Race Report: Disney/Star Wars Dark Side Challenge

April 15-17, 2016
Orlando, FL
Half Marathon #26
Events #95-97

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“2:21 am. In a shuttle with all my running essentials. Bib…check. Timing chip…check. Running belt…check. Garmin…check. Magic Band…check. Lightsaber…check. The list of running essentials is a little different at Disney…”
-FB post on Half Marathon morning

To me, Disney events are “experiences”, not races. With all sorts of photo stops and other distractions on the course, speed and finish time is a secondary consideration. As long as I am fast enough to not get swept, I’m happy,

The theme again was “Star Wars”. In case you haven’t noticed, I am a bit of a geek about all things Star Wars. That said, this will be my last trip to the House of Mouse. I have reached my saturation point with Disney…grateful for my experiences with no compelling desire for any more.
Registration:

Just registering for Disney events is a huge challenge. The events are very popular, and can sell out in minutes. I have heard many stories of people trying to register the moment the tickets went on sale…and they still could not get in. I was already registered for the Star Wars Disneyland races for 2016 when the WDW races were announced. They also announced a special coast to coast award for anyone running both in the same year. If I were to run both, I wanted that extra medal. The other motivating factor to sign up this yeas was that my speed had vanished in the past 18 months. I could still use some of my faster times from my 2014 season to guarantee me preferred coral placement. However, another Disney trip would be a significant expense that was NOT in the budget (Disney is very skilled at separating cash from their legal owners). With strong spousal support (thanks dear!) we sorted out a way to make it work…if I could get registered. Fortunately, there are a lot of Disney fans who are runners and there are a lot of Facebook groups out there of runDisney fans. I belong to several, and one group has set themselves up as an official runDisney travel group who can secure tickets in advance. I put in my requests and got everything I wanted. I then had to find hotels (at WDW, it is worthwhile to stay on property since nothing outside the parks is in walking distance, and there are free shuttles from all Disney resorts to and from the start/finish lines). After all that, I had to figure out “Magic Bands” for the first time. These bands are attached to your wrist and have a computer chip in them. They are linked to your credit card (allowing for easy purchases on site), are used as a room key, serve as your park admission tickets, and you can reserve dining and attraction FastPasses. Setting it up, downloading the app, and figuring my park itinerary months in advance took a lot of work (but, it did make life easier once I reached the parks).

July 14 – Expo

Straight off the plane, I headed to the expo.

Disney had lost my bib.

They had my info, my registration, and my bib number, but no bib. Took about 30 minutes to straighten out. Got a new bib (still in coral A), my 4 shirts (cotton shirt for 5k, tech shirt for 10k, HM, and “Dark Side” challenge). Once that had been sorted out, I headed to the expo. It was a decent size, but nothing overwhelming. There was a wait to get into the official merchandise area, and some things had already sold out (early afternoon on the first day!) Fortunately, my needs were modest. I wanted an official event cotton t-shirt, a few commemorative pins and I was set (I would have bought a hoodie too, but they didn’t make any for a race in Florida). Once that was done, I went to Downtown Disney to shop and eat before turning in for the night.
Ride Photos.

Disney decided to stop outsourcing race photos for the first time. They do a very lucrative business taking guest photos at their parks and the race photos got bundled with those plans. So, for one fee, I got photos from all the races, all my ride photos and park character meet and greets. I’ll be spacing them throughout the race report. I’ll start with a few ride pics…

Test Track:

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Space Mountain:

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Seven Dwarves Mine Ride:

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Tower of Terror:

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Expedition Everest:

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Aerosmith Rock and Roll Coaster:

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April 15 – Dark Side 5k

The race started at 6am. The shuttles started rolling at 4am. I was up at 2:30am. Sometimes they have some cool things to do while waiting for the race to start. This event did not disappoint. They had set up 8 character meet and greets/photo ops with detailed backdrops. The mini-sets included Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt, Darth Maul, Darth Vader, Captain Phasma, BB-8, Raptors (those tentacle monsters from Force Awakens), and Stormtroopers. With the lighter crowds at the 5k, and getting there early, I got through every line except BB-8. I’ll share highlights of each a little later. But I did spend as much time as I could at the photo ops before racing over to the starting lines.

The 5k course is pretty simple, and always the same at WDW. We start in the EPCOT parking lot, run for a mile outside the periphery of the park (to spread us out a little) before entering World Showcase and doing a lap. We then run through Future World and exit again…finishing in the parking area. The run through the park was great! Very scenic, lots of photographers, and just a few character photos (R2-D2, Chewbacca, Rebels, Stormtroopers, and a scenic shot of Spaceship Earth. The race wasn’t timed, and the lines at the photo ops were short (well, shorter then I expected them to be during the next couple of days). So I stopped at all of them. Once the fun run was over, I headed to the Magic Kingdom (mostly to check out the Seven Dwarves Mine Ride Coaster) before heading to Hollywood Studios and checking out the Star Wars themed attractions.

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In Park Character Meet and Greets:

Hollywood Studies has two Star Wars characters for meet and greet photo ops. These are Chewbacca and Kylo Ren. Unlike the photos at the races, there are not rushed. The actor stays in character and multiple photos are taken. Here’s a few highlights.

Chewbacca:

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Kylo Ren:

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April 16 – Tie Fighter 10k.

Race started at 5:30 am. Shuttles started at 3:00 am. I was on the first shuttle again, jogged to the meet and greets…to find that some of the lines were already cut off! I did get a couple, but the lines (and the crowds) were much worse today. The starting line was not in a parking lot, but on a closed highway. There were still 6 corals, but they were much larger. This race was point to point. It started outside of EPCOT, did a very short run from one side of the park to the other (no park tour today), followed by a run through a shopping/resort district on out way to Hollywood Studios. We had a nice run through there before the boring highway stretch to ESPN Sports Complex. Same characters as the previous day (much longer lines-45 minutes for Chewbacca) so I passed on most of them. They did have an Emperors chair set (from Return of the Jedi) that you could sit in (pretty cool) and speeder bikes, and a scenic shot at Tower of Terror. But, overall, kind of disappointing. They had moved all the starting line characters to the finish, and I had time to get several more photos. After that, I headed to the other two parks. Expedition Everest alone is worth the price of admission to Animal Kingdom. EPCOT disappointed. Future World has a retro-future charm that reminded me of The Jetsons. The 3 rides I wanted to see was Soaring (closed for refurbishment), Test Track (easily the worst coaster I have even been on…and basically an ad for Chevy), and Mission Space (retro dull flight simulator). However, there was a food and garden show going on in EPCOT where there were several food trucks with very good tapas style appetizers and deserts. I basically just ate my way through World Showcase. I headed back to the hotel early. The next day would be insanely early (even by my standards) and I had to get packed. I could not get a late checkout and time might be a little tight after tomorrow’s half marathon.

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Pre/Post Race Character Photos

I discussed this above. Some photos came out pretty good. Some didn’t. Here are the highlights.

Raptor:

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Stormtroopers:

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BB-8:

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Captain Phasma:

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Darth Maul:

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Jabba The Hutt:

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Boba Fett:

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Darth Vader:

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April 17 – Dark Side Half Marathon

I was up at 1:00 am. Shuttles started at 2:30, and I was on the first. Surprisingly, the lines were better. I got through Vader again, as well as Boba Fett. After that, I did not have time for a third. The crowd was bigger (12 corals today). Fortunately, I was able to use my 1:44 Half Marathon time from two years ago to get me front corral placement all weekend long (1:51 half marathon time or better was needed). Again, I counted on that preferred start to get me to the photos before the lines got crazy. It worked at the 5k, but not at the 10k. The course would follow yesterday’s 10k route until after Hollywood Studios. Then, it would take a long detour to Animal Kingdom before routing us back to ESPN. I figured that the first two photo ops would be the same as before (R2 and Chewie). I was satisfied with the photos I had of them and made the strategic plan to skip them and only wait in line for “new” characters. Surprisingly, R2’s line was short (shorter then the 5k). I could not pass that up. Then, Chewie’s was short as well, so I stopped yet again. I had lingered in line long enough by then that the course was much more crowded. Hollywood Studies had a big stage with Kylo and some Stormtroopers (stopped again). The road to Animal Kingdon was long and dull, once there, we did a big lap around the parking lot before entering the park. There were mini sets of the Trash Compactor and Wampa cave, Stormtroopers were on patrol, and scenic stops of “Everest” and the “Tree of Life” (stop, stop, stop), before the last stretch back to ESPN. When I got there, I received FOUR finishers medals (Half Marathon, Dark Side Challenge (finishing the 10k and Half Marathon during the same weekend), Kessel Run Challenge (finishing the Star Wars Half Marathon at both DisneyLand as well as Walt Disney World in the same calendar year), and Coast to Coast Challenge (finishing any Half Marathon in both parks during the same year). I snagged a couple more photos before leaving.

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What The Heck, This Is A Race Report, So Here’s A Few Words About The Actual Running…

I was undertrained (a 5k training run once or twice a week since October) and I felt it. I was very slow and not very motivated. Despite the character stops, my finish times were awful. I was having pain in my big toe (never had that before, and it would just randomly come and go), both ankles (chronic issue, and getting worse), and my left knee was feeling modestly unstable. Hamstrings were tight by the final race. Fortunately, I had a head start and a generous amount of time to finish…so I was never at risk of being swept. The weather was great for the 5k and the half, but very muggy for the 10k. I did a lot of walk breaks beyond the photo stops and aid stations. The aid stations were plentiful, and Disney did a good job keeping up entertained. If you are a Star Wars fan, this is a great event and I would recommend it highly. My finish times are awful, but here they are…

5K – no idea-it was untimed and I forgot to stop my Garmin

10k – 1:14:30
3341/12169

Half Marathon – 3:03:46
10423/18171
Final Thoughts:

So, was the event worth it? Mostly yes…but I am a runner and a diehard Star Wars fan, who also loves Disney…so it hit all the right nerd notes for me. However, the California and Florida experience were quite similar (WDW did a great job having a lot of character experiences off the course so the lines would not be cut off and people would not get swept simply for stopping for photos…but I expect DL to incorporate that opportunity next year). I really enjoyed it, but a more casual fan should be fine with either DL or WDW event. Running all the races at a weekend does allow more opportunities for character and running photos, and I would recommend doing so to most participants. The 5k (being untimed, and much less crowded) provides a great opportunity to do the Disney experience. Then, the more serious runners can just run the timed events and ignore the distractions.

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As I stated, I had a great time, but this will be my last big trip for a long time. They are just too expensive, too much stress planning, and too much time away from home. I am driving to Fargo next month for a Half Marathon (3 hour drive and an overnight star at a Super 8). After that, I will be staying a little bit closer to home…

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2 Comments

Filed under Race Reports

2 responses to “Race Report: Disney/Star Wars Dark Side Challenge

  1. You really look like you were having a lot of fun out there! Thanks for the report 😃

    (So is Fargo definitely a HM?)

    Like

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