Race Review: 2016 Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon (4/17/2016), or: “The boys are thirsty in Atlanta, and there’s beer in Texarkana…”

blgstarwarsdarksidehalfmarathonThe Inaugural 2016 Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon!

You know, as I started writing this race review, I came to the sudden realization that over three weeks have passed since the event, and only now have I begun to collect my thoughts about it. I think that’s a record delay for me, which means I’m either slothing out all over the place or I’ve lost my enthusiasm for race reviews. I’m hoping its the former and that the latter never occurs, but nonetheless I think this uncharacteristic delay is slightly emblematic of the race itself.

To put it in other words: if you talk to the average schmo on the street, you’re a better person than I am because I’ve seen the average schmo, and they scare me. But if you WERE to question them about the 2016 Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon, you’d likely hear a whole mess of responses that run the gamut of “PURE AWESOMENESS!!” to” WORSTEST RACE EVERRRR!!” Then they would take your Dove Ice Cream Bar and scram.

Obviously opinions were all over the map, so in case you’re interested in MY opinion of the race, bless your hearts. I’ll try to keep my Imperial Loudmouth tendencies to a minimum and proceed on the get-crackin’-itude.

Let’s start with a bit of review: the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon is the highlight of Run Disney’s second Star Wars race weekend; the first being the Star Wars Light Side Half Marathon Weekend, which occurs every January at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, CA. I attended that event in January in 2016, participating in both the 10K and the Half Marathon, thus completing the Rebel Challenge. In April 2016, the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon Weekend took place at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, FL. I had run the 10K and, with the running of the Half Marathon, not only did I complete the Dark Side Challenge, I also completed the Kessel Run Challenge, having run both Star Wars Half Marathons on both coasts. Nifty!

Normally right about now I’d start the discussion with a review of packet pickup and Health & Fitness Expo, but since I did that in my review of the 10K, I’ll simply request you go check out that review for further detail (although it was really no different from pretty much any Run Disney expo at Walt Disney World). This time around though, I went a second time to meet my friends Kristi and Rich (and his son Mauricio) there, who were coming up from Ft. Lauderdale to race the half. There still wasn’t much of any kind of cool merchandise there, but we were able to get into the tent outside that had a neat photo-op with BB-8, so there’s that then!



That night we had dinner at The Wave (one of my favorite Disney restaurants, located where the old game center used to be in The Contemporary Hotel), carbed up with a beer or two, and discussed race strategy for the next day… which in other words, meant absolutely no strategy at all. None of us were racing for time; we decided to have fun, take lots of pics, enjoy the scenery, and have a blast in the Disney/Star Wars environment. This was Rich’s first Disney race, so he was getting his money’s worth. For Kristi and I, it was just another fun training run that we paid entirely too much for. But that’s Run Disney for you.

Back to the hotel we went, where Boots and I were fast asleep by about 8:00 PM. Then for some reason I woke up around midnight and couldn’t go back to sleep for love or money. Oh well. Since the race was scheduled to start at 5AM, and I was due to meet for a team pic at 4, the alarm was set for 3:00 AM. I didn’t miss all that many zzzz’s…

Race Day

Since I was already up long before the alarm, I was showered, shaved, and dressed to go in no time at all. As I had worn my Darth Vader shirt for the 10K, I went with Boba Fett for the Half:


The schedule for the morning was simple enough: get to Epcot by 3:50, make the Milers team photo at 4:00, meet my local FIT buddies for a photo 4:20, then head over to the corrals at 4:30 for a 5:00AM start. We pretty much arrived on time so I took a leisurely stroll over to the meeting spot for the Milers pic.

I arrived at 4:01. THEY HAD ALREADY TAKEN THE TEAM PHOTO. Boo… apparently some team members *really* wanted to get to the corrals early so there was a zero-tolerance policy on tardiness. But that was OK. We took a 4:02 AM photo anyhow!



Our Zoo Crew!

Our Zoo Crew!

Afterward I waited around to take pics with my South Florida buddies at 4:20, when I heard a familiar voice. It was my buddy Karen from San Diego, who I met after the Disneyland 5K last January. It was damn cold out that morning, so we had both taken shelter inside the Disneyland Hotel with hot coffee and pastries. We struck up a conversation and ended up chatting for nearly two hours. She’s an awesome person, with a kickass blog – Runner Candy –  you can find over here, and I’m glad we were able to briefly reconnect before the run:


Kristi and Rich showed up soon afterward, along with Brandie, Kari, and Francesca, so we got our FIT pics:


And look! Rosa finally made it in just under the wire!

Vamos Rosita!

Vamos Rosita!

As it was during the previous few mornings, the Start Area was filled the usual pre-race excitement: music, dancing, DJs, photo ops featuring backdrops and characters taken directly from the Star Wars movies, and so forth. It was very well themed and, provided you showed up early enough, you had the opportunity for lots of buttkickin’ Star Wars pics. But even at 4 AM, the lines were forming for them. I had already had my fill of them so this we passed. Besides, we’d stop for a ton of pics during the race.

Rich, Kristi, and I made our way to corral E, and parked ourselves there amid an ocean of excitement. It was pretty tightly packed but we entertained ourselves checking out people decked out in all sorts of costumes than ran the gamut from pretty cool to downright badass to outright quizzical. I kinda dug this guy in front of me, who made for a decent helmet-less Vader:


Anywhere here’s the view from the corral:



Including a shot of the three of us:


And my usual dorky selfie:


Finally around 5:15AM, our corral was called to the start line, and at 5:19 AM we were on our way!

The Inaugural 2016 Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon!

Let’s get things started with a view of the course, courtesy of my much-adored Garmin 920XT watch and Google Maps:


The 13.1 mile course took us down Epcot Center Drive, turning backstage into Epcot and through the International Gateway into the Crescent Lake resort area. Just past the three-mile point we reached Hollywood Studios, inside which we briefly traversed before exiting the Studios and taking World Drive over to the Osceola Parkway. Turning west, we ran about two miles before reaching Animal Kingdom. Around the parking lot we went, then backstage before entering the park for a brief loop inside. Exiting Animal Studios, we turned back onto Osceola, heading east for about 2.5 miles before reach the ESPN Wide World of Sports Zone. Into WWoS we went, through a gravel road before reaching the paved walkways of the athletic fields. From there it was a brief run to the Finish Line in the WWoS parking lot.

Before I go through the various highlights, let me start off with the greatest highlight of the day: the weather. Holy moley, you couldn’t have asked for better running conditions in Central Florida, in mid April. The temperature at race start was 64 degrees with low humidity and cool breezes, which meant for a very comfortable morning for running. Reading the online comments for days in advance, I realized that many of you Yankee types were concerned about the “heat”. But for this Florida reptile, it was utterly Elysium-like.

Anyway, we had a blast with this run. Liberated from any time/pace constraints, all we had to do was just run, have fun, stop whenever we wanted for however long we wanted, and enjoy the experience. So much so, the first two miles took us nearly 40 minutes to complete! This is because we waited in line for 20 minutes to get a photo with this guy:


This was the first photo stop of the day, and the line was ginormous. We didn’t care. My buddy Ann passed us by while we were waiting in line, and jeered me gleefully and mercilessly. That’s OK. We passed her later anyhow… 😉

Through Epcot we went, in the morning darkness. Star Wars music was blasting from every speaker, complete with flickering torch flames, buildings aglow with sparkling illumination, and a general feeling of overall happiness. Thanks to our 20 minute delay, we were now caught up with the slower runners and walkers, and that was fine too. We were in no rush.


The walkway connecting the Epcot Resorts and Hollywood Studios was definitely quite congested; you’re basically running over a mile on a very narrow walkway, especially with the sudden twists and turns as you approach the Studios. It was all good. Thanks to my most recent UC flare, I needed to stop to use the restrooms by the entrance anyhow, so time was not of the essence. We ended up getting some great pics anyhow, including this one of Kylo Ren and his First Order Stormtroopers:


Here’s a pic of the three of us on Hollywood Boulevard, where I only look slightly demented:


As well as this pic of Kristi and I turning onto Sunrise Boulevard:


You’ll notice we lost Rich in that shot. He decided that he wanted to take more pictures, especially with the various cosplayers in the 501st Legion stationed outside of Fantasmic. He texted me and told us not to wait for him, so we continued onward. We figured Rich was such a speedy runner, he’d catch up with us eventually anyhow. [SPOILER ALERT: He didn’t. But damn he got his money’s worth with the photo ops!]

It was still dark as we left Hollywood Studios around mile 4.5, with just a hint of daybreak. The weather was still fantastic, cool and breezy and wonderful, and Kristi and I decided to kick it up a notch, meaning we’d run at a reasonable but comfortable pace, while still stopping whenever and wherever we felt like it. For the rest of the race we ran about 10:30 minute/mile on average, and to be honest that felt relaxing to us.

The Osceola Parkway represented about 4.5 miles of running, both to and from Animal Kingdom. There wasn’t much in terms of entertainment on that stretch, but they did have plenty of large video monitors showing clips from the various Star Wars flicks, DJs, music, and of course throngs of cheering spectators.

We entered Animal Kingdom at around the 7.5 mile mark, moving in a wide arc around the parking lot before entering the backstage area. The sun had risen over a particularly beautiful morning; clear blue skies with cool breezes and no oppressive Florida humidity? Sign me up for that any day!


We even grabbed this adorkable pic:



Running through Animal Kingdom was a load of fun, albeit a bit narrower and with somewhat less even footing than I remembered… which is odd, as I’ve raced through that park four times before. Even still, we were still running through a Disney theme park, and while we really didn’t encounter much in terms of live animals, we still got this killer shot in front of Expedition Everest:


As well as this one with a pair of Stormtroopers, who advised me to “move along” after it was taken:


Near the entrance to the park (where we exited the park, ironically) were another group of 501st Legion cosplayers, so Stormtrooper KR-1ST1 and Boba Hokey grabbed this inimitable selfie. There wasn’t enough room to take a full shot with these guys; they were literally standing a few inches off the course. So we had to take this super quickly.


After leaving the park, we looped through the parking lot again before exiting onto the Osceola Parkway. We noticed some more backdrop photo opportunities, including the Hoth Wampa Cave and the Death Star Trash Compactor. We debated stopping to pose for them, but eventually just elected to keep running. We were really loving the run but what we really wanted was a nice cold beer at the Finish Line. So onward we ran.

The rest of the race was pretty straightforward and uneventful. Since we returned down the Osceola Parkway towards the finish at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Zone, we saw the same exact entertainment the way back as we did on the way up. For the first time in my Run Disney racing experience, I actually saw the dreaded Balloon Ladies, walking westbound on Osceola as we were running eastbound.

For the uninitiated in the crowd here, the Balloon Ladies are volunteers who are the last people to cross the Start Line at every Disney race. They hold Disney balloons as they walk to indicate their presence, and they walk at a 16 minute/mile pace for the entirety of the race. Anyone they pass basically is swept, meaning they are loaded onto shuttles and returned to the Finish Area. Those who get swept end up getting a medal anyhow, which is a source of contention and debate among many runners. Me, I couldn’t care less. It’s just a stupid piece of tin. The true value of any race is the running and completion of it, not the tchotchkes they hand out at the Finish Line.

Anyway, we saw the Balloon Ladies, and they were holding Death Star balloons, which was pretty cool, in my opinion. The buses were behind them, loaded with swept runners, and none of them looked particularly happy. On the other hand, they were about to receive an air-conditioned ride to the Finish Line, which moved them that much faster to the ice cold beer. Hmm…

We ran those last 3 miles faster than the first 3 miles, that’s for sure. The gravel road that led into ESPN WWoS was its usual “slight” bottleneck, as people adjusted their pace for fear of eating a face full of dirt and rocks. What was cool during that stretch, though, were the Ewok and Endor jungle noises being piped through the sound system. It was almost as if you could hear them watching you from the foliage. There was another photo backdrop featuring the “speeder bikes” from Return of the Jedi, which you could actually pose upon, but at that point we were about a half mile from the Finish, and also beer. So onward we went, onto the pavement, where I remembered Boots would be waiting, and she captured Kristi and I about to enter the final sprint to the Finish Line:


We turned the corner and made the run to the Finish Line. Per usual, race announcer Rudy called out Kristi’s name as we crossed the first timing mat and ignored mine, but that’s OK. I got a guns shout-out from Carissa the previous day. And we would have had a pretty kickass finish line pic as well, if it weren’t for this jackass who decided to dart across the Finish Line diagonally in front of Kristi in order to get in front of one of the photographers there. Buttmunch.


We came in at somewhere under three hours, which surprised me given how often we stopped throughout the race. All good in the hood. We collected our medals: Kristi got her Half Medal (a spinner with Vader’s face on it), whereas I collected four medals: the aforementioned half medal, the Rebel Challenge medal (shaped like the Death Star), the Coast to Coast medal, and the Kessel Run medal (shaped like the Millennium Falcon). Why, I was definitely VERY pleased with myself!



But all we really wanted was that ice cold beer. We grabbed our snack boxes, exited the chute, and walked up to the first cast member we saw to ask where we could find the beer tent.

“I’m sorry sir,” he said with the tired resignation of someone who had been asked this same question only about 2 zillion times in the past hour alone, “but ESPN Zone is actually located in Osceola County, where it’s against the law to sell liquor before noon on Sundays…”


We were not pleased.

But OK, that was fine. Beer could wait. Kristi and I sat in the shade and enjoyed our snacks. Soon afterward Boots, Rich, and Mauricio joined us, where we agreed to shower, change, and meet up at Uno around noon for pizza and beers… which we ended up doing. But first we had to wait the roughly 45 minutes it took to board the shuttle back to Epcot.

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Seriously, something needs to be done about this travel situation. Since the start and finish lines are at two separate areas, drivers are required to park at Epcot and take the shuttle back to Epcot from ESPN. The line, slowly moving, seemed somewhat interminable. For runners who had just spent the last few hours on their feet running 13.1 miles, requiring them to stand and slowly shuffle in the late morning sun is not exactly ideal.

Anyway, that issue notwithstanding, we had a fun time with the race. Rich, Mauricio, and Kristi had to vamoose back to Fort Lauderdale after our lunch at Uno’s (where beers were finally had!), so we said our goodbyes and Boots & I headed to Hollywood Studios to meet my Zoo Crew buddies Ann and Jennifer. We got to ride some rides, pose with some characters at the Star Wars Launch Bay, and watch both Fantasmic and the new Star Wars-themed fireworks show. But more importantly, we posed with all our medals from the Star Wars races on both coasts. I was sporting ten of those suckers: four from Light Side, six from Dark Side, and I might have only developed a minor case of scoliosis as a result, but it was all worth it. And meeting up with more awesome buddies Rob, Jackie, Teri Jo, Dave, Dale, Bill, Jennifer, Rich, Holly, Anita, and Ray at the end of the night capped a great evening.






So what’s the verdict on the 2016 Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon? Many people complained about the perceived lack of characters and entertainment, the long boring stretches on the Osceola Parkway, the way early (even for Run Disney) race start time, the bus situation, the anti-climactic finishing at ESPN as opposed to a Disney theme park, the narrowness of many stretches of the course, the bottlenecks, and the long lines at character stops. Some of those complaints have merit, others not so much, but I enjoyed it for what it was. There was some cool theming, a festive atmosphere, enough cosplayers and characters to make it interesting, and the weather was, to my sensibilities, absolutely perfect. Hopefully as Star Wars Land is completed in Hollywood Studios (or whatever they will be calling it in the future), there will be much more immersive Star Wars entertainment to come in future runnings. I’m not much on Run Disney races anymore (I’ll still do the January Marathon every year, if I can, but that’s about it) but I could see myself doing this one again for fun in the future. So thumbs up from your pals at Hokeyblog. Here’s the video:

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