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Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest - 7. Disney World Marathon

Are We There Yet?

THIRTEEN MILES INTO THE WALT DISNEY WORLD MARATHON, part of the field began to peel off toward a Magic Kingdom finish. Many of those running Disney had opted for a half rather than full marathon. "Are we there yet?" I wanted to ask.

That's a question every parent with small children hears when they embark on a long journey. Kids don't comprehend time and distance, but those of us who run marathons know how far we must run: 26 miles 385 yards.

I was tempted to follow the half marathoners into the Magic Kingdom, but I knew I had 13 more miles to run. I had traveled too far and spent too much time to quit now. This was my 111th marathon since my first at Boston in 1959. More germane, it was my 7th marathon in 7 months, a challenge I chose to celebrate my 70th birthday. To complete the run of 7s, I had also pledged to help raise $700,000 for 7 separate charities. With 170 miles behind, I was struggling because of cumulative fatigue. Those last miles would not come easy.

Fortunately, I had help. Jon Israel, an attorney who had run 3:35 a month earlier in the Jacksonville Marathon, had agreed to pace me. That time was several hours faster than my planned time at Disney. I warned him: "Jon, running slow is tougher than you might think."

Communicating with Rose

Jon signaled his readiness and also agreed to carry a cellular phone, so I could communicate with my wife Rose waiting at the finish line. I could assure her at frequent intervals that I was still moving.

The weather was chilly as we began in pre-dawn darkness. Temperatures would rise into the mid-60s, not bad for Florida in January. A gusty wind both cooled and slowed us. Three hours into the race, it began to rain: light, then heavy, then light, then the rain stopped. The sun peeked through the clouds briefly.

Not everybody saw the weather identically. Late in the race I overheard a woman behind talking into her cellular phone. "It's windy and has been raining for 8 miles," she grumbled to someone. I held out my palm and felt not a drop of moisture. "It must be raining 50 yards back," I told Jon.

Jon kept up a steady patter of conversation. I mostly grunted one-word replies. He phoned his wife and mine. He even talked to his mother-in-law! Could I have imagined back in 1959 that I would one day run marathons talking into a cellular phone? Late in the race I became too fatigued for polite conversation. When Rose called around 20 miles, I said: "Just tell her I'm still alive." We had been winding through theme parks accepting high-fives from actors dressed as Mickey, Donald or Goofy, but at that point my five wasn't very high. I was walking more than I was running. I didn't care about my time; all I wanted to do was finish.

Jon apparently felt the same. With several miles remaining, I noticed that even at this slow pace, he was beginning to feel the strain. "Are we there yet?" he asked.

Personal Worst

Not yet, but soon I spotted a mouse-eared 26-mile marker. Exiting Epcot and turning a corner, I saw the sign that 7 months earlier had seemed only a dream: FINISH. My 7-7-70 journey was near its end. Jon and I clasped hands and even managed a few running steps crossing the line. Rose gave me a hug. We climbed into a van for transport to our hotel.

My finishing time was 6:32:44, slowest of my 7 marathons; in fact, slowest of my 111, a true Personal Worst. If so, why was I smiling? I placed 7,351st out of 7,950 official marathon finishers, but even with the large number of charity runners at Disney, few could match my numbers. Contributions are continuing, but I estimate I raised $916,000 for the 7 charities on my list.

Reflecting back on what just might be my last marathon, it seems the only thing I forgot to do was cry crossing the finish line. Maybe I was too dehydrated for tears. Decades earlier, I had traveled to the Boston Marathon ready for a peak performance. I trailed the pack for 17 miles, then grasped the lead. For two giddy miles, I pushed the pace to break those behind me. I thought victory was mine. Then going up the second of the four Newton Hills, I got passed by the eventual winner.

I finished fifth in a career best time, but I had cried because I knew I never again would be able to summon the will to train that hard and run that well in a marathon--and I would never win Boston.

In running 7 marathons in 7 months to celebrate my 70th birthday, I now know I have crossed another personal Rubicon, but I do not yet know what lies on the other side.

« Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest