Long, long (LONG) ago, we ran the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon at Disneyland.
My goal with my race recaps is to provide information to other runners (sometimes too much information), so I wanted to at least make sure I got something up before registration for this race opened for the next year…which happens in a few weeks. So here we go! Disneyland!
(Sidenote: I tried uploading my Garmin activities for the first time since August, but it looks like their platform has completely changed, and no matter what I do, it crashes in the middle of syncing every time. So for the moment, my statistics are being held hostage in my watch. I’m not happy about it).
First, if you are considering doing this race (or any Run Disney race, or even really any race), search facebook for related groups. I belong to a Star Wars Half Marathon group with great admins (e.g., no spammy stuff) and no matter what question came up, someone knew the answer. That group is HERE, but they will look at your public profile to determine that you are a real person who is likely interested in running, Disney, or Star Wars to reduce spam, so be prepared to defend your membership.
Second, this race sells out faster than light speed. Last year, the Rebel Challenge sold out in about 20 minutes. If you want to do this race, know when registration opens (June 16th this year) and be prepared because chances are it won’t be open for long. Annual Pass holders and Disney Vacation Club members do get to register early, but those limited slots fill very fast too. I think they’ve also started some sort of registration “queue” system this year which frustrates the hell out of people, so it will be interesting to see how many strongly worded complaints result from people not getting into the races of their choice.
Anyway, last summer, Run Disney made the momentous announcement that they were adding a Star Wars race to their line-up. With Star Wars, Disneyland, and the chance to escape to Southern California in January, it wasn’t hard to convince my entire family (all adults, no children) that we NEEDED to do this race. As mentioned in previous blog posts, Aaron and I went in with 3 long runs under our belts, hoping our marathon base from August would be enough to propel us through 13 galactic miles, but we were also prepared to enjoy running this race for fun in costumes without a time goal.
We flew into LA on Thursday morning and spent the day exploring Brentwood and The Getty Museum before making the torturous drive down to Anaheim. LA, I love you, but your traffic is enough to drive someone to madness. There is a much closer airport to Disneyland called Orange County Airport (SNA) with a pretty efficient shuttle system that takes you to the resort area, but the prices for us to fly to LAX were cheaper. It is nice to have those two options. Depending on your hotel, you may be able to get transportation from LAX to Anaheim, but a taxi fare will run up pretty high since it can take about 2 hours during peak traffic times (as we found out).
The Star Wars Half Marathon consists of 3 events that take place on different days: a 5-K on Friday, a 10-K on Saturday, and a half marathon on Sunday in addition to the Rebel Challenge which just means that you run both the 10K and the Half (you get a special medal for completing both races) and kids races broken down by mobility sophistication. Additionally, if you run a half marathon at Disneyland and a Half (or full) at Disney World in the same calendar year, you get a special Coast to Coast medal.
The most ideal hotels (cheap, nice, and within walking distance) sell out quickly, and most people suggest reserving before registration even opens to ensure that you get the one you want. I was advised to stay at the Best Western Plus Stovalls by Jac, but when we were looking at hotels, a few weeks after registration, it was fully booked. This is probably the closest non-Disney hotel to the start line, and it gets pretty good reviews on Trip Advisor, and we are considering it for next year. We stayed at The Hotel Indigo (the boutique version of Holiday Inn). It was close enough for us to walk, but there are definitely closer options. Overall it was a great/reasonably priced hotel.
The expo opens on Thursday and runs until Saturday, and apparently it is quite the stampede to get to the official merchandise area when it opens. Each race has limited race-specific merchandise and some items, like pint glasses and hats go within minutes. Other items like race-specific Dooney and Bourke purses and special Disney themed New Balance running shoes can be ordered in advance. If you want specialized merchandise, plan to get to the expo when it opens.
The Expo is held at the Disneyland Hotel, and there were plenty of signs directing the way. Packet Pick-Up is in what I think to be an underground parking garage. We went on Thursday night, and there were almost no crowds. I had to make changes to both of our birthdays because I’d entered them incorrectly at registration (because it is a stressful process), and it was very easy. If you are a runner, you can also purchase discounted Disneyland tickets through GET travel (a third party travel agency), and those were also available at packet pick-up which was very convenient.
The actual commercial part of the expo and t-shirt pick-up was held upstairs in the hotel. Truthfully, I found it to be less than impressive. Unless you like sparkle skirts or fancy medal holders (I kinda don’t), there wasn’t a whole lot available. They did have a race merchandise section, but nothing caught our fancy. Disney’s apparel sponsor is Champion which I think is disappointing considering the price point of these races.
We did have a hobbit sighting (also known as Rudy and the roider brother from 50 First Dates). Sean Astin is a RunDisney ambassador so he does a lot of the Expo talks and runs the races.
We spent the next two days at the parks and exploring beaches and meeting up with my college friends. Saturday morning we spectated the 10-K which my sister ran. We set up camp right at Disneyland Drive in front of the Paradise Pier Hotel which was a prime viewing location. I think it’s maybe mile 5.5 of the race, so most of the runners are spread out enough to spot anyone with ease. I was completely impressed with how organized Disney kept the spectators (they have a system in place to get people to cross the street that you see below without disrupting the course which I COULD NOT get over). And the costumes were just flat out incredible. The amount of time people put into this stuff is really pretty impressive.
I made all of our dining reservations about 3 months in advance when they opened. If you plan on eating at sit-down restaurants at the parks (“table service”), making reservations in advance is essential. For our pre-race dinner we ate at Storyteller’s Cafe at the Grand Californian Hotel. It was ok, but not the best pre-race meal that I’ve had. I was kind of hoping they’d have some sort of runner’s special on the menu, but they did not. The restaurant itself was very beautifully themed and decorated.
Disney races start at ungodly hours of the morning to ensure that everyone is out of the parks by the time they open. Our race started at 5:30, so our wake-up time was earlier than I care to remember. We both had homemade costumes (I had Leia buns and a Leia belt made out of poster board that I attached to my fuel belt and Aaron made these ridiculously amazing Yoda ears) that required extra effort. Thank goodness for traveling backwards through time zones.
We left the hotel at about 4:40, and joined thousands of other runners on the walk to the start line including my sister, her husband, and my dad. The start line is right at the Paradise Pier Hotel across from Disney California Adventure. I made the big mistake of bringing a bag to check-in, but bag check-in is about half a mile away at the finish line (TIP: there weren’t any signs pointing toward bag check. Be sure to study the course layout if you are planning on dropping off a bag so you don’t look like a dummy like I did). By the time we walked over there and used the restroom, we were cutting it very close to start time and I was getting visions of having to start at the very back. They say they close the corrals 15 minutes prior to race start, but I’m pretty sure we got there after that. Not the type of stress I’d recommend on race morning.
We were in Corral A (I think anything under a 2 hour half was in Corral A), but because we were so late, we were almost at the back of our corral. They did some sort of cool little routine with Darth Vadar, but I couldn’t see it (and neither could the like 10,000 people behind us). What we did see were the awesome fireworks to signal the start of the race. One of the many magical touches we would experience! And we were off! We did have to do quite a bit of weaving, and it was a bit congested for the first mile or so, but overall, running in Corral A was a great experience.
The first four miles of the race are in the parks. A lot of it is running through backlots and “behind the scenes” type places, but they have so many little touches like giant light reflections on buildings and great cheer sections of employees to make up for the fact that you are running in places not meant to be seen. In the actual parks, many of the rides were lit up and running, making everything very whimsical. We even saw some Storm Troopers riding the carousel!
I attempted several times to run while taking pictures, but that method didn’t actually work.
They had several Star Wars character photo stops in the park, and Aaron and I had decided ahead of time to stop for some pictures. The first couple already had really long lines (TIP: if you are in corral A, try to get to the front for faster picture lines), but we finally stopped for Chewy (about 5-7 minutes), and Storm Troopers (about 2 minutes). I estimate Luke/Leia and Darth Vader to have had 10-15 minute lines at that point. They have a pretty efficient picture taking system to keep things running fast, but the lines build up, and I imagine the further back you start, the worse it is. They also have professional photographers at each of these stops if you want to order fancier versions.
Probably my favorite part of the whole race was turning the corner into Cars Land (my first time ever seeing it actually) with the sunrise in the background. The Cars Land mesa backdrop is so impressive, and I really wished I had stopped to take a picture. I know it isn’t possible at Disneyland with limited space, but I wish more of the race could be in the parks because that is what really makes the price worth it. Seeing Cars Land at sunrise and running through an empty Tomorrowland without getting yelled at? Who else gets to do that?
At about 4 miles, you exit the parks and head into the streets of Anaheim. While the course was flat and accommodating, running through Anaheim wasn’t exactly exciting. Luckily, there were spectators almost the entire way (we found my mom and sister), and they had what seemed like every high school band and cheerleading group in the area performing which was awesome (they were all playing the same Star Wars medley which was appropriate). At one point, we came across a Chewy holding a sign for free hugs. Aaron took advantage! I wish I had a picture of him.
At about mile 8 or 9, an entire block full of “movie accurate” costumed people were cheering on runners (they bowed to me and said “Doing great, Princess!). I don’t know if Disney had invited them or if they just showed up on their own, but it really helped give the otherwise nondescript Anaheim portion of the race some spunk. And I swear the Obi Wan was actually Alec Guinness from the 70’s.
While Aaron was definitely a crowd favorite in his pretty awesome Yoda ears, we saw some other neat and intricate costumes including a Tinker-Darth, Tinker Stormtroopers, Lego Slave Leia, Man Slave Leia (lots of men Leias in general), and a ton of people wearing R2D2 mouse ears.
As far as the actual running went, at about mile 11, I could really feel myself slowing down. Aaron was being a great cheerleader, but I hadn’t really trained for this race, and I could feel my legs tiring out. At about mile 12, you reenter the parks, running behind California Adventure and into the parking lot behind Paradise Pier. The last half mile kind of has you going in a giant circle with changes in direction which I remember thinking was really annoying. But we made it! We crossed hand in hand, finishing in just over 2 hours.
I totally didn’t notice until now, but there is a person on the ground in that photo above? Hope they were ok! (I took this photo after we finished and were walking back to the hotel).
The medals were awesome as expected (Disney is known for it). Coast-to-Coast runners and Rebel Challenge runners can pick up their extra medals after the race. Apparently they are requiring photo verification now to discourage cheaters.
They had finish line photos available and “runner food boxes” which were not that great, but it was nice of them to provide. They had a band playing which helped keep the energy up, and you could hear the announcers as they yelled off finishers. Sean Astin finished just slightly after us, and of course they made a big deal when he crossed.
My mom had tickets for the Cheer Squad, so she had finish line seating in the Grand Stand. She also got to see N’Syncer Joey Fatone finish! If I had passed him, I probably would have yelled out “BYE BYE BYE, JOEY!” because I’m sure he’s never heard that before.
After the race, we walked back to the hotel to get ready for another day at the parks. All of the volunteers get free park entry (as they should), so to say that the park was crowded was an understatement. I haven’t seen it that crowded since pre-Fast Pass days. And I finally put on my big girl pants and rode Tower of Terror for the first time ever. My fears were far worse than it actually was. It was a great ride with a fun back story!
We celebrated our victory with dinner at The Wine Country Trattoria in California Adventure.
OVERALL IMPRESSION: Yes, it is expensive, but it is damn near flawless (except for maybe registration). From the volunteers to the entertainment to the little Disney/Star Wars touches along the course, in no way do I feel like the cost was unjustified, and truthfully, I didn’t hear of any complaints like I normally do for big expensive races. They do adhere to a pretty strict time limit, and my mom said she saw several people get swept early on if they weren’t keeping the minimum pace, but even at that, I didn’t hear people complain because this time limit is very well publicized. The course is flat, and I really think if you are at the front of your corral, it can easily be a PR course if you aren’t stopping for character photos.
Race support was more than adequate. They had a fuel station (I forget which gel company sponsored it), and water/sports drink was well stocked with enthusiastic volunteers. In the park, you are able to use the park bathrooms which I know is a huge perk for some. Crowd support was great during almost the entire race. I think there was more “rock n roll” here than in the actual Rock n Roll races.
You don’t get tickets to Disneyland with the race, BUT you can purchase discounted tickets through GET Travel (all of their info is on the Run Disney website).
I do want to note a couple of things. First, from what I understand, each Disneyland Half Marathon has a different course. For example, a couple of them run through Angel Stadium. I’ve heard multiple people say that this is the best course at Disneyland as far as scenery and flatness, but just because this course is great doesn’t mean that the rest of them are. Also, I think a huge part of the coolness/geekiness of this race revolves around the cult following of Star Wars. While I haven’t run any other Disneyland races, I almost feel like this race in particular had a lot of community support because it was Star Wars related. I’m not sure that a race like Tinkerbell would draw the same funky spectators (or runners) that this race does.
If I do this race again, I think I would stop and take more pictures along the way (and not just try to take them while running). There were so many fun little details and I really enjoyed every second. We ARE planning on doing this race again next year!
Amy Race Details:
Finish time: 2:00:21 (including maybe 7-10 non-running minutes for character photos)
Fuel: Luna Bar pre-race, GU (with caffeine) at the halfway point
Gear: Brooks Adrenaline shoes, CEP calf sleeves, Lululemon Pacesetter skirt, Under Armour racerback (RIDES UP SO MUCH…I don’t recommend), homemade Leia belt attached to a Nathan’s pack (carrying my phone for pictures).
Favorite Moment: Running through Cars Land
Least Favorite Moment: Waiting in line for photos, the twisting course at the very end, almost getting to the start corral too late (my own fault).
Biggest Piece of Advice For Anyone Considering This Race: If you do want to PR, go for it, but remember to look around and enjoy all of the run stuff!