When Running Became a Team Sport – 48.6 Miles of Dopey

I started running, in part, because it was an individual event. I could go when I wanted, as far as I wanted, as slow as I wanted…you get the picture. I gravitated to it because I could do it alone; no one had to depend on me. I suppose this was attractive to me because I didn’t think I was very good at it – and maybe I didn’t even like it very much.

Over the years, I learned to enjoy races with friends and joined training groups, but the practice of running and racing was still very much an individual sport for me. When I attend a running group, I still run my own pace and distance, feeling no need to stick with the group. When I run races with friends, I treat it more as an opportunity to spend a couple of hours catching up while doing an activity – honestly, we could just as easily be catching up over wine. When I run races by myself, it is always to accomplish a goal that only I have control over (pace, distance, whatever).

All of this changed when I ran the Dopey Challenge at Disney World January 9-12, 2020. For those of you who have been keeping track, you know that I chose to run the Dopey through Team Fox, supporting the Michael J. Fox Foundation. That’s how I saw it: I was going to run and register for the races “through” Team Fox. They were my broker – and, of course, a charity I am raising money for (there’s still time to donate!). I found the name “Team Fox” to be cute, smart, and catchy – I didn’t think it was a literal description of the group of people I was about to meet. And then we got to Orlando.

On the morning of the 5K, I managed to find a few Team Fox runners through the Facebook group set up for the event by Team Fox HQ. I’m always a little awkward in those situations and I was ready to get the 5K out of the way – but I was there through Team Fox and I thought I might as well introduce myself. T and my mom stayed off to the side and I walked over to awkwardly introduce myself. Keep in mind – it was early – as in 4:30 a.m. I didn’t know anyone, but managed to bring myself to say hello. Everyone was kind and said hello, but they clearly knew each other already and continued their conversations. One of the group, J, introduced himself and asked my connection to Parkinson’s and the Fox Foundation. Somehow he quickly deciphered that my mom was my connection and she was there – so, naturally, he wanted to meet her.

J is an inspiration. Diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s in his 40s, he is that person who perseveres seemingly for the sake of (and the fun of) conquering the challenge. The Dopey Challenge 2020 marked just shy of 40 marathons for him (and I’m sure countless 5Ks, 10Ks, Half Marathons, and other-distance races). So he’s the guy who runs marathons and make friends everywhere…leaving inspiration and a heavy dose of snark in his wake.

J easily folded us in with the rest of the Team Fox crew that 5K-morning. I peeled off and ran my 5K (too fast, but I had a hard time slowing myself down).

By the morning of the 10K, we knew where to find the Team Fox crew and found both familiar and new faces there. I found the courage to make a little more small-chat, then made my way to my corral to run my race. Again, I ran faster than I should have, but made an effort to slow my pace in an effort to prioritize the preservation of my energy for the next two days over my desire to be done and get to breakfast.

The evening after the 10K was the first time I really met Team Fox. HQ organized a happy hour at one of the Disney resorts, and we had an opportunity to meet both runners and the people who inspire those runners. I was struck by the community in Orlando for Team Fox. It was clear to me that these people knew each other; some of them lived locally, others just came every year. But they all knew each other and their families. And these people immediately took us in. They cornered my mom and T – got all the details, and we were instantly part of the family. I finally got to meet the Team Fox staff members I’d been corresponding with for years. Still, I think the image of being folded into this group is a perfect explanation – they folded us into the group figuratively and, quite literally, with a few hugs.

The morning of the Half Marathon we had a much larger crowd in the Team Fox circle. The near-20,000 runners were milling about and getting excited. Our smaller Team Fox crew grew again as we gathered in our usual spot. I began to feel like I knew these Team Fox people and took the long walk to the corrals with J and S.

S is a joy. His connection to Team Fox, like mine, is through a parent. I found camaraderie in his desire to get to the corrals early, comfort in his relaxed approach to everything, and joy in his presence. But the party-trick he brought to the game was his ease with all social media! This man ran and did multiple installments of Facebook Live with a huge smile on his face (and without falling on said face). Amazing.

Back to the Half Marathon, though. Before I forget, I should mention that Orlando was unseasonably warm for the 2020 Dopey Challenge. While the warmer temps (lows around 70 degrees Fahrenheit) were fine during the shorter runs because we started and finished in the dark, the heat on the longer runs with the accompanying sun promised to be more of a challenge.

J, S, and I made our way to the start line together. We were in the same corral and these men kindly waited for me as I waited in the port-a-pottie line. We made it to the corral just before the race started. As a newbie, I let J, who is Perfect Dopey, guide me. If I thought I went out too fast for the first two races, J led me out at a snail’s pace. The three of us (J, S, and I) stuck together for three or four miles until we passed the Team Fox cheering section just before the Magic Kingdom. I was running much slower than I trained for, but I still feared what would happen in the heat and humidity if I went out too hard. I had a whole marathon left, and I chose to trust J. So I ran the entire Half Marathon with J. Looking back, I’m pretty sure J took the opportunity to coach me and felt like I needed some distraction. That man has stories and I heard a lot of them on those 13.1 miles. Did they distract me? Yes. Did we end up doing a Half Marathon in negative splits? Yes. Did I delude myself into thinking I was helping him, but J was really helping me? Absolutely.

We had the official Team Fox dinner on Saturday night between the Half and Full marathons. Again, this was a first for me. I’d never taken advantage of a pre-race carb-loading dinner. I’d never been part of a team in running, either. Maybe it began to dawn on me that this was a team event at dinner.

Sunday morning, we woke up way too early (2:45 a.m.) and got to our Team Fox circle location on time (by 3:30 a.m.). Now we knew these people. Now, these were our people. Without much discussion, J, S, and I again headed toward our corral. I think the original, unspoken, plan was to approach the marathon as we had the Half: stick together at the beginning, then run our own races at the end. But something changed. I’m not sure any of us could identify, even now, what happened, but it definitely happened. All I know is that we stuck together for the entire marathon. I know for certain that both J and S are faster runners than me – no matter the distance. But I also know, with some certainty, that they did not hold themselves back only for me during the marathon. Sure – I had several moments when one or both of them were the reason I felt that I could (or needed to) keep going. I also suspect, though, that there were times when I did the same for them. This was the first time I truly saw the ebbs and flows of my personal marathon experience held up against the ebbs and flows of someone else’s marathon experience.

In the end, I needed J & S for miles 18-22. And, with the heat and the humidity and the alignment of the stars, I think they needed me at other times. Regardless, we finished the race and we finished it together.

Just after we crossed the finish line, Disney decided to shorten the course due to the heat. So, there are some other things I know. First, I would not have finished when I did if I had not run with J and S that day. I don’t even know if I would have finished in time to avoid the shortened course. Second, I came away from the experience feeling stronger than I thought I was. Stronger physically and stronger emotionally. Third, I experienced the joy of running an individual event as a team.

I’m not sure how to adequately explain this concept of an individual event feeling like a team event. My “team events” growing up were limited to theater and choir – each person played their part and each part was required for the larger thing to happen properly. My misconception of distance running as an individual sport where any support I got was in the training and not in the execution is understandable – and it was true for me for a very long time. I am forever grateful that I see the potential and the benefits of running as an individual who is willing to accept the encouragement, wisdom, energy, and companionship of others in the pursuit (and accomplishment) of big, lofty race goals. I cannot thank my Team Fox colleagues enough because THAT lesson is priceless to me.

Now – for those of you reading this for more Run Disney and Dopey Challenge tips, here are some other take-aways:

  1. If you are going to do a Theme Park during your trip, be purposeful about it. We chose to do only one (Universal for Harry Potter World) and did it on the 5K day. Of all the days to do it, the 5K day was the right one. My legs weren’t too tired and I didn’t worry too much about the exertion getting in the way of the upcoming, longer races. That said, my feet were tired by the end of the day at Universal, even though I didn’t think we did that much walking. I’m sure, with some practice, I could feel comfortable doing multiple parks, but for the first year I think one park was perfect.
  2. Find a local (or a huge Disney fan) to tell you where all the bathrooms are in the parks. No joke. There will be port-a-potties everywhere and if you need to use one, you’ll have plenty of opportunity. But, if you prefer a real bathroom with lights, a toilet seat, running water, and soap, there are plenty of them in the Disney parks and they are all open during the races. The trick is knowing where they are so you fine the ones without the long lines.
  3. If you want a shadow box for all your bling, and you don’t want to make it extra-personalized, use one of the deals offered by Disney at the Expo or online – the deals don’t last long, and they may seem expensive, but they are at least half the price of a custom order at home.

If you want donate to my Dopey Challenge, you can do so here. Thank You.

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