If you’ve ever tackled a runDisney race, you’ve probably experienced the absolute terror around “getting swept” – the nebulous, awful thing that happens to runners unable to maintain the required 16 minute per mile pace. Well, it happened to me. I started the 2022 Walt Disney World Marathon but did not cross the finish line.
While getting “swept” was absolutely not the ideal outcome, it wasn’t anywhere NEAR the terrible experience I expected. Let’s pull back the curtain, dispel the mystery, and discuss EXACTLY what happens when you don’t make it to the Finish Line.
Why I Ran The Walt Disney World Marathon
As a regular runner, I’ve completed several half marathons, 10 milers, and other races of various distances. What I have yet to complete, however, is anything close to a full-length marathon. As this is a bucket list challenge for me, I decided the 2022 Walt Disney World Marathon was a promising opportunity to complete this goal. I registered as soon as I could, figuring that actually being signed up for a race would be motivation enough to keep my training on track.
Well, as you might expect by now, that’s not exactly what happened. An unexpected new dog and a pleasantly busy work season all but completely halted my training for TWO WHOLE MONTHS! By the end of which, I was in no shape to run a 10K – let alone a full marathon. Nevertheless, as soon as I could breathe again I restarted my training program, attempting to slowly rebuild my endurance. I knew that I unequivocally did not have enough time to train for completion, but at least I could make it as far as possible before the dreaded sweep.
**One Quick Note: I did contact Disney to see if I had any options to defer my registration. Unfortunately, Disney would not allow me to cancel, defer to a later event, or even transfer to a shorter distance race on the same weekend. I understand these are Disney’s policies (after all – I’m the one who didn’t train appropriately), but it’s important you be aware of these rules before signing up to run. **
Armed with little training, I arrived at the start line ready to enjoy whatever pieces of the course I was able to complete. Based on my body’s then-current levels of endurance and an examination of the course map, I made a plan of attack. I would run the first five miles as if they were a normal training run. After which I would maintain the minimum required pace until I was able to make my way through the Magic Kingdom. After exiting the park (at a little over 11 miles), I would slow way down, enjoy the journey, and chill out until the balloon ladies eventually found me.
Getting Swept: Expectations
Before we talk about the reality of the sweeping process, let’s discuss what I expected from the dreaded balloon ladies:
- I anticipated a hugely stressful experience while I desperately fought to maintain the desired pace.
- I expected to have lots of warning before a “hard sweep” – a checkpoint location and pick up area for runners unable to maintain 16 minutes per mile.
- I thought I would feel like a failure. Even though I personally expected to be swept, I expected Cast Members to look at me with pity and for the bus to be filled with crying and/or sick runners.
- I expected to be unceremoniously dropped off at the starting area without any of the post-race refreshments or gifts.
Basically, I thought the whole process was going to be embarrassing, disappointing, and unpleasant. Thankfully, my actual experience was nothing like this!
Getting Swept: Reality
Okay, so here’s what actually happened:
As I passed mile markers 17 and 18, I could tell I was getting close to the end of the pack. Runners were approaching medical tents or simply waiting on the side of the road to be picked up by Cast Members. I don’t know if it was the length of the race or a fact of being in the back of the group, but I was surprised by how many people just… stopped. But its certainly better to stop yourself than to pass out!
So while I didn’t have much real “warning,” I did know that the balloon ladies were closing in. Deep into mile 18, I barely noticed three, balloon-touting women pass me. Honestly, I was so tired that I could have very easily missed them. I expected them to be a bit more obvious. For example, I always pictured the balloon ladies in a line across the back of the pack – making it very clear exactly when you crossed into sweeping territory. Instead the ladies simply and quietly passed me.
Right after I fell behind the balloon ladies, a bike-riding Cast Member warned me that if I couldn’t stay in front of the balloons past the next stoplight (only a matter of feet away – I could see it in front of me), I would be swept. While I probably could have fought to stay ahead and completed a couple more miles before the next check point, I was exhausted and ready to end it.
As the balloon ladies rounded the corner past the stop light, Cast Members began to move in front of us to block the course and direct lagging runners to the available busses.
The Bus Ride
As I boarded the bus, Cast Members congratulated me on making it as far as I did on the course. I didn’t expect this, but it felt so nice! No, I didn’t finish a marathon; but I still traveled almost 19 miles on foot – with very little appropriate training. That’s a physical accomplishment.
They handed me a face mask and I was directed to find a seat. I was one of the first ones swept, so I waited about twenty minutes for the rest of the bus to fill. Contrary to my assumptions that this would be a sad ride, everyone was in remarkably good spirits. The runners seemed happy to have made it as far as they did and ready to go back home.
The Finish Line (Kind Of)
While swept runners don’t get to cross the Finish Line, the bus did drop us off at our own private finish area. We were still given the post-race refreshments (without having to fight a crowd). But as an added surprise, we all actually received a marathon medal just for our participation! While at first I did not want a medal for a race I did not complete, I ended up feeling very proud of my almost 19 miles, and I was very glad to wear it home!
Because the marathon took place during the 50th anniversary celebration, finishers did receive an extra gift of a pair of special Mickey Ears. I was a little bummed to miss out on those beauties, BUT the medal is so gorgeous – it totally makes up for it! I’m so glad they let us have one even though we didn’t finish!
Freaky Thoughts: Getting Swept at the Walt Disney World Marathon
Is getting swept disappointing?
Well, kind of, yeah. Especially if you’ve been in deep training for months, it’s a little disappointing to not make your goal. But Disney does everything they can to make the experience tolerable for those unable to finish. You’re going to get congratulated. You’re going to get your post-race snack, and you might even end up getting a medal. Either way, you did something awesome today, and you should pat yourself on the back.
How hard is it to keep up with the 16 minute per mile pace?
So, here’s the great news: if you’ve actually completed your training program, there’s a good chance you’ll finish your RunDisney race (presuming you don’t get sick or injured). I only ran the first five miles. I aggressively tried to keep up with the pace for about 5-6 miles after that and then I just walked at whatever pace I pleased. It still took the balloon ladies about 8 miles to catch up with me. That’s a lot of wiggle room for someone actively trying to finish.
Should I be scared of getting swept?
No. Running is hard, and it’s an accomplishment to even get out there and try to run an intimidating distance (whether for you that’s a 5K or 26.2 miles). No matter how far you make it down the course; congratulate yourself for waking up on time, trying your best, and taking a chance. Getting swept isn’t scary. It’s not sad, and it’s not even that disappointing. It will just make the victory all that sweeter when you do complete your chosen distance!