Saturday, July 16, 2016

The magical world of Disney…running!

I am a recreational runner.  For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I run for exercise, I run for health but mostly I run for fun.  I’ve never been one to aim for faster and faster paces or bigger and bigger hills…I like to run comfortably without over-exerting myself, minimizing my risk of injury and enjoying myself while I’m at it (well most days anyways!).  Although a personal best is always a great accomplishment, it's not a priority for me and never my main goal going into a race.

2014 WDW Marathon Medals

Enter Disney races…an opportunity to run a 5k, 10k, half marathon or full marathon (or any combination of these on certain race weekends!) in the most magical place on earth with likeminded runners.  Disney races draw huge crowds year after year with upwards of 40,000 runners on some race weekends and the hefty race fee (up to $200 US) doesn’t seem to deter people from registering.  Two hundred dollars to run a half marathon!?!?!  You must be crazy, many of you are now thinking in your heads…yes I think it’s crazy too but then there’s a part of me that feels like this is such a unique opportunity with such amazing race support that it’s worth every American penny.  So what’s the draw?  Let me share some highlights of my Disney race experiences...not the least of which is the incredible finish line bling.


For Disney fans, running a race through a Disney park is the ultimate experience (and I am a huge Disney fan!).  You get to run through the parks when they are closed to the public, along backstage roads and see Disney in a completely different light. Multitudes of characters and entertainment along the course route provide a welcome distraction and motivation. The generous time limits and huge numbers of short interval runners, like myself, make it a really comfortable experience (well as comfortable as running 13 or 26 miles can be!) with no judgement for your slower pace or your walk breaks.  There is a large proportion of Disney runners that follow the Jeff Galloway walk-run-walk program who are walking every 1-5 minutes.  Don’t get me wrong…there are still plenty of runners who do longer intervals or run straight through but it certainly doesn't seem to be the majority.  Disney commonly sees runners who are too intimidated, scared or embarrassed by their slower pace to sign up for local distance races that draw the faster and more experienced runner.  In discussion with others, I commonly describe it as the perfect race for someone who doesn’t think they can run a half or full marathon. I guarantee you I would never have been able or motivated to run a full marathon had it not been for the Run Disney series.

Disney's Fit for a Princess Health & Fitness Expo,
2012 Princess Half Marathon Weekend
The Disney race experience begins with the Health and Fitness Expo doubling as race kit pick-up.  Hundreds of vendors, both smaller local and larger national companies, display and sell their products, offering up free samples and the ability to try and compare the latest fitness apparel, nutrition products and running gadgets.  A speaker series with celebrity and expert guests offers up seminars on training, nutrition and wellness.  The expo lasts several days and is an event in and of itself not to be missed!
The most common question I get from people who ask about running at Disney is ‘don’t you find it hot running in Florida?’  Well, the majority of Disney races take place during the winter months and they all start in the wee wee hours of the morning to avoid the sun and heat.  Following a 3am wake-up call and a 4am bus ride to the start line, runners assemble in the starting corrals by 5am for a 5:30 start.  Starting corrals are lettered A through to however many corrals are needed for a particular race…in my largest race, the corrals went to the letter P with between 500 and 3000 runners per corral.  There’s music and entertainment at the start line with special appearances by Disney characters.  The atmosphere is energizing and electric and when it’s time to start (because it’s Disney!) each corral gets their own countdown and a fireworks send-off to start the race.

The first several miles are in the dark and along a stretch of highway but just 3 miles in you’ll pass through the gates of the Magic Kingdom.  The view of Cinderella’s castle as you turn the corner on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom (and if you’re fast enough, catching the castle lights at dawn) is absolutely magical.  In the 5 times I’ve run that particular race route, I’ve yet to make it down Main Street without tears streaming down my face (yes I truly am a Disney geek!).  And running through the castle…seriously amazing.  Although there are long stretches of highway between the parks (only about a quarter of a Disney race route is actually run in the parks) the bits in the park are so much fun that you don’t mind the stretches of highway.  Every ¼ of a mile there is something to distract or entertain you from Disney characters to marching bands to acrobats on trampolines.  This has to be one of the only races where it is perfectly acceptable (and encouraged!) to stop running in the middle of a race to line up for a photo with your favorite Disney characters…I waited 25 minutes for the most coveted photo of all…Mickey and Minnie at Cinderella’s castle. 

My one regret however from my 2014 marathon experience (and one of the main reasons I’m going again this coming January) is that I didn’t take the time to ride the Expedition Everest roller coaster in Animal Kingdom during the race.  Yes, you read correctly…stop and ride a roller coaster during the marathon! The Animal Kingdom park is at the half-way point in the marathon route and is open by the time most runners reach it.  Given that you run right past the ride entrance anyways and they let marathon runners skip the line…why wouldn’t you?  I won’t be skipping it this time.  Another highlight for many runners is stopping at the Mexican pavilion in Epcot, less than a mile from the end, to pick up a celebratory margarita to cross the finish line with…perhaps I’ll try that this time around too!

Running at Disney is certainly not everyone's cup of tea but if you're looking for a destination race where the focus is less about pace and more about having fun this is a great series to consider.  Half marathons at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida take you through 2 parks…usually Magic Kingdom and Epcot.  Want the full Disney running experience?  You’ll have to aim for the full marathon which takes you through all 4 Disney parks and the ESPN Wide World of Sports and is held just once a year in January.  Never run a marathon before?  Don’t think you could do it?  Trust me, if it’s on your bucket list to someday run a full marathon this is the one to do.  Yes it’s 26.2 miles (42 km) but it’s by far the most entertaining miles you will ever run.  Interested? Check out, there’s still space available and time to join me in training for the 2017 Disney Marathon.