It is our pleasure to share with you a blog from our RADrabbit, Jessica Valdes. Recently, Jessica completed the Dopey Challenge! Not only is it dopey (duh...), it's incredibly impressive and inspiring! Especially considering the personal challenges that Jessica has had to overcome. Way to go girl! You make us proud! Read more from Jessica below:
My story begins on April 26, 2016. That was the day registration for Dopey opened up and I anxiously awaited 12:00 PM! I brought my laptop and iPad to work to make sure I was able to register because anyone who knows about Disney races, knows that registration can be quite competitive! Once I secured my spot it began to sink in that I was about to take on the biggest challenge of my running career. I was going to be running 48.6 magical miles over the course of four days in the happiest place on earth, Disney World!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Dopey Challenge, it is a 5k, 10k, half, and full, all on back to back days. Not only is it crazy to race but you also have to be up super early (I’m talking 2:30 AM) each day! I was a bit nervous but I knew I had lots of time to train so I didn’t worry too much. However, just a month and a half prior I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia which was a tough break on my running career. I had a goal to run Dopey in 2017 and fibromyalgia or not, I was hard set on accomplishing it!
Not only was I taking on this challenge, but I had also been selected by lottery to run the NYC Marathon! So, in order to be as prepared as possible, I got to work on a training plan that would get me in the best shape I could be, all things considered. While I struggled a lot on my journey to Dopey, I never ever missed a long run! That was one thing I made sure of. In the summer I had started to have other troubling symptoms which took me out of work for months and kept me mostly bed ridden. After all kinds of tests I was diagnosed with POTS, a tachycardia syndrome. Again, I wouldn’t let that stop me either.
After all the blood, sweat, and tears of training, Christmas came and went as did New Year’s and before I knew it I was at the airport getting ready to head to Orlando! We made it a girls trip, my mama, sister, and I. Mama was flying in from North Carolina and Jenny and I were flying from New Jersey. After a nightmare of a situation at the airport I put it all out of my mind because I was going to enjoy the trip I worked so hard for!
We arrived at the hotel, dropped off our things and hit the expo. When we got there I grabbed my bibs and at that point it all seemed surreal. I was really doing this. Then the doubt entered my mind, but I quickly shooed it away and just took it all in! The line for merchandise was out of control but luckily I had a friend who arrived early and was able to get me the one thing I wanted, my Tervis cup! Being a social media guru means you get to meet friends for the first time at events like these and I had a great time doing so!
Eric is from Boston and we chatted about the race and happened to be in the same corral for each of them so we decided we’d start out together. I knew he was much faster, but at least seeing a friendly face would ease my mind the morning of each race! After the expo, we headed to Disney Springs for a little shopping and dinner at the Rainforest Cafe! It was mama’s first time there and she loved it! After a long day and knowing we had to be up early for the 5k the next day, we headed back to the hotel to catch some shut eye.
The 5k actually started a half hour later than the other three races that weekend so I was able to sleep until 3:00 AM. Then I got up, put on my Ariel outfit I laid out the night before (as usual) and woke up Jenny so we could catch the bus to the start! Getting there ahead of the crowd means no lines, but it also means waiting. It was early but we always know how to make the best of every situation plus, it’s Disney! The DJ was playing some great music so we hung around until it was time to head to corrals. Eric found us, so I parted ways with Jenny and headed to corral B!
We didn’t have to wait long and Eric and I decided we would take the 5k nice and easy since it wasn’t timed and we still had three races ahead of us! As I toed the line to the start, nerves kicked in and then we were off! Running in Disney is unlike anything you could ever experience. If you are a runner, I urge you to put a Disney race on your bucket list! With character stops and crowd support it is just a fun way to run! We were done in what seemed like no time and then it was back to the hotel to show mama my first of six medals from the weekend!
After a quick shower, we caught an Uber to Universal Studios to spend the day in Harry Potter World! As a newbie Harry Potter lover I was in awe with how amazing everything looked in comparison to the movies! We got butter beer, had lunch at The Three Broomsticks, took a ride on the Hogwarts Express, and I even bought my very own wand at Olivander’s, which was interactive in the park! I let my total nerd come out that day but I tired easily and found myself wearing thin. I wanted to soak it all in but I still had 45.5 miles ahead of me. We decided to go on what seemed to look like a pretty intense roller coaster. After that, all three of us called it quits because while it was a wild ride, it took the life out of all of us!
After a good nights sleep it was time for day two, the 10k. This time I got up at 2:30 AM, put on my Alice outfit, and caught the bus with Jenny. Once again we hung around until it was time for corrals. Eric joined me again and in a matter of 15 minutes we were toeing the line to our second of four races! I tried to keep pace with Eric in the beginning but I died out fast because I just couldn’t keep up. I ran my own race, finished, and somehow managed to find Eric because he had stopped for character pictures along the course. We took our obligatory medal picture and parted ways again.
Day two was Epcot day! Mama and Jenny were excited to drink around the world and since I am not a drinker I just enjoyed the vibes around me. I got to meet Joy and Sadness which was like my dream come true! I am such a kid at heart when I am in Disney (and truth be told I still am even back home). We went on a few rides, Soarin’ being my absolute favorite, and did lots of shopping. Jenny and Mama had never experienced the kitchen sink ice cream so I of course had to take them to Beaches and Cream for their first experience! Talk about lunch of champions!
We went back to the hotel and a storm was coming through that threatened cancellation of the half. When the news broke that the half was cancelled I literally didn’t know what else to do except call my husband and cry. Mama and Jenny worried about me because I talked about throwing in the towel. What was the point of all my hard work and training if I wasn’t going to be a true Dopey? We were still getting our half medals but for what? I could not wrap my head around it. Then groups started surfacing on Facebook, talking about running a half anyway at the parks, in parking lots, on treadmills, or at resorts. Luckily, we stayed at Pop Century which connected to Art of Animation with a running trail!
After a lot of back and forth I decided I was going to do what any true runner would do and get my butt out there the next day and run loops around the trail at the resort until I completed 13.1 miles! I slept in a bit, put on my Minnie outfit and when I walked down to the trail I was amazed to see at least already 30 runners out there with the same idea! And with that, I got right to it. Around mile five it started to pour, but then it broke and a beautiful rainbow appeared over the water and I took it as a sign from my Grams watching over me from heaven. She was always my biggest cheerleader telling me to chase my dreams no matter how big they were.
Running around Pop was just like running on course because there was actual crowd support! People came out to support and cheer us on and it felt amazing. They were handing out water, Powerade, candy, pretzels, you name it, they had it! After a while Mama and Jenny came down to cheer me on as I neared the finish of my half! As I ran around in one direction I had a guy that I passed pacing me in the other direction. Of course I had to stop and take my picture with him since he was a huge reason I kept going. It is amazing when complete strangers support you! Just as I finished I got to meet my two favorite people from Alabama, Scott and Kristin! I loved meeting even more of my Instagram family. I also met another guy who seemed to know me but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I later realized he too was someone I knew via social media.
Day three brought rain and cold weather but that didn’t stop us from heading to Hollywood Studios for a bit of fun! I was pretty worn out at that point and doubt entered my mind again. I was in pain, my fibromyalgia was flaring and I still had 26.2 miles to go! We really enjoyed Hollywood Studios and even got Jenny to go on Tower of Terror. She was super terrified and the pictures were priceless! Rockin’ Roller coaster is a personal favorite of mine so of course we had a fast pass for that. By midday we were all freezing and had to buy hoodies to keep warm! I took carb loading to a whole notha’ level and ate this huge Olaf cupcake with lunch!
The final day was upon us and my nerves were in high gear. This was only my third marathon and it was coming after three days and 22.4 miles of running as well as walking miles around the parks each day. I woke up at 2:30 AM, this time Mama and Jenny stayed behind so they could catch a bus to spectate. I put on my final outfit, an adorable Bing Bong outfit I put together and headed out the door. As I did, I realized I would be crazy not to wear my sleeves and my fleece jacket to the start because it was freezing outside. I ran back in grabbed what I needed and caught the bus.
Eric was already there, waiting in line for the bathrooms so I did the same. We met up and took the 20 minute walk to our corral. I kept my fleece on until it was time to run and had my sleeves on for the whole race. It was cold but I am from New Jersey so it really wasn’t THAT cold. As I toed the line to my third marathon and the final piece of my Dopey Challenge I was afraid. I kept looking to Eric for advice and a pep talk because I was beyond nervous for the 26.2 miles that lied ahead of me! Fireworks went off and before I knew it so was I. I tried to keep my pace nice and even and lost Eric very early on. I actually saw him later in the race as well as a few other friendly faces, so their support kept me going.
I only made one potty stop around mile 10.5 and I was good to go! The crowd support was unlike any other and the signs that people come up with always make me laugh. I did pretty well for the first half and even up to mile 16-17 and then I hit a wall. I was tired, I was in pain, and I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I tried to keep a smile on my face but I think it showed as the medical team biked past because they seemed concerned. I assured them with a smile and a nod that I was ok and kept pressing forward. I had not come this far to give up! I knew Mama and Jenny were waiting for me as soon as I entered Epcot and I told myself if I could just get to them I was almost there!
When I saw them standing there I looked up with pain written all over my face, waved and kept it moving. There was no way I could stop because i just HAD to keep going. I heard my sister yelling as I kept running. She must have darted through the crowd to look for me. I was almost there and I knew it but my tank was on empty and I had to pull from my reserve to make it to the end. As I turned the corner and had the finish line in my sight, tears came to my eyes. I did it. I actually made it 48.6 miles! Take that fibromyalgia and POTS. I crossed the finish with my hands in the air which unfortunately was not caught on camera. However, there is a picture of me sprinting in, pain on my face but also with a look of determination.
After crossing the finish it was all a blur. I was asked by medical if I needed attention and I just smiled and said I was fine. Really, I wasn’t fine but there really isn’t much they can do for me which I learned the hard way at the NYC Marathon. As I went through the different points to collect all my medals it was surreal. All the bling around your neck, all the miles you ran, all the training it took to get you there, it flashes before you. Jenny called and I told her where to find me. I had to sit and find my life for a minute before we hopped on a bus back to the resort.
Mama met us there, I soaked in an epsom salt bath for a while, took a shower and got ready for our final day in Disney. Of course I was in pain but I had fast passes for rides I didn’t want to miss and dinner reservations at my absolute favorite restaurant, Be Our Guest! We went on some rides, did a little shopping, got lost looking for the restaurant and finally sat down for our last dinner in Disney. It was absolutely amazing! The food, the atmosphere, and even the $16 glass of champagne I had to celebrate my accomplishment!
Leaving Disney is never fun. We all slept in the next morning and then we had to pack our bags and get on the Magical Express to the airport. Once there, we had to get through security and due to all the medals in my bag we were stopped again, but it was much more pleasant than it was in New Jersey. We got to our gate and I was able to board early which took a load of pressure off my shoulders. The memories from that trip will last a lifetime. All the amazing things we got to see, the miles I got to run through all the parks, and visiting Harry Potter World. Dopey was a huge challenge and I will remember it always. It’s been twelve days and I still look at my medals in awe and reflect on my accomplishment!
While it wore me out, caused my body to flare, and kept me from running for a week, I would do it all again! However, in 2017 I am setting the bar higher for myself and will be running my first ultra in May. The Northface Endurance 50k in Bear Mountain, NY. I have already begun training so stay tuned for what’s to come from me in 2017! I may have chronic illnesses that affect me daily but that doesn’t count me out! The day will come when I can no longer run but today is not that day!
- Jessica Valdes, RADrabbit