The 11th annual Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend was held September 1-4, 2016. With over 25,000 participants in the 5K, 10K, half marathon, and kid’s races, it is the flagship runDisney event on the west coast. The Dumbo Double Dare Challenge, consisting of the 10K Saturday morning and the half marathon on Sunday, was completed by more than 5,300 runners.28
I had an early morning flight into LAX and arrived in Anaheim a little before 11 a.m. on Friday. This gave me time to drop my luggage at my hotel and grab lunch before the Expo opened. Traditionally, the Expo has opened at 10 a.m. each day of the weekend, but Friday’s opening time was curiously pushed back two hours. Considering the number of runners obviously milling around Downtown Disney shortly before noon, and the huge queues of people waiting to get in as soon as the expo opened, it seemed like there was certainly enough demand to justify an earlier opening.
I was also frustrated to discover that there were no opportunities to purchase park tickets at the Expo or anywhere else at the Disneyland Hotel. Considering the event brings tens of thousands of people through the hotel as the gateway to the resort, it surprised me that cast members were instructing runners to make the trek to the Esplanade to wait in the infamously-long queues there. While not a major problem, it undermines the concept of the event being a premium race weekend (as the price would suggest) and reinforces that Disneyland fails to learn and grow from previous race weekends.
After picking up my packet and a quick stop by runner relations, I spent a little time exploring the Expo floor. There seemed to be slightly fewer running booths than I’ve seen in the past, with huge areas of the floor designated for official sponsors and a large DVC sales area. I passed through the official merchandise area after a short wait, but none of the merchandise struck my fancy. After a relaxing afternoon and the requisite pre-race pasta dinner, I headed to bed early to get some sleep before the next day’s race.
The 10K course started southbound on Disneyland Drive, passing behind the Anaheim Convention Center, up Harbor Boulevard, and passing backstage behind California Adventure. Runners emerged into Carsland, passed through each of the park’s districts, and then took the backstage tunnel to Disneyland’s backstage areas. Entering the park through Toontown, the course looped around Tomorrowland, through the castle, down Main Street, and out into Downtown Disney for a finish near the Disneyland Hotel.
As usual with Disney race weekends, we began our day long before sunrise. Leaving the hotel, the temperature was in the upper 60’s, which was surprisingly good weather for running. In the pre-race area I saw some runners in long pants and long sleeves who seemed to be taking the cool weather a little too far, but it felt really nice once we got moving.
The early miles of the race were fairly uneventful, but things started to get interesting once we got into the parks. Because of the ongoing Star Wars construction in the northwest corner of the resort, the route had some differences from what we’ve seen in the past, so it was fun to run through some new areas. We even got to see the Star Wars construction from ground level, which was a fun addition even if there wasn’t anything distinguishable from that angle. With a couple quick character stops along the way, I finished the race in a comfortable 55:41.
Adam Henry from Santa Monica won the men’s division in 34:27; Momoko Tanaka from Maihama Uraysu-shi, Japan (home of the Tokyo Disney Resort) won the women’s division in 36:55 as the second-fastest finisher overall. Ralph Piepenbos from Monrovia, CA won the push rim wheelchair division in 31:31. Over 9,000 runners completed the event.
The 13.1-mile half marathon course started southbound on Disneyland Drive, before cutting into California Adventure through backstage. After a quick loop around Paradise Pier, runners headed across the Esplanade into Disneyland for the obligatory trip through the castle, then back into California Adventure, through the tunnel under the bus plaza, and around Disneyland’s backstage areas to Ball Road. Runners then zig-zagged their way to the Santa Ana River, passing by the Honda Center and ARTIC transit terminal, before heading into Angels Stadium. The course then returned to the Resort District, passing behind California Adventure and finishing near the Disneyland Hotel.
For the second day in a row, the weather was surprisingly pleasant, especially considering the heat runners have faced in previous years. The pre-race temperature was warm enough that runners weren’t freezing in their athletic gear, but it also stayed cool and overcast much later than anybody anticipated, making for a comfortable race. During a race weekend that’s notorious for dry summer heat, this was a pleasant surprise that helped push me to the finish a little faster.
In general, there seemed to be more character locations this year than in the past. Many of them had the characters elevated on balconies and parade floats, which cut down on the time it took each runner to get a photo and also allowed runners to see who was there while just passing by. Overall there also seemed to be more variety between the two races, which was an added bonus for the thousands of runners who were out both days.
After leaving the parks, the course turns to the self-proclaimed “scenic streets of Anaheim”, winding through largely forgettable industrial parts of town. As usual, there were a decent number of spectators out cheering their friends on, and lots of local cultural groups performing as the race went by. While there seemed to be fewer cheerleaders and marching bands than in the past, there was never too much time between points of interest. As much as the Disney name brings new runners to the event, it’s the local community that really makes it memorable.
Around the mile 10 marker, I started to do some mental math, and realized that I could conceivably finish in less than 2 hours. I knew I would need to stick to my pace and cut down some of my walk breaks, but I felt like I still had a final push in me. As the miles continued to tick by, it seemed increasingly realistic, until my last walk break shortly after passing mile 12. When I started running again, I was a little farther from the finish than I expected and moving a little slower than I had hoped. With a big final kick that covered far more distance than I had hoped was necessary, I was able to eke it out in 1:59:39.
Jimmy Grabow from the appropriately-named Running Springs, CA won the men’s division in 1:06:13, and Momoko Tanaka repeated the previous day’s victory, this time finishing in 1:19:31. Ralph Piepenbos also repeated his victory in the men’s push rim division in 1:08:48, and Ryen Reed from Riverside, CA won the women’s division in 1:28:51. More than 13,000 runners finished the race.
As if the event didn’t already have enough disparate concepts fighting for attention, the whole weekend was given an inexplicable “partners” theme. Perhaps the strangest part of this approach was the 5K, which was themed around the Country Bear Jamboree, whose closure in Anaheim was approaching its 15-year anniversary shortly after the race weekend. Given that the 5K is intended as a “family fun” event where kids and parents can run together, it seemed particularly odd that they chose a theme that wouldn’t connect with the younger runners. One advantage was that there seemed to be far more characters in the parks available for photos than usual, and most were paired with a partner for a more unique photo op. However, many of the characters I saw were awkwardly solo, as their partners weren’t out yet when I passed by. Seeing Mickey and Donald without their respective girlfriends wasn’t unusual, but Meeko with no Pocahontas, Lilo with no Stitch, and Mike with no Sully all seemed out of place.
Another new addition this year was the constant encouragement to “Do your Disney best” by the pre-race announcers and on-course DJs and cheer stations. It was a blandly-corporate message to make healthy choices, complete with faux-enthusiasm and hashtags. While these sorts of things tend to annoy me, it felt especially obnoxious to get bombarded with these messages while running a half marathon; everybody out there was clearly making healthy choices already…no need to remind us! And to strike a pet peeve of mine, they had to continually insert “Disney” into the encouragements to do our “Disney best”, as if just doing our best wasn’t enough (see also: “Disney DVD”).
Overall, I enjoyed the weekend. Although many of the seemingly-obvious logistical problems persist after countless race weekends at the Disneyland Resort, the routine has become familiar and comfortable. There were a few unexpected additions and changes this year, but it there’s a certain sense of tradition that comes with so many recurring aspects. It’s still not my favorite race weekend in the runDisney calendar, but in total it was a lot of fun.
Kevin has been visiting Disney parks his entire life, including multiple trips to all 11 worldwide theme parks and several years as a Disneyland local. He has been a distance runner since 2011, with over 300 Disney race miles under his belt. He currently lives in the Washington, DC area and continues to make regular visits to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.