We got onto the subject of how different the race experience is for a runner who is starting in the back corrals to one who is a bit faster and is starting up in the front corrals.
I’ve been lucky enough to have fairly high corral placements in all my runDisney races and have rarely experienced serious crowding issues or excessive lines for characters. I remember running my first Princess Half and starting in Corral B and being able to run through the Castle and waiting only about three minutes to get my picture taken with the Pirates. Then I got back home and read stories of having to shuffle through the castle, shoulder to shoulder and getting in narrow areas where runners couldn’t even do their run intervals because it was so crowded and huge lines for characters. It felt like they’d run an entirely different race than I’d run.
Amanda agreed to write up a guest post about her experiences running runDisney from the back corrals. I think it’s a great read and I’m grateful to her for sharing. It should be helpful to know what to expect from your race if your pace is closer to the course limit pace.
My view from the back of the pack.
I’m a relatively slower runner. My current PR for a half marathon is a 3:19, so about 15:10/mile. I enjoy running half marathons – really I do – but the half marathon experience differs significantly for runners at the front of the pack or even the middle of the pack vs. runners at the back of the pack. My husband runs Goofy and Dopey, and his half marathon PR is a 2:09 – a far cry from my time – so we’ll often compare notes after a race and he’ll talk about the excellent support and the cool towel or gizmo that they were handing out at the finish. I, however, sometimes find water stations shutting down around me and I never saw hide nor hair of any cool towel or gizmo. Some races are better than others at support all the way through the half for even the slowest of runners, and April asked me to provide a view, as it were, from the back of the pack where I seem to be solidly rooted. So here it is: the good, the bad, and the inevitable. I’ve run most all of the Disney races, and the ones I haven’t run are the ones I’ve gone to with my hubs so I’ve seen them all. I’ve also done a lot of local 5ks, 10ks, and a few local half marathons. I’ve been running since about 2009 off and on, and to date I’ve completed about a dozen half marathons (half of them just in 2014!), a ten miler (hello Tower of Terror), and scores of 5ks and 10ks.
The Typical Back-of-the-Pack Experience
Generally, in the back, you find the run-walkers or power-walkers (some of whom put me to shame with their speed). I do the Galloway method and do run/walk intervals, so I fall into the run-walk camp. You also tend to find the runners who have never run a half distance before – either they really are speedy but didn’t have proof of time to submit so they’re in the back corrals with you, or this is their first attempt so they don’t have speed yet. This is also where you find people who are injured, or went out too fast and have had to slow down. So, you have people stopping, starting, slowing down, speeding up, walking, and then running. It gets a little busy in the back, whereas at the front when people run a steady pace, the whole pack moves mostly as one. So I typically have an extra one-tenth to three-quarters of a mile on my GPS from all my darting and weaving. That is, of course, assuming there’s even room to dart and weave – a narrow course for the back of the pack is a dangerous thing, and you will find yourself forced to a walk in the more crowded and more congested races (cough*Princess Half Marathon*cough). Those new runners at the back, however, are also often new runners who haven’t read excellent race etiquette yet indicating that you shouldn’t stop at a water stop and you shouldn’t run/walk/skip/hop/etc. more than two abreast. They’re friends doing a girls’ weekend or are part of a club, and they’re going to do the race stuck in a little clump of three to ten women, making the necessary leap-frogging almost impossible to do without playing a nasty game of Red Rover every sixty seconds. And Lord help you at a water stop. Here’s a pro tip: if you haven’t run a half marathon yet, or any race for that matter, go google “race etiquette”. It will make EVERYONE’s race more enjoyable if you do, especially at the back of the pack where you’re ten times more likely to hit someone with that snot rocket (assuming you do that sort of thing), and where, if you’re ready for a walk break, give the folks behind you some kind of a warning so that they don’t slam into you when you stop.
runDisney from the Back of the Pack
Running at Disney for their events is a great option for slower runners and/or first-time half marathoners – they will keep the course open for all three hours and thirty minutes (an approximate16:00/mile pace), and the water stops will stay open that long, as well. They won’t run out of water (or Gu, or Powerade, or whatever), either. The last finishers always get fireworks just like the first finisher does, and Disney will never run out of medals (though they have run out of sponsored “freebies” on me like some free wine from Wine & Dine). The Balloon Ladies, two of whom I happen to have the pleasure of running with every week in my local running group, are also at the back of the pack working as runDisney’s official pace-keepers, and they’re a hoot when I run with them (though luckily, I haven’t seen them yet during a race). You also will be in very good company if you’re a slower runner at a runDisney event. I’ve been dangerously close to dead last finish several times while being well under the 16:00/pace advertised by local races (I was only a few from the back for one race that had an 18:00/mile pace!). Because of the ENORMOUS amount of runners for any given runDisney event, you’re likely not going to be in the back by yourself, which is great. On Disney courses, too, us slower runners tend to enjoy the course scenery for much longer, so runDisney has the most interesting things to look at for long stretches of minutes.
But you know that hefty price tag you paid for the runDisney event? It includes time in the parks, on-course characters and even (for Wine & Dine and Tower of Terror 10-miler) an after-party. Here’s the harsh truth for a back-of-the-packer, however: You won’t get to see much if any of those fun treats. Imagine this scenario: Wine and Dine half in 2013 had corrals A (< 1:48) through L ( > 3:15), after the elite corral. A runner that does a 10 minute mile will finish the course in about 2 hours and 11 minutes – they start in Corral E. A runner that (like me) does a 15 minute mile will finish the course in about three hours and 15 minutes – they will start in Corral L. The corrals at Disney go in waves, with 2 – 3 minutes between the earlier corrals and 5 – 7 minutes between the later corrals. For argument’s sake let’s use 4 minutes between corrals as an average. If the gun goes off at 10pm, Corral E is looking at a 10:24pm start, for a 12:35am finish. With Epcot being open until 3am, that gives Speedy Runner two and a half hours to get through the finisher chute, get her medal, get a heat sheet and a banana and some water, FINALLY visit the bathroom, and hang around with people. She has also finished in front of about 60% of the other 14,500 runners, so she isn’t fighting the crowds to pop into Mexico and get a margarita. Now imagine Slower Runner. She starts in Corral L at 10:48pm, for a 2:03am finish. She has just enough time to get through the finisher’s chute to get her medal and finally pee and… be confronted by 90% of her fellow runners crowded en masse in Epcot, if they aren’t already leaving the park, because Slower Runner has less than an hour and twice the crowds to contend with to enjoy Epcot at all. Even if it’s not a night race, if you’re a back-of-the-packer and you’re hoping for photos with Pirates and Princesses during your run, be prepared for long lines because 90% of your runner buddies got there before you did (another pro-tip: If your’e going to take photos during a race, please take your camera out BEFORE you get to the photo spot so that you’re ready to go or someone who is taking your photo can take the photo and keep on runnin’). So, if you don’t know who’s out there, pick one or two characters that you REALLY want to get a photo with and look specifically for them if you’re in danger of being swept. The same characters go the same spots just about every year, so you can find one of the excellent race recaps available and scout it out that way.
But what about being slow at a local race?
Local races aren’t to be avoided if you’re a slower runner – they just need a little more preparation than a runDisney event, just in case. I was third from the back in a 10k last year where I ran at a 13:30 pace. At a runDisney event, that would have had me solidly in the pack. I received my first Dead Last Finish a few weeks ago when I did a (baking hot) 10k at a 14:20 – it can get mighty lonely in the back of the smaller-field races. You typically won’t deal with course crowding, however, or weave around quite so many people. For local races, however, I do always bring my own handheld water supply – I’ve had courses run out of water, run out of cups, and just shut up shop before I arrived, so I always bring backup. Often, local races can start late if they don’t have the same organization as a large and experienced race director, and the city roads will have to open up at a certain time regardless of when the race actually started, so you may lose support if you’re cutting it close, or the finish line could be packed up and gone. One important note is about safety – I’ve been on several local half marathon courses where I’m back in a neighborhood or in a park somewhere, and nobody can see me, and I can’t see anybody. If I fell or otherwise was injured I’d have to hope that someone would find me, seeing as how I was the back of the pack. At Disney events, there are so many other runners and bicyclists along the entire course to ensure that anybody who needs medical help can get it quickly. So, on local races, I always always always bring my phone with me, and I don’t use it to track myself so that I can make sure I keep a good battery on my phone (I use my TomTom Runner watch for GPS pace and time). If you’re looking for a good local half marathon that won’t leave the slower runners high-and-dry, contact the race director and ask them how long the volunteers will be out, when the roads close, and what to expect. Even if the race director won’t answer, go on the race’s Facebook page – runners will always help another runner, and someone who’s done the race before will be more than happy to help you out.
It isn’t the end of the world to be a slower runner and hold court at the back of the pack, it just changes the race experience for us somewhat. But hey – at least we’re getting our money’s worth out of the scenery!
Thanks Amanda for this great write-up. While I truly believe this statement:
I think it is important to recognize that the experience is different for runners of different paces. If you tend to be a back of the packer, did this article resonate with you? What would you like to tell other runners or new runners?
Thanks again, Amanda, for your great guest post!