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John Putman - Running With Mickey Mouse
John Putman running in the Disney marathon› Larger image
John Putman running in the Walt Disney World marathon in Orlando, FL. Photo courtesy: J. Putman
A self-described former Disney curmudgeon, Office of Communications editor and writer John Putman says, “I was aware of Mickey Mouse, but I was not a big fan. Then I met my wife Jackie, whose family takes an annual trip to Disney World. Jackie is such a fan that for one second we thought about getting married at Disney World. Our three-year-old daughter Madelyn was raised on Mickey toys and videos. They converted me although I’m not quite as enthusiastic as they are.” Yet.

Putman started running to improve his general fitness around the end of 2007. After he discovered that Disney World hosted several running events, including a full marathon, he convinced his family to take their annual trip in January to allow him to compete in the Walt Disney World Marathon (WDWM). A full marathon is 26.2 miles.

Training consisted of running five days a week. Four times a week, he ran 5–8 miles and the fifth day he ran increasing distances between 12 and 20 miles. “Staying motivated to train turned out to be harder than running the actual marathon,” says Putman. “Because of my work schedule and life with a toddler, I had to train at either 5:00 a.m. or 10:00 p.m.

“I ran on center a lot too. On a Saturday during the blizzard of 2010, I came to Goddard to run because the Center was open and I knew that the roads would be clear. I felt pretty silly, but then I saw three other people running here too. Seeing them made me feel a little better. The weekend before the marathon, I ran 20 miles and then I began tapering. I did not run at all the three days leading up to the marathon.”

The evening before the run, Putman told his daughter, “You’re not going to see me in the morning because I’m going for a run.”
The WDWM started at 5:30 a.m. Recalls Putman, “Mickey and Minnie Mouse were at the starting line in jogging outfits. Goofy was there in a headband, tank top, and running shoes, along with Donald Duck. When the marathon started, fireworks shot out of the top of the arch over the start line. I have never seen a more impressive start to an organized run.”

Marathon morning it was only 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The runners were bundled up in sweats and hats and gloves. Many wore headbands with Mickey Mouse ears and kept them on throughout the run. “Disney has bins along the route for runners to discard their extra clothing as they warm up,” says Putman. “Disney donates the clothing to a local clothes bank.”

The WDWM is a good first marathon because the course is almost completely flat and the weather generally cooperates. Organized runs have stations with food, water, and medical staff about every five or so miles but with nothing but scenery and a few spectators in between these stations.

Explains Putman, “Disney had these stations but they also had something entertaining, motivating, or distracting every single mile. Things like a high school marching band, high school cheerleaders doing flips, a local radio DJ playing music, or a Boy Scout Troop cheering on the runners.” There were also Disney characters, ranging from the Country Bears to Minnie Mouse in a pith helmet and safari outfit inside Animal Kingdom, to cheer on the participants. Says Putman, “These acts made the run fun. You never knew what was coming, so you never knew what to expect.”

Disney World consists of four parks: Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT. The marathon starts and finishes at EPCOT and runs through the other three parks. “Animal Kingdom was my favorite one to run through because it had the most interesting scenery from a runner’s perspective,” says Putman. “Some of the attractions had been turned on. The giant, robotic dinosaurs in DinoLand, U.S.A. were moving and making noises.”

After the race, Putman met his family in the post-race staging area. Says Putman, “Despite all the noise, I could pick out my wife and daughter screaming. Maddie was yelling, ‘Yay, Daddy!’” He finished in good shape after about five hours. “Maddie instantly recognized Mickey on the medal. I wore the medal for a minute, but then gave it to her to wear. She hugged me and was thrilled.”

Disney gave the runners tracking chips for their shoes. Every time a runner passed a sensor, the chip registered a time, which would then be sent via text message to subscribers.

John Putman running in the Disney marathon› Larger image
Donald Duck high-fives John as he crosses the finish line. Courtesy: J. Putman
Before the race, some of Putman’s friends and family subscribed so that they were able to follow him every step of the race. “Jackie and Maddie got to enjoy Disney World and knew when to meet me at the finish line,” says Putman. “I specifically asked them to have fun and only meet me at the finish line. I knew than an almost-two-year-old was unpredictable, so it meant a lot to me when they were able to meet me at the finish line.”

That evening, the family had a celebratory dinner in the Canada part of Epcot. “I had a nice, big steak; a glass of wine; and the most decadent desert they had, which was a chocolate mousse with more chocolate on top and a chocolate cookie. I don’t usually eat like that,” recalls Putman.

The day after the marathon, Putman wore the medal as he and his family spent the day in the park. “Strangers passing by said ‘congrats’ or ‘good job’” recalls Putman. “Other people wearing medals would always say something like ‘way to go’ or ‘what was your time’ or just give you a high-five.”

Say Putman, “I’ve done a lot of organized, timed running events, but this one blew them away and by a pretty big margin. Disney thinks of everything; they address every single thing and make it all great.” Putman intends to run in the 2014 WDWM next January when his family goes on their next annual trip to Disney World. “My goal is to complete the marathon in under three-and-a-half hours,” he says.

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.