Wookiees, TaunTauns, and Rebels, oh my!by Lorree Tachell, contributing writer
Having participated in Disney running events since 2006, I can honestly say that the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend, held in Disneyland last month (January 16 – 18), ranks among the most professional and most fun runDisney race weekends I've ever experienced. It was a mix of movies, costumes, and just plain craziness that will be difficult for other races to beat.
Where’s the popcorn?
Given the large fan base for all things Star Wars, it was no surprise when race registration opened on six months earlier, on June 10, that all the events sold out in under two hours. It was also no surprise that the race expo held at the Disneyland Hotel on Thursday January 15th was just as popular, given the high demand for both Star Wars and runDisney mechandise in general. Perhaps because Disney anticipated this, this time, the expo was highly organized, and even entertaining.
Where in the past, shoppers and racers wanting to pick up their race packets or shop for race merchandise were queued in the Disneyland Hotel underground parking structure, for Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend, Disney finally employed a system it has long used for special events: people were taken upstairs in the Disneyland Hotel, given a color-coded wristband to indicate their arrival time, and escorted to stand in a large ballroom that had been marked with a maze of lines to form Disney's iconic zig-zag queue. On one wall was a large screen showing scenes from The Empire Strikes Back. Ordering and smooth with no pushing or shoving, it was the fastest hour I can remember waiting in a line. Perhaps next year, runDisney can add in the option to purchase a Darth Vader popcorn bucket as well just to complete the true movie experience.
Of course, that was only the beginning of the lines. Once out of this holding pen area, Disney cast members escorted groups of us through the Disneyland Hotel and led us to a second queue along the side of the expo stage. Here, we could see the official merchandise area behind a curtain, and waited another 45 minutes or so. Finally, it was my turn. With a basket in hand, I stepped inside and started to make my selections. Buyers seemed to be gravitating towards both men’s and women’s event jackets, “I did it” shirts, pint glasses, and hats.
Later in the day, I returned to see how merchandise was selling, and with no lines could walk right in. Most of the popular items were either in low supply or were completely sold out (pin sets had already hit eBay with asking prices of over $200). The Star Wars Dooney & Burke purses had moved up from their previous location by packet pickup and were still in plentiful supply (either because Disney provided an overabundant supply, or because the design wasn't the most popular); by day two of the expo, most of the race merchandise was gone and had been replaced by generic Star Wars park T-shirts and pins.
A new challenge for the challengers
For those who had registered for the Rebel Challenge (to run both Saturday' 6.2-mile 10K, and Sunday's 13.1-mile half-marathon), Disney used a relatively new process to help curb the "sharing" of challenges (where one person runs first race and a second runs the second). All challenge participants were required, as soon as they had picked up their racing numbers, to stop to have their photo taken at packet pickup. In addition, those who in the previous week had run either the half-marathon or marathon (or both, in my base, since I had just completed the Goofy Challenge) during Walt Disney World Marathon weekend, were given a yellow wristband to earn their Coast-to-Coast medal for completing a race on both coasts in a calendar year. I got both my mug shot and wristband, and I was ready. If my knees held up and everything went according to plan, the bonus medals would be coming home with me on Sunday.
Quite the early morning party
Friday morning, an estimated 5,000 participants gathered on Disneyland Drive for the inaugural Star Wars 5K. It seemed that just about everyone was in some sort of Star Wars costume for this 3.1-mile fun run; on my left was Princess Leia (complete with hair buns) and to my right, Chewbacca. Further back In the pack were very impressive Tie Fighters and X-Wings. Bounty hunters wandered through the crowd and rebel spies were also seen lurking in the dark of the morning.
I was in corral A, which meant I could enjoy short Star Wars movie clips on the big screen that spanned from one side of the road to the other. Things got a little odd as the now-famous “Luke, I am your father” scene played when the Princess Leia standing next to me started yelling “Daddy, I love you!” and waving up at the screen. At that point, I moved a bit closer to the stage and turned my attention to runDisney race announcers Rudy and Carissa who were joined on the stage by R2D2 and C3PO. At 5:30 a.m., with the Star Wars theme song playing and the iconic story scroll telling of our upcoming journey against the evil galactic empire, we were off.
The 5K course ran through both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure parks where Storm Troopers, Darth Vader, and Chewbacca were waiting to pose for pictures. We ran down Main Street and across the front of the park on the esplanade, where cheering family members and spectators greeted us. To the sound of Darth Vader’s breathing, we went down the tunnel between the two parks and emerged over in DCA. There was a quick run-through of Cars Land, and then it was off through Downtown Disney to the finish line, where we received the traditional finisher’s rubber medal. The first of three races was complete!
It’s not everyday you see this
Bright and early Saturday morning, we again trooped down to the start area on Disneyland Drive. This time, it was for the inaugural Star Wars 10K. For this event, I was in corral B. And while I didn’t have the same stage access as the previous morning, I could again enjoy famous clips from the Star Wars movies as well as the preview of the new movie coming in December 2015, which got a huge cheer from the crowd. As with the 5K, we were treated to R2D2 and C3PO on stage. They helped start the race along with a new scroll telling of a dark time for the runners as we were about to embark on an inaugural adventure through magical lands. With a leap into hyperspace, we were off.
We again ran down Disneyland Drive but for this race, we passed mile 1 on Harbor Boulevard and entered the park through the main gates. We ran up Main Street, through Frontierland and Tomorrowland, and out in the back areas behind the park, where the trains were blowing steam as they readied for the day. Along the way, I passed a runner "riding" an inflatable TaunTaun. While texting. Yup, you don’t see that everyday.
We again crossed the esplanade and entered DCA, running up Buena Vista Avenue, past the Tower of Terror onto Paradise Pier, through Cars Land where the sun was just starting to rise on Cadillac Ridge, and out to the finish by the Disneyland Hotel. The silver Storm Trooper 10K medals were gleaming in the early morning light, and race two of the weekend was done. The remainder of the day was spent with friends in the parks, including a ride on Star Tours (where, yes, I was the rebel spy).
May the Force be with us
Sunday morning brought the final early morning alarm of the weekend (thank heavens) and for the last time, we headed off towards Disneyland Drive. This time it was for the big event: the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon. As with the previous two days, we were treated to movie clips prior to the race start and even had a quick display of a Jedi Master taking on Darth Vader.
The half-marathon courses held in Disneyland all differ, and the Star Wars Half Marathon is perhaps the fastest and the flattest of them all. After a quick out on Disneyland Drive, we got a behind-the-scenes look through the Disney corporate area before entering Disneyland, where we ran through the castle and down Main Street on our way to DCA. The lines for character photos were easily 30 to 45 minutes long, and those who started in the later corrals had to be careful not to stay too long or they would be playing catch-up to stay ahead of the "Balloon Ladies"—16-minutes-per-mile pacers who provide a visual mark behind which you risk being "swept" off the course for not meeting pacing requirements.
Once we left DCA, we ran south on Harbor Boulevard, where we were treated to the most amazing sunrise. We eventually wound through some of the surrounding residential areas. Team MousePlanet was out again handing out "candy from strangers" of Red Vine licorice they are known for, providing a wonderful treat and boost of energy.
Around mile eight, the elaborate costumes of the 501st Legion cosplayers were on full display and for most of that mile, we were treated to an incredible cheering squad. Darth Vader, a line of dancing bounty hunters, Han Solo and Princess Leia, Queen Amidala, and Imperial Guards were just a few of the amazing Star Wars characters lining the street.
We eventually made our way back to Harbor Boulevard, where we went north heading back to the parks. With a left turn on Katella Avenue and a right turn by Jabba the Hut, we were just half a mile from the finish in the Lilo parking lot. At the finish line, we were greeted by cheering spectators and awarded the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon finisher’s medal, which was a replica of the Medal of Yavin given to Luke and Han Solo for bravery at the end of the first Star Wars movie. Photos were confirmed for the Rebel Challenge medal and wristbands were removed and exchanged for the Coast-to-Coast medal.
And with that, the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend was complete. As always, big thanks go out to all the volunteers who make these races so very special. And a thank you goes out as well to both runDisney and LucasFilms for partnering and creating such an incredible race weekend. I can’t wait to come back again next year!