January 8, 2011:
At 2:20 A.M. the alarm on my phone started beeping. Time to get up to start getting ready for some super spectating. Desperate for something to wake me up, I decided that I needed some caffeine. Yesterday's Magic Kingdom experience left me feeling dehydrated and weak, and although coffee probably wasn't good for me in this condition, I felt I had no other choice. The room had a coffee maker, but it's condition wasn't the greatest, drinking something that went through it didn't seem like the best idea. I would have to get my caffeine fix elsewhere. Out the door of the hotel room and into the morning air, I walked along the long balcony that led to the elevator. Bright lights shining up at the building blinded me, and I walked weaving left and right like I was drunk, eyes squinting, trying to make sense of the weird things around me. The "resort" we were staying in had was decorated with pop culture icons of the last five decades, as well as Disney characters from movies of each era. My journey led me past giant dogs, and fifty foot tall yo-yos . . . all very surreal, and a little frightening when you're not really awake yet. The Food Court opened early for the marathon crowd, and at 2:35, I was one of the first to arrive. I was very aware of the fact that at this cruel hour of the morning, I was the only person in the place wearing blue jeans. All other non-employees were skinny, tanned creatures. . . mostly men, and all wearing flimsy running gear of some sort. These I figured, were the hard core runners. Who else sits on the floor doing stretches, surrounded by empty tables, chairs, and booths? Realizing that beverages were obtained after paying, I stumbled half awake over to the cash registers. Before I got there, the young clerk noticed that I was not of the same breed that was bending and bouncing nearby. "Would you like some coffee, sir?" He was a little too cheery for me, especially since it was ridiculously early in the morning. Even though his attitude put me on guard, I went ahead and made small talk with him.
"Are you here for the race?"
"Yeah," I said while leering at the scantly clad bean poles, "but as a spectator."
"Oh," he said with a smile. "Some people have been coming in here, and they didn't even realize we were open this early today. They just happened to be walking by, and saw that we were in here, and decided come in for something to eat."
His happy demeanor made me fearful. How long until he snapped? It was clear he had been drinking a little too much of the kool-aid. I recognized it from an experience the previous day, when I was drawn into the vortex of this strange place, and barely escaped with my sanity. Had this been an airport, at this extreme hour of the morning, I would have expected him to jump over the counter and stab at me with a plastic spoon for simply making eye contact. It wasn't normal for a minimum wage employee to be in such a good mood at this time of day. I quickly paid and moved away with my little styrofoam cup. Because of the lack of people in the Food Court, any movement caught the eye of the runners. As I filled up my coffee cup, I turned and saw the looks of horror from the bending, stretching men nearby. No coffee for them I guess. Back into the chilly morning air, and once again stumbling along the sidewalks, between identical buildings, while trying to find my own. Ultimately I came to it, but forgot about the elevator. I climbed up through a giant bowling pin instead, staring at my feet, eyes mostly closed as I went up the steps. After fumbling for my keycard while trying not to spill my coffee, I slid it into the door, only to see a red light above the slot. I silently grumbled to myself, thinking that my key card had stopped working. I inserted it again, and was again presented with a little red light. This time I let out an audible sigh, and raised my tired head for the first time since starting up the stairs. The room number in front of me started with a "4", but our room was on the third floor. I had gone too far up the stairs. Inside, a family was probably cowering in their beds, thinking that at any moment a sleep walking zombie was going to kick down their door. Eyes wide open now, realizing my mistake, I moved away from the door and back toward the bowling pin as fast as I could. Surely they're on their phones calling the front desk for security! Run! . . . but don't spill the coffee! It'll leave a trail for them to follow! As I reached the third floor, I slowed down a little. The door gave me a happy green light when I slid my key into it, and I pushed it open. Inside, Amber was sitting on the bed nervously eating a little bowl of cereal. The previous night, we had both collected things to eat for our early morning departure. As an airline pilot, I'm used to making do with what little some hotels have to offer. In this case we had no refrigerator, so I converted one of the room's trash cans into a cooler, filling it with ice to keep our food cool. As Amber grumbled about her stomach, I tried my coffee. Too hot, and not much time to drink it either. The room was a flurry of activity as we both got ready to leave. I'm used to getting up this early every once in a while for work, and am able to somewhat function despite a lack of sleep and a body that doesn't want to cooperate in any activity unless it involves sliding back under the sheets. Amber wasn't fairing so well. I ate some food, and filled a couple bottles with swamp water from the bathroom sink. Finally ready to go, we went back out into the morning darkness at 3:15. As we walked past the giant dog, Amber summed up our prerace jitters. "I feel like I'm being led to an execution."
In the main building of the hotel, I waited with our bags while she made a last trip to a real restroom. It would be nothing but portapotties and bushes until we returned to the hotel. In the lobby they had been playing music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. As I nervously waited for her to return, Creedence Clearwater Revival was echoing through the large room.
"I see the bad moon rising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin'.
I see bad times today.
Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take your life,There's a bad moon on the rise."
Amber returned, and we moved outside to the front of the building, where a bus was waiting to take racers (and me) to the Epcot parking lot. We slowly made our way through the line, and eventually found a couple seats near the back of the bus just after 3:30. The ride to Epcot seemed slow, and nervous laughter and conversation filled the air. The parking lot at Epcot was filled with people. We got off the bus and joined a large river of shivering racers moving toward the staging area. Up ahead, searchlights circled in the sky, and the thudding beat of dance music pounded through the air.
All this time I was unaware of when the race was actually supposed to start. I had a general idea, but I'm pretty sure they started late. Eventually Mickey Mouse and other characters appeared and their prerecorded voices started booming through the loudspeakers. Finally. Before the race started, and with little fanfare, they launched a group of athletes in wheel chairs so they could have a head start. These men and women left the starting area with impressive speed in specialized racing wheel chairs, and then it dawned on me that they weren't getting a head start. They were going first so they wouldn't run down Amber and everyone else who was able to compete with functioning legs. Shortly after they were on their way, the announcer started working up the crowd again, ultimately leading to a countdown done by Mickey and his friends. At 5:42, the Half Marathon began.
Ring Ring. A sleepy female voice answers “Hello?”
“I JUST SAW AMBER AT THE FOUR MILE POINT! SHE’S LOOKING GOOD AND MAKING GOOD TIME!” I shout, out of breath, into the phone.
“I JUST SAW AMBER AT THE FOUR MILE POINT! SHE’S LOOKING GOOD AND MAKING GOOD TIME!” I shout again.
“Uh. I think you have the wrong number”
Crap. Realizing my mistake, I apologize, and hang up. I had accidentally called a former coworker with the same first name, and from the sound of things I woke her up. Back on the phone, I dial more carefully this time, and make a few calls as walk as fast as I can in the general direction Amber told me to go. Out of breath, I tried to take in the scenery as I cut through the Polynesian resort. Being just after 7 A.M., there isn't a whole lot of activity going on, but I did see other spectators walking through the resort like me. On unfamiliar ground, it made me feel a little more confident that I was going in the right direction. Once getting to the West side of the Polynesian resort, there was an abrupt end to the . . . Polynesian-ness of of my surroundings. Clearly back in Florida again, I emerged into a large grassy area, with a road in front of me, and a golf course on the other side of it. I had found the race! [7:22 A.M.] Traffic cones and mesh fencing bordered the sides of the road, and down it flowed a steady stream of marathon people.
180 degrees I turn. Back to the Pacific and the cool shade of Polynesia. Will I make it to the finish in time to see her? Awkward mental math ensues. How many miles left? How much time? It occurs to me that I probably haven't had anything to drink since that cup of coffee hours ago. Is that why my brain isn't functioning properly. No need to worry about this I convince myself. I know I'll make it until we get back to the hotel. Keep moving. I'll deal with whatever the physical outcome is when I get there. I turn the corner of the sidewalk, around some strange looking bushes and. . . A DUCK! I stop. He's seen me. We eye each other cautiously. Who will make the first move? I slowly reach for my camera and take a picture. That's what I'm here for right? Spectator? Document everything. It's not every day that one runs across a Polynesian duck. . . unless you live in Polynesia. I move to the far side of the sidewalk and slowly move by. This is his turf. Looking over my shoulder to see if I'm being followed, I begin walking quickly again. The duck appears stunned by the encounter with a non-Polynesian, and is still standing where I left him. All the better for me. It probably breathes fire or something. I keep walking as fast as I can, and when I return to the Transportation and Ticket center, my heart sinks. The line for the monorail is too long.
[9:00 A.M.]I've made it to the finish area, but there's clearly no room for me in the grandstands next to the finish line. Music is pumping through loudspeakers again. I settle for a spot a few hundred feet away from the finish line. The crowd is thick along the fence, so I hang back on a bit of a hill. I can sort of shoot with the camera above and between people. I watch the crowd go by, looking for my new fiancée in the distance. Again, the massive amount of people in purple(Team in Training) make her hard to find. I spot her friend Bethany as she goes by. Amber mentioned finding her when she passed me at the 4.2 mile viewpoint. I snap a few photos of Bethany as she passes. Little does she know the paparazzi is here. Five minutes later Amber turns the corner in front of me. We make eye contact. She knows I'm here. On she goes toward the finish line in the distance. [9:24 A.M.]. Knowing that she'll cross the finish line and we'll need to meet somewhere on the other side, I take off through the crowd on a journey back to the staging area. At 9:35 we meet back at the T-Z tent where we separated in the morning. Amber is in good spirits, but is worried about her knee and foot, which are both in pain. Knowing that she'll need them to do twice the distance tomorrow the pain concerns us both. We need to get ice on those things, so we go to find a bus to take us back to the hotel . . . but not before she makes a trip to one of the many banks of porta potties. We'll be back tomorrow to do it all over again.
To be continued...