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runDisney race medals

When people hear the words, “Disney vacation,” their first reaction isn’t usually, “Ah, a chance to get some exercise in!” (Unless you count 12+ hours of strolling around the parks scarfing down churros, which I definitely do.) Yet one of the parks’ most popular and well-attended events also happens to be its most strenuous. Don’t let the bedazzled tutus and fancy sneakers fool you… twice a year, thousands of guests flock to Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Disneyland Paris to run.

Welcome to runDisney races—the Disney Parks’ most cherished tradition for runners of all ages and experience levels. Twice a year, usually in late spring and autumn, the parks play host to a race-filled weekend, beginning with a relaxed “fun run” for the kids, working up to a standard 5K and 10K, and topping off with a half-marathon. This isn’t your neighborhood Color Run, however. Each runDisney race gives runners a chance to participate in select character meet-and-greets, earn colorful Disney-themed medals, and catch a glimpse of some behind-the-scenes areas of the parks—well before the sun comes up over Cinderella Castle.

For beginning runners, or those who simply have yet to sample a full weekend’s worth of races at a Disney resort, the event can feel a tad overwhelming. Wondering where to get started? Let’s go over some tips and tricks to make your first race experience a doozy (in the best way).

Pick the runDisney race that’s right for you.

runDisney race medals

Image: Angry Julie Monday, Flickr (license)

Each runDisney weekend is themed to a film, character, or parks event. Popular races include the Disney Princess Half Marathon, Disneyland Paris Magic Run, Wine & Dine Half Marathon, Tinker Bell Half Marathon, Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon, Star Wars Dark and Light Side Half Marathon, and even a few Virtual Running Shorts. (With the Disneyland Resort undergoing extensive construction around Star Wars Land, Disneyland-based races have been temporarily cancelled and replaced by the Star Wars Virtual Half Marathon.) While the structure of each weekend usually remains the same from one event to the next, you may prefer a Tinker Bell medal over a BB-8 one, or perhaps you’d prefer to schedule your race for the fall, when you can garnish your post-race celebration with some of the delectable dishes served at Epcot’s annual Food & Wine Festival.

Once you’ve figured out which event appeals to you the most, take a moment to decide which of Disney’s races is best suited to your experience and comfort level. There’s nothing to prevent you from attempting all three races in three days—the 5K, 10K, and half-marathon (and full marathon, should you opt for the original Walt Disney World Marathon)—but if you’d prefer to take things slow, you can purchase registration for each individual race or opt for the 5K/10K or 10K/half-marathon bundle. It’s essential that you plan all of this ahead of the registration period, as some of the most popular races can (and do) sell out within a few minutes.

Another word of advice: If you’re new to running, don’t be intimidated by the lengthier courses or the experience level of your fellow racers. Given enough time, it’s entirely possible to train your way up to a 10K or half-marathon prior to the event, and rest assured that you’ll be among plenty of first-timer racers as well as seasoned pros.

Planning to run your first race? Don’t overdo it.

runDisney finish line at Cars Land

Image: Josh Hallett, Flickr (license)

There are two types of people who sign up for public races: Those who intend to take it seriously (i.e. finishing within a certain time bracket or meeting a predetermined goal) and those who are in it just to have fun. Before you put even one sneakered toe on the treadmill, think about what you’re hoping to get out of your race. Do you want to beat your previous time or meet an ambitious personal goal? Are you hoping to cross the finish line without getting swept off the course? Are you just looking for a fun way to pass a few hours in the park?

There’s no right or wrong answer here, so long as you know what works best for you. Once you’ve figured out what you want to get out of the event, you can better structure your training in the months leading up to it. runDisney has several resources for first-time racers on their website, including Jeff Galloway’s customized 18-, 19-, and 29-week training programs, which can be filtered by race distance and are designed to help you work up to a decent pace by race time. Non-Disney alternatives include the nine-week Couch to 5K program for beginning runners and the Hal Higdon marathon programs, which are optimized for runners depending on their experience level.

If you consider yourself a runner already, it’s not a bad idea to complete a few non-Disney races before you head off to the theme parks. Check your local Meetup groups or a Galloway branch and try your hand at a 5K or 10K. If it’s an official race, you can save your proof of time and submit it to runDisney in order to secure better placement in the corrals (note: this only applies to 10K race or longer). Not only will it take some of the pressure off of you prior to a packed runDisney weekend, but it’ll give you a better idea of the kind of pace you should be setting for yourself—and may even inspire you to set bigger goals, too.

While even the bare minimum of conditioning will make your race that much easier, you’re under no obligation to get in tip-top shape by the time the races begin. In fact, there are plenty of people who show up for runDisney weekends without putting in any work beforehand—and if you’re just there to have fun, there’s no shame in taking that approach, either. Disney does say that these are walker-friendly races, as long as you can walk fast enough to maintain a 16-minute mile pace. Whichever approach you choose, avoid cramming all of your training into the 2-3 weeks leading up to the race, as you run a higher risk of injury and fatigue by doing so.

On race day, don’t leave anything to chance.

Start of runDisney race at Disney California Adventure

Image: Josh Hallett, Flickr (license)

It might go without saying, but the better prepared you are, the smoother your race will go. If you’re planning on wearing a costume, practice running in it beforehand and invest in enough deodorant and Glide to prevent painful chafing and discomfort. If you’re staying at a nearby hotel, either on Disney property or off-site, arrange for a wake-up call (assuming that, like me, you’re afraid of oversleeping or missing your phone alarm). If you’d like to listen to music on your run—never a bad idea, though Disney advises guests to stay alert and listen for key announcements that may be made during the race—pre-load your phone or iPod with listening material before the day of the race, and don’t plan on streaming anything through Pandora or Spotify. If you have customary pre-race rituals to complete or a breakfast to scarf down, give yourself plenty of time to do so before rushing off to the race corrals.

In the days leading up to the race, familiarize yourself with the transportation options to and from the race area and make sure you get there early enough to get through security and walk to the corrals without rushing (and expending unnecessary energy in doing so). While there will inevitably be long lines for bag check, security, and bathrooms, don’t fret: Unless you’re in one of the very first starting line corrals, chances are you’re facing at least an hour-long wait after the posted start time for the race, so you should have enough time to get everything taken care of.

You’ll also want to figure out what to bring with you during the race. This can vary from runner to runner, but some essentials include a water bottle, granola bar or energy gels, earbuds, and of course, your phone and wallet (MagicBand optional, depending on the location of your race). Bag check is available, should you want to bring a change of clothes or other heavy items, but Disney cautions runners not to leave any valuable items in the clear plastic bags they provide.

When the corral opens and your race finally begins, keep these three tips in mind: stay hydrated, stay calm (don’t try to run faster than the pace you’ve practiced setting for yourself), and stay aware (practice good race etiquette and look out for character and photo opportunities).

Make time to enjoy non-race events during your runDisney weekend.

New Balance sneakers at the runDisney Expo

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

runDisney races offer new and returning racers much more than the thrill of sprinting through the parks at dawn. There’s a plethora of fun, race-related events throughout the weekend—from the runDisney Health & Fitness Expo to after-hours parties in the park. It’s not worth cramming everything into your weekend, especially if you’re lined up to run every single race, but if you want to snag exclusive sneakers or catch a seminar at the Expo, make sure to plan ahead.

During the races, meanwhile, you’ll be given multiple opportunities to stop and snap photos with a variety of Disney characters. The characters you see will usually be in keeping with the theme of the race—Snow White and Cinderella for the Disney Princess Half Marathon, Thor and Captain America for the Avengers Half Marathon, and so on—and there’s even a chance that you may spot an older or rarely-seen character, too.

Following the last race of the weekend, there’s often an exclusive after-party available to racers and their families. Food, additional character meet-and-greets, and live entertainment is typically included (as is the added bonus of swapping war stories with other racers), though keep in mind that any non-runners who want to attend with you will need to shell out a cool $84 per person to do so.

Don’t forget to decompress!

Senses Spa at Walt Disney World

Image: Arctic Whirlwind, Flickr (license)

Whether you’re local to the parks or designing an entire vacation around a runDisney event, it’s just as important to make time for rest and relaxation after the race as it is to prepare for the race itself. Even running something as short as a 5K should help you work up a healthy appetite. You don’t need to go all out at a character buffet directly after the race, but it’s a good idea to consume a protein-heavy meal in the first half hour after you finish your run, whatever that looks like for you. Also, remember to continue hydrating even after you’ve finished sweating it out. (Pro tip: Avoid making dining reservations too close to the race time, as that can add to your anxiety if you find the race takes longer than you expected.)

Rather than hitting the theme parks immediately after you cross the finish line, take it easy on your feet for the day: enjoy an afternoon by the pool, take a short, slow stroll through Disney Springs or Downtown Disney, or indulge in a spa treatment at one of the Disney resorts. Should you be the ambitious type who chooses to tackle each one of the races during a runDisney weekend, make sure you follow these guidelines between races, too. You don’t want to wear yourself out in the 5K and 10K and head into the half marathon/full marathon feeling sore and worn out.

What other advice have you found helpful in preparing for your runDisney races? Was it easy to tackle as a novice runner, or, if you’re an experienced runner, did you find it challenging enough?

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