10 Observations From the Disney Star Wars Dark Side Challenge

IMG_4318Last year, when news broke that Disney World (meaning the one in Florida, not California) would be holding a Star Wars race weekend, I got pretty excited. I’d say I’m a mild Star Wars geek, but I’m married to one of the biggest you’ll ever meet (no, seriously — he can play the Star Wars Trivial Pursuit game and never get an answer wrong), and the fandom has rubbed off on me a fair bit.

Plus, ever since I did the Runner’s World race weekend, I’ve been really interested in finding more multi-race weekend events. I might do not want to do a full marathon, but I can certainly run close to that distance over the course of a couple of days.

Also? I’ve lived in Florida since 2000 but had not yet done a single Disney race. I was pretty sure they were going to pull my Sunshine State card if I didn’t do one soon.

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So, I set myself a reminder for when registration was opening — I knew that the Star Wars race weekend had sold out in almost no time in California, and I didn’t want to miss my chance. When it finally opened, I signed up for the Star Wars Dark Side Challenge, meaning I would run a 10k on Saturday and a half marathon on Sunday. The entry fee was … steeper than the spindles atop Cinderella’s castle, if I’m being honest, but I justified it by telling myself that I was basically getting a deal by doing both races — it would’ve been silly to do only one, right?

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A couple of weeks ago, I put together my R2D2 costumes (which consisted of white shirts and shiny duck tape — a tutorial is in the works, I promise) and headed to Orlando, and I quickly realized that a Disney race weekend isn’t just a weekend of running — it’s definitely an experience … and should be treated as such. With that in mind, here are a few lessons I learned at my first Disney race weekend!

  1. There are bathrooms everywhere. It’s awesome. If there’s a long line at one set and you’re not in, uhhh, imminent danger, just mosey on to the next group of porta-potties or park bathrooms. There were also plenty of water stops, and the half marathon also offered sports drink and gels.
  2. You almost certainly will not PR. I hadn’t planned to anyway, but hear me out. For the 10k, I was in the second corral (out of, I don’t know, six? Seven?), which made me think that maybe I’d need to bring a little speed in order to keep up with those around me. My corral took off about five minutes after Corral A, and it still took just over two minutes (so, maybe a quarter mile at most) before I had to slow to a walk amidst a bottleneck. The courses are designed more for photo opps than speed.
  3. You should plan to take pictures. I mean, you’re not going to run your fastest race anyway, so why not enjoy the journey? There are scenes set up before you go to your corral, and also character stops and other cool themed scenes set up all along the course. And, naturally, there are also the classic Disney photo spots as you run through the parks — if you’re a big Disney person, you might not want to miss the chance to take a race photo in your favorite Epcot country. In some cases, you might actually have to wait in line to get said picture, but the lines move pretty quickly. I think I waited six or seven minutes for both R2D2 and Chewbacca, and I didn’t regret it at all.
  4. Some of the runners’ costumes rival those of the characters at the photo stops. Even though Disney has some pretty strict rules regarding costumes, you’ll see some incredibly clever costumes worn by runners. I think my favorite was the group of TIE fighters (sort of along these lines, but with the wings attached to the arms and no body box). I wouldn’t have wanted to run any real distance wearing it, personally, but they looked awesome.
  5. The start times are early. SO early. I assume this is so that Disney can open the parks somewhere near their normal time, but the start times for the Dark Side races were 5:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. That meant that, if you were staying at a Disney resort (and that is highly recommended, as they provide complementary transportation to and from the start and end points for both racers and spectators — parking is at a serious premium), you had to be on the bus by, like, 3:30 to guarantee you’d make it to your corral. You guys. I sometimes stay up until 3 a.m., but I do not get up at 3 a.m. I was not aware of this when I registered, and, well, I just thought you might like to know.
  6. It’s far more fun to run with a friend. All that cool stuff you see? Way cooler when you get to point it out to your running buddy. Plus, he or she will probably catch things you would’ve missed!
  7. The course isn’t entirely parks and characters. There were decent stretches of the course where we ran along a major road (or around an enormous parking lot). This is the case with basically every race ever, but it’s good to know going in that you won’t have a consistent view of Magic Kingdom.
  8. You probably want to make sure your costume actually works for running. Not only do you need to be able to move, but you also want to make sure it holds up when you move and sweat, and also, that you won’t overheat. I can’t tell you how many half-costumed people I saw a few miles into the race. We’re in Florida, guys — it’s probably going to get hot. (Unless it’s December, January or February, in which case … it only might get hot.)
  9. The post-race atmosphere is unusual. So, I’ve done quite a few races, and I’ve never experienced something like the Disney post-race area. It’s extremely efficient — you finish, get your medal, are herded through to get water and food, and you are not allowed to move backward. Nope, not even if your friend is still back there. You have to keep moving forward. They have spots where they take your photo, and then — you guessed it — you keep on moving. Pick up your checked gear, and get on out. At that point, you can meet up with any spectators who came to watch you cross the finish line. (Also worth noting — there weren’t any great spots for spectators to watch the race along the course, so if you’ve got a non-racer with you, they might want to sleep in and just ride straight to the finish. Another thing some of you might want to be aware of? No beer tent at the end. I checked.)
  10. The hardware? STELLAR. Seriously, this race bling is so, so good. I kinda want to wear my medals like statement necklaces out for dinner and stuff.

So, I know what you’re wondering. Since I was full of both pros and cons in my observations, would I do it again? Yes and no.

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I would do another Disney race weekend with friends who were similarly disposed to taking our time on the course and getting good pictures, as long as the race didn’t take place in the heat of summer. I had a blast hanging out at the pool and hot tub with one friend after the 10k and running the half marathon with another one, and it ended up being an awesome excuse for a girls’ weekend.

I probably would not do one by myself — I certainly don’t mind racing, running or spending time alone, but the Disney race experience is definitely one that’s very much enhanced when shared. And I would make sure the timing was such that I could make a full weekend out of the experience. Circumstances this time around were such that I barely had time to shower before heading to the airport for a long day of travel. I do not recommend that course of action in the least — I think I’m still recovering!

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It’s also worth noting that everyone’s experience is clearly very different. I came away with some lessons learned and a little perspective on what to expect, but basically every single other person I talked to after the race was beyond thrilled and couldn’t wait to do it again. The bus ride back to the resort was absolutely buzzing with talk of which other Disney races people had done and which ones they were planning to do again.

Have you done any Disney races, and if so, was it totally your jam? I can’t help but wonder if I would’ve geeked out more if the race had been, say, Harry Potter-themed. Kristen

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