Kim Scharoff and Tom Troost continue their coverage of the Star Wars – The Dark Side Half Marathon weekend events as they describe their successful completion of the Dark Side Challenge – the 10K and Half Marathon races.
Saturday, April 22 – Dark Side 10K
The 2016 Star Wars Dark Side races at Walt Disney World were inaugural events. As with most first time events, it went okay, but there were things that could have been better. We were excited for the 2017 versions of the next two races because they would both be following a new course.
The 2017 10K course was a point-to-point race. This meant we were starting in one location in the Magic Kingdom parking lot near the Ticket and Transportation Center, running down closed roads and finishing at the EPCOT parking lot. Due to this fact, we decided to take the race transportation to the start. The 10K race also started earlier at 5:30am (compared to the 5k 6:00am start). We stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge and had no issues with getting to race start on the Disney buses.
In the pre-race area at Magic Kingdom everything was well organized. The pre-race character meet and greets were the same characters from Friday and DJ Elliott was spinning tunes to get everyone up and excited to run. The DJ was reminding people to hydrate and that the characters would also be in the finish area. There was plenty of space for folks to hang around before heading to the corrals. We milled about and used the porta potties, which we felt were in ample supply before heading to the corrals. For the 10k, the corrals went from A to F. Each corral was subdivided into two or three waves and were sent off in two minute intervals. Every wave was sent off with fireworks.
For the 10K, we were starting in separate corrals and decided to take different approaches. Tom hung to the back of his corral and Kim went to the front of hers.
Rudy, John and Carissa sent everyone off for the race. We started the race by heading back toward World Drive and got to run through the back side of the toll booths for Magic Kingdom. Within the first half mile, there was a local high school band playing Star Wars music. The kids and their adults were highly enthusiastic, cheering and giving high fives. The first three miles were down World Drive, a divided highway. You needed to stay alert to the side of the road because of construction, but most of it was well lit and well-marked. There were no PhotoPass photographers on the highway portion of the course for action shots, but there were character stops. R2-D2 was in this area of the course. Character photos were also available with Star Wars Rebels, the Emperor’s chair and Darth Maul. After running a little more than half way we left World Drive, and snuck in to Hollywood Studios by the back of the Tower of Terror and the Fantasmic show area. At this point, there was an exciting group of cosplayers from the 501st Legion and the Saber Guild.
As you came out into the Studios, there were some Storm Troopers available to take pictures with.
We made the left onto Hollywood Blvd. to go out the entrance of the Studios. There were lots of Cast Members with light sabers cheering us on at this point and at least 4 to 6 PhotoPass photographers.
It was now time to go down the path to the Boardwalk and over to EPCOT. This was the only place we felt the course was a bit narrow and bottlenecked a little, although it was not like last year when it came to a complete stop. On the path, they had the Endor speeder bikes out for a photo opportunity. We took the boardwalk past the front of the Yacht and Beach Club. This was nice because there was some shade from the trees and folks out cheering with signs all along the area. We entered EPCOT in World Showcase and Chewbacca was near the backstage entrance by the International Gateway (the same spot as the 5k). We made our way from World Showcase to the front of EPCOT. The Storm Troopers were on the fountain again for photos.
As we headed backstage for the final two tenths of a mile, there were more cosplayers available backstage where the gospel choir is normally during Marathon and Princess weekends. As we approached the finish line, we stopped to talk with race announcers Rudy and John briefly before crossing the finish line with our arms raised in victory.
The finishers area where you get your medals, water and snack boxes was perfect. We stopped to get our photos taken by the PhotoPass photographers.
As the temperature was getting warm already, we headed to the buses to head back to the resort and had no waits getting right on a bus. One thing that did surprise us was that while there were adequate water stops, there was no Powerade available on the course.
Sunday, April 23 – Dark Side Half Marathon
When we woke up for the half marathon, the temperatures were already in the low 70s. We knew this was going to be a rough one. We got ourselves prepared, made sure we had full water bottles and damp cooling towels and boarded the bus to Magic Kingdom parking lot.
Like the 10K, we got to the pre-race area with plenty of time to spare, but three days of three a.m. wake up calls were taking their toll. We met up with old friends, made some new friends, used the porta potties and casually made our way to the corrals.
While in the corrals, the race announcers were great at reminding everyone to be careful and safe due to the heat. They even got Jeff Galloway on camera to remind us that it was important to watch your pace and to listen to your body. We took the same approach as yesterday with Tom starting in the back of his corral and Kim starting in the front of her corral hoping to meet up early in the race.
The new half marathon course started the same as the 10K by going towards the toll plaza of the Magic Kingdom. The band was there again, doing a great job of motivating the runners as we went by. Then it was time for a few new twists. The course turned off of the familiar World Drive route and they routed us down Bear Island Road. Those who have run the full Marathon or the 2016 Wine & Dine course will recognize this as the road behind the Speedway, running by the water treatment plant.
R2-D2 was out again early on. Then we ran back in to the quiet and darkness of the 5:30 a.m. start.
As we ran back onto the dark roadway it seemed a little creepy until suddenly we were in the middle of the battle of Endor. There were laser blasts, sound effects and fire balls to make it feel like you were in the middle of the action. This was a great addition to the race.
Also during this stretch, they had out the speeder bikes and meeting with an Ewok around mile 2.6.
We entered Animal Kingdom backstage and made our way into the park. We ran a little backstage, saw some of the holding cages, and then popped onstage near Kali River Rapids. All of the water in Kali was a very cooling thought for what was yet to come. We got to pass by the Nemo theatre, where there were Storm Troopers for photos, and exited the park near Chester & Hester’s Dinoland attractions.
We went through a backstage area where there were plenty of cosplayers and then out into the near-park side of the Animal Kingdom parking lot. This can be a long stretch but they did a great job of breaking it up with people cheering and a water stop.
There was also another photo opportunity, the ice cave on Hoth where you had to try to reach out and use the force to recover your light saber. We were a little more than halfway there at this point.
Then the hot happened.
We started on another long highway stretch down Osceola staring into the rising sun. First we got to make jokes about the double suns of Tatooine. The heat jokes got old, so we started the chant “I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me.” Somehow this morphed in to “I am one with tequila and tequila is one with me.” Heat and humidity can do silly things like that.
We had to run up the circle entrance ramps from Osceola to World Drive and again from World Drive to Buena Vista Drive. The incline on the ramps wasn’t bad, but the sloping of the Florida roads around the circle ramps led to more silly comments as we made our way towards Hollywood Studios. The sun was pushing its way up, and the comparison to living on Darth Vader’s volcanic planet of Mustafar was mentioned.
The clouds blocked the heat a little, but with no breeze it got muggy quickly. The path we followed into and through Studios was the same as the 10K. Back through the Fantasmic Theatre (no cosplayers on Sunday), down Hollywood Boulevard and then out to the park entrance. There were plenty of PhotoPass photographers in this stretch and lots of people were hamming it up for the camera.
The course then went back down the path to the Boardwalk resort where we went closer to the shaded BoardWalk side. It was in this area that there the various running teams out supporting, cheering and having snacks available. We also got to see a famous (?) podcaster who is just a little taller than an Ewok and another section of additional cosplayers.
We entered EPCOT and made the right to go the long way around World Showcase. We joked that we could have ridden the Frozen ride because we hit this part at park opening. The lack of an open margarita stand was also pointed out. We continued to make out way to the front of EPCOT. There was a final group of cosplayers in the backstage area again.
After seeing our favorite race announcers near the end we tried to dance our way across the finish line and learned that Kim has much better rhythm than Tom.
As we made our way through the finish area, we were given our medals and the blessed relief of new cooling towels. The medical volunteers were out in full force encouraging us to hydrate hydrate hydrate.
We got medals and finish line pictures, and they had beer and food available in the reunion area, as well as merchandise opportunities for people who missed out at the expo, but Tom was too tired. We hopped right on to a bus for a ride back to the hotel.
While we were smart with hydrating and using cooling towels during the race, this was a tough one. The new courses were a refreshing change from what we are used to running. The minimal crowding on the course made it very enjoyable to run. With lots of time on open roads the crowd was able to thin out and you got an excellent balance of open running time mixed with some time spent in the parks and seeing characters.
We would recommend these races to those who are Star Wars fans. We believe that as Disney does more with the Star Wars franchise we will see more variety of characters on course and ultimately a change in the course when Star Wars Land opens. This weekend certainly wins most improved over the inaugural experience and it will continue to get better with time.
From Laura: I’d like to say a huge thank you to Kim, Tom, and Molly for sharing their experiences at the Dark Side Half Marathon Weekend with us! After reading their blogs I’m seriously considering signing up for the Challenge again next year…