This is part 1 of my Dark Side Challenge race report – you can see the half marathon review here.
Hi. My name is Matthew – and I’m a Star Wars nerd.
I own that. Really own it. And so it was a natural fit to make my first runDisney race … the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon. But, in a fit of optimism brought about by a 10K PR on Thanksgiving, I did something that may seem foolish. I signed up for the Dark Side Challenge. This means I signed up for a 10K on Saturday AND a half marathon on Sunday.
I’m going to break this up into two posts – I’ll talk about the expo and the 10K in this one, and then the half marathon in the next one.
Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), runDisney races are a big deal. People come from all over the world for a chance to run through the different parks and take pictures with the themed characters. Several characters come out especially for these races – you don’t see them at other times. They estimated 14,000 people started the 10K – looks like just under 11,000 finished – and then 20,000 for the half marathon. Even though many of those are the same people that ran both races (like me) – that’s still a ton of folks. And, in typical Disney fashion, they’ve got it very well organized.
I went to the expo to get my bib on Friday – took a day off of work in anticipation of challenges with timing. Everything opens at 10am at the ESPN Wild World of Sports complex. Apparently there was a multi-hour line on Thursday, which is the first day of the expo, so I got there about 9am and hoped for the best. Turns out I was about 6th in line, and thought I had really gone overboard with timing. But I had not – by the time things opened up the line went all the way down the building, wrapped all the way back to where we were, and then went all the way back down the building. Getting there early was a good thing.
After acquiring my bib (one bib for both races) and shirts (three technical shirts that I really like), I headed over to the merchandise building and hoped not to wreck things. I wound up wrecking things. Refer back to the opening of this post – I’m a Star Wars nerd … and there is a lot of cool Star Wars stuff. I wound up with a new pair of shorts (with a Death Star on them), a pint glass (if a pint glass is available, I always get the pint glass), a pair of flip-flops for the boy (with Darth Vader on them, of course) and a handful of limited release race pins (because we do pin trading, and, yeah – Star Wars race pins!). The shirts that came with the race are nice – though for the first time maybe ever my reaction is that they are too big. I got XXL because I still generally need XXL, and it is clear that the runDisney folks use a different definition of XXL for these races. Next time I do a Disney race I’ll get XL shirts.
So then the rest of Friday my goal was to stay off of my feet. One of the things that runDisney is notorious for is an early start – the race started at 5:30am on Saturday morning. But now if you start backing up timing – 8pm bedtime. 2am wakeup. 30 minutes to wake up and choke down coffee and breakfast. 20 – 30 minutes to get over to Epcot. 10-15 minutes to walk to the line for busses. The busses over to the starting line at the Magic Kingdom start running at 3:30am, and right on time they let us through. A few minutes to get over to the starting line, and then…
A friend that had recently done the Princess Half gave me some very good advice – be on one of the early busses to the start line and that way you can have a relatively short wait for pictures with characters. That was great advice – as we started hitting characters there were already lines forming. But instead of beginning at the beginning (BB-8 already had a long line), I headed to the end and wound up being like 6th in line for Darth Vader – who was easily the toughest picture once the crowds showed up. I got that picture, immediately popped over to Jabba the Hutt, and then was able to have only a 10 – 15 minute wait for Bobba Fett. So … that worked out.
Of course, at this point, I still had over an hour to kill. I used the port-o-potties (of which there were tons) twice, and then headed to my corral. I somehow got into Corral B for the 10K, so I was up near the start. They had big screens everywhere and good speakers for the race hosts, and they were showing clips from the movies and such. Again, as expected, very good organization as they started walking us down to the start line. When I did the Rock n’ Roll Half in DC it took me nearly an hour to get to the start line. For this race I was running within 10 – 15 minutes.
And we were off. Because of the multiple races this weekend, I went with a strategy of trying to race the 10K – PR if I could – and treat the half as a fun run. I guess I didn’t stretch enough because my shins immediately froze up. I had a decision to make, and I wound up deciding to push through the pain. It took nearly 4 miles before things let go. But I had also managed my pre-race poorly and I immediately needed to pee. I also tried to gut that one out, but that wound up costing me my PR.
The first three miles of the course were pretty uneventful. We ran back out of the Magic Kingdom parking lot and headed straight down World Drive. Just past the start there was a high school band playing the Star Wars theme – which was awesome. Even walking to the bus feels somehow impressive when the Star Wars fanfare is going. The first character photo happened before mile 1 – a huge line already for R2-D2. There were a couple of other random photo-ops along the way, as well as screens set up showing scenes from the movies. The mile markers are fancy, and featured different Dark Side characters – the first mile marker had Darth Maul on it and they were playing Duel of the Fates on speakers. A nice touch.
Water and Powerade stop at about mile 1.5, which I ignored, and then medical just past mile 2. Thanks to the volunteers that really help that out. And then we hit a cloverleaf to an overpass so we could head over to the first park. The cloverleaf was banked for cars, and of course represented a decent hill for central Florida, so it wasn’t the most fun … but it also featured the 5K split. We crossed World Drive and ran a bit toward the Swan and Dolphin, and then turned into a back entrance to Hollywood Studios. Just before we hit the gate we got another character spot – this time Darth Maul. I made a mental note to get that picture when I came through here on Sunday morning in the half. Immediately inside the gate there was another water stop, and then the 501st Legion was all decked out to greet us – Tuscan Raiders, Jawas, Troopers of all types, the whole crew. And then we were in the park. But I couldn’t hold out anymore on the bathroom – I stopped at one of the park restrooms. No line, but it wound up blowing my PR attempt. Lesson learned – pee before you line up.
Running through the parks is why people pay a fortune and get up early to run Disney races. We came out from behind the Tower of Terror, and were immediately greeted by Stormtroopers. Running through the main drag of Hollywood studios, right at dawn, with Stormtroopers patrolling the place … it was a very cool scene. We ran right up to and around the front gate, and then headed around to a path that connects Hollywood Studios to the Boardwalk area. Instead of turning right onto the main Boardwalk, which I expected, we headed left toward the Yacht Club and Beach resorts. That was boardwalk running all the way around to the back entrance to Epcot. Just before we hit a service entrance into Epcot there was another water stop, and then we emerged right behind the Rose & Crown in the Great Britain section of the World Showcase.
One of the things you might not know unless you’ve experienced it is that they’ve got that whole park wired up with speakers so that they can speak to everybody there all at the same time. And when we came out into the World Showcase … all of those speakers were blaring the Star Wars fanfare. I’ve already owned that I’m a Star Wars nerd, but that was chilling. My headphones came off for the rest of the race.
We turned left at Great Britain, ran through the Canada section, and then around to the main path headed toward Spaceship Earth. There were Stormtroopers taking pictures in front in that area, and also photographers with Spaceship Earth in the background – and no line. Since my PR was already not going to happen, I got a quick picture there and headed to the finish. Just before the gate we cycled around through a cast member area, which also had some of the 501st. Snowtroopers, Sandtroopers, Imperial Gunners, etc. – very cool. We turned back into the finish line in the parking lot, and after getting past some patrolling Stormtroopers we were done.
Big finish chute – clearly set up to handle major crowds. They did a great job running people through the sections and avoiding bottlenecks. I collected my medal, and then a water and a Powerade. We then walked through the Challenge Medal area (which was not being used until Sunday), and picked up our snack boxes (chips, cheese sauce, Oreos, dried fruit, granola bar) and bananas, and then through gear check and back out. The characters from the beginning were also at the end, but I made the decision to hold off until Sunday to get the ones I hadn’t gotten and headed to my car.
I finished in 1:06.20, which was 2 minutes and 42 seconds off of my PR. If I had managed my bathroom function a little better I had a shot of getting it – but I’m still happy with that run. It was fun, I got to see a lot of cool things, and I also got acquainted with how they do things before I started out on the long run on Sunday. I was home by 8:00 or 8:15 – and then heading back out to watch my oldest run his first event, an inflatable obstacle run. This turned into a good day.
- Could not be more impressed with how well this was organized. I’m already on the Disney bandwagon, but this was just another place where they demonstrated how very good they are at handling big crowds and big experiences for their guests.
- I observe the taboo on wearing a race shirt in the actual race – bad juju, plus the idea of wearing something completely new on race day. Not only did I see a ton of race shirts for this – I saw a bunch of half marathon shirts, which wouldn’t be run until the next day. And I even saw a couple of Dark Side Challenge shirts which, just … wow.
- Something different – I finished in the top 25% overall and top third in my age division. This has little to do with my speed and a lot to do with the facts of the race – they want people to stop and take pictures. And a lot of people just are not regular runners – they are doing it for the Disney or the Star Wars parts. Still…
- I’ve seen several complaints about the overall course for both the 10k and the half since the race ended – and I think that’s nonsense. The logistics of making this work and letting us see as much as possible, in an environment where they’re going to be letting tens of thousands of people into their parks in some cases while we’re still running … those have to be a nightmare. I thought the course was great.
- The medal was intense – big and heavy, with a Stormtrooper on it. If this was the 10K medal, I was anxious to see the half marathon medal.
- I didn’t mention the weather – it wasn’t so bad for somebody that lives in Florida – pretty normal for this race. Mid-60s and humid at race start. Folks that traveled from up north were struggling with it, but overall I didn’t have a problem during the 10k. Bit of a different story on Sunday.
- My goal of going home and basically not standing up for hours after got blown all to hell. The obstacle course my son was doing had a parent run-along lane for 1.5 miles, and I was trying to stay ahead since I had the camera. I wound up running most of the way in non-running stuff, and starting to put some irritation on my thighs and nipples. I would have to deal with that the next day. But it was so very worth it.
- Another 8pm bedtime and 2am wakeup. Yay?
- SWAG picture at the end of the next post – the bib was cool, the shirts were cool, and the medals were awesome. We got a virtual goody bag with discounts and things for the expo. No other little stuff, though, which I’m OK with.
- Next race – Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon – April 23rd. Post coming soon.