Rue Morgan will be happy just to make it to the starting line of Sunday's Walt Disney World Marathon. The 70-year-old St. Petersburg resident and a founder of the Mad Dog Triathlon Club hasn't missed the race in 19 years.
"This will be an even 20," said Morgan, who along with his wife, Kathy, are pioneers of the Tampa Bay area's endurance sports scene. "I've had my ups and downs. But the important part is just showing up."
The sold-out race, which goes through all four resort theme parks, has developed into one of the largest marathons in the country. This weekend's events, which include races from a 1-mile fun run to the 26.2-miler, are expected to draw more than 65,000 participants.
Morgan remembers the race's humble beginnings.
"We had just wrapped up the triathlon season," he recalled. "Why not run a marathon?"
Morgan and his wife had just started their triathlon club, now the largest in the country with more than 3,000 members.
"There was no shortage of training partners," he said. "And the race was only 1 ½ hours away. So we just had to go."
Morgan headed to Orlando with a handful of Mad Dogs and booked a hotel room.
"I remember I was having some knee pain, so I had to decide whether or not to have it 'scoped before or after the race," he said. "I felt like I was in such good shape that I just went ahead, had the surgery, and one month later, I just went out and ran the race."
Morgan's time: 3 hours, 58 minutes, 22 seconds.
In the decades that have followed, Morgan has slowed a bit (his time was 5:51:13 last year). But he said he's ready to join the 94 others, including more than a half-dozen from the Tampa Bay area, who have run each race and whom organizers have dubbed the "Perfect 20."
"I never really considered making this a streak until probably the seventh or eighth year," Morgan said.
The 13th race was particularly memorable, he said.
"I forgot to train. My wife was wondering why I was I going to the starting line," he said.
"That was a hard one. Training is highly recommended."
But after 15 years, he knew the consecutive runs meant something because the race organizers gave him a large plaque.
"It has my original number on it, which was assigned to me from then on."
One year, at mile 20, a young woman approached him and asked if they could run together. "She never looked up," he said. "She just looked at my running shoes."
Morgan wanted to slow, but he felt obligated to keep the pace up. He thought the young woman was visually impaired.
"Finally I asked her if she could see," he said. "She said yes. But when she looks up, it makes it a hard race, but if she looks down, it is an easy race."
January 2010 was the coldest marathon. The temperature registered 26 degrees at the start. "At the first water stop, the volunteers told us to take our water from the tables on the left," he said. "The water cups on the right were frozen because they had poured them too early."
As he gets prepared to run his 20th Disney Marathon, Morgan said consistency is the key. A runner must follow a solid training plan but allow for injuries and time to heal.
"Looking back, I'm always amazed at the power of the mind," he said. "Mental toughness is a major part of sports."