As published on Inspirelle on April 7th, 2016.
Two years ago, I heard about the Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It’s a running challenge that spans four days, four races, and 48.6 miles, where you run a 5K on the first day, a 10K on the second day, a half marathon on the third, and a full marathon on the fourth. It’s aptly named, because you truly have to be Dopey to want to do this, so naturally I signed up the first chance I got.
This January, I finally got to run the Dopey, and I’ll say it again: it really is an aptly named challenge. The first three days of races all went well, and I thoroughly enjoyed the picturesque race routes that took us through the amazing Disney parks. But then on the fourth day came the 26.2 miles of the marathon.
We woke up for the final run to a cloud of humidity; and at 5am, it was already unbearably hot for running. The 15-minute walk from the parking lot to the starting line was all it took for my confidence to erode, and when I finally arrived at my starting position, drenched in sweat, the enormity of the task at hand suddenly felt impossible. Before I knew what was happening, I burst into tears.
Disney races proudly declare that “Every Mile is Magical”, and people from all over the world flock to Orlando and California to attempt the half or full marathon, many of them for the first time. As I stood there, having a mini-meltdown, all around me people were excited about the course ahead, the Disney characters they would see, and how good it would feel to receive their finisher’s medal if they completed this feat that most people would never dare to try. There were some nervous faces, but the overall atmosphere was one of happiness, anticipation and excitement. And in the midst of all this, there I was, the pariah Debbie Downer, with tears pouring down my cheeks and emanating loud sobs.
It’s a weird feeling to be surrounded by so many happy people when all you can do is cry, but in that moment I didn’t care. I was exhausted from the four consecutive 3am wake up calls and the previous three races, I felt like my energy had completely deserted me, I had two black toenails from the extensive training I had done to prepare, and I was absolutely convinced that there was no way I could finish this challenge. After already running a 5K, 10K, and half marathon, a full marathon was just too much.
I wanted to sprint for an exit, but a starting gun went off, and instead of leaving, I got swept up by the crowd of nearly 25,000 enthusiastic and costumed runners who surged forward. As we lined up, I began to hear the announcers of the race as they pumped up each group for takeoff. Just as I got to the front, one of the announcers said something I’ll never forget. He looked out into the sea of runners, asked who was running their first marathon, and then asked who was nervous about what was ahead.
People all around me raised their hands, and he said, “Remember. The only person who thinks you can’t do this is you.”
The only person who thinks you can’t do this is you. Immediately, the tears stopped and the weight on my shoulders was lifted. He was right. For months, I had prepared for this event, and every person in my life had offered up nothing but words of encouragement and affirmations that I could do it. They all thought I was crazy, but they all believed I could pull it off. The only person who thought differently was me. I had convinced myself that it was too hard and couldn’t be done. In that moment, I learned a valuable lesson. Even if everyone else believes in you, you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t believe in yourself.
Moments later, the starting gun fired and my race began. I wish I could say that it was the race of my life and I set a personal record for my time, but the truth is it was a hard race. The humidity was relentless. I became dangerously dehydrated at times, and my body was not shy in telling me just how angry it was with me for running four races in a row. And full disclosure: the tears may have returned once or twice in the final 5K, but every time I considered quitting, I just remembered that the only person rooting against me was me, and I had the ability to change that.
When I first began distance running, people often told me that the key to running marathons wasn’t how much you trained, but how well you coped mentally. I didn’t believe them at first, but after hitting several mental roadblocks during my first marathon last year, I learned the hard way that the key to running a marathon is entirely mental. Running the Dopey Challenge was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but when I crossed that finish line, high fiving none other than Mickey Mouse himself in the process, the feeling was incredible. And all I had to do was believe in myself to get there.