What running 26 miles through Disney taught me about slowing down & being present

I’m in Disney World with my daughter, running not just through the parks, but through her childhood. And the two seem almost as one.

Paul Asay and his daughter Emily running the Disney World Marathon, 2015. Photo courtesy of Paul Asay

When most people visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, they don’t show up until sometime after 9 a.m. That’s when Disney’s four theme parks (the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom) typically open their gates.

Unless, of course, you’re running the Walt Disney World Marathon. In that case, you huddle in the Epcot parking lot at 4 a.m. in the morning.

Some families go to Disney World for the rides. My family? We go … well, for the rides, but the last few years we’ve gone for the run, too. It’s a family thing. My son Colin, daughter Emily, and I have all run marathons together; my wife cheers us on, picks us up and coos words of comfort when we complain about our aching knees.

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And while marathons are always kind of a big deal for us, this one felt especially so.

Emily and I have run together for six years, logging countless miles and running dozens of races. But she’s 23 now. Married. Thinking about a career and kids. Both of which can mess with marathon training something awful. We decided to do one more run together while we still could, maybe our last together.

Emily running the Disney World Marathon, January 2017. Photo courtesy of Paul Asay

Disney World seemed like an altogether fitting venue for what might be a grand finale.

I’ve joked before that Disney—what with their subsidiaries of Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars—pretty much owns our collective childhood. But in our family it’s no joke. As a little girl, Emily watched Hercules ‘til she memorized the script, and studied Mulan and Tarzan as if they were ancient, sacred texts. When her high school friends would have a sleepover, more often than not they’d watch Disney flicks until the wee hours of the morning. Later, during our long runs, we’d wile away the miles by ranking all things Disney: Was Pinocchio better than Frozen? Was Maleficent worse than Ursula? Was The Great Mouse Detective the most criminally underrated Disney film ever?

And so we planned one more trip to Disney World, her new husband in tow. We trained together. We commiserated about blisters together. Like two middle school girls, we plotted about what we’d wear for the big day. She wore a Dumbo shirt. I opted for classic Mickey Mouse.

And then the day came, standing out in the cold in the Epcot parking lot at 4 a.m., surrounded by thousands of other runners bedecked in mouse ears and Tinkerbell wings. One guy was dressed like a Mary Poppins chimney sweep.

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The minutes rolled on. And then as the sky grayed with the first hint of morning, we began our run, Mickey Mouse himself cheering us on. And with each mile comes another memory, and then another …

We run through Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom as the sun rises, the towers still blazing with Christmas lights.

My wife and I bought Emily a tiny castle when she was four years old, which she played with until the pieces were gone and the towers bent.

We race through Animal Kingdom around mile 13, a park filled with live lions and gorillas and giant fruit bats.

Emily loved her Halloween bat costume. She wore it as often as she could, even to bed. We tucked her in and kissed the top of her bat hood, and she hugged us with tiny, winged arms.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios comes into view at mile 23. We hurt by now, ready to stop running. But we run on, passing the Disney storefronts made to resemble old, classic Hollywood.

I raised Emily on a steady diet of Hollywood classics. She loves Ben Hur and Some Like it Hot, digs Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

Colin and Emily Asay during their first family trip to Disneyland, California. Photo courtesy of Paul Asay

We end the marathon where it began, in Epcot. I feel like I’m at the end of my endurance now, forcing the legs to move by sheer will. Emily slows her pace for me without a word. We run around a massive lake—the setting for What Disney calls its World Showcase, featuring pavilions depicting countries around the world. We run through The United Kingdom and France. Morocco. Japan. On and on. Dramatic music plays as our feet slap the pavement, urging us forward. Onward.

And suddenly I feel like crying.

Emotions can get the better of you in a marathon. You marshal so much of yourself in those 26 miles, physically and mentally. By the end you’re spent. You have nothing left, and there’s nothing available to keep your roiling emotions in check.

But for me, there’s more at work than just exhaustion. In that moment, in spite of all the pain, all the weariness, I’m incredibly, inexplicably joyous. “The happiest place on earth” is no marketing tagline for me then; it’s reality: I’m in Disney World with my daughter, running not just through the parks, but through her childhood. And the two seem almost as one.

I’ve always felt that long-distance running and life itself share many traits. It starts out easy but it never stays that way. It’s full of moments of joy and pain, and you need to prepare for it if you hope to make it through. A marathon forces you to think about the future.

But the Disney World Marathon—at least this one—taught me something else. That it’s also about being incredibly mindful about our present, and to embrace our past. That our shared histories are as much a part of the moment as the moment itself. We are our memories. We are our stories.

We stayed in Disney World following the marathon, and throughout the rest of the week, I saw a lot of families at “play,” making memories. But often, parents were glued to their phones, checking email or playing the latest game as they stood in line or ate their food. I only saw these little social vignettes for a moment or two, but what little I saw made me sad. For these parents, the “happiest place on earth”—the parks, the characters, even their own children—felt almost ancillary to what was taking place on those tiny, glowing screens.

Emily in her bat outfit at age 3. Photo courtesy of Paul Asay

Moments and memories were slipping away forever. Their kids were growing up in those lines, minute by minute. Soon they’ll be 23. Time is so precious, and childhood never waits. It races on, unchecked.

“Run in such a way as to get the prize,” St. Paul once wrote to us. Em and I didn’t win our marathon. But I feel like I got a prize, anyway. A memory filled with memories. I got to spend a few more hours with my little girl and remember her as she was while celebrating who she is. Few prizes could be greater.

Read more about life on the corner of “Hollywood & Reality” from movie expert and reviewer Paul Asay every Friday. If you have an idea for a future topic, feel free to drop Paul a suggestion in the comments.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay
Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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