The Idiot’s Guide to runDisney

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Running the Walt Disney World Marathon or another runDisney event for the first time? I’ve been there, and this guide contains my advice for choosing an event, registering, training, where to stay, running etiquette, and other advice for making the most of the experience. As I’ve run different events, including the Disneyland Half Marathon and all four events of the Dopey Challenge, I’ve learned a lot along the way.

You might be thinking, “why would anyone need a guide for running–just put one foot in front of the other and you’re good to go!” I’ve also been there. Through my many misadventures and comical missteps, I’ve come to realize that running isn’t necessarily as simple as lacing up your shoes and going. (Hence the name of this post: I am the idiot–not you!) It can be simple, but it can also be so much more. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

With some popular events now available for registration and the 2017 Walt Disney World Marathon opening on April 26, I thought now would be the perfect time to go over the basics of runDisney. This way, you have a bit of time to decide whether it’s something you might want to do before registration opens. There’s a reason why runDisney events have a hardcore fan-base among serious runners and Disney fans–because it’s awesome. I’m not here to sell you on that, though. If you need a sales pitch, you can read my gushing over the events in my runDisney race reports. Instead, this guide aims to help you make sense of it all, and demystify runDisney.

Sound good? We’re off with a roooooolling staaaart!

Choosing an Event

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RunDisney events are held during the fall, winter, and spring in Florida and California, and soon, Paris. At present, events aren’t held in the summer on either coast (May’s Disneyland Tinker Bell Half Marathon is the closest thing to a summer event), probably because the whole “heat stroke” thing would be bad for business.

The most popular events occur during Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, held in early January. This is the flagship and original runDisney event, and the only full marathon Disney offers happens during this weekend. If you’re not ready to take the full marathon plunge, the great thing is that there’s a 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, and kid’s races, as well.

All other things being equal, I would recommend an event during Marathon Weekend for your first runDisney race. While on the colder side, weather is typically most conducive to running in January. Weather is less predictable during the other events in Florida, with bad humidity a more distinct possibility as early as March and as late as November. Additionally, a big part of the popularity of Marathon Weekend comes from the fact that this was previously a quiet season for Walt Disney World, so the parks are not too busy.

In terms of flagship events, there’s the aforementioned Walt Disney World Marathon, Disneyland Half Marathon, and Disneyland Paris Half Marathon Weekends, all of which include other events, too. Beyond that, there are various other themed events throughout the year that should be considered based on timing and interests. In Florida, these are the Star Wars, Avengers, Princess, and Food & Wine events. In California, there are Star Wars, Avengers, and Tinker Bell events. In France, there’s sure to be a “Baguette & Beret” Half Marathon added to the calendar soon enough if the inaugural Half is popular.

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While I like Star Wars, Marvel, and baguettes, I don’t have a strong-enough affinity for any of them to choose those over the “classic” events. The flagship events are runDisney’s bread and butter, and it seems (to me at least) that they get the best medals, courses, merchandise, and overall race weekends. After seeing some of the Star Wars medals, I’m beginning to rethink the “best medals” part of that, though.

Otherwise, which event you choose is probably going to be dictated by 3 things: theme of the race, season during which it occurs, and location. If you’re a huge Star Wars fans, one of those races might be your best option. If you really love Food & Wine Festival or Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, maybe going for a week-long Halloween trip that concludes with the Wine & Dine Half would be your best option. Googling “[race name] + race report” is a good way to find others’ recaps of races with photos of the event, so you can get an idea of what to expect from each event.

As for location, you might already have a preference between Walt Disney World and Disneyland. If you don’t, which you choose might come down to where you live. If that’s not the case, either, there are a couple of things you should consider. First, the runDisney events in Florida take place entirely on Walt Disney World property, whereas California runDisney events typically go through Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, but also spill out into the city of Anaheim. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (to the contrary, it can be cool going past Angel Stadium and the Honda Center), but that does reduce the unique “Disney” component that gives runDisney events their distinction.

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On the flip side, Anaheim weather is typically much more predictable and pleasant than Florida weather. It rains approximately 3 days per year in SoCal and this “humidity” thing is a foreign concept to Californians.

I was pleasantly surprised by the race experience at Disneyland, but if I had to choose between the two coasts for my first event, I’d pick Florida hands-down, and minimize weather concerns by choosing a January or February event.

For those who are reasonably well fit, or are plan on using the runDisney event to get in even better shape, I’d also give a hard look to one of the challenges right out of the gate. As I wrote in my Dopey Challenge Recap, I’m not sure that it’s for everyone, and this is largely because of redundancies in the course and getting up at an obscenely early hour 4 mornings in a row.

However, other challenges that are less grueling and involve fewer races shouldn’t be ruled out. If you’re traveling Walt Disney World or Disneyland specifically for the runDisney event, it might make sense to get more out of it by doing 2 events. I think this is especially true when those 2 events are a Half Marathon and 10K.

My experience with the first Walt Disney World Marathon was that I was envious of my friends participating in the Goofy and Dopey Challenges for being more “hardcore” than me, and also receiving more sweet bling. I definitely felt a huge sense of accomplishment in completing the Marathon; that was probably part of it, actually. I wanted more of that sense of accomplishment by doing some ridiculous challenge.

Registering

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RunDisney registration opens around 8 months in advance of the event, with an earlier pre-registration window for Disney Vacation Club members and Annual Passholders. Before you get too excited about the early window, I’ve yet to be able to take advantage of it. Every time I’ve tried, those slots seem to sell out instantly. Maybe I need to get rid of the ole dial-up internet connection.

Still, if you qualify, certainly try for the pre-registration. Regular registration for the most popular events–such as the Half Marathons–is as popular as a Justin Bieber (or insert name of the current “cool” musician) and can sell out in under an hour. Inaugural events tend to likewise be really popular. Events with unique themes (such as the Disneyland 5K featuring the Country Bears, who still have a cult following at Disneyland) sell out super fast, too.

Less popular events, such as the Goofy challenge, can take months to sell out. The only reason I got into my first Walt Disney World Marathon was due to the “Goofy Giveback” which took unsold Goofy Challenge registrations and broke them into Half and full Marathon registrations. Last year, I believe the full Marathon took longer to sell out.

Regardless, I would strongly recommend that you make a definitive decision on whatever event you’re considering before it goes on sale, and be at your computer the moment registration opens. Don’t start thinking about an event when registration opens (part of the reason I’m posting this guide over a month before the Walt Disney World Marathon registration opens) and plan to make a decision in a couple of weeks. You might have your decision made for you when the event you’re eyeing sells out a couple of days later.

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I speak from experience: I wanted my first Marathon to be the 20th Anniversary of the event in 2013, but by the time I started giving it serious thought, it was too late. The same thing happened the following year, and the only thing that saved me the next year was that Goofy Giveback. My first Marathon was enough to get me hooked, and I made sure I was at my computer ready to register for this year’s event.

As for the registration process, I’m not going to walk you through the process, because it’s relatively straight-forward. The only thing you need that’s different from a normal “buying something online” process is an optional proof-of-time submission, which I highly recommend submitting (if you have it). This is something I keep forgetting to do, and have been on the unfortunate end of “Corral Roulette” several times as a result. If you’re an experienced runner who has done an event in the past, I implore you to learn from my mistakes and do as I say, not as I do.

Beyond that, if you like things that are frustrating, runDisney registration is for you! I have yet to register for an event without issue. From events displaying as sold out the moment they go on sale to websites crashing and more, it seems like there’s always something. Fortunately, the actual runDisney events go much smoother than this, and organization is typically top-notch.

Training

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Once you’re registered, it’s time to start training! Just like planning for a normal Disney vacation, training for a runDisney event is a great way to build anticipation for that event (or so I’m told). You can get hyped by listening to Disney podcasts–or even runDisney podcasts–while you run, and thinking about the race, what you’ll do after.

For a lot of people, running is also a great stress reliever and a way to stay healthy. While I joke about not training and hating running, one thing I really do enjoy about running is being alone with my thoughts. It’s a great way to reflect and allow random thoughts to race through my head without the interruptions that normally inhabit daily lives. Sort of like being in the shower, but you smell worse at the end, instead. My biggest problem with running is that I make excuses about being “too busy” to do it–and that’s not really an issue with running itself. Your mileage may vary on what running is for you.

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RunDisney gear is a conversation starter, and when random strangers at Trader Joe’s (seriously, this has happened 4 times there–either I get groceries too often or people there are really interested in marathons!) or elsewhere ask how I trained for the various events I’ve done, I deflect by saying, “I know a lot of people like the Jeff Galloway ‘run walk run’ training…”

So, dear internet strangers and friends, how do I train? Well, I know a lot of people like the Jeff Galloway ‘run walk run’ training plan. Jeff Galloway is the OG of runDisney training, and his plans are quite accessible to beginners. Another popular plan is the Couch to 5K in 9 Weeks plan. The Hal Higdon plans are also quite popular. Honestly, I haven’t used any of these, so at these point I’m just telling you the same things Google could. Those with actual experience using a particular plan might weigh in via the comments…

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Now, as my thanks to you for reading this far into the Idiot’s Guide, here’s a few preview of “Tom’s Couch-to-Couch in 9 Weeks Running Plan,” which will soon be yours to own for the low, low price of $99:

  • Week 1: Replace beer with water and binge-watch old episodes of Seinfeld and Arrested Development. Think about running during the credits to develop a plan of attack.
  • Week 2: Reduce In-N-Out Burger consumption to only once per week. Go for a 2 mile run a couple of times…if you feel like it.
  • Week 3: Find some cool scene you want to photograph in your nearest National Park, and go on a day-long, strenuous 15 mile hike.
  • Week 4: Don’t eat as many cupcakes as normal when you get to Walt Disney World. Do a couple laps around World Showcase or something.

Please note that this regimen should not be followed by anyone, anywhere, ever. It’s presented half as a joke and half as to underscore the point that there is no such thing as a one-size fits all training plan. If you live a pretty healthy lifestyle and are already fit, you’ll need to do a lot less to get ready than someone in different circumstances.

If you want to break the 10-minute mile pace for the Marathon, you need to train more aggressively than someone who just wants to avoid being swept with a 16-minute mile pace during the 5K. I don’t know your goals, background, and circumstances, so it would be irresponsible for me to make recommendations specific to anyone reading this–and that’s if I did know anything about training.

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My plan should also underscore the point that I have no clue what I’m talking about. Before the Dopey Challenge, I treated training sort of like cramming for a test, and planned to do all of my training in the last 2 weeks. After I posted about this in my Walt Disney World Marathon Preview, a friend quietly messaged me and told me that wasn’t recommended, which was news to me. I’m half convinced that running the 5K warmed me up for the 10K, which warmed me up for the Half Marathon, which warmed me up for the full Marathon. But I’m pretty ignorant on this topic, so what do I know?

The underlying point here is that training is incredibly important, but highly personal. While there are resources that can give you a solid foundation for accomplishing your running goals, you shouldn’t substitute someone else’s judgment for your own when it comes to your physical limitations, health, endurance, etc. If this is an area of significant concern for you, consider supplementing your own judgment with that of your doctor.

Where to Stay/Transportation

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Since the events start at the butt-crack of dawn and road closures occur during some events, it’s easy to default to staying on-site. This allows you to utilize free race weekend transportation and not worry about finding your own way through traffic to the starting locations.

I’ve stayed off-site and on-site for runDisney events. In California, I stay off-site because I live off-site…but even then both on-site and off-site hotels are going to be within walking distance of the starting point (and Mickey & Friends parking structure will have long-ish lines to get enter, but the freeways are all dead first thing in the morning if you do opt to drive).

In Florida, I think there are pros and cons to Disney off-site and on-site. The biggest pro to staying off-site that I don’t often see discussed is sleeping in your car! (No, not all night.) Disney recommends participants err on the safe side and arrive at ungodly hours to avoid issues with traffic closures. If you take the free transportation, you might be standing around in your corral for over an hour if traffic is smooth. If you drive, you can recline the seat and take a nap after arriving early. No standing outside in the cold at 5 a.m. for you!

Another option I’ve used is Uber, which I found works really well at Walt Disney World, and that includes for runDisney events. I was worried that driver availability would be scarce at 4 a.m., but it was not–apparently this is a popular time for drivers to work for airport runs. Note that many Uber drivers will not be aware of road closures, so you should be prepared to provide them with directions (contained in your race pamphlet that runDisney provides at the Expo–I just took an iPhone photo of that page and read off of it in the car each morning of the Dopey Challenge). The other downside is no sleeping in the car if you arrive too early.

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The benefit of staying on-site is that the buses are really convenient, you don’t need to be aware of any road closures, and you don’t have to walk a mini-marathon from the parking lot to the corrals. Then, when you’re done, you can collapse on a bus and let them do the driving.

Despite runDisney events occurring at times that otherwise are “slow seasons” (this is why they are scheduled when they are), there typically are not deep discounts on Walt Disney World hotels for race weekends. To the contrary, occupancy rates these weekends are insanely high, and if you wait until the last minute to book a hotel, you might find slim pickins’ on-site. So book your hotel–and this goes for off-site hotels, too–early.

As for which hotels to book, I don’t have any personal standouts. The Marathon Weekend events all start near the front of Epcot, which means no walking from the Epcot-area resorts, so you’re taking a bus no matter where you stay. I have never taken the time to strategize in terms of road closures and off-site hotels, but I’ve found that I was always leaving my off-site hotel early enough to avoid being impacted by the closures. If you have done such strategizing, please offer suggestions in the comments.

What to Pack

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I remember the good ole days when running was a free hobby. Save for basketball shorts (that I owned anyway) and old t-shirts, I made no purchases for running. For my first runDisney event, that’s pretty much all I packed. Those were the days!

As I’ve gotten more and more into runDisney events, I find myself with more and more specialized running gear and supplies, and it has made me more comfortable (my wallet, not so much) as a result. Ultimately, this is a hobby on which you can spend very little or quite a lot if you so desire. I skew towards the moderate end of the spectrum, and have found it worth the money in terms of comfort and post-race recovery.

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I’ve already covered everything I use in my What to Pack for runDisney Events post, so rather than rehashing it all here, read that post. The things you “need” for runDisney events aren’t all intuitive, so it’s definitely worth skimming the list and buying a few things before you go.

In addition to what you should pack before leaving home, think about what you might want to bring with you to the race. Some people like to bring bags with changes of clothing, flip flops, and the like and store them at bag check, which isn’t a bad idea, especially if it rains during the race or you get really sweaty. I never do this, because I find bag check to be a hassle with sometimes long lines.

As for the rest of your packing for your trip to Walt Disney World or Disneyland for the runDisney event, refer to our What to Pack for Disney Trips post.

runDisney Expo

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The Health & Fitness Expo is where you pick up your bib, race packet, shirt, etc. (don’t worry if you don’t print the waiver in advance…no one does) and is also basically a running convention with all sorts of stuff to see, do, and buy. This guide is already nearing 4,000 words, so I’m not going to rehash information that runDisney will provide you about the Expo in pre-race emails. Instead, I’ll focus on my opinions on the Expo.

The Expo is crazy. Not crazy in a bad way, but crazy in a “what have I gotten myself into?” way. There tons of people, loads of merchandise, vendor booths, displays, and other stuff. The closer you go to opening, the worse it is, because runDisney fanatics want to make sure they don’t miss out on LE merchandise and New Balance Disney shoes. (C’mon, this is a Disney event–of course there’s highly coveted LE merch!)

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Unless you care about all of this stuff, I’d highly recommend waiting to go to the Expo as long as possible. When I did the Dopey Challenge, I had to go the first day of the Expo, and it was a madhouse. This was in the late afternoon, after things had “died down” from when it first opened. The previous year when I was “only” doing the Marathon, I went the day before the race, and there was no crowd whatsoever.

As far as buying stuff goes, I have yet to buy anything at the Expo. I buy products that the vendors sell in advance to save money, and the only runDisney merch I buy is the “I Did It!” shirts, and I refuse to buy those in advance on principle. Be aware that “leftover” merchandise is available on race days, so if there’s something you really want, buy it at the Expo. Except merchandise celebrating an accomplishment you have yet to accomplish; buying that in advance will bring an ancient curse upon you…and possibly your entire household. (You can thank me when you don’t break an ankle on race day!)

Race Day & Running Etiquette

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Ahhh, race day. The moment has arrived! All of my rambling above and your training are for this. When you arrive to the starting point, you’ll be herded with thousands of your closest friends through security, bag check, and towards the starting line corrals. You’ll also find Guinness Record for the largest collection of porta-potties (document this glorious sight with a photo!), and huge lines for said potties.

In the race day packet runDisney provides, they typically recommend arriving to corrals something like an hour or more in advance. This is crazy unless you’re in the first corral. For those in the middle of the pack or later, you can safely stroll up to your corral at the last minute, after the official start time.

Don’t freak out if you’re running late or get caught in traffic–the late corrals start over an hour after the first ones, so you’re not going to “miss” the race. Your personal “clock” doesn’t start to tick until you cross the start line, and while it’s best to be in an earlier corral (shorter lines for characters, lighter crowds, etc.) you can start from a corral later than your assigned corral (but not earlier) without issue.

In my experience, people tend to freak out about punctuality with runDisney events, arriving way too early and standing around way too long. This is asinine, and I don’t know why this advice (which I followed for my first couple of events) is so widespread. I have yet to hear a single story of someone missing a race because they got caught in traffic.

The most important piece of runDisney etiquette that I can share is that you make every effort you can to be polite to–and thank–the volunteers and spectators along the course. The unpaid volunteers handing out water along the course are cheerful and encouraging to runners, and deserve not only respect but kudos along the way.

When you’re passing the water stations, yell out “thank you, volunteers” or something of the sort. As you pass by youth groups that came out to perform, smile, wave, give high fives, etc. A little goes a long ways in helping these wonderful folks show that you appreciate them. They took time out of their schedules and are a huge part of what gives runDisney races such a positive energy. Being drained from the run or spending a lot of money on registration is no excuse for manners to go out the window.

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As far as other race day etiquette goes, you need to remember that there are thousands of other people behind you–many of whom will want to run faster than you–and the course is only so wide. This is especially important in the beginning few miles of the race, as the course can be quite congested, making it difficult to navigate. Here are some things to consider, some of which you can find in this complete running etiquette guide:

  • Run 2-wide or single file – Don’t run 5-wide as a group. Even if you think you’re maintaining a good pace, the course is narrow and there’s always someone behind you who is faster than you. Always.
  • Don’t discard items on the race course – Water cups, outerwear, etc. are all de facto banana peels for runners behind you to dodge if you do.
  • “On Your Left” when passing – Not just because this makes you sound like a Captain America-level badass. It’s also proper etiquette.
  • Walkers on the right – If you’re walking, stay to the right. Running, stay to the left.
  • Raise your hand when slowing – Don’t just stop running without notice. Raise your hand for a few moments, slow, and carefully shift to the right.
  • Keep pace – RunDisney events require participants to maintain a 16 minute mile pace to avoid being swept. Be confident that you can do this before registering.
  • Don’t spit on people – Hopefully no explanation needed here…

Finally, don’t be rude to walkers. A lot of the above focused on being polite to those behind you who might be faster than you, but the flip side is that runners need to be polite to those in front of them. These are Disney races that draw people from all walks of life, not just endurance runners. I have witnessed several rude runners passing walkers, including one who shouted, “I’m trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon!” at a walker he pushed past. Cool story, bro. Maybe the seas should part and we should all move to the sidelines to allow you to pass and complete this matter of utmost importance. You do realize you’re in one of the last corrals and the world doesn’t revolve around you, right?

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That’s really something to remember if you’re a seasoned runner used to participating in intense running events. Maybe that’s the tone of runDisney events in the early corrals (I wouldn’t know–I’ve never been up front in the “cool kid’s club”), but it certainly is not in the later corrals. There are a lot of beginners and Disney fans who are making an effort to be active, and these events, above all else, are meant to be fun. This is not some epic competition in a Roman colosseum where only one runner escapes alive.

As this guide is already way longer than I expected when I started writing, I think that’s a good note to wrap on: that runDisney is fun, above all else. Don’t be scared away by the thousands of words in this guide (I’m a verbose chump). RunDisney is approachable and the atmosphere is very welcoming. Race weekends are a ton of fun, and there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie in the parks as runners outnumber even strollers(!!!). This is especially true on Marathon Weekend, and this great atmosphere is one of the reasons I enjoy runDisney events so much.

It’s like an entire weekend of “runner’s high,” which is probably the easiest way for me to articulate the feeling of being a part of the runDisney events. I know it’s a marketing slogan, but I think “every mile is magic” perfectly sums it up–except for the miles through Wide World of Sports. Those are never-ending torture. The rest of it, though, is pure magic.

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If you’re planning on getting into runDisney, read my runDisney Race Reports (plus other running-related posts). Also be sure to check out my runDisney Packing Tips post for what you should use to train, and what to carry on race day.

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Your Thoughts

Do you experienced runners have anything to add? Do you agree or disagree with my advice? Any topics here that aren’t covered about which you’d like to know more? This guide is a work in progress, so please share any questions, tips, or additional thoughts you have in the comments!


45 Responses to “The Idiot’s Guide to runDisney”
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