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LIFESTYLE

11 MIN

Fan Fitness: Inside the World of runDisney

Each year 250,000 people take part in runDisney races. Many of them do it for a very specific reason: fandom.

One dark and balmy pre-dawn California morning, I found myself standing amid a throng of thousands of people. Most of them exuberantly excited – too excited for this ungodly hour. Many of them were elaborately costumed, more than a few wore mouse ears. Awake at 4 a.m., dressed in running shorts and shoes, and packed into corral C, I was awash with a sense of disbelief. I don’t like crowds, I don’t do mornings, there is no coffee. So what was I doing here?

Here would be the starting line of a Disneyland 5K race, part of the runDisney series. As for what I was doing? Well, it seemed I was about to run. Surprising, considering that ordinarily I do not run, barring the threat of attack by deadly animal. Yet standing with my husband and eight-year-old daughter I was a little more than excited (admittedly a little afraid). How did I get here?

To answer that question is to get to the root of runDisney’s success, and Disney’s success generally. Many of the 250,000 people who take part in runDisney races each year do it for a very specific reason: fandom.

A deep-seated love of Disney explains how the company draws up to an average of 28,000 runners at each of its nine race weekends across two – soon to be three – of its resorts. Fandom explains why race registrations sell out within hours, much faster than race industry norms. It’s why seeing runners dressed as all five emotions from Inside Out or as Minnie Mouse or as any number of princesses, superheroes or Star Wars characters is the rule rather than the exception. And it’s why my husband Chris – a no-longer-closet Disney acolyte – managed to convince me to undertake the one form of exercise that I despise the most.

Rae Ann Fera/Billy

Chris (in Vader black) in the last mile of the Star Wars Dark Side half-marathon.

UNDERSTANDING THE ALLURE

My husband’s love of Disney conquered my household in gradual, creeping advances. It started with fond memories of childhood road trips down the West Coast to Disneyland. Then came the family trip out west with our own child when she was five, which was followed by another trip the next summer. The house slowly became littered (I mean decorated) with Disney paraphernalia, mostly Vinylmation figures – collector’s items, don’t you know? By the time we landed at Disneyland for the fourth consecutive summer, this time with race bibs for our first runDisney event, I knew this wasn’t a passing fad.

We discovered runDisney by happenstance. Upon learning that hotel rooms were scarce because of a half marathon weekend last fall, Chris thought, Hey, it might be fun to run through Disney while we’re there and signed the family up. The chance to experience Disneyland in a new way was enough to convince him to lace up and start training for his first-ever run. But that lark has unlocked in him a legitimate interest in the sport. He’s since run two more runDisney events, including two half-marathons, not to mention several races in our hometown of Toronto, and he’s training for the New York marathon this fall.

And he’s not alone.

The stories that come from runDisney are all very similar: non-runners intrigued by the thought of running through the parks, and likely in costume, then find themselves bitten by the running bug.

runDisney

Racers show off their medals and costumes following the Star Wars Half Marathon at Disneyland.

“I liked the idea of mixing running with Disney's theming and I started wondering if I was fit enough to do it,” says Javier Cano of Toronto, a longtime Disney animation fan who discovered runDisney through a podcast while researching a family vacation at Walt Disney World. His first training runs were disappointing: he’d tire after two kilometres. So he challenged himself to train harder and signed up for a half marathon without having tested that distance.

“After training for more than six months, I started to feel that 5K was just a regular practice run and that I could endure longer distances.” He reached 15 kilometres in his training runs, short of the half’s 21.1, but was determined to try. He found he was buoyed by the positive energy of the Disney race. “It felt so good to know that the training had paid off and that I achieved something I thought I would not have been able to do before.”

According to Darrell Fry, sports and youth groups media director at Walt Disney World Resort, on average, “more than half” of runners are participating in a runDisney event for the first time. “Running industry experts frequently point to our races as being ideal for first-time runners because of the fun atmosphere. As a result, we see large numbers of runners coming back again and again.”

runDisney

Ready, set... The starting line of the Star Wars Half Marathon in Orlando.

DISNEY’S RUNNING EMPIRE

Interest in running has exploded over the last two decades. Running USA reports that the industry grew by 300% between 1990 and 2013; by the end of that stretch, there were nearly 20 million active runners in the United States. With such a huge pool of potential participants, races can cater to niche interests. You can run and drink wine afterwards. You can run and rave. You can run and rock out. You can run with it all hanging out (though, really, why?) And I’m certain none of these events commands the intense loyalty that runDisney does.

Disney has been operating its themed races under the runDisney banner since 2010, but it started in the running business in 1994, when about 7,000 people ran a marathon at Walt Disney World. That rebrand has been key to getting people, often the most unlikely athletes, off the monorail and onto the running trail.

Darrell Fry says that bringing people to sport through the wonderful world of Disney is one of the primary goals. “We are totally focused on creating even more one-of-a-kind experiences for runners during our runDisney race weekends, so we continue to tap into the extraordinary resources of the Walt Disney Company and its many popular franchises to create race experiences that runners of all demographics and skill levels can’t get anywhere else except at runDisney events.”

runDisney

Joy, accomplishment – and fatigue – at the finish line of the Tinker Bell Half Marathon at Disneyland.

Scoff if you like – I know I did at first – but the fact is, people who love Disney really, really love it. Walt Disney was recently named the most powerful brand in the world by London-based strategy firm Brand Finance. Forbes ranks it as the 11th most valuable brand. Disney has only strengthened its foundations in recent years, thanks to shrewd acquisitions. ESPN, Pixar, The Muppets and Marvel are all Disney’s now, as is Star Wars. And the love that these brands enjoy has a special power; it’s fuelled by childhood memories of Darth and Luke, a lifelong love of Mickey and Co., an undying connection to comic book heroes.

Disney gives fans ample opportunity to connect their love of its stories with their own desire to get fit. There’s the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in Orlando, the flagship weekend for runDisney, drawing more than 50,000 participants and just as many spectators, and, based on rough math (since the company won’t divulge financial details) nets an estimated $14 million (all figures USD) in registration revenues for that one weekend alone. Then there’s the Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend in Anaheim, which is estimated to bring $20 million to $30 million in economic activity to the Southern California area. There’s a Wine & Dine Half Marathon for those who like a liquid reward. There is a Tinker Bell Half Marathon, which appeals greatly to women, along with the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend, where about 90% of the runners are women. Registrations for both the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon and the Star Wars Half Marathon sold out within two hours when they launched in 2014 and 2015, respectively. There’s even a race on Disney’s private Bahamian Island Castaway Cay, and the first European race weekend is planned in September 2016 at Disneyland Paris.

Natalie Fultz

Natalie Fultz and her wife head to their starting corrals, pre-dawn.

When Natalie Fultz of Kentucky watched her friend, Toronto native Arwen McKay, win the women’s 10K at the 2015 Princess Half Marathon Weekend, she and her wife instantly caught the bug. “I am a former softball player, so distance running was not my thing, and my wife was a soccer goalkeeper in college, so again not a distance runner. We were slow, out of shape, and overwhelmed,” says Fultz. Still, experiencing the atmosphere of a runDisney race in person was enough for Fultz to register for a Wine & Dine race.

“I never thought we would make it … [but] Disney isn't intimidating like a lot of races,”Fultz says. “We are not fast – like, 13 to 14 minute miles – but at Disney I never worry about that or the fact that we use run-walk intervals. Everyone is there to support you doing it, no matter how you get it done. Not all races are like that.”

This democratic spirit is evident on the course. You’ll find runners of every shape, size and age: there are those trying to meet weight-loss goals who struggle to keep up a 17-minute-per-mile pace; there are those like the septuagenarian couple who took my family’s pre-race photos while waiting in the corral; and there are families like mine, just revelling in the chance to run through the Magic Kingdom. Off the course, there are groups like Team #runDisney, a private Facebook group where more than 14,000 members share their stories and unconditionally support each other.

"At Disney ... everyone is there to support you doing it, no matter how you get it done."

This welcoming environment is how Paul Marotta, a cosmetic chemist from New York, found his stride and lost 100 pounds. At Disney he’s completed three multi-race challenges (more on those shortly) and now regularly runs marathons. Megan Papetti from Boston had become “very overweight” at the time she signed up for her first event. “I’ve now lost the weight and have run many other races there and in my area. I haven’t looked back.”

For Javier Cano, this is the most memorable aspect of running at Disney: seeing so many people of all ages and fitness levels challenging themselves to get to the finish line.

“It was a humbling and inspiring experience to run with some men and women who had prosthetic legs, some others had photos of their loved ones attached to their clothes as a symbol of honour or dedication,” he says. “Some were in costumes; some were in teams. It was a very positive and empowering experience.”

Rae Ann Fera/Billy

Chris's mighty haul. From L-R are medals for: The Dark Side Challenge; the half marathon; a Coast-to-Coast medal featuring Walt himself; the 10K; the Kessel Run bi-coastal Star Wars medal; the 5K.

WHY EVERY MILE IS MAGIC AT DISNEY

The motto of runDisney is “Every Mile is Magic.” That magic is how well integrated the races are into the park and how much they draw on the empire’s beloved characters and franchises. At the starting line – which is so brutally early so that runners will clear the park before opening time – there are characters and lots of cheery-happy hype. Depending on where you are, Disneyland or Walt Disney World, you start in or are soon in the park, running by well-known attractions and in backstage areas, getting a glimpse at the machinations that fuel the Magic Kingdom.

At each mile, costumed characters join the water volunteers as welcome faces along the course. Participants actually break their stride to get a mid-race selfie with Mickey or Maleficent or Chewbacca, finishing time be damned. And the running garb of nearly every runner has some connection to a character, if not a full-out costume. (The Health and Fitness Expo leading up to the event peddles every manner of branded gear, and is itself an economic juggernaut.)

“I ran two Princess halfs, one dressed as Jasmine and one as Snow White. As a man, you get a lot of attention wearing a skirt at the Princess runs.”

As a rule, costumes get more plentiful as you go back in corrals; elite runners in corral A will don a themed technical shirt but rarely have a full costume, though seeing a marathoner with a lightsaber or mouse ears is a relatively normal occurrence. While recent restrictions on costumes prevented people from running in excessively large outfits (like the guy witnessed at the Star Wars race weekend in California who dressed as Luke inside a tauntaun), you’ll see plenty of women sporting BB-8 or R2D2 running dresses. Dudes will stride by as Stormtroppers. Some hardcore fans mashed up the Star Wars and princess universes. Then there are guys like Mike Noble, who makes his mark running as the ladies do.

“I ran two Princess halfs, one dressed as Jasmine and one as Snow White. As a man, you get a lot of attention wearing a skirt at the Princess runs,” he says.

Mike Noble

Mike Noble, centre, is a mighty maiden among men.

If the tie-in to characters and franchises with these race themes is the bait, then the multi-race challenges are the real hook. While each race weekend includes kids races, plus a 5K, 10K, a half marathon and sometimes a marathon, special medals – each weighty and elaborately designed – are given to those who run all the distance races in the same weekend, with names like the Goofy Challenge, the Dumbo Double Dare and the Star Wars Rebel Challenge. There’s a coast-to-coast challenge, with a special medal for those who run at both parks. And the ultimate? The Dopey Challenge, wherein lunatics, I mean dedicated runners run a 5K, 10K, half and full marathon in one weekend, a total of 48.6 miles (78 kilometres). This past January, 8,000 people undertook this insane feat.

After completing a multi-race and coast-to-coast challenges at Walt Disney World my husband nabbed medals featuring Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, a TIE fighter, the Death Star, and the pièce de resistance, the Millennium Falcon. This is nerd nirvana: All weekend through the park you see runners proudly wearing their medals – sometimes four at a time – drinking in the torrent of congratulations from passersby and fellow racers, beaming over their tokens of approval from the House of Mouse.

Rae Ann Fera/Billy

Our daughter in the final stretch of the kids' 400m dash; Our family, with bling.

FOR KIDS… AND KIDS AT HEART

If feeling like a kid again is one of the appeals of Disney, for many, having kids of their own is what helped them discover runDisney – and make running a family affair.

It was during a trip with his wife and son, which happened to coincide with the Princess Half Marathon Weekend, that running princess Mike Noble’s runDisney journey began. “We saw there was a 5K, we signed up, and we were hooked,” says the New Jersey native, who says he’s a lifelong fan of Mickey’s empire.

Since that first race, Noble and his wife have run several Disney half marathons, as well as non-Disney runs. “I now love running. I don't run with music, I use the time to try to clear my head and get together with nature at times. I run to feel better, to feel accomplished, to feel awesome,” Noble says. “Being able to mix my love for Disney and my love of running is awesome.”

His most memorable moment so far has been finishing the full marathon in 2015 and receiving his medal from his son. “Finishing a marathon is something I never thought I would do, and the feeling of finishing was exhilarating.”

“I'm also very proud that I got my kids to join me in running."

That joy of running with your kids is something that many parents, find extra gratifying. I certainly do.

For Genevieve Handfield, a travel agent from Montreal, her first runDisney event was a Princess Half Marathon. Having only ever run a 5K in Ottawa she doubted her abilities – “I thought it was such a huge distance and only strangers could do it,” she says – she not only finished it but has since taken up running with her family.

“I still can't believe I can run 21.1 kilometres. For me, it was something only athletes did. So now I know more than ever that I can do whatever my mind is set on,” she says adding that she’s since run two more half marathons and is registered for one in Montreal in September. “I'm also very proud that I got my kids to join me in running. They love running the kids 1K or 2K, but they are mostly proud of their first 5K in 39 minutes.”

Rae Ann Fera/Billy

Rounding the bend at Epcot as the sun comes up. Nearly done!

A CYNIC’S TAKE

So has runDisney turned me into an ardent runner? Not really. I love how it gives my family an excuse to make exercise important; to work towards a goal together. And it’s fun. There really is something truly magical – even for this old cynic – about running through the gates of a fantasy castle, or rounding a curve to see the Epcot ball in its stately glory as the sun comes up with your family, along with a horde of people of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities just trying to find their way to fitness in a way that matters to them. Yet I simply don’t have the requisite gene to run on the regular, though I did run another 5K during the Star Wars Dark Side challenge, plus a couple of one-off 5Ks at home, which is still shocking to me.

Meanwhile, someone – I wonder who –  mysteriously registered me for a 5K next January in Orlando, suggesting another family running trip is in store.

You see, my husband is no longer just a Disney nut, he’s become a running nut, too, and he credits Disney for his newfound fitness (and smaller pant size).

The same goes for Natalie Fultz. “It was our love of Disney and the excitement of all things runDisney that sparked [our interest in running],” she says. Since their first Wine & Dine, Fultz and her wife have completed the Glass Slipper Challenge (5K, 10K, Half), two local halfs, the a coast-to-coast Dumbo Double Dare, the Air Force Half Marathon and the Southernmost Half in Key West this year.

“If you told me this time last year that I would run a half marathon and have six more planned I would have had you committed! But now running has given me so much I can't imagine life without it,” she says. “The friends, the experiences, quality time together with no technology just each other on training runs, not to mention the health benefits. I owe it all the runDisney!”

[This article was originally published on May 11, 2016]

Published Wednesday, January 4th 2017

Header image credit: runDisney

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