As part of Walt Disney World’s Marathon Weekend (yes, for those who didn’t know, Disney World hosts an annual marathon!), they hold a series of preliminary races: A 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday, and the full marathon on Sunday.
Imagine someone trying to run all four races on the exact same weekend. Well, not only do people do it, but Disney’s race organizers actually award people medals for doing it. They call it the Dopey Challenge (I presume the eponymous dwarf’s name is used to reflect how smart of an idea they think it is), and they award large medals to anyone who successfully completes the Challenge.
You may ask: Who in their right mind has any business doing this? Presuming you think you could do it… how could someone train for this as something more than a masochistic exercise? Is there a best way to train for it? Is it possible to race the Challenge, rather than just trying to survive it?
Hal Higdon is the only person of any kind to actually put forth a training plan for the Dopey Challenge. And his traditional-style plan is fairly basic, asking for a series of progressively longer runs every fortnight to prepare for the races. Pretty much all the prescribed running is easy, the focus being on developing the aerobic endurance for the Challenge through sheer volume, at the expense of any sort of performance.
As he would attest, there’s a lot more to the Dopey Challenge than meets the eye:
First of all, two important down-to-Earth points about the Challenge that will help wrap your mind around what someone needs to do to get it done.
The Challenge is basically two things:
- A 48.6 mile ultramarathon spread across multiple days (the 3ish mile 5K, the 6.21 mile 10K, the 13.1 mile half and the 26.2 mile marathon).
- A series of races much like cycling’s Tour De France, except for runners.
Given that, this should make the Challenge seem less daunting.
But that said, this clearly isn’t just for any runner. In fact, a lot of marathoners shouldn’t even attempt it. Below are a series of what I consider hard disclaimers, as in overlook or defy them at your own risk.
If you can’t run almost every day, with some harder workouts each week, you probably shouldn’t do it.
The Challenge is a 48.6 mile series of races. If you don’t at least run that many miles in an average week (and haven’t been doing so for at least several months…. not weeks, months… probably closer to years than weeks), doing this might not be a good idea.
If you haven’t ever done a race or hard running workout followed by a longer run, you probably shouldn’t attempt it.
If you’re one of those runners that simply has to take days off before or after a race or hard workout because of injury concerns, then doing this is a bad idea.
If you miss on any of the above, and you still really want to do the Challenge… I would aim for 2 years down the road, and your goal for the next year should be to develop the fitness to consistently do all of the above injury-free. Successfully do that, and by this time next year you’ll have a solid idea of whether or not you should do the Challenge.
While many novices train for and attempt a marathon successfully, the Dopey Challenge’s learning curve is far too great for most experienced runners, let alone beginners.
A side note: You know who CAN do the Challenge cold-turkey without worry? Ultramarathoners. In fact, the Challenge probably doesn’t seem like that big a deal to any of them. When you run 50+ miles in a typical race, and train at the volume necessary to successfully run those races… then running 48-49 miles over 4 days is relatively easy.
The only challenge for them would be optimally racing these distances rather than just running them, as ultra runners tend to do all their racing at more of a moderate aerobic running pace, and the temptation would be to try and run these events with some speed.
Hardcore marathoners who log 80+ miles could also easily handle the Challenge. These runners already log routine 10+ mile days, with a longer weekend run, and probably mix in a lot of speed and tempo work within each week. The shorter races in the Challenge are probably like an easy day of low mileage tempo runs to them.
… for the rest of us, for those who are equipped to take on the Challenge, who may still consider this a challenge, there are some valuable keys to training that will best prepare you for the Challenge.
Backload your training mileage on each week. Effective training mimics the pattern of running you need to follow at the race.
In this case, since you need to run four progressively longer races, your typical training week should feature four days of progressively longer running.
It may be best for most of your running to take place towards the end of the week, while the early part is lighter on mileage to allow recovery.
Whatever other running you want to do should be built around this, and yes this may mean you ought to do less speedwork than usual.
Your two longest runs of the week should be your final two runs, whether they’re on Friday/Saturday or Saturday/Sunday.
Various plans (Higdon, Runners Connect, Hanson) follow a similar pattern of a medium long run and a long run on the weekend. With the Dopey Challenge, you should take it a step farther.
That medium long run should be your 2nd longest run. None of the previous runs in the week should be as long or longer than either of the final two runs. For example, if your average run is 6 miles, a Saturday run can be 8 miles and the Sunday run 12 miles.
This training pattern effectively mimics the demand of the Challenge, where you must finish with a half marathon and a full marathon back to back. By running similarly long every weekend in training, this becomes normal rather than insurmountable.
This is one time where the often-standard 2.5 hour long run limit is sound. Make your other preceding runs as long as you need to, but cap your longest run at 2.5 hours.
One good rule of thumb: Cap your 2nd longest run at 2 hours, your 3rd longest at 90 minutes and all other runs at 75 minutes. The most important thing is you run at least an hour each of the last four days, with each run getting progressively longer.
These limits are because the bulk of peak aerobic growth in a distance run takes place around 60-90 minutes into a run. Shorter runs have various benefits but don’t help improve your ability to run long. Longer runs don’t add much more aerobic development, while they increase body damage and the risk of injury. This is actually a key reason many ask you cap your long runs at 2.5 hours.
As you arrange or adjust your training schedule these parameters can help you put reasonable limits on your week-ending runs. You can’t go too far wrong keeping your training plan super simple and just running easy provided you stay within those limits.
Don’t take any days off during the final 4 days of each week. You’re not going to learn to race four days in a row unless you run at length for four days in a row. Simple as that. Build your schedule so that you can finish each week with four progressively longer runs in a row.
Rather than take days off during the early part of the week, cross train or do short easy recovery runs.
You want to in-grain comfort in running every day, since the Challenge will ask you to run four straight progressively longer days. Days off atrophy this development and make the Challenge harder for the uninitiated.
If you need a bit of a break during training, you will spur greater growth and recovery by doing some easy aerobic training or exercise on an off day… than by taking the day completely off.
If you don’t have an effective recovery routine, you better come up with one now.
I’m not talking about your stretching or plyometrics routine either. I’m talking about consuming nutrition after the workout, effectively feeding yourself between workouts, sleeping well every night you can, reducing stress in your life, etc.
Your life ought to be built around healing your body and getting it ready for the next workout. Training for the Challenge should compel you to do it if you don’t already.
Consume 15-30g of protein within an hour of every workout. Eat a balanced, clean meal within two hours of every workout. Make sure you eat a diet rich in whole unprocessed food, and if needed take needed vitamins. Get to bed early and get 6-8 hours sleep every night. Don’t drink coffee after noon.
If you drink alcohol… I won’t go as far as to say you should stop, but maybe restrict your drinking to after your longest run and before midweek (when the bulk of your key training begins). You want to be fresh for key workouts. When it comes to drinking, I go back to the classic Bill Pearl take on vices: When people see and value the progress in your training, the habits that don’t contribute often tend to fall by the wayside anyway.
If you sit a lot at home or at work, get up every couple hours and go for a brief walk. Keep your lower body blood-flow active to help spur recovery and growth.
If you can’t make preparing for this Challenge a big part of your lifestyle, then maybe don’t do it.
Either do speed/tempo work early in the week, or do it as a fast finish to your longer runs.
Now is not the time to work hard on speed and tempo. Your primary goal is developing the aerobic and neuromuscular endurance to complete the Challenge.
If you must do a full speed workout, do it early in the week and bookend those sessions with short easy training days.
If you’re going to do tempo work during the four day week-ending block, stay far below your max capacity and focus more on getting your mileage in.
Fartlek runs, fast finish long runs, Higdon style tempo runs, anything where the tempo running is just a brief segment during an otherwise regular aerobic run… these are good tempo workouts for this training cycle.
Every month, do a shorter mileage week.
Recovery weeks are common in training plans, and they are beneficial in training for the Challenge.
Once a month, drop your mileage by about 20-40%. Shorten your key and long runs by however much you need. Maybe even skip your speedwork and just run easy. This whole week is about helping your body recover further before resuming your regular load.
You definitely should not run any of these races all out.
If you run the 5K as you would race a normal 5K, then run the 10K as you’d race a 10K, you’re probably dead meat before you start the marathon. You might not even be able to race the Half at your normal half pace after that.
Even triathletes don’t race all out in each of the three triathlon events. Their race pace in the swim, bike section and marathon are well below what they’d do in those events individually. They have to do all of them in one go, after all!
If you’d rather not just jog out these races just to finish, your best bet is to run all of them Hadfield Style.
Jenny Hadfield’s strategy for first time marathoners can easily be applied to any race of any distance.
- Run the first 50-60% of the race at an easy, conversational pace.
- After 50-60%, pick it up to a comfortably hard but sustainable pace. Focus on reeling in and passing slower runners.
- Once the finish line is in foreseeable reach, go as all out as you can comfortably manage.
Obviously, since prior to the marathon you still have other races to run, you should avoid going 100% at the finish. But finishing with a reasonably fast flourish is fine. Maybe even just keep your 2nd pace through the line if you want.
If you insist on racing all of these events, here is your best bet: Race all of them at one pace-level below the race itself. For example:
- Run the 5K at 10K pace.
- Run the 10K at Half Marathon pace.
- Run the Half Marathon at your full marathon pace.
- Run the marathon more like a regular moderate workout run.
Fuel every single race as if you’re running a marathon.
If you don’t take fluid and fuel during a typical 5K, 10K or Half… you should do it here. Take fluid at every aid station.
Carb load the night before each race, and eat a little something in the hours before each race… even though you could easily finish any single one without it.
As soon as each race is over, take whatever palatable food you’re offered and eat it ASAP. Eat a full, nutrient-dense meal within two hours. If there’s time for another meal after that before bed, eat another full nutrient-dense meal.
You’re not just fueling for that race, but you’re fueling in preparation for the races beyond it.
Do some dynamic stretching, but avoid any static stretching.
Static stretching tightens up your tendons, muscles and ligaments, and that tightness can carry over day over day.
If your plans for the next day were just a regular run, or you were taking time off after the race, this would not be a problem. Any residual tightness from stretching would work itself out.
However, you’re planning to run another race the next day, so static stretching might not be the best idea. It will stiffen up muscles, ligaments and tendons that need to get moving the next day (at a higher volume!).
Stick to leg swings, arm circles, those sorts of dynamic stretches. These are fine and accomplish much of the same purpose while keeping your muscles, tendons and ligaments limber.
Some people static stretch every day after every workout, with no problems. If you’re among them, you can ignore me. But most do best to stick to just dynamic stretches like leg swings, and to relax after the race. There will be plenty of time for static stretching after the marathon.
A training template for the Dopey Challenge will come another time. But regardless of how you want to train, these tips are valuable for not just having fun at the Dopey Challenge, but running four races you can be reasonably proud of… without killing yourself in the process.