This weekend I did something I never thought I would or really even could. I participated in my first half marathon. The Star Wars Rival Run Half Marathon took place early Sunday April 7, as part of the annual Star Wars run Weekend by runDisney. Although the event combines three things that I love: Disney, Star Wars and fitness, the thought of signing up hadn’t ever really crossed my mind. I have never really been a runner, but since all the pieces are there and my fiancé Kim, asked nicely, I decided to try and run the half marathon with her this year.
The weekend begins on Thursday with the Health & Fitness Expo at ESPN Wide World of Sports. The expo continues through the weekend until Saturday night. The event really takes over the Wide World of Sports and the kids’ races even take place there on the fields. The expo is open to the public but is really a pre-race hype event. Star Wars music, themed snacks, and photo opportunities create a sense of excitement before anyone even begins to run. Runners get a chance to see the weekend’s and other upcoming runDisney medals, buy commemorative specific merchandise and get their running bibs and race shirts. For this weekend, there was a 5k on Friday, a 10k on Saturday and the half marathon on Sunday. There was also additional medals including one for running a virtual half marathon as well as The Rival Run Challenge medal for running the 10k and half marathon back to back.
The expo is also a full on health and fitness convention. There are about fifty booths representing major companies such as Otterbox and fitness brands such as KT TAPE selling equipment. There’s essentially everything you could need for a run from headphones to running shoes available for purchase. There are also experts doing health screenings and speaking in panels throughout each day. I didn’t go to the expo until Saturday morning, but once I did I once teeming with energy and anticipation for my first official race.
I began my training about 2 months before the run. I focused on running more frequently and finding my rhythm. I tailored my strength training as well to enhance my running. I added some extra leg work including hip strengthening exercises and more core focus including balance training. I found the focus with a purpose and end goal to be surprisingly motivational. I enjoyed changing up my workouts for a while and doing something different. I also made sure to actually run a practice half marathon before showing up for race day. This isn’t necessary or recommended for everyone though. I did complete my practice half and enjoyed the experience, although I had some equipment issues tracking the run.
A few days before the race, I began carb loading. This is where you eat about double your normal carbs in preparation for the expenditure you will have during the race. This can help you feel fresh and not run out of energy in the middle of the run. During the few days before the race, I found that I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I haven’t really carb loaded before and my diet is pretty much the same every week. I also haven’t run a half marathon before, so somewhere between those two changes, I didn’t get very much rest.
The day before the race, I laid down to go to sleep around 6 pm. Then I got up around 2:30 am with the race starting at 5:30 am. I had a carb-heavy breakfast, grabbed all my gear for the race and plans afterward and headed to Disney. At 3:30 am there were people all over the place at Disney for the run. We loaded into a bus in the Epcot parking lot where the finish line was and headed to the starting line at the Magic Kingdom parking lot. The bus on the way over was completely full of runners, but was eerily silent and seemed even more so because it was very dark inside and out. It was like everyone else was just as tired as I was; too tired to talk.
At the starting line, there were even more people hanging around preparing to line up for the race. There were about five Star Wars character photo opportunities including Jabba the Hutt and Darth Vader. Luckily the photo ops had approximated wait times listed, but unluckily they were mostly around a sixty-minute wait. Being my first run and having more than an hour to kill, we chose the smallest line and got our picture taken. This was important as it serves as an official “before” picture, so even if I didn’t finish the race at least there’s proof that I tried. Shortly after the picture, they opened up the last stop bathrooms area and corrals for runners to get into place.
This was my chance for a pre-race bathroom stop. I thought this was necessary because I had no idea where there would be bathrooms on the course. There were a lot of porta-potties, but the lines were still fairly long. After this, it was time for some pre-race warming up. There was plenty of space to stretch out on the concrete lot or even go for a warm-up run. The whole experience up to this time had been new to me, but I did have some experience stretching and warming up before my training runs. We had mostly been just standing for the last hour, so it felt good to get warmed up.
There were about 20 minutes till start time, so I found my corral to get in place for the start. My corral was the last to go as I didn’t have any previous races to use as qualifying times. Kim did have a qualifying run so she began a few corrals and many runners ahead of me. The hosts and DJ’s kept us entertained as we counted down to the start. The National Anthem was sung and then the fireworks began as the first corral started. There were close-ups on a big screen of the runners and many costumes as they went by. Once the next group loaded in, a host would speak to one of the runner’s and get a few words from them before their corral started. Unfortunately, the amount of people that run these races forces the last corral to wait through a lot of fireworks and interviews before their start time comes. About forty-five minutes after the first corral started running, my corral, the very last one, started the race.
At this point, it is still completely dark outside, which was unusual for me as I didn’t do any of my training in the dark. Everyone in the corral is crammed together side by side and kind of shuffle/jogs until some space opens up. The race mostly takes place on concrete roads around Disney and the runners are pretty much shoulder to shoulder all the way across them. For those trying to run a little faster, you have to run on the grass beside the road and duck back in once there’s some open road to run on. This got especially hectic during drink stops where volunteers were set up on both sides of the course handing out cups of water and Powerade. I was trying to catch up with Kim, so I was really pushing it and mostly running on the grass. This was frightening and invigorating at the same time. To add to the intensity the course had some really cool effects and scenes setup that would only work in the dark during the beginning miles of the race such as a nighttime battle on Endor.
As I ran, I began to really notice the Star Wars costumes the other runners were wearing such as the Disney Princess Slave Leia mashup group. Being my first half marathon, I was mostly just concerned with being comfortable and finishing the race, so no costume for me. I simply wore a Stormtrooper shirt and Kim wore an Ewok shirt to play into the Rival Run theme. Running alongside the costumes and characters from the films provided plenty to look at during even the plainest parts of the course. I also noticed the lines at the bathroom stops were very long. It wouldn’t be a quick situation, so I was glad that I made sure to stop as close to the start time as I could. There were cool Star Wars character posters at each of the mile markers, but I didn’t stop at any of the early photo ops or mile markers as I planned on stopping together with Kim for some. The race really got interesting for me once we entered Animal Kingdom. The park was obviously empty at this point except for run volunteers; it was quiet and still mostly dark. I ran through an empty Pandora, which was unusual as well as my favorite area DinoLand USA. At the end of the Animal Kingdom portion of the course, I hit the 5-mile marker and spotted Kim.
We ran the rest of the race together. We stopped and took pictures at some of the mile markers like General Grievous and got multiple pictures with various troopers and characters standing along the sides of the course. There were scenes such as the trash compactor from Episode IV or Luke’s encounter with the Wampa, but these had very long lines that not everyone could spare to wait for. We took some other pictures inside the unusually barren Disney parks. Throughout the race, there were Disney photographers taking pictures of runners as they ran. These are available to view later, and for annual passholders like myself, show up directly on my Disney photopass account. As we ran around the World Showcase at Epcot, it was towards the end of the race and parts of the park were already open. The staff from many of the countries were standing along the course waving their countries flags. I thought this was a nice gesture and the last little motivation needed to finish the race.
We crossed the finish line to hundreds of spectators cheering and holding signs. My fiance reminded me to smile as the Disney photographers make sure to get a photo of everyone as they cross the finish. It felt good to know I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. Once you finish the race the real fun starts. Immediately upon crossing, I received my first Star Wars themed medal for finishing. Shortly after, I was handed drinks and a box of snacks to eat that every runner receives after a Disney run. Then we headed over to a few more post-race photo ops with Star Wars scenes and characters. Around this time, I stopped to do some post-race stretching to aid in my post-race walking and recovery. Lastly was a trip over to the drink tent to partake in a post-race Star Wars themed 13.1 Parsecs beer. For many, this may be the last piece of the event, and I’ll admit I was satisfied with myself and my first run experience.
For me as an annual passholder already at Disney though, it was only 9 am and the day wasn’t nearly over. We changed clothes grabbed our magic bands and headed into the parks wearing our medals. We were walking funny, but it felt great. I definitely felt a sense of pride having survived the run. I also enjoyed all the treats I got to eat in the parks and throughout the rest of the day. I will likely do another half marathon, though I’m not sure when or if it will be at Disney. It’s hard to imagine running the 13.1 miles now without all the fanfare and fantastic scenery, but there will always be the post-run sense of accomplishment to look forward to. I recommend anyone who’s able to, to go out and try it because the payoff is well worth it. Running a half marathon isn’t for everyone, but there are other shorter races that work just as well, and with some training and dedication you’d be surprised what you can achieve.