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Chasing Leia: One Family’s Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend Experience

A family experience on the run at the happiest place on earth.

I don’t dress up for Halloween, and I’ve never worn a costume in a race in my 25 years of running. Yet here I am at 5 a.m. on a cool January morning just outside of Disneyland, nervously fidgeting in the starting chute of the runDisney Star Wars 5K, dressed as Princess Leia in a white cotton sundress, cinnamon-roll buns made out of a wig on the sides of my head.

My equally eager 7-year-old son, Sam, stands next to me in Stormtrooper socks and a Stormtrooper beanie. He’s a runner, and he’s fired up to race. He’s also fired up that the giant screen above the starting line is playing clips from Star Wars, The Force Awakens and the race emcees are quizzing the crowd on character trivia well before the sun begins to brighten the Southern California sky. We’re in a sea of 5,000 runners and walkers lined up for the 5K, standing between a Wookiee and a guy wearing a stuffed Yoda on his back.

I worry that my Leia buns will flop too much as we run, and part of me feels absolutely ridiculous. But, you know, anything for the kids.

Not that traveling from our home in Boulder, Colo., to spend a few days racing and visiting Disneyland in Anaheim is entirely, or even mostly, for the kids.

Having grown up in San Diego, trips to Disneyland have always signified something special—birthdays, other special occasions. I’m a Disney fanatic, but not the pin-collecting, mouse-ear-wearing type. I’m more the Disney-movie-loving, sentimental adult who loves reliving it all through my kids. 

And since running can be selfish, combining a weekend of racing with a trip to Disneyland seemed like a win-win for my family of four.

I signed up for the 5K with my 7-year-old, held Friday morning. My husband, Mark, would run the 10K Saturday morning, and then I’d race the half marathon on Sunday. My 4-year-old son, Ben, turned down the option to run the kids’ sprint or the 5K. He was mostly excited to see Mickey and Pluto, and who can blame him?

Magical Running

Disney first combined running with theme parks in 1994 with the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend. Then in 2010, with the Disney World Marathon Weekend, the Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend, and the Princess Half Marathon Weekend, the company rebranded the series as “runDisney” to expand on what was proving to be a popular formula.

“We realized we were going to go all in,” says Taron Kelley, vice president of Disney Sports. “We’ve turned a lot of Disney fans into runners.”

In 2015, more than 230,000 people participated in one of seven runDisney event weekends. Two new races debut in 2016: the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon Weekend and the Star Wars Half Marathon—The Dark Side (at Walt Disney World in Florida). If the past is any indication—the 2016 Wine & Dine Half Marathon sold out in 34 minutes, and the 2016 Rebel Challenge, which includes the Star Wars 10K and Half Marathon in the same weekend, sold out in 24 minutes—Disney running events will continue on a steep trajectory.

(Jedi) Training

When the gun sounds, my little Storm-trooper and I dash from the starting area, weaving our way to the front of Wave C. We find ourselves chasing a lone male runner up the first and only hill in the dark and are soon directed into Disneyland through a back gate and into the parks, which are all lit up.

I spot a long line of runners standing still and realize that they are waiting to have their picture taken with a character. (It might have been R2D2.) Not Sam and I. The 5K isn’t chip timed, and results aren’t posted online, but we are definitely racing. I started my watch to keep tabs on our pace and record our finishing time. Sam and I forgo the photo op—and all the subsequent photo stations that lined the course. When we run by It’s a Small World, memories flood over me from all the different stages in my life that I’ve been on that ride as we ran farther into Fantasyland and eventually through California Adventure.

I struggle to keep up with Sam’s final kick, and stop my watch at 28:30. A couple we meet in the finishing chute from Buffalo, N.Y., have traveled to all seven of the Disney races in a year. No kids. “This one is my favorite half marathon,” he assures me of the event I’ll be running two days later.

Sam, who’s loving his finisher’s medal, and I find my husband and Ben. We clean up, load snacks in the backpack and head into the parks for a day of walking, standing in lines, enjoying rides, watching parades and seeing 4-year-old Ben light up when giving Pluto a hug. Our day is a far cry from ideal race recovery or a taper, and we’re only getting started.

Something for Dad

My husband, Mark, did not grow up on Disney magic. He’s crowd-adverse and theme park-cynical, but when I told him he got to race a 10K on this trip, it was like tossing Dumbo a bag of peanuts.

His 10K takes place Saturday, a day after the 5K. Since all runDisney races start at 5:30 a.m. in order to get the back of the pack through the parks before opening, it’s the second morning in a row that we get a 4:15 wakeup call. And, since we were staying at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, the wakeup call goes like this: “Good morning! This is Mickey Mouse! Time to wake up! Have a magical day!”

The first morning it was cute. The second, I quickly hang up on Mickey. Mark slips out of the room without waking the boys.

Mark is back by 6:45 a.m. He tells us about his race as we get ready for another day in the parks, and he changes out of his Stance Star Wars socks—one Darth Vader, one Luke Skywalker—that he wore racing. We’d already discussed that you feel more out of place when you don’t wear anything themed at these events.

We’re standing in line for Peter Pan later that day when Mark tells me: “I went between the Force, the Dark Side, the Force, the Dark Side during the race.” He explains that while running the 10K, his version of using the Force was stopping to rub the back of a college kid who was barfing on course. He switched to the Dark Side when he was saying to himself, “Chase down that guy, chase down that guy.”

I ask which made him run faster.

“The Dark Side, for sure,” he says.

May the Force Be with Me

The night before my half marathon, instead of stressing over the race, putting my feet up and eating a healthy dinner, I’m holding Ben awkwardly on my hip so he can see the fireworks show on Main Street. It’s 8:40 p.m., and we just watched an electrical parade. I am caught up in experiencing as much as possible, and keep the kids out for another light show. I’m in bed at 10:30.

“Good Morning, it’s Mickey Mouse!” Ah, #@$%, it’s 4:15 a.m. Again, I awake feeling exhausted. Though, in some ways, I feel like running the half marathon will be the easiest part of the weekend; it’s just me to take care of, with no route decisions to make.

I try not to wake the family as I get dressed. It turns out I did a great job at figuring out park tickets, kids races, hotel, rides, FastPasses, and parade and show schedules, but forgot a color-coordinated race outfit and all my regular race essentials. I put on my purple running shoes, red socks, peach T-shirt, grey shorts, blue long-sleeved shirt, and a trucker hat. They’re my only options. Luckily, I remembered my race bib.

I’m in Wave A based on a predicted race time of sub-1:45 among the 14,000 runners. I try to snake my way up in the masses a bit before the start. At this point, I’m getting a little tired of the Star Wars theme song, standing again in the dark in a sea of costumed runners, but I’m still giddy with the nervous energy I feel before every race.

The gun goes off, and I run a quick half-mile to get out of the pack for some breathing room. I enter the park again and past the first mile marker at 7:05, which is too fast for my current state. I slow down, unsure how I’ll hold up for 13 miles. It’s been years since I’ve run a road half marathon, despite miles on trails, shorter races and longer, slower epics.

I run by the Big Thunder rollercoaster, and am proud of my two boys for going on it the day before, and in California Adventure, I notice just how impressive the “set” of Cars Land is, especially lit up pre-dawn.

The extra-wide streets of Anaheim would otherwise be drab if not for the hordes of locals cheering (even at this hour), including high school bands clamoring cheerfully away. I’m trying to hold 7:30 miles, and am pacing myself off a Princess Leia ahead of me with buns on her head and a long-sleeved white dress to the ground. (She is more committed than my Leia, two days prior.) This Leia is running well, waving to the crowd. I’m impressed and start my own mantra: “Don’t lose Leia.”

I hear an onlooker say, “There’s Darth Maul!” behind me and I expect him to pass so I can check him out, but he never does. I’m a little disappointed.

A runner stops to take a picture with a droid, then catches back up to me. I say something like, “I’m impressed,” and he says, “Yesterday was about performance,” alluding to the 10K. “Today is about magic.”

I had forgotten just how painful a road half marathon can be. My IT band hurts. My hip hurts. I adjust my posture to relieve one or the other. Chugging along mile after mile, I don’t want to let myself down, or the coach I enlisted six weeks prior. I’m out to do my best.

Leia remains the same distance ahead of me. “Hold steady, chase Leia,” I tell myself. But she starts pulling away around mile 10. I can still see her, but she’s off in the distance, more of a hologram than a real person.

At roughly mile 11, a line of Stormtroopers and bounty hunters, plus Darth Vader, line the course. I know I’m off my goal time of 1:37, so I swing over to the right and high five as many of them as I can. This gives me energy. I imagine it’s like Boston, but with clones.

I push to the finish line, legs seizing up, about to pass out. I’m OK with my 1:40:44.

Would I have run faster without walking miles in the parks, standing in lines and carrying backpacks and kids for two days and nights prior? Yeah, maybe. But I also wouldn’t have had the full family experience that made the runDisney Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend something all four of us will remember forever—the running, the magic … all of it.