January 23, 2013 - Danell Duff had to beat the flu, 80-degree weather, exhaustion, and pain in order to arrive at the finish line of the 2013 Walt Disney World Marathon.
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If she had not already experienced and won a bigger battle, she may not have attempted the 26.2 mile race, held on Jan. 13 in Orlando, Fla., at all.
"If I had not gone through cancer, I would have pulled out of the run," said Duff, a Groveland Township resident. "I woke up sick the Wednesday before the race with the flu and when I got down there—with the forecasted temps being so high—I didn't want to be one of those people who die from running a marathon. That's when I changed my concept of running it and just went out to have fun."
The married mother of two children has raced 26.2 miles before. She completed the Detroit Marathon in 2008, the year she turned 40. But that race and the one she completed two weeks ago were completely different experiences. At the first one she ran in an international tunnel, around Belle Isle and through the streets of Detroit, while her latest foray took her down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, through Cinderella's Castle, and on to a roller coaster.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two for Duff is not the change in venue, but her own outlook.
Prior to the Detroit Marathon, she had not fought cancer.
In July 2010, Duff was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma and underwent months of chemotherapy. She recently celebrated two years of being cancer-free.
Last April, she registered for the Disney Marathon, with a goal to run another marathon before her 45th birthday this year. But her training, which she began in August, varied differently from her first marathon. Then, she was running five days a week. This time around, she didn't have the same kind of energy, so she ran about three days per week, with two short runs of about 4 miles each, and one long run. Her longest training run was a 22-miler, right before Christmas.
The winter weather didn't bother her, as she likes running in the cold, although even this past week would have been too cold for her as she reconsiders running in temperatures lower than 15 degrees. While she has had previous IT band issues, she taped her leg and was able to run without crippling injuries.
But even with all the preparation, when Duff flew down to Florida on Jan. 11 with her friend and designated cheerleader, Lisa Scrimger, she was sick. On Saturday, she was feeling a little better. On Sunday, she woke at 2 a.m. to catch a bus by 3 a.m. from her Disney hotel to the starting line at Epcot. Duff and more than 20,000 marathon runners had to be in starting corrals by 5 a.m. At 6:03 a.m., in a cool 60 degrees, with fireworks exploding in the sky, Duff ran across the starting line.
"The first part of race, it's easy to stay excited," she said.
The route began in the Epcot parking lot and from there she ran down back roads, through the archway at Magic Kingdom and along the backside of Fantasyland before curving and running down Main Street and through the castle. Characters were along the course, but Duff had determined she would only stop for a picture with one of her favorites. In her case, that was Sleeping Beauty, whom she mugged with for the camera in Frontierland.
She then ran through the Grand Floridian and even ran on a speedway track and past a classic car show. After that, she said, "you run forever and a day down just roads."
She entered Animal Kingdom near the halfway mark and veered off course using her new attitude that a marathon is more about the journey than about the speed in which it is completed.
"You get to a point where you know your time is going to be awful and I was going by Expedition Everest and they said, 'Do you want to ride?' and it was hot and it cools you off," she said, laughing. "Nothing cools you off like a roller coaster ride or messes with your Garmin (runner's watch) like a roller coaster ride. I knew I had to be under 7 hours or they kick you off the course. I just let (the Garmin) run, because I needed to know what my pace was. I love that roller coaster. The entire train was all runners— if you're at the halfway mark at 3 hours, you know you're not going to win anything, you might as well do it."
The coaster ride was one of the highlights of the race, but the fun quickly fizzled. Duff passed the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom and then described the next 5 miles as miserable while she ran down a four lane highway in relentless sun, with no trees, no shade, and runners dropping out of the race. Her goal had been to run for 10 minutes and then do a 1-minute walk break throughout the marathon, but as she neared 15 miles, her goal became to run until she felt she was going to vomit and then walk.
"I just kept thinking, 'At least you're walking,'" Duff said. "My biggest fear was, I wouldn't be able to finish. I wasn't running, it was more a matter of conserving energy to make sure I could finish. Luckily, it's a gorgeous medal and I just kept thinking about that."
Giant puppets were part of the "20-Mile Spectacular," although all Duff wanted to see at that point were giant sprinklers. She then ran through the Hollywood Studios Park and Epcot.
As she hit 26 miles, just before the finish line, she heard the Hallelujah Chorus.
"You can't help but get teary-eyed and think, 'Oh, yes, I made it.'"
Mickey Mouse was waiting at the finish, as well as plenty of medics who made sure she was well-hydrated, and she received her reward as a half-pound medal was draped around her neck.
Duff's final time was 6:44, nearly two hours slower than her Detroit Marathon finish time of 4:46, but while she was disappointed that her time wasn't what it could have been had conditions been perfect, she is taking it in stride.
"The one thing about surviving cancer is that now the experience is better than the perceived outcome," she said. "I just had my good 2-year scan so I wanted to celebrate that. Just finishing was a great accomplishment. Two years ago I was like, 'Will I ever be able to do another one?' So many people do cancer research fundraising through the marathon and it was not unusual to see Team in Training people running and people with pictures of loved ones that had died and I just thought, 'I'm here!' It was great to just be able to finish it and not having to quit. Even if it was slower than I hoped, it was worth it."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville