LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (FOX 35 WOFL) - It's a race like only Disney could do it. Thousands of marathoners ran Sunday morning through the “happiest place on earth” in the Disney Marathon.
The 25th annual race kicked-off in style at 5:30 in the morning, with Mickey Mouse counting-down the athletes and a fireworks display.
“Oh, it's great,” said marathoner Bob Grorud. “The crowd support's great, there's plenty of distractions. It's probably my favorite race to do.”
More than 25,000 runners from all over the world participated. Among them were wheelchair athletes, like U.S. Army veteran Rory Cooper.
“We can draft off of each other, work together,” Cooper explained, “that makes it kind of fun because we race against each other, but also work as a team.”
There was also a special group of runners, including Olympian Jeff Galloway, who has taken part in all the Disney Marathons.
“To have a group of 76 people now who've done every one of these marathons for 25 years is very unusual, and it bonds the group together - very close-knit group,” Galloway said.
They ran the 26.2 mile route that took them through all four Disney theme parks. Just a few hours after the race started, the winner – 28-year-old Nick Hilton from Tucson, AZ – crossed the finish line, the first American to win since 2004.
A lifelong Disney fan, Hilton said he proposed to his girlfriend at Walt Disney World last year. He said this was a marathon with a touch of magic.
“It's just incredible,” Hilton said, “to come here, on a race like today, at a place that means so much to me and my family, and come out with a win, is just an incredible feeling. Hard to express in words, really.”
Hilton is only the fourth American to win the 26.2 mile race. The last American winner was 14 years ago. A Brazilian runner had won the race six of the past seven years, including the last four.
Giovanna Martins of Sao Paulo was the first of the women's division to finish. This is her third victory in the last four years.
Every runner was given a commemorative finisher's medal and special 25th anniversary Mickey Mouse ears to wear after crossing the finish line at Epcot on what was a sunny but unseasonably cool Florida morning.
What is also great is that as the runners warmed up along the route, they started to discard some of the warm clothing they used early on. Disney crews collected it all and donated it to charity.