Nearly 40 competitors joined together in a red and white polka dotted brigade to form the Inaugural Run GKTW Charity Team benefiting Give Kids The World Village during this past Walt Disney World Marathon weekend. Alumni wish families, former volunteers, and runners were united in raising over $177,000 for the Village – enough to fulfill 35 wishes for children with life-threatening illness who want to visit Walt Disney World. I was one small part of this team and share some thoughts and photos below from this inspiring weekend.
Running’s often a selfish endeavor. Except for occasionally running with my daughter, I spend long hours training and racing alone. This solo time is important to decompress and reflect, and my family tolerates the absences because I’m a better father and husband when I return (I hope). However, for the 2014 runDisney Walt Disney World half marathon, I signed up to run with 40 people who were almost all strangers to me – definitely stepping outside this introvert’s comfort zone.
We committed to each raise a minimum of $3,000 for Give Kids The World Village (GKTW) – the nonprofit resort that works in conjunction with wish granting organizations (like Make-A-Wish) to arrange week-long vacations for families with children with a life-threatening illness. Each year over 27,000 kids are diagnosed with just such an illness, and nearly half of them have some sort of Disney wish. GKTW helps that dream come true by providing donated tickets to the theme parks, meals, entertainment, and accommodations at their whimsical Village (pictured below, the mushroom carousel the inspiration for our race jerseys). When I heard GKTW was forming their first ever charity team for the Walt Disney World (WDW) half and full marathons, I knew I had to sign up. I’d volunteered in Village, completed runDisney events, and the marriage of the two was a perfect match.
After raising $3,000 and putting in the training miles for the race, it was time to head to Walt Disney World to meet my teammates at the Village dinner on Friday, January 10th. This was where it became clear the team was about much more than completing a race, a Disney vacation, or even raising funds for GKTW. Run GKTW was a transformative experience for many, and part of the healing process for those alumni families on the team as well.
For instance, there were the Browns, Sarah, Mike, and their four children – a GKTW alumni family who stayed at the Village as part of their daughter Ashley’s wish trip. Mike Brown ran the half marathon for his daughter – his first race ever, and Sarah Brown signed up for the full marathon (also a first). The Browns’ adorable children were ever present at the dinner and during the races. They handed out special Inaugural Run GKTW team medals during the dinner ceremony, and cheered their parents (and the rest of the team) during the races. Ashley even admonished me on the course to “pay attention!” when she caught me texting with just under one mile until the finish line. Both Mike and Sarah finished their first ever races at Walt Disney World (or anywhere), and relished the fact they set a healthy example for their children and raised so much for GKTW. Their daughter Ashley is currently cancer-free and the Browns are eternally grateful to GKTW for all they did to restore their sick little girl back to a vibrant fun-loving princess. “Anything for GKTW,” Sarah told me at the finish line.
Next was Matthew McIntosh, another parent of a former wish child and GKTW Alumni family. When the team was announced in April, he signed up the first day as a commitment to losing weight and becoming healthy. At the dinner Friday night, Matthew choked up while talking about his journey, losing 30 pounds along the way, and running the Mickey Mile with his 11 year old daughter who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Though just a beginner runner, the WDW Half Marathon wasn’t enough for Matthew – he signed up for the Dopey Challenge committing to run the 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon (48.6 miles) in four consecutive days. Unfortunately, after running the Mickey Mile, 5K, 10K, and half marathon, his legs and body were not up to the full marathon. Matthew didn’t finish the Dopey Challenge, but that certainly doesn’t diminish his accomplishment. Matthew’s goal was to have Run GKTW represented at every race over the weekend, and there were plenty of polka dotted runners in the final day’s race. Matthew’s weekend was a success in every sense of the word – he ran with his family, completed 22+ miles of races (after starting running in April), and even helped another teammate, Felicia Vanacore cross the half marathon finish line.
Felicia was a former student of mine, one of two on the team, who had volunteered with me previously in the Village. Felicia (above left) and Caitlyn Dowell (above right) had previously visited the Village during our annual GKTW Alternative Break Week, said the trip was a life-changing experience for them, and would do anything to get back. Both students signed up for the half marathon, and exceeded their fundraising goals. Felicia volunteered again in the Village assembling rocking chairs prior to the Friday night dinner and even donated her park ticket (included as a charity team benefit) to one of the families needing an extra. Felicia struggled with injuries during her training, and 8 miles into the half marathon the pain in her hips and knees were screaming at her to throw in the towel. Matthew found her on the course, stayed with her the rest of the way, and encouraged Felicia to finish the race.
You may wonder how my race went? I have to say it was almost inconsequential. For someone used to running solo, it was fulfilling to be part of the Run GKTW team. I never even checked my finishing time until days after the race. By the way, it was my worst half marathon time by far, but yet the best half marathon experience to date.
Over the course of the WDW Marathon weekend, Run GKTW team members completed 850+ miles and raised $177,754 for GKTW – enough to fulfill 35 wishes. Our red and white polka dotted jerseys stood out on the course, and word spread quickly about our team and GKTW’s mission. Strangers asked about the shirts, the team, and the Village, and the reaction was always the same – amazement at the work of the Village and our fundraising efforts. The Run GKTW charity team became a way to give back to an organization that had a profound impact on so many families. The Walt Disney World half and full marathons were metaphors for the trials experienced by these alumni families, and their Finisher’s Medals a symbol of overcoming adversity.