The Road to Dopey

I was a sports nut all my life. I played baseball, basketball, soccer, and even field hockey. I was always the fast one…always the quickest in a foot race…but hated running…despised it. And I coached those sports on the recreation, travel, and scholastic levels. I trained many athletes. And most often, during practices, I would run with them. But I hated it.

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I have been a Disney nut all my life too. I was on a family vacation in Walt Disney World and I saw people walking around with nice shirts and medals around their necks. I had no idea what that was about. So I asked a cast member. He told me that it was Marathon Weekend. I had no idea what that was…and I told him that I wanted one of those shirts. He said that to get one, I would have to run. I told him that I would do it right then and there. He explained about Marathon Weekend, what it was about, and that I would have to sign up way ahead of time. I was disappointed about that, but more disappointed that as a self-professed Disney nut, I was completely unaware of the existence of RunDisney and the events that they hold. That was January of 2013.

I went home and immediately did my research and learned that I would have to wait until April to sign up for the next Marathon Weekend. When April came around, I went online and tried to sign up for the 5K event for the following January, 2014. It was sold out. I didn’t think much of it and figured, “Eh…I will wait until next year.” And then I tried again the following year, same thing, sold out for January of 2015. This time I called RunDisney and they explained to me how quickly the events sell out…especially the 5K. They said something about charities but I was so disappointed that I didn’t really pay attention. The person asked if I wanted to be put on a waiting list. I figured, “Sure, what the hell.”

In the Spring of 2017, three things happened. 1) I went to a spa in New York City with a friend, Cariann. While on the roof top, she asked to take pics with the NYC skyline in the background. When I saw the pic of me in my bathing suit, I was not pleased with my appearance. I just looked bloated and out of shape; 2) A former high school softball player of mine, Debbie Blahut Silva, reached out and challenged me to try a product she was peddling, Beach Body protein shakes. She offered me samples for free and just asked me to try them and give her feedback; and 3) I got a call from a charity affiliated with Marathon Weekend in Walt Disney World and they asked if I would like to run for them.

It was a perfect storm. I said yes to the charity. There was one catch. I had to raise money for the charity. As a lifetime fundraiser, I didn’t even question it. I just asked, “Where do I send the check?” I immediately called my mother and said, “Ma…I finally got a call. I’m IN! I am going to do the Disney 5K!” She said, “Alan, that’s great! But one problem.” I asked, “What’s that?” She said, “You don’t run.” Oh my God…I didn’t think of that. Now what?

I realized I had seven months to get ready. Seven months! So I put my coaching hat on, went into my coaching notes from my years of coaching soccer, field hockey, and basketball, and decided I would put myself through the very same regimen that I put my athletes through. But the running for those sports is not exactly the same as running for running. I accepted the challenge from my former player and began drinking the protein shakes. And I altered my diet – eliminating bagels (I ate at least one a day almost every day), eliminating pizza (I ate pizza at least three times a week), cut my pasta intake to one cup per week (I was eating platefuls at least four times a week), and eliminated all desserts such as ice cream (I had dessert almost every night).

I went to the gym five days a week and was running three to five miles, six days a week. Between that and the stricter, healthier diet, I dropped 19 pounds within six weeks and was at my lowest weight since high school. In fact, friends began to worry if I had had a setback, as I had suffered from a bout of anorexia as a teen. I also began to suffer issues with my knees and Achilles. But the most frustrating of it all, was that no matter how much I did, I was still struggling to do 3.1 miles without having to take a break, without walking. I believed that the real accomplishment was actually running the entire distance without having to stop running and I was completely obsessed with that.

As the time approached, I was training like I had never trained before and actually felt overwhelmed by the thought of running those 3.1 miles. I was excited when I left for Disney with my son and my daughter and was truly unprepared when we arrived to find a cold spell hitting the Orlando area in January 2018. The new experience became a really cold experience, as temperatures were below freezing. Thankfully I had some clothing that I had planned to wear the day we were going home because I definitely was not prepared for it to be that cold. I had never run in the cold weather (I ran on the treadmill in the gym once the temperatures dropped) and I certainly had never awakened at 2:30 a.m. to board a bus by 3:30 a.m. to do that running.

I had been at Disney with the family a few times during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday over the years and while I had experienced some cold temperatures that required sweatshirts, never before had I felt like I was in the frozen tundra of Siberia. On the bus headed to the runners’ village and starting corrals, I was nervous like a kid on his way to his first day of school, not knowing what to expect. Everyone was extremely cordial and sharing thoughts and stories from past events. Many people were dressed in costume, a lot of themed garb especially for those together in a group.

Waiting in the corral for the start time was overwhelming. It was my first event ever…never having done a local event…and it was brutally cold. When it came time for my corral to make our way to the start line, I couldn’t even feel my legs. They were numb. In fact, the gun went off, I started running, I know I was running, but I still couldn’t feel my legs from the knees down. Heck, I could have broken an ankle and I never would have felt it. It wasn’t until I got past the first mile marker that my adrenalin must have kicked in because I could suddenly feel my feet again.

The race began in the EPCOT parking lot and the course took you into the World Showcase. It was then that I realized what a Disney event was all about. It was the ambience, running through the parks, and seeing everything from a different perspective. But it was also a very relaxed atmosphere. People were actually having a wonderful time. And why not? It wasn’t about running for time. It was about how many pictures you could get with characters. Yes. Character sightings all over the place. And that was a huge part of this event – seeing how many pictures with characters you could get. It was like a scavenger hunt. I even had a young newly-married couple ask me to stop to take a picture of them with Spaceship Earth lit up in the background. And here I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to “run” 3.1 miles without stopping for a breath.

I did not stop for pictures with characters but I did get a pic of myself with Spaceship Earth in the background. And I had a number of great candid pics of me taken by the Disney photogs that are spaced out all over the course taking pics. My kids were waiting to get a picture of me crossing my first finish line, but they totally missed me. No matter, the Disney photogs got me anyway.

Alan’s first 5k in Walt Disney World

It was exciting. I did it. My first ever 5K. I was so excited, you would have thought I won a gold medal in the Olympics. One and done. I ran a 5K, got my t-shirt, got my medal. I am done. Until the bus ride back to the hotel. I sat across from two women who were wearing a Dopey Challenge bib rather than the 5K Pluto bib I had on. They were, let’s just say, not in the kind of shape I had gotten myself into. I am in no way being judgmental, just trying to provide a sense of what was in front of me, but they looked like they had spent a lot of time eating McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme Donuts. So I asked them, “You ladies are doing the Dopey Challenge?” And they responded, “Oh, yes, we have been doing it for years. It’s a lot of fun.” Dopey Challenge? That’s four races in four days, a total of 48.6 miles. I was thinking “How are THEY doing THAT and I am just thankful for doing a 5K?”

I enjoyed my medal and joined in the tradition of wearing my medal around my neck in the park. Every cast member acknowledged me and said, “Congratulations!” Others walking around with medals nodded, waved, and said, “Congratulations.” I did a 5K. Most of the other people had done the 10K, the half marathon, the full marathon, or multiple combinations of these events. I began to realize, I wanted more…I wanted to be a part of that.

I went home and immediately began to sign up for every 5K I could find that was local. I endeavored to do one 5K event per month and continue my workouts in the gym. I thought there was no way I could do the Dopey Challenge, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t think so anyway. My thought was to get back to Disney and do the 5K and 10K next, hopefully working my way up to the Dopey.

Believe it or not, I still struggled doing the 5K’s. My times were not really getting better, and I was still not able to easily get through running 3.1 miles without slowing down or walking for a bit. I still had it in my head that the goal was to run the entire time. The cold weather had forced me back into the gym to run on the treadmill. That caused some problems for me as I developed severe knee issues from the pounding. During the course of one race, I was running alongside a high school cross country team and on pace for a personal record (PR) time. I looked to see that I was at the 1.5 mile mark and as soon as I looked back up from my watch, I felt like I was shot in the knee. I was in such pain. I slowed down, tried to walk it off. No good. I had to walk and slow jog the rest of the way.

What I had believed to be a knee issue was actually a problem with my IT band. And my sports medicine doctor referred me to an acupuncturist. I was always afraid of needles and I never, ever thought I would succumb to acupuncture. But I ended up beginning treatments and it turned out to be the best thing I ever did. Dr. Amanda Occhipinti helped to keep me running and guided me in the right direction. If it weren’t for her, I would never have been able to accomplish all that I have.

Later that year, I was running a local race in Westfield and, again, making good time, good enough for a PR. But, again, that was not to happen. At around the 2 mile mark, I began to feel pains in my rib cage…bad pains. Oh no! I’m having a heart attack! Nooooo. Lucky for me, some guy running next to me sees me grab my side and says, “Side splints!” What the hell are side splints? I had, of course, heard of shin splints but I had never heard of side splints. So now I discover something new, again, and I realize that I while I am running my butt off, I am still not training the proper way. So more adjustments were needed in the gym to increase my lung capacity and strengthen the muscles in my core and rib cage.

Going back for the second Marathon Weekend kept me determined. But I was also determined to have Eddie and Beckie join me to do the 5K. Okay…so I actually didn’t tell them that I had signed them up and I forced them to do it. And okay it was because I wanted a family picture with all of us with our medals around our necks. They would have to suck it up. And they did. It was, again, brutally cold. But it was worth it. It was fun doing it with them and I am so glad that I was able to con them into it. And yet, I was now even more determined than ever to do the Dopey Challenge. I saw a lot of people wearing those Dopey bibs and I thought, “If they can do it, I can certainly do it.”

Eddie, Alan, and Beckie after completing the 5k during Marathon Weekend

So back to gym to begin a whole new kind of workout. At the same time, my friends Cariann and Andy convinced me to sign up for the New York Roadrunners (NYRR) New York City Half Marathon. I had never done a half marathon, so this was as good a chance as any to get started.

I entered the drawing for the NYC Half and got in. Cariann broke her foot and Andy wasn’t running without her. So I was on my own. Another new experience. I didn’t realize how big this event was. I had no idea. But I imagine it was like a lower scaled version of the NYC Marathon. The event was of such large magnitude. The people lined the streets just like I would see on television when I would watch the marathon.

Again, it was a brutally cold day in March, especially along the East River. Yet again, my goal was to make it through the race without having to walk. I was doing pretty well for 10 miles and then after exiting the FDR Drive and turning on to 42nd Street, one of my sneakers went flat. Another thing I had never experienced before. So the last 3 miles I ran with a flat sneaker which made my feet extremely sore. Another lesson learned.

I was so thrilled with the NYC Half experience, that I signed up for the rest of the NYRR Five Borough Series – the Brooklyn Half, the Queens 10K, the Bronx 10-miler, and the Staten Island Half. I also decided to do the Rocky Run Italian Stallion Challenge – a 5K followed by a 10-miler – another 13.1 mile event. Along with the many other 5K events mixed in, I thought it would be a great lead-in to the Dopey Challenge in January. And it was.

Alan posing with Fred Lebow statue in Central Park after completing the NYRR Five Borough Series

As I modified and increased my training in the gym, and I as I ran each event, I learned more and more about what would help me to be a better and more effective runner. I came to realize that walking during a race was not wrong, it was nothing to be ashamed of, it was actually helpful. In fact, during the Staten Island Half Marathon, I chose to walk every steep incline and, while I was walking, use that time specifically to fuel up and eat some gummies or jelly beans. I also made a conscious effort to stay more hydrated by grabbing a cup of water at every water station, even if it were just a few gulps. And even though I walked, slowed down for water, I PR’d my half marathon time by 36 minutes. There is no shame in knowing how to conserve your energy and knowing how to be more efficient. Being smart is the most important part of anything you do.

After all the running events, and the many hours in the gym, I took the month of December off from running. I felt I was ready to meet the challenge – the Dopey Challenge – and I just needed to give my feet some much needed rest.

A lot of people have asked me about the experience. So now that I have had a chance to recover, and think back on things, I can articulate what I was feeling. I had done many 5K’s, 10K’s, and a few half marathons the past year. The Disney Marathon was my first full marathon and I now have more respect than ever for anyone who goes out there, crosses the start line and gets to the finish line. It ain’t easy.

This year was quite different as the last two years were absolutely frigid in the early mornings. And I HATE the cold as everyone knows. Getting up at 2:30 a.m. to be on a bus by 3:30 a.m. is tough enough. Waiting in the corrals for a 5:30 a.m. start makes things just a little uncomfortable. But this year, the frigid temps were non-existent. The cold weather gear was never used. In fact, after the marathon on Sunday, with temps hitting the upper 80’s with high humidity, I promise I won’t complain about running in the cold again.

The first two days were a piece of cake for me. I got away from my usual running and decided to take in the “Disney experience” and forget about time, stop and take some character pics, and just enjoy myself. And I did.

Day three, the half marathon, I felt great and I truly enjoyed the run. Running down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom was a great experience and coming through Fantasyland and running through Cinderella’s Castle was everything I was told it would be by Disney veteran runners. It was just an awesome feeling and after all the events I ran for New York Road Runners, and the Rocky Run in Philly, the half did not take much out of me…or so I thought.

There’s nothing like coming through Cinderella’s Castle

I felt great and had a strong finish, but after receiving my medal, I realized that the third consecutive day of running, of getting up at 2:30 a.m., standing around for 90 minutes to start the race, had suddenly taken its toll on me. My legs were exhausted. My feet hurt. And my brain was hurting because now I was thinking…”Wow…I have to do this (running a half) TWO times tomorrow!”

The starting line for the 2020 Walt Disney World Marathon

They changed the start of the marathon to 5 a.m. instead of 5:30 a.m. and, rather than boarding the bus at 3:30 a.m., we needed to be on the bus at 2:30 a.m. I already knew the lack of sleep was affecting me. But I kept thinking that “Hey, I get up to take Beckie to work when she opens at Starbucks all those mornings, so I am used to it.” But, then again, I am not running 26 miles after dropping her off.

I felt like I had nothing left in me and started to feel anxious about what I had gotten myself into. But talking to all of the other marathoners, and Dopey runners, helped get my thoughts back in the right spot.

It was noticeably warmer and more humid even at 5 a.m. My corral was sent off at just before 6 a.m. and I had a lot of trouble finding my groove, unlike the day before. The run began for three miles before entering EPCOT and I felt relatively OK. Then there was the long run from EPCOT to the Magic Kingdom. My mind was wandering all over the place and I couldn’t focus. It was something I had never experienced before in any event. But something took over upon entering the Magic Kingdom. I felt my adrenaline flow and once I hit Main Street, my normal pace took over and I kicked it into gear…I was flying. I turned right into Tomorrowland and then through Fantasyland stopping for a picture with Sebastian. I had felt my legs begin to stiffen but I quickly got it back in gear and flew through Cinderella’s Castle again and on through Liberty Square and Frontierland and out of the Magic Kingdom on to a back road around the grounds under the path of the monorail and around Bay Lake.

Coming up on Mile 11, in front of the Polynesian Hotel…I hit the proverbial wall. I felt like I was going to die. I literally began to panic, turned to see if the “balloon ladies” or “sweepers” were upon me. It was silly, I was way, way ahead of them, but my brain began to go in every which direction. Being the Disney veteran, I am totally aware of my surroundings, where I am at all times. I was right near the monorail station at the Polynesian Hotel and I was seriously considering getting off the course, hopping on the monorail, and going home. I was feeling dejected, and I watched dozens of people being consumed by the heat and humidity, dropping like flies, and being helped by medics. What the hell did I get myself into?

I took some deep breaths and decided to take it easy, slow down, and walk a mile. After a mile, I still felt like crap, and decided to walk another mile. When I came upon Mile 13, I realized I just did another half marathon and I thought, “Holy freakin’ shit…I have ANOTHER HALF MARATHON TO GO?” I was thinking how crappy I was feeling.

People ask what was going through my head. Honestly, people who know me well know how my brain goes a million miles an hour to begin with…and at this point…it was on hyper drive. I had nothing left. I was done. Stick a fork in me. I was thinking how I could sure use Amanda Occhipinti’s  acupuncture at that very moment. And I started thinking about certain people in my life…people who have been such an inspiration to me – John Mormando, Jim Gutkowski, George Burbank, Buck Buchanan –  people who guided me in such a positive way. I started thinking about some athletes who played for me who had so much heart and overcame obstacles – Noreen Flanagan Keri Stein Welton, Jessica Sweeney.  I thought about how Mike Occhipinti had given me exercises to better my breathing and how much it had helped me become a more efficient runner. And I started thinking about my childhood friend, Glenn Cowan, my friend, my rival in sports, who was the real runner among us, but who can’t run anymore. I really just felt that I had to push myself.

At some point between Mile 13 and 14, a Pace group of about 40 people came up from behind me. I decided to “latch on” to them and just start my engines again and try to keep up with them…since I really didn’t want to be alone. It helped immensely. I stopped concentrating on how crappy I felt and just started feeling good to have company. Suddenly I forgot where I was…forgot how much further I had to go…and just concentrated on fueling, getting cups of Powerade and water at every mile, bananas that they were handing out, sport beans, and loved the soaking wet sponge they provided to each of us just outside of Animal Kingdom.

As the time wore on, it became brutally hotter. People were falling by the wayside. But I kept up with the Pace group.

Once we got through the Disney Studios, it was the home stretch back to EPCOT.

In EPCOT we went past Mile 24 and I began to realize that I am really going to make it. At Mile 25 the good feelings started to come back and I began to feel “comfortable” again. Then, suddenly, Mile Marker 26 is in sight. If anyone tells you they don’t get emotional at that point, don’t believe them. I witnessed grown men and women breaking down and crying. I, too, felt the emotions flowing. As I was coming up to the Mile 26 post, I came alongside a veteran, a double amputee, heading toward the finish line. How could anyone not get emotional about that? I am not ashamed to say that I did get teary-eyed thinking about that.

For some reason, and I don’t know why, the memory popped into my head about how my dad got to see me score a game-winning goal in soccer in the pouring rain that I, myself, didn’t get to see because I was lying face down in the mud until George Burbank picked me up and carried me off the field.

Again, so many things were running through my head at that very moment, about how thankful I was for being able to do it, how many people have been kind enough to support and encourage me, everything that I put my body through the last two and a half years. I honestly believe that the human body is not meant to take this kind of punishment. And it is emotions and heart that push humans to be able to do it.

I guess all of it running through my brain gave me a huge burst of adrenaline because I ran the last quarter mile faster than I ran the entire weekend to cross that finish line.

The classic picture in front of the Castle with all of the hardware.

I felt beat up physically, and emotionally. After going through the facial recognition line to receive the medals, I was toast. I was numb. I couldn’t feel my legs. I was completely and utterly dehydrated and I was spent. But doing it, getting through it, was such a great feeling.

And my mom said she was proud of me…which was better than all of that hardware around my neck.

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