Racing in Costumeby Lani Teshima, staff writer
Part of what makes runDisney races spirited and fun are the many costumes and themed outfits you see on the course. If you've been a participant or spectator at runDisney races in the past few years, chances are you've started to see some pretty elaborate costumes on the course.
One particular runner, Karen Chu, has made her mark at runDisney races with some amazing costumes (and is a MouseAdventure player to boot!). Some of the more notable "did you see that?!" outfits she's crafted include a Disneyland ticket book, a human-sized churro, and Fredzilla from Big Hero 6.
I recently had a chance to talk to Karen to find out more about this costumed wonder.
Karen Chu turned quite a few heads during the 2015 Disneyland 10K as she ran the entire course dressed as a larger-than-life churro. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
LT: Tell me a little about yourself:
I've been working in the video game industry since I was 18. Currently, I work at a company called Twitch. I'm a mead brewer, a MouseAdventure player, a mini-pig and rottweiler mom, and Orange Bird enthusiast. I play pub trivia every single week for the last seven years, love reading about animal reproduction and mercury poisoning on Wikipedia, and even started a trivia podcast show called "Good Job, Brain!" that is currently going to be turned into a book. And I run races in elaborate costumes because, why not. Also, I am scared of moths.
Karen Chu, wearing black, blends into the background so the attention focuses on Eve, from "WALL-E" for the 2015 Tinker Bell 10K held at Disneyland. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
LT: Tell me a little about your running:
I started running when I was in my last year in college in 2004. I only had a few classes and had a lot of free time. If there's anything anyone needs to know about me, it's that I get bored very easily. I constantly need to do stuff. Make stuff. Create stuff. Learn about stuff. So with a lot of free time on a college student's budget, I started running/walking around the block in my hood.
I didn't know anything about running, I just went out and would run for a block, walk for a block. I didn't wear the right shoes! I would wear my skater Vans because well, they seemed "athletic."
(Also, I was really unhealthy back then before running. I've always been athletic but after four years of college in a super competitive program, and in a super competitive school, my body was a hot mess. I was at my heaviest at over 200 pounds, I smoked a pack of Camel Lights a day, and would gulp down energy drinks as if it was water.)
It wasn't until 2011 that I registered for my first in-person big boy race. Racing seems really intimidating: the bib pickup, the timing, the expo. But it was going to be in Disney World! So it's like a veiled vacation disguised as a race. I signed up for Princess Half in WDW, and after that race, I immediately signed up for Disneyland Half, where I first dressed up.
Now, I run a race almost every single weekend; from local 5K's to traveling to other places to get my 50 marathons in 50 states. But even with all the different events and races I've been to, I have a soft spot for Tinker Bell Half in Disneyland. Before it moved the May, Tink had that January weekend slot (now occupied by Star Wars Half) where the weather was perfect. I like the local support, the Red Hat ladies, the course through the Anaheim neighborhoods. Not too crowded, and not too much of a glittery explosion that is the Princess Half.
Karen's history of race costumes
LT: Tell me a little about the history of how you started doing race costumes. Are you involved in cosplay like at Comic Con? Or mostly races?
I love the physical challenge of racing, and I love the creative challenge of engineering a running costume. It makes me smile, it makes my fellow runners smile, and it makes onlookers smile.
I want to be not only immersed in but "be a part of" the magic. I get bored easily. So the idea of running—doing the same repetitive movement for hours—is totally mind-numbing to me. The costuming thing was a natural progression because it combines two major aspects of my personality: I like making stuff, and I like to embarrass myself in public. It brought on a new challenge with running. It made me look forward to races rather than getting intimidated by them. The running and racing culture can be pretty serious and hardcore at times, and I just wanted to my race experience to be more enjoyable and less competitive.
The Disneyland Half is when I first started to dress up. I was Russell from Up and had everything: every single patch, the bugle, the backpack, the pennant. Man, I went all out. Even the lanyard pins and kerchief pin.
For her very first runDisney race costume (for the 2011 Disneyland Half Marathon), Karen Chu put together an outfit to look just like Rusell, from the Disney Pixar movie "Up." Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
Even though this was only four years ago, race costumes weren't that prevalent at all. There was one self-conscious moment I so clearly remember: I was on my way to the corrals in Downtown Disney waiting for my sister, no one else was in costume, and it dawned on me and I thought, "I'm dressed up as an 8-year old little Asian boy. What the &@*# am I doing?"
But then we ran through Angels' stadium. And for those who don't know, every year, local scout troops fill up the stadium to cheer on Disneyland Half runners. So when those kids saw me running as Russell, the crowd roared and cheered. "Russell! It's Russell!" Toothy grins and guffaws galore. It was an amazing moment; it just felt very Disney.
I actually don't do cosplay at conventions. I love looking through cosplay photos but it's just not my thing. It's just a different experience. I like the physical aspect of running costumes. I barely even dress up for Halloween nowadays, to be honest.
LT: What are the typical reactions you get at a race when you're in costume?
A lot of smiles, pointing, people yelling "that's awesome!", and the continuous chant of my costume character's name. Lots of energy feeding back and forth. Also, I admit, I run a lot faster when there are more spectators.
LT: What is your best costume to date? Why?
Karen Chu dresses up as Rocket Racoon for the 2015 Avengers Half Marathon, held last month at the Disneyland Resort. For this costume, Karen also made and carried a Baby Groot. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
I think most people like churro and BB-8 the best. I personally like Rocket Racoon, mostly because I really liked the Baby Groot I made along with it.
This series of photos shows the process Karen Chu went through to construct her Baby Groot, which she carried during the 2015 Avengers Half Marathon. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
Even I was surprised how professional that turned out. It went from looking weird and gnarly, made of flesh-toned Sculpey clay snaking around a Saran Wrap tube into a legit prop. The Splash Mountain photo costume was a good one too—it was so interactive with other runners!
Not one to miss an opportunity to try out new characters, Karen Chu dresses up as BB-8, the new robot from the upcoming Star Wars movie, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," for the 2015 Disneyland 10K. And yes, for this particular costume, her arms are confined inside the ball. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu. Image of BB-8 © Lucasfilm.
LT: Do you have any costumes that didn't come out the way you wanted? What went wrong? What did you not like?
I'm a go big or go home kind of person. No half measure for me. So the one that I wasn't really feeling it was the most recent Captain America 10K during Avengers weekend. I had a Captain America-inspired dress thing and it was kind of basic and boring. I've done my share of skimpier race costumes but it's just not really who I am. Again, go big or go home, so I re-wore the oversized foam Fredzilla costume from the 5K.
Spectators and participants alike were amazed to see a life-sized Fredzilla, from "Big Hero 6," running the Disneyland Half Marathon earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
I have a bunch of half-baked ideas and materials for costumes stored in my closet. A lot of them just require me to sit down and plan and engineer accordingly.
Would Karen ever run without a costume?
LT: Would you ever consider running a race without being in costume? What about for a themed race like a runDisney? Have you gone "incognito" without being in a costume?
One day, when making a costume is not fun anymore, that's when I'll stop. There has been a lot of pressure to one-up myself, but I like to see it more as a challenge. I am also very amazed and grateful for the runDisney community.
I started running in costumes to crack myself up and to make the spectators laugh, but I had no idea the amount of attention and following I was getting race after race. Man, especially on Pinterest. That stuff gets bananas. I love seeing what others come up with. I don't sew, so I'm always amazed by the people in the runDisney costume community who turn a flat piece of fabric into a shirt or a dress. Also, I'm a big fan of simple, clever costumes. John Biel wore a sandwich board Star Tours Fastpass costume once and it still just cracks me up to this day.
The costume-making process
LT: Walk me through a sample costume-creation process (for example, come up with idea, design it on paper, look for materials, etc.)
First and foremost, I search for an idea. This is perhaps the most consuming aspect of the whole journey. For me, it's all about being original. I try to go for a costume idea that I haven't seen yet. But at the same time, the costume has to be recognizable and in the general Disney mass cultural consciousness. What good is a full-blown detailed elaborate costume when no one recognizes you or know who you are? So I tend to start with memorable side characters from the big Disney movies.
I also take inspiration from the parks. My all-time favorite costume was this guy at the Disneyland 10K in 2013 who was the guy from Paperman, the Disney short that played before Wreck-It-Ralph. He ran in a full suit with just all these paper planes on him. It was amazing. I like the more offbeat characters.
My general go-to step when making the costume is I always have a pre-made, store-bought base (usually athletic pieces). Then I build and modify accordingly. This is because I'm lazy and don't know how to sew. For Fredzilla, there was no way I was going to make a monster suit from scratch. So I started off with a Katy Perry Left Shark costume. BB-8 was essentially a giant light fixture. Eve was like, a random dog toy attached to a sports bra.
A series of photos shows how Karen Chu converted a "Katy Perry Left Shark" (from last year's Super Bowl Half Time show) into Fredzilla from "Big Hero 6." Karen says that she usually starts with off-the-shelf items and converts them, rather than start completely from scratch, since she does not sew. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
Making a costume is like solving a problem. It reminds me of architecture school projects. There are so many things to be mindful of: how it moves, how heavy it's going to be, if it's going to last 13 miles, if it's going to rain-proof, how am I going to transport it in a suitcase? The latter issue is probably the hardest to get around. Special thanks to my friend Amy who offered to let a few of my oversized costumes hitchhike with her drive down to Disneyland on occasion.
Karen Chu dresses up as a Splash Mountain souvenir photo for the 2015 Walt Disney World 5K. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
I also take advantage of FedEx Office (formerly known as Kinko's) printing and hotel delivery service. If I needed a special print job, like Splash Mountain on foam presentation board, I would submit the design online and then have them print it there locally and shipped to the hotel.
Karen Chu shows off her Coast to Coast medal, which she earned in January 2015 after completing the Star Wars Half Marathon (Karen ran the Walt Disney World Half Marathon earlier that same month). She ran the entire race carrying a "tire" that is actually a costume of Max Rebo (a keyboard player from "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi"). Photo by Karen Lui.
With my internal push to come up with original ideas, I'm innovating too. I first experimented with styrofoam puppet-based costume with my Max Rebo at Star Wars Half, which then led to my kinetic Eve costume with moveable arms for another race later. And after I realized how easy it was to make foam board costumes like Splash Mountain, I replicated the process with the retro Disneyland ticket book costume. I might not duplicate my costumes but I definitely do duplicate the fabrication process.
These photos show the process in which a ball was turned into the BB-8 robot for Karen Chu's 2015 Disneyland 10K costume. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
How is Karen able to run in the costumes?
LT: Do you limit yourself based on the physical restrictiveness of some outfits? Like 5Ks for elaborate costumes? You're also a fast runner. I think people are surprised to find that you can actually run fast and be in costume. Do you adjust your costume to make sure you can still run at a relatively normal pace?
Race distance definitely come into play when deciding on costumes. I save the more uncomfortable or elaborate ones for shorter distances like 5K and I leave the more minimal outfits for marathons.
Hahhaha, I’m a pretty average runner with a pretty average race pace. But I’m extremely flattered that you think I’m fast! As a general rule, I make sure I can run in the costume. Sure, I’ll stop for photos with characters but it’s a race after all, and I want to run. The costume ideas always start with running in mind first. My legs have to be able to move freely.
LT: What do you do with the costumes once you've raced in them?
I live to make stuff. So it's all about the journey from start to finish; about how to solve a problem and what I did to come up with the solution that is the end product. So to be honest, after each race, I trash the costume. What's rewarding to me is the process, and not so much of the end product. Also, these things take up so much space! It's all sweat-soaked and gross! And I'm really not a "stuff person" so special shoutout to the Disney Resorts housekeeping team who have to deal with all the costumes I leave behind. The Grand Californian Hotel has a nice Karen's costume graveyard.
Karen's tips for costume racers
Know your comfort level. I am fortunate enough to have a high tolerance for physical discomfort, so I know I don't mind running in a full foam suit or having my arms trapped inside a body ball. And have fun! It's a learning experience, and the whole creation process should be enjoyable.
Some small subtle tips that could give your costumes an oomph:
When translating a cartoon character into real-life, proportions come into play, especially around the face. For Rocket at the inaugural Avengers Half, in addition to making raccoon ears on a headband, I also added some face/fuzz volume to the sides of the headband. Otherwise with just the ears, I just ended up looking like a cat. Raccoons have a wide furry diamond-shaped face. Same thing with Roger Rabbit, I added extra fuzz to the side of my face. So keep note of proportions and sizes of tails, ears, and accessories.
This series of photos shows the process Karen Chu went through to construct her Eve costume (from "WALL-E"). Karen wore the costume for the 2015 Disneyland 10K race. Photo courtesy of Karen Chu.
I feel like a drastically different hair color sometimes can break the overall costume look. I wore a wig once for Gadget. It was the last Expedition Everest, and it was the last time I'll ever wear a wig. Some people don't mind wigs but it's borderline torture for me. Maybe I just have a hot head.
If you can't find the right basic athletic pieces or tech shirts for your costume (whether if it's the cut or the color), try golf apparel since most modern golf clothes are made of moisture-wicking fabrics.
Iron-on fabric decals
Become friends with printable shirt decals if you have a printer at home. They're available in two types: for light fabrics, and for dark fabrics. If you're good with Photoshop, then this will save you a lot of time and money to make your own shirt designs.
Things I can't live without
- Glue gun
- U-Glu solid adhesive
- Velcro with sticky back
- Joann's coupon page with deals everyday.
But most importantly, costumes are supposed to make you and the runners and spectators around you happy. It shouldn't be a stressful experience either making a costume or running in one. At the end of the day, the race is your own event and achievement. So do what gives you the most joy!
Want to see more of Karen's race costumes? You can see more photos at her website, My Running Costumes.
Great article! I've seen (and been passed) by Karen at several runDisney races. She never fails to impress with her creativity.