By Kayla Lewkowicz, Sports.GOOD.is
It’s 3 a.m. when I lace up my sneakers and take my place in the corral. I’m listening to upbeat pop music and can’t stand still, bobbing up and down from a mix of the chill in the air and pre-race jitters. I can’t shake the feeling I’ve forgotten something important, then it dawns on me: I left my Mickey ears back at the hotel.
I’m about to run the most magical race on earth, the Disney Half Marathon.
Welcome to one of the nine race weekends that run Disney hosts throughout the year. The home of the world’s most famous mouse offers a 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon, or—for the gung-ho folks—a challenge combining all of them. Each weekend has a different theme (i.e., princess, Star Wars, Avengers) and spans locations from Florida to Disney’s private Bahamian island, Castaway Cay.
What began in 1994 as one race has turned into something much bigger, as runners, experienced and first-timers alike, embrace the opportunity to experience a twist on the standard race—one that is welcoming to all.
“I loved running through Epcot all lit up early in the morning,” said Sam Bertschmann, a first-time 5k racer from Boston. “Much more fun than the treadmill.”
The race atmosphere actively quells the fear that comes with facing the fact that you have to run 13.1 (or 26.2) miles and replaces it with a sense of fun. Indeed, turning the corner onto Main Street USA and seeing Cinderella’s castle completely illuminated would give any runner the encouragement to keep going.
Runners like Bertschmann benefit from the positive atmosphere built by runners and spectators alike (and how can you not be with Snow White cheering you on?).
“The cast and characters throughout the parks were so supportive and made you forget about the running,” says Steven McGunigel, who completed his first half marathon in the Paris Half Marathon in September. “Running through the castle was amazing.”
The Disney appeal (the costumes, the characters, the show) draws novice runners—who otherwise might not have competed—to the events. And Disney isn’t the only organization to add flair to running in hopes of increasing its appeal. The mud runs, color runs, and other wacky-themed events; the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon with its live bands, block parties and on-course cheer squads (the most recent of which was last weekend in Savannah, Georgia—they all add spectacle and encouragement for would-be runners, serious or not, to lace up.
“I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a runner,” says Morgan Rublee, a Maine 20-something.
But when the Color Run came to Bangor, she had to sign up. “I knew I had to do it. I mean, who can resist all that color?” she said. Since there was something special about the run, it didn’t feel like, well, running. “Looking forward to a new color at each checkpoint made the run painless.”
It wasn’t just the theme that appealed to her. “The race was more of a bonding moment for me—I was new to my job and knew that a couple of my coworkers liked running, so I invited them to join.”
— Steven McGunigel (@StevieMcG) September 25, 2016
Says Megan Cuddy, a couch-to-5k runner, “My first 5k was a Color Run. (Themed runs) add something to it.”
The elements of community and camaraderie that these events provide appeal to athletes and non-athletes alike. Mud runs like Muckfest or Mudathlon’s challenging obstacle course races are rife with such examples.
While it may seem intimidating at first, these kind of races bring out the best in everyone. “I never considered myself to be much of an athlete. Doing something so physically demanding seemed ludicrous,” says Michael Stefano, a self-described “weekend warrior,” who has completed over 50 different mud runs since 2012. “(But) I love that it gets you out of your comfort zone.”
Obstacle course races filled with barbed wire, electric shocks, and strenuous wall and rope climbs don’t appeal to many. But the community keeps people coming back. “(Even while) physically dealing with walls (4 feet to 10 feet high), barbed wire, and pits of mud,” Michael says. “(The races) have the most incredible camaraderie. … There are people you can count on.”
“A wall or a net that’s difficult to get over, other teams will stay and help,” Gwen Holtan told TimeOut Chicago. “Just a lot of camaraderie, helping each other out, encouraging people. It was inspiring.”
Like Tough Mudder, Disney is still drawing huge athletic crowds. Last year, approximately 20,000 runners competed in the Wine & Dine event (which ran its 2016 edition this past weekend), according to Tina Trybus, manager of marketing and sales strategy at Walt Disney World Resort. January’s Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend drew 50,000 runners, including nearly 27,000 for the marathon alone.
“These races provide guests with new ways to experience Disney while on their vacation,” Trybus tells GOOD, “or to book a vacation in order to experience something unique.”
Though the mass expansion of these events has led some to fail, industry leaders like Tough Mudder continue to grow—boasting $100 million in annual revenue and more than 2 million participants—thanks to their broad appeal.
“The reality is, the reason why people keep coming back is because it is fun,” Will Dean, the founder and CEO of Tough Mudder, told CNN. “And at the end of the day, you feel really proud of yourself.”
The outreach to less experienced runners does have a potential downside, as significant percentages of participants fail to complete races at the standard pace—and it’s entirely possible that themed races are the only athletic events in which some people may compete. Further, with the growth of the event and the increased pageantry around it, there are more and more merchandising opportunities that Disney executes (not to mention greater entry fees to the events). Some may be critical of this expected result of Disney’s efforts, which attempt to reach a wider audience.
— runDisney (@runDisney) November 1, 2016
Still, the encouragement given to any and all competitors remains part of the draw for many.
“I love running in Disney because of the community feeling there,” says Amanda Glendinning, a nine-time marathoner. “People are accepted no matter what pace they run (or walk) or where they come from.”
Case in point: Experienced runner Josh Kogan was running with many first-time racers and was able to enjoy “the casual vibe from the participants,” he says. “I wasn’t planning to take it very seriously, so it was all about fun from the start. … Running through the castle as the sun was rising was pretty magical.”
Says Glendinning, “I would definitely run Disney again.”
Just don’t forget the Mickey ears.