In 2006 and 2007, we participated in the Disney Marathon and raised over $25,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in honor of (and then in memory of) my mom, Sharon. Over the years we went on to do several other endurance events to raise money for that and other charities, but the Disney Marathon was definitely our favorite of all the events for several reasons. First of all, it’s Disney! Our love of the place is probably quite apparent given that we visit every year. Even if you don’t inherently love Disney, you have to admit that Disney knows how to run and operate things smoothly; that was certainly the case with their Marathon Weekend. In addition, you get to run through the Disney theme parks during your event, and they entertain you like crazy! You even get great snacks at the rest stops. We always describe it as a 26.2 mile long party.
Now ten years later in 2017, we decided to approach the marathon from a different angle – this time we would not be the runners but the volunteers making sure the event runs smoothly! Not only does it feel great to volunteer for such a wonderful charity as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society; Disney goes out of their way to compensate volunteers who work at their events with points and/or vouchers towards free days at Disney. This seemed like a no-brainer and a win-win.
Disney Marathon Weekend consists of four different events that run over four days – a 5k, 10k, half marathon and full marathon. Luckily I called ahead to ask a few questions about the registration process, including how long it would take for the positions to fill up. I asked if they might be filled up five hours after registration began, and was told they would all fill up within 15 minutes of when it began! Whoa – I was not expecting that. I prepared myself with multiple browsers since I had to sign both Elliott and myself up and he was out guiding a tour of the local market. I managed to get ourselves registered for volunteer positions for all four events, which was a feat in and of itself. (If you are ever interested in trying to get volunteer positions for these events, definitely talk to me for some tips!)
We decided to stay at Disney for ten days – five days for volunteering, and five days to use some old existing park 5-day park tickets. We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and had to go straight to the enormous Expo center to pick up our registration packets. After the Expo we took Disney buses to Downtown Disney and walked a mile to a local grocery store we know of so that we did not have to pay exorbitant prices for every morsel of food we were going to consume over the next four days. Then it was back to our hotel and to bed at 9pm(!) so we could get some sleep before our first volunteer shift. We were spending the first five nights in the Disney Swan, which we deemed within walking distance of the volunteer locations and saved us from having to rent a car.
The most difficult aspect of our four volunteer shifts may very well have been the timing. Endurance races begin very early in the morning, sometimes as early as 6am. And when there are 10,000+ people running in an event, it takes a long time to get them all organized in their corrals… which means they need to arrive as early as 3 or 4am. And of course the volunteers need to be there *before* the runners, which put our shift start time at 3am! Add an hour long walk for us to get there, and that meant we were rising for our day at 1:30am.
The hotel lobby was empty when we left each morning!
Having volunteered for other types of events in the past, we weren’t sure how much work would actually be involved; sometimes there is a lot of standing around when you volunteer. But Disney definitely had our work cut out for us. For the 5 and 10k races we would be hanging medals around the runners’ necks, which was actually quite fun. But before the race began, that meant we needed to cut open endless boxes of medals, unpack the medals and take the plastic off of each one, then hang the medals in an organized fashion on endless pegs on wooden racks.
It may sound trivial, but the medals are quite heavy, and the runners cross the finish line in large numbers for hours and hours. During the race some volunteers spend their time transferring twenty or so medals at a time from the pegs to the arms of other volunteers, and then those volunteers have to work really quickly to unload one medal at a time off their arm and onto a runner’s neck. If the medals aren’t organized well on the pegs, they won’t be organized when they are placed on your arm, and when you try to get them off to place on the runner’s neck, you will just have a tangled mess. Needless to say, our arms and shoulders got quite the workout during each shift!
Awarding medals was quite gratifying. People were so proud when they crossed the finish line, and the smiles on their faces as we placed the medals over their heads were super rewarding in themselves. Often the runners wanted us to be in their selfies with them; sometimes they even wanted to give us a hug! (We managed to hide our looks of astonishment when the hugs were super sweaty.) And many of the runners made a point to thank us for our time and efforts despite their weariness.
The 10k shift was similar to the 5k shift, starting super early in the morning but lasting a little longer due to the increased distance. On our third day we were shocked when the half marathon was canceled due to impending rain and thunder and lightning storms. It was the first time in Disney Marathon Weekend history that a race had ever been canceled! The runners were promised their medals (and volunteers their compensation) despite the cancellation, so we figured we’d just enjoy our day off at our hotel.
But when we walked outside, we noticed many people running with their numbers pinned to their shirts as they would in the race. We thought about it and quickly decided if people were running, we should be volunteering. We went inside and grabbed what we needed to deal with the rain, then walked back and forth and up and down and around the “race course” the runners were following, and cheered on every runner and walker we passed. After cheering for several hours, our voices were hoarse, our legs were tired from the amount of walking we had done, and the runners were thinning out. Hundreds if not thousands of people had completed their own half marathon and earned their medals. It was a truly great day.
During the rest of that afternoon, and during the other afternoons, we did have some free time to enjoy our hotel grounds and amenities. We’d often be back from our shift by noon, sleep for a few hours, and then go play. There were pools, ping pong, hammocks and other activities. We loved it!
On the last day we got to “sleep in” until 6am, as we were handing out a different type of medal. There are actually six medals you can earn during Disney Marathon Weekend; the 5k, 10k, half marathon, full marathon, Goofy (if you completed the half and full), and the Dopey (if you completed all four races). We were handing out the Goofy and Dopey medals, which runners have to pick up after receiving their full marathon medals at the end of the race. We were putting medals on the necks of people who had walked or run a minimum of 39.3 miles over the prior four days! It was the elite of the elite.
Regardless of time or number of events, we were super proud of every single person who crossed a finish line during those four days. We know the time, sweat and effort that goes into training for one of these races, especially for those that are also fundraising. Volunteering was a rewarding experience which we absolutely hope to repeat next year!