It seems like just yesterday it was 2009 and the Disney endurance event faithful were on their way to Walt Disney World for the inaugural Disney Princess Half Marathon. But it's 2013 and I'm sitting on a plane heading back to WDW to celebrate the fifth anniversary event. Time does fly!
The weekend couldn't have started better than with a quick 2.9-mile run early Friday morning around Epcot with runDisney Consultant Jeff Galloway and 50 or so fellow runners at the Princess Half meet-up. As a representative of MousePlanet, I spent two hours running and listening to various speakers share their challenges and successes with the audience. From multiple runDisney half marathon winner Rachel Booth and The Biggest Loser winner Ali Vincent to Paralympian April Holmes, the early morning was filled with great stories and inspiration.
With the Princess Half Marathon meet-up concluded, everyone hopped on the bus to Coronado Springs Resort for the expo and packet pick-up. Given the growth of the Princess Half Marathon, the smaller expo venue (which historically is held at the Wide World of Sports), and a policy that disallowed both parking and passenger drop-offs at the Corona Springs for the expo, I had serious fears of what awaited us on our arrival. We had heard rumors earlier in the morning via social media that there were 150 people already waiting in line by 8:00 a.m., an hour before opening. Since we were arriving after the meet-up, I was worried what I would find.
Following the hotel signs at Coronado Springs, we finally located the expo. I was pleasantly surprised by the vast expanse and quietness of the bib pick-up area. The process was swift, and I was relieved that I was in the runDisney system as a "Perfect Princess" as someone who had run each Princess Half Marathon since the inaugural event. With a loud pronouncement at the counter of "I have a Perfect Princess!", I was presented with my tiara and pink Perfect Princess sash. There are only 324 of us in existence, so it was embarrassing but fun to be recognized for the accomplishment.
Unfortunately, this is where the good times ended. I next headed for the runDisney official merchandise area and was met by a very long line of attendees waiting just to get in to the booth. The line, which was barely moving, snaked from the booth entrance around the side and wrapped back toward the front in a messy, conga-line way. The only cast members in sight outside the interior of the booth were those monitoring the entrance and exit doorways. A quick peek inside the booth showed similar conditions of gridlock but worse, almost empty shelves. They can't be sold out of merchandise already—it was only 10:30 in the morning on day one of the expo.
Instead of waiting in line to enter the official merchandise area, I decided to head over to T-shirt pick-up to get that task complete. There, I was met by yet another large cluster of participants who were also not moving anywhere. Yet again, gridlock. The line that formed out of the cluster not only blocked the vendor booths facing the T-shirt pick-up area, but also snaked around the next row of vendor booths and around the corner, blocking anyone who might be interested in talking to a vendor or making a purchase.
Frustrated at this point, I wandered back over to the runDisney merchandise area and caught up with two other Perfect Princesses Rae Mills and Mary Harokopus (as well as Rae's granddaughter Amanda), who were slowly inching their way through the conga line. We shuffled along for close to 30 minutes to get into the area, where we joined the masses browsing the half-empty shelves.
The poor cast members couldn't keep up fast enough with stocking the shelves, and even when they did have merchandise in hand, struggled to get to the displays as the booth crowds were so deep. They were also mobbed when merchandise was spotted, and in one instance, the entire stock in hand was gone before it had a chance to hit the shelves. I heard one poor frustrated cast member exclaim, "They can't already be gone—I just stocked them!" when she noticed a single jacket hanging on a previously full rack. Many of the attendees were reduced to shopping in line" and were picking up discarded race merchandise along the checkout lines to see if they were the right size. I really felt bad for all the cast members and expo volunteers—they just couldn't keep up with demand or the crowds, and many were obviously questioning what they had gotten themselves into. Amanda described the expo experience best as being worse than Black Friday.
So, what is normally a very pleasant two-hour expo and shopping expedition turned into a three-hour nightmare of clusters of lines and wall-to-wall bodies. After taking another 25 minutes in line to pick up my T-shirt, I decided to escape, and left without visiting any of the vendors. I did speak with several of them as we wound our way to the front of the T-shirt pick-up line, and they were all very polite but extremely frustrated in how disorganized the expo was turning out, and the negative impact the lines were having on conducting business—not exactly getting their money's worth from their vendor fees.
Once I escaped the expo, I wandered over to the Magic Kingdom, where I had a chance to decompress and catch up with friends Shelby and Tony Jones. Shelby is another "how many half marathons can I do?" runner and she is generously donating almost all of her collection of finishers medals to Medals4Mettle, a non-profit organization that facilitates the gifting of marathon, half marathon, and triathlon finishers medals (re-ribboned with M4M ribbons) to children and adults fighting debilitating illnesses. As you can imagine, some of the most popular medals are those from runDisney events of which Shelby has quite a few. Over the past couple of years, Shelby has amassed an impressive medal stash but she was happy to see them move on for a new purpose (Shelby donated a total of 50 finishers medals to Medals4Mettle after the weekend, including her recently earned 5th anniversary Princess Half Marathon medal).
After Shelby and Tony headed off to catch a few rides, I made my way to Downtown Disney, where I joined friends Kristen Roberts and Todd Barnash for a carbohydrate dinner at Portobello Italian Restaurant. I met Kristen five years ago during the very first Princess Half Marathon weekend, where she was attempting her first ever (3.1-mile) 5-kilometer event. We shared a lot of great memories of previous runDisney 5Ks over pasta and even discussed the upcoming fifth anniversary Wine & Dine Half Marathon in 2014 as a potential goal for Kristen to attempt. After the craziness of the morning expo, it was wonderful to wind down the day with good food and good friends.
The alarm went off early Saturday morning and I joined 8,000 participants at Epcot for the start of the Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse Royal Family 5K. With the 5K now as big as the first Princess Half Marathon, runDisney has implemented a lettered corral system similar to the half and full marathon to manage the large crowds through the event start. runDisney is also a bit stricter on closing entrance to the corral area before the start, and I arrived with just two minutes to spare (note to self for the future: catch an earlier bus).
Although the 5K course itself hasn't changed much over the years, it is such an joy to run through Epcot during the early morning hours that I think these 5Ks are a must-do. Passing the pavilions in the morning light and without the usual park crowds offers a different perspective on the landscaping and unique architecture of the buildings; it's hard not to continually stop for a closer look. And of course, where else can you see all the great runner costumes?
After finishing the 5K, I joined the spectators in cheering on the participants as they approached the finish line. Santa Claus waved to the crowds as he worked his way to the finish (did you know he runs during the off-season?), children were running in costume with mom and dad, and entire generations of families were crossing the finish line arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand. A very large contingent of Minnie Mouses, all dressed in matching costumes, spanned the entire length of the finish line as they completed their 5K journey. I watched Rae, Mary, and Amanda (as Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle) cross the line for Amanda's first-ever 5K finish, and cheered with Todd as Kristen again completed the 5K. Sure, there were issues with the expo, but this is what the weekend is all about—sharing the joy of running and celebrating as each participant crosses the finish line.
With my perspective well back in hand, I caught up with Rae, Amanda, and Mary at Animal Kingdom's Tusker House restaurant, where we celebrated Amanda's first 5K. As they departed on a safari, I was curious and headed back to the expo to see if conditions had improved. For those seeking runDisney merchandise, the situation was still bleak, with long lines still the norm, but with actual queues set up to manage the crowds.
By Saturday afternoon, most of the branded merchandise such as the Princess race jackets were sold out (although the Dooney & Bourke Princess bags were spotted for sale after the half on Sunday). I was also hearing horror stories from attendees about expo bus delays, long wait lines, and standing-room-only overcrowding; the pre-event experience was really not up to runDisney standards in the least.
Fortunately, the T-shirt line and bib pick-up were relatively quiet, while the vendor booths were hopping. It appeared that many of the Princess participants returned on Saturday to get some shopping done, which was wonderful to see. I joined in the shopping fun and picked up two Nike tech shirts (like I need any more running apparel) and with the Perfect Princess tiara and sash acting as a beacon, I spent quite a bit of time chatting with several first-time half-marathoners who were looking for information and reassurance. I remember the mix of excitement and terror as I approached my first half-marathon in 2006—it's fun to now be on the side of experience.
Saturday night, the MousePlanet team held a meet-and-greet at Pollo Campo at Downtown Disney. After almost a year as a contributing writer, it was wonderful to finally meet many of the MP staff as well as those who read us and enjoy what we do. I was both honored and a bit wowed when one of the "Padders" said he knew my work and always reads my race recaps. For a brief moment, I felt famous—time to celebrate with a Ghirardelli chocolate ice cream cone!
Before I knew it, Sunday morning and the half-marathon were here. I put on my "Perfect Princess – 5 years running" tech shirt, pinned a homemade sign on my back saying "Celebrating…. 55th half marathon, 20th runDisney half marathon, and 5th Princess half marathon" and headed out the door to the buses. With 26,000 runners attempting to get to the start at Epcot, traffic was a bit of a tangle—so much so many of the runners didn't make it in time to get to the Race Retreat prior to moving to the corrals. I took in the sight of hundreds of princesses (and princes) in a sea of tiaras and every color of tulle netting imaginable and remembered this half-marathon is really all about the experience and the fun. I had advised many of the first-timers of that during the weekend; now it was time to remember that for myself.
The morning weather was warm and very, very humid, which if you follow my race reports is my kryptonite. I knew I wouldn't be shooting for a personal record this year, so I settled in to enjoy the run and the scenery. The miles quickly ticked off as we passed the pirate ship (with a long queue waiting for a chance to get close to a certain pirate captain) and ran under the Magic Kingdom park entrance. Crowds of spectators greeted us as we made our way to the park with the now-iconic run up Main Street, through Tomorrow Land and out Cinderella's Castle. I thoroughly enjoyed listening as many first-timers encountered the Herald Trumpeters who 'announced' the arrivals at the Castle; the sudden stops accompanied by gasps are always fun. Royal Mickey and Minnie were on hand for pictures just prior to entering the castle, and a large contingent of photographers greeted the runners exiting the castle.
After leaving the Magic Kingdom, we were back on the road heading to Epcot. runDisney held a contest on its Facebook page before the weekend, asking participants to vote for their favorite song to be featured on the course. Last year, Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" was the song of choice (and resulted in a memorable spontaneous sing-along of runners)—this year, with over 5,000 votes cast, Alica Keys' "Girl on Fire" was the winner (it's a great song but not exactly a peppy get-your-feet-moving song). Of course, a variety of Disney and Pixar characters were out along the course on the return trip including Mary Poppins and a group of chimney sweeps, Lilo, and a gaggle of Princes (who yet again had to listen for hours to "I Need a Hero"). Unfortunately, I totally missed the MousePlanet cheer team once again; sorry guys but thank you for being there!
With one final overpass uphill behind us, we headed on a gentle downhill to Epcot. Once in the park, we made a small loop over the bridge between Future World and the World Showcase and headed back by Spaceship Earth. I smiled as I passed the choir just before mile 13. While I'm pretty imperfect in most aspects of my life, at that moment I was just steps away from being a Perfect Princess. I thanked my friends and family who are still with me and those that are with me in spirit only for their support and guidance. I also gave thanks to Thomas, my CSO (Chief Support Officer) who was holding down the fort at home and provides my sanity as I continue on my crazy list of life goals. And with that, I picked up the pace and crossed the finish line for my 55th half-marathon, my 20th runDisney half-marathon, and most importantly, my fifth Princess Half Marathon.
Five years worth of Princess Half Marathon medals; the one of the right is from this year, and is on a special purple lanyard given only to Perfect Princesses; others received a pink ribbon for their 2013 medal. Photo by runDisney.
runDisney should get credit for quickly accommodating race participants whose arrival in WDW was impacted by the Midwest storms, as well as the on-site care given to the half-marathon runners in the high heat/humid conditions. The weekend races themselves were extremely well organized and run. And a big thank you goes out to all the volunteers at the expo and all along both the 5K and half-marathon courses—we could not do what we love to do without you.
On the other side, the hiccups at the expo and with weekend transportation didn't showcase the runDisney organization to its best especially for first-timers. With the continued growth of the weekend events and strong competition from other half-marathons, runDisney needs to step back and put more thought into the total runner experience if they want to continue to grow or even hold steady at current registration levels, especially as event registration creeps up towards the $200 mark.
But as always, time spent with good friends in the parks as well as the Princess Half Meet-Up, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse Royal 5K, and Disney Princess Half Marathon made for yet another memorable weekend in Walt Disney World. I had the chance to talk with a lot of new Princesses and Princes who were taking their first steps at both the 5K and half-marathon distances, and I hope to hear from them on the Team MousePlanet Forum as they continue to return to runDisney events. Amanda completed her first 5K and Kristin continued to add to her 5K medal collection. Rae, Mary, and Shelby all safely finished the half-marathon; Rae even placed third in her age group. These are the happy memories I'm taking from the fifth anniversary Princess Half Marathon weekend. I plan on continuing the streak of Princess Half Marathons for as long as I can and hope you will join me on the journey.
(Send an email to Lorree Tachell)
Lorree is known to her friends as the RunningFool. Of the 50+ half marathons she's run since 2006, over a third have been runDisney events. She is a Disneyland Half Marathon Legacy Runner (meaning she has run it every year since its inauguration), and she looks forward to being a Perfect Princess at the Princess Half Marathon in 2013. Lorree also hopes to continue her legacy / perfect streaks with the Tower of Terror 10 Miler and the Wine & Dine and Tinker Bell Half Marathons as well. In January 2013, she completed her first (and only) full marathon at the 20th Anniversary Walt Disney World Marathon. "Yes, I do love running the Disney parks; there is something very special about a runDisney event."