Tuesday, January 24, 2017

January Half: runDisney and Star Wars

RunDisney may be a cult. That may not be a bad thing, but it definitely may be a thing.

StarWars? Definitely a cult. My membership card says so, right on the back.*

For those unaware, runDisney organizes several Disney themed events, often entire weekends, all focused on running. It brings many, and by “many” I mean metric shit loads, of people to Disney properties for various runs, all of which include running within the Disney parks for some of the race.

I chose, for my first of 12 half-marathons in 2017, the StarWars Half Marathon - The Light Side at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. I wanted 1) a big event to kick off my year and 2) a race that  I could get excited about, and would stay excited about, as I trained for my first half in years.

I certainly got a race I could be excited about. Being a typical, almost trite example of a StarWars fan, I loved the theme. And, thanks to the custom of costumes in RunDisney events, I got to pretend to be Luke Skywalker, in training on Dagobah, with Yoda. In public.

"Uncanny" is the word you're looking for, pretty sure.

I also got a big event. The half on Sunday had 12,400 finishers. The weekend also included a 5K on Friday and a Saturday 10K as well as the “Rebel’s Challenge”, which requires runners to complete the 10K and the Half. For this accomplishment, they get a special medal, along with medals from the individual races. And that might be where the problems start...

Before I get too philosophical, let me state straight up… the StarWars Half-Marathon was a great event. There were some Disney touches, Disney moments that I’d just never get anywhere else.

The expo was decent sized with the usual suspects of vendors selling an equal mix of necessities and crappy gizmos, and there was an equal-sized Disney/StarWars area, complete with an official merchandise store that itself had managed, minded, down-and back-and-down again Disney-style queues, marked with masking tape on the floor, going in (to manage how many people were in the official merchandise area), and coming out (so you could wait in line to pay for your official merchandise).

The race-custom bib came with pins, of course… 4 pins… in their own tiny zip-lock bag. Somewhere there was a room full of people sealing up exactly 4 safety pins into individual zip-lock bags. Super nice, though wholly unnecessary, touch. But runDisney doesn’t shy away from unnecessary touches.
Bib, with the zip-lock bag with exactly 4 pins.

On race morning, I walked from my lovely, though a bit farther away than I’d thought, AirBnB to the race, costumed up like a boss...

Starting in Corral J, the last, and largest corral, coupled with use of wave starts, my race didn’t actually start until 6:30. So I wasn’t in a big hurry to get to the race right at the scheduled 5:30 start. When I got on Disney property, I was practically alone, looking a little lost most of the time. At one point, a Disney cast member directed me “Right this way Master Skywalker”.

(long awkward pause while your blogger composes himself)

That was a moment… it raised goosebumps on my arms, sent a tingle down my spine. Go ahead, call me a dork, I don’t care. It was awesome. But that’s what Disney does. They give you those moments, moments that take you out of your normal life, just for a second, and into a magical life. And you kinda love them for it. They’re pretty brilliant that way.

I turned to look back at the cast member after getting my shit together, “Hey man, thanks. And you can call me Luke.”

Anything Disney generally means lots and lots of people, and that leads to people management. RunDisney has a very strict policy toward corral assignment (which seeing the number of people running, and how narrow the course is in the park, I totally get), and, this being my first race longer than 5K in many months, I didn’t have a qualifying “seeding” race. So, that “J” on my bib meant I had to start at the back... the way back… the back of the bus… the back of the last bus kind of back, of lots of lots of people. (Picture to right is from the front of Corral J which vanishes in the distance.) Still, it was a gorgeous morning in southern California with a mass of StarWars geeks and runners… my kinda people.

After a good half-mile walk, I had plenty of opportunity to get to know my corral-mates. The vast majority of people in Corral J were young (20s), lots of couples, lots of family groups, well over half in costume. These folks weren’t the normal last corral people who would be walking the 13.1 miles, perhaps stopping for a coffee along the race course. Most of these were people like me who didn’t have a seed time.
Yoda was pretty chill in Corral J.

Disney rarely leaves you bored, and, as nature abhors a vacuum, Disney abhors silence. The hour until my start passed quickly thanks to the video screens and constant narration/interviews/hype-you-up talk from a couple of MCs. And as every wave took off, it was to the StarWars fanfare. Can you hear the StarWars fanfare too many times? For me, no... It made me smile every time.

Short video of the show before Corral J start

The start was, unsurprisingly, crowded. The route went almost immediately into the park, where the course was narrow. As we wound this way and that, I dodged scores of walkers. There was one group of 5-7 girls who thought it would be a good idea to walk side-by-side holding hands, I guess so they wouldn’t lose each other.  I suppose it worked, but they created a monstrous traffic jam behind them.

The first 4.5 miles was in and around the parks, often behind the scenes (“back stage”). The first real park scene we saw was the spectacular Cars venue Radiator Springs, in California Adventure. The perfectly scaled faux red rock with the backdrop of a just-blue sky from a not-quite-risen sun, was gorgeous. I knew it was fake, but still… it was jaw-dropping.

Radiotor Springs

The rest of the park section was ok. Super crowded, super slow. Lots of convenient restrooms was a huge bonus to which I availed myself (It was a long wait, after all). At several points I passed runners that had stopped and queued up to get a photo taken with a character. You don’t get that a other races. I’ve seen people stop for photos during races… “Yard of Bricks” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Mini, one popular example, but waiting in line… during a race?!? Only at Disney. Oh, and super bonus... I managed to fake out the course marshals to snag a fountain, in Disneyland, during the race!
Mickey's Fountain in Toontown

Exiting the park, it was like any other big city race. City streets blocked off, masses of people moving along them. I was able to speed up a bit, but there seemed to always be people to dodge. And the crowd was quiet… to quiet. I’ve spent time at the back of the pack in large races before, and found lots of chatter and laughs and fun people there. Not this day, though. Not sure why.

My favorite bit of entertainment along the course was a group of Cos-players, people in serious costumes (think Comic-Con) lining the course at about the 8-mile mark. There were a couple dozen Stormtroopers, rebel pilots, a Darth Vader, some Jedi, and a couple cars that had been decked out to look like X-wing fighters.

Once back on Disney property, the finish line was way better than average, and the last quarter-mile or so was again scored by the StarWars theme. Still wasn’t sick of it. At the finish you got your insanely high-quality medal, water, Powerade, and another first for me, an individual, sealed snack box. Somewhere there was a room full of people, mayube next to the room with the safety pin people, packing and sealing an ass-load of snack boxes with excellent post-run snacks.

The post-race entertainment consisting of long lines for more photo ops, and a screen showing the finish line cam, I opted for an early exit, only to find myself having been funneled to the entrance to the parks. Again, Disney is NOT stupid.
I gave Yoda the medal... he earned it.
Back on track, exiting the Disney properties, I heard someone say “Congratulations, Luke!” Glancing over my shoulder, I recognized that that had come from the same cast member who’d made my day by calling me “Master Skywalker” a few hours earlier. Again, Disney deals in moments… moments that make you feel connected, moments that you remember, “magical moments” I would imagine they call them.

It took me a good 15 minutes to find my way back out and on a course to my AirBnB. A shower, and a walk back to the park, and I was happy to pay $119 for a day at Disney. What I didn’t know was that it was a “peak” day at Disney, in no small part thanks to the aforementioned ass-load of runners. The park was packed, claustrophobic at times. Between 11:30a and 5:30p, I made it to 4 rides. I’d hoped to grab some dinner and a beer (celebrating a post-race drinkation from Dryuary), but every restaurant had a long line, every bar was standing room only. With 2 Fast-passes in hand for 9:30p, knowing that, as tired as I was, I’d have no chance making it that late, I walked back to the AirBnB, a little less happy that I’d paid $119… for 4 rides.

Still, a great first half for the year. Disney doesn't mess around. They don’t screw up. But, you pay for all of that attention to detail, maybe more than it’s worth. The registration for the half, including all fees) was $197.21… for a half-marathon. The most expensive half I’ve ever seen, by a factor of 2x. On top of that was air, lodging, food. (Just FYI, my AirBnB, a lovely private suite, was $80/night. I don’t think you can get towels for that in a Disney property hotel).

So... back to runDisney.

These folks put on great events. Unique events that offer experiences you can’t get anywhere else. These events, coupled with the millions of Disney fans, attract countless new runners to our community. But at a tremendous price, monetary and perhaps physically.

RunDisney, like the rest of Disney, is fantastic at creating demand out of thin air. They create a sense of “must have” like no one else. For runDisney, they offer challenges that pair- or triple- or quad-up events. By registering for and completing challenges, you get additional, special medals.

These medals are the “crack” that runDisney deals.

2016 StarWars Half Light Side medals
Early registration for next year’s StarWars half (before fees and taxes) is $185. The 10K is $120. The aforementioned Rebel Challenge, which includes both the half and the 10K, is $330. You pay an ADDITIONAL $25 to complete in two events. I’ve been racing a long time, and I’ve never seen fees higher for combined events than when priced separately. The medal is nice, but not worth $25. And this is the tip of the iceberg.

There is a Coast-to-Coast medal for people who run events in Florida and California, and a special Kessel Run medal (a badass Millennium Falcon) for those who run both StarWars halfs (Light Side and Dark Side), again, in Florida and California. At Disney World there’s the Goofy (Half and Full marathon back-to-back) for $360 and the Dopey (5K, 10K, half, full on consecutive days) for $500. Let that sink in… $500 in race fees is a busy year’s worth of races. (Note also that these events have full sponsorship, meaning more money in the runDisney cash drawer)

2017 Disney Marathon Weekend early registration fees.

People are doing these. People are paying these fees. I saw lots of people wearing multiple medals. And, as these events span nights, many people are spending nights in (expensive) Disney resorts. Again, Disney's really good at generating revenue.

But, there's also this... in the short time I hung around the finish area after the 10K, I saw several people with Rebel Challenge bibs walking with ice on both knees. These same people were very likely on the starting line for the half the next day. They had no business running a half if they were icing knees the day before. They were being driven by a challenge they weren’t prepared for, and by a reward that they were overcharged for, but felt compelled to possess. Disney casts a spell, creates a desire to possess, regardless of cost, like no one else.

I love that runDisney has brought more people into our running community.

I don’t like that they charge insane prices for these events, but they have LOTS of people paying those prices, so who am I to judge them, or begrudge their success.

More importantly, though, I don’t like that runDisney lures these newbie runners into events that could be harmful to their running career. These new runners are entranced by the bling, thanks to the Disney spell, but they don’t know that they aren’t prepared for the challenges.

RunDisney isn’t going anywhere, it’s way too successful, and, frankly, it's doing way more good than ill for our community of runners. Still, a little advice...

To those new runners who have started with runDisney... first, welcome! We're glad to have you as a part of our community. Second, I ask you to run (and volunteer at) some races in your area. Experience the “magic” of your local running community. Further, consider running challenges with great caution. Remember, you get to run in the parks even if you only run one event. And sound knees, and hips, and feet are way more valuable than any medal.

To runDisney, thank you for expanding our running community, but please do so responsibly. I ask that you post cautionary warnings on challenges with recommended weekly training mileage minimums and training programs specific for the challenges. And if a medic is putting ice on a challenge runner’s knees, maybe they advise them to sit out the rest of the challenge.

And, runDisney, as a member of our community, I’d love to see you give back to it. It would be great if you would donate a reasonable portion of your more than ample proceeds to youth running programs, like Girls On The Run. Donating to Back on My Feet, and other running related non-profits would be a nice move, too. Or better yet, use some Disney magic to create a Disney youth running foundation that takes running programs into underserved neighborhoods.

Finally, to not-so-new members of our running community, give runDisney a shot, once. It’s expensive. It’s crowded. It’s fun. It’s extremely well run. And it’ll be the highest quality medal in your collection. But, don’t get addicted to the crack. It’s still just a race. Oh, and be damn sure to have a seed time.

Next up, Gasparilla in Tampa, FL.

Good running,

* In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Star Wars fanboy. I am not a Disney fan, but not a hater either. I get what they do, it's just not something that gets me excited, or even interested, really. Nothing against Disney, or Disney fans... props to The Mouse.