I love you.”
--“Treasure of the Broken Land” by Mark Heard, Performed by Chagall Guevera

Beautiful Day

We are entering the long stretch, slogging through miles 7, 8 and 9 on Floridian Way, heading back towards EPCOT. The crowd has barely thinned since the race began. We are constantly jockeying for position, passing or being passed. We run on the grass. We dodge and feint to avoid colliding with other runners. The sun has risen. The morning grows warm. It’s going to be a beautiful day.

The course

“It’s a long road, baby, running away.”
--“Here We Go” by Mat Kearney

Carrie On

Ten, eleven miles behind us and it’s obvious who the real hero is. I’ll be frank. My foot is feeling much better, and the truth of it is, this run has proved to be physically pretty easy for me. Yvette seems to be doing well and is on track to meet her goals. But the hero has to be Carrie. She amazes me. It’s not just her will to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s not just the way she digs deep to start running at the end of the too-short minute of walking. It’s not just that she’s on track to blow all her previous records out of the water—that she’s moving faster for longer than she ever has. That’s all run of the mill distance running heroics.

No, it’s that she calls on her training as a nurse and stops to comfort and encourage a woman who’s panicking. It’s that she thinks to pick up Tylenol at the medical station because she knows my foot has been hurting. It’s that she’s worried that she might be holding us back when she could be celebrating her own achievements. It’s that she’s here, alone—her family all back in Connecticut—running for one of her patients. This run is hard for her—it would be well within her rights to forget about everyone else and focus on just getting through this. But she keeps looking out for others, not just herself.

What an honor to run with a woman like this! I don’t know who came in first, but I know with a doubt who has won the day.

Carrie, on the left, with Yvette and me at the finish line. Strong work, Carrie!

"Every hand that reaches out, every hand that reaches out to offer peace
Every simple act of mercy, every step to Kingdom Come
All the hope in every heart will speak what I have done
For as long as I shall live I will testify to love
I will be the witness in the silences when words are not enough "

--“Testify to Love” by Avalon

Over the Rainbow

9:12 A.M. It’s like the end of the rainbow. You can’t quite see it, though you know it’s there. It’s one blind corner after another as we leave the iconic EPCOT globe. Disney employees are shouting encouragement: “You’re almost there!” It’s that point in the run, when you know that you’re going to finish. That goal that seemed as ephemeral and impossible as some magic kingdom on the other side of the rainbow back at the start, at mile 5, and 7, 8, and 9 miles is now not just possible but definite. But still, you can’t see it. It’s the layout of the course—there’s no long, open approach to the finish. So we are left to wonder, Will it be around this corner? No? Then perhaps this one? It’s disappointing not to find the finish, but only a little. Because we know it’s there, only moments away.

Finally, we turn and the finish is in front of us. But I almost miss it, because I’m captured by a massive handmade sign: “Congratulations Yvette, Carrie, and Sean!” I’m blown away—truly surprised and touched. Who are these people? How did they know that I would be here—I’m not part of the TNT group—and yet someone told someone and someone took the time to add my name to that sign. Without question it is the most precious part of a very beautiful day. I’m so grateful to Yvette’s friends for that gift.

Posing with our sign. Thanks to all who cheered like crazy for us!

And now the finish looms ahead. We clasp hands, run as one, with cheers all around us, and it’s over. We made it. We walk now, arms around each other’s shoulder, comrades of the journey. The hard miles, the months of training, the struggle is past. The dreams that we dared to dream really did come true and now all we feel is: joy.

At the end. Look carefully for us in the crowd, we're hand in hand.

"Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
In the Land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby
Once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dared to dream
Really do come true
Someday I’ll wish upon a Star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
When troubles melt like lemon drops
A way above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that dared to dream
Really do come true.
If happy little bluebirds fly
Above the rainbow
Why oh, why can’t I."

The end of the rainbow. You can’t quite see it, but you know it’s there.

Yvette and I at the finish line of the Disney Princess Half Marathon. Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Complete Playlist
A wonderful collection of inspiring songs –the perfect soundtrack for a run to the end of the rainbow.
1. Where the Streets Have No Name—U2
2. Magnificent—U2
3. Zoo Station—U2
4. Today—Smashing Pumpkins
5. Not Afraid-Eminem
6. Float On—Modest Mouse
7. Billy the Kid-Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
8. A Sort of Homecoming-U2
9. The Cave-Mumford & Sons
10. Hello Hurricane—Switchfoot
11. You Set Me Free-Michelle Branch
12. Gloria-U2
13. High of 75-Relient K
14. Elevation—U2
15. Don’t Break My Heart--Keawahi
16. Free Fallin’--Tom Petty
17. Walk On--U2
18. I Will Follow--U2
19. Lonesome Day—Bruce Springsteen
20. Beautiful Day/Srgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/Blackbird-U2 (Live in Japan)
21. Brown-Eyed Girl--Van Morrison
22. Bridge Over Troubled Water--Simon & Garfunkel
23. Home--Michael Buble
24. Here We Go—Mat Kearney
25. Undeniable--Mat Kearney
26. Closer to Love--Mat Kearney
27. Where I Began—Caedmon’s Call
28. Rejoice—U2
29. Testify to Love—Amazon
30. Once Again-Matt Redman
31. When I Think of You—Michael W. Smith (feat. The African Children’s Choir)
32. Mighty to Save—Hillsong United
33. All the Way My Savior Leads Me—Rich Mullins
34. Say (What You Need to Say)—John Mayer
35. Kite-U2
36. One Tree Hill—U2 (Live in Japan)
37. Treasure of the Broken Land—Chagall Guevera
38. The Gathering—City on a Hill
39. Hosanna-Kirk Franklin
40. Pride (In the Name of Love)—U2
41. Lifetime—Mat Kearney
42. Somewhere Over the Rainbow—Eva Cassidy