Where Did The “Magic Every Mile” Go During runDisney Races?

Editor’s Note: I’ve completed many runDisney events dating back to before the Disney Endurance Series was “re-branded” runDisney.  My first full marathon was motivated by the mouse in 2007, and running in the Disney Parks inspired my daughter to run two races.  However, after the January 2014 runDisney Half Marathon, something felt lacking.  Sure, I had a wonderful time due to running for the Give Kids The World Village Charity Team, but runDisney’s promised “Magic Every Mile” had diminished.  I planned on signing up for the Disneyland Half Marathon to get my Coast-to-Coast Medal, but intentionally passed when registration opened.  I posted on Facebook that runDisney had lost some luster for me, and was surprised to find I wasn’t alone.  I invited Tim Kirchner to share his thoughts on the current state of runDisney races.  This is Tim’s first post for Adventures by Daddy, and hopefully not the last.

runDisney

Post by Tim Kirchner

I happened across an interesting Facebook post several days ago; it ended up turning into an enlightening, and surprising conversation.  The source offered later in the thread he initially hesitated making the post, but was glad to hear how much understanding and agreement came his way.  So, what touchy subject was this all about?  The assertion that perhaps runDisney events have been losing their magic.  Some might consider such a statement heresy, yet many of us actually found plenty to agree on.

Let’s look at a few of the specific complaints, including a few of my own that I’ll add here.  Then we can talk about some of the causes.  To illustrate a few points, I will even offer some of my suggestions on how to fix the issues, though I doubt they will ever actually come to pass.

For the issues themselves, most center around increased prices, increased crowds, earlier starting times, and in general too much focus on profits, in ways that decrease the overall runner experience.  To put another way, I would argue that over time, runDisney has become much less run, and much more Disney.  In the latter, the higher prices and crowding are kind of assumed as par for the course.  But with all the hype about medals, merchandise, characters, and photographs, I can’t help but feel that the “run” part of it is slowly fading away.

I saw another Facebook post on one of the fan pages for a runDisney event that summed up my feelings, but in a very positive way.  Regrettably I failed to copy the link, so I am left to paraphrase without giving proper credit, but it went something like this:

I don’t run the races for the medals, although they are nice.

I don’t run the races for the characters and entertainment, though they are nice.

I don’t go just for the merchandise, although it is nice.

I participate because it’s an activity I love, at a place I love, doing it with other people.

runDisney

runDisney Encourages Unprepared Participants

Let me take a moment to point out specifically that I am not an elite runner, and don’t wish to be branded an elitist in any way shape or form.  I don’t care whether you’re the first one finished or you’re finishing just under the required pace… anyone who does the work and gives it their all deserves my full recognition and congratulations, whatever their level of ability.  With that said, what does give me pause is the frequency of participants showing up grossly unprepared, undertrained (or even outright untrained), or otherwise unable to meet the basic requirements of the event.  What I will happily go on record saying is that these events are not for everyone, and I don’t believe they necessarily should be.  I am not looking to call anyone out, and certainly don’t want to discourage people from adopting an active and healthy lifestyle.  I just want people to respect the races and the distance, train properly, and register for those races they are best suited towards.

While they are billed as “fun” events more than competitive (and with which I agree), it should not be taken to imply that traveling 13.1 miles on foot doesn’t need to be taken seriously, because it absolutely does.  I fear this reality is largely lost in much of the runDisney promotions and marketing.  A blog published by runDisney featured a giant celebration for the person who finished dead last in the 2013 Tinker Bell Half Marathon.  She was featured on stage a month later at the Princess half, and was given a special starting position at the front of the first corral… she finished that race also near the back of the pack with a time of 4:43, the extra hour while avoiding being swept all thanks to the unnatural corral placement.  There was anecdotal speculation online that she intentionally all but stopped on the course to let others pass and assure another dead last finish.  Sure, it’s warm and fuzzy to celebrate the “success” of even the last finisher, but such a publicity stunt is downright disingenuous.

I’m sure it was great for registrations to promote a message that anyone can do it… even those who don’t meet the basic requirements.  Unfortunately many of the registrations are from those who cannot do it, or at least are not ready to yet.  At the most recent Tink half, approximately 11% of those who started were unable to finish, either being swept or dropping out on their own accord.  Among those who did make it to the finish, 16% were in excess of the 3:30 pacing requirement.  In other words, of all those who started the race, nearly 1 in 4 did not finish it within the required time limit.  Nearly all runDisney half marathons in the past two years have similar statistics.  Some participants even look to see if they can get away with being under pace, while knowing they aren’t likely to be able to meet the pacing requirement.

runDisney Dopey Challenge

Photo by Ali Nasser, courtesy runDisney © Disney. All Rights Reserved

Multi-Day Multi-Medal Race Challenges

The newest sensation by runDisney seems to be multi-day challenges, and special medals to go with them.  Now, I’ll admit, when it was limited to the Goofy Race and a Half Challenge, and was kind of a neat little event of its own during WDW Marathon Weekend.  I thought this was awesome, and participated in “the Goofy” back in 2010.  Now, the multi-race challenges have gone way beyond the Goofy Challenge, and nearly every race weekend includes at least one multi-day challenge.  Sadly, I suspect this only exacerbates the issue of participants being unprepared, or simply biting off more than they can chew.  This January 2014 runDisney offered the Inaugural Dopey Challenge, requiring competitors to finish a 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, and Full Marathon in four consecutive days; 6136 individuals are listed as finishers for all four races. Of those, 22% failed to make the minimum pace on at least one of the four events.  It is unclear exactly how many starters were swept, or otherwise failed to finish one of the events, though I would wager there were at least a few.

Another issue with multi-day challenges, and the addition of 10K races, is that race “weekends” now have their first event – typically billed as some flavor of “family 5k” – on a Thursday or Friday, with packet pickup a day earlier still.  In other words, bringing kids for the family event means missing more school days.  A weekend event now spans four or five days in total, and keeps people on properly longer, which I am sure is part of the business motivation.

Disneyland Family Fun Run 5K

Back to the issue of finish times, I do realize that many participants stop along the course much more often than they might in a race without photo opportunities and the like, and I certainly understand why that is the case.  However, one also needs to account for this time when planning their pace, and in considering his or her own abilities.  This also affects crowding in at least one other way that might not be obvious: corral placement.  Race registration requires listing an “estimated finish time.”  Typically one lists a reasonable, possibly a little optimistic, race time here.  A 2:30 half marathon runner who plans to stop for a half dozen pictures may actually be looking at a 3 hour or longer time, depending on the lines for pictures with some of the characters.  I don’t claim that there is an easy fix for this, but merely seek to illustrate a fundamental flaw with the corral process, even with the requirement of proof of time.

Of course, it is impossible to accurately gauge just how many of these participants legitimately suffered unexpected troubles along the course, or made some honest mistakes with pacing when waiting in line for pictures, versus knowingly towing the start line unprepared.  However, comments that go something like “Wow, I never really trained further than 3 miles, hope this half goes well!” or “I fell behind on my training, but it’s Disney and I paid a lot of money for it so I’m definitely still doing it!” are too common.

One blogger outright admitted it: “Who sits out a runDisney event just because they’re slightly under trained? Certainly not this girl!”  Now, to be fair, this particular individual is not a stranger to running longer races, and seems to have been okay, but it nonetheless shows the mentality that can come along with some of these events.  Another participant, by self-admission a slower runner, admits to being totally untrained, and even talks about some pretty severe cramping at around the 9 mile mark.

I will be clear again that I am no elite, and the examples I call out are just that… examples, and they are still in the relative minority of participants.  But there are still way too many.  Though marketing the event to non-runners, and under trained participants have been the bulk of my discussion, there are a few other things also worth at least a mention, in my mind.

runDisney New Balance shoes

photo courtesy runDisney, all rights reserved

runDisney Shoes and Merchandise

This is something of a sticky point for a few different reasons.  Merchandise at a pre-race expo is fairly typical of many race of sufficient size, and can be a great way to learn about new products or pick up a few last minute items that are needed for the race… perhaps you need a few extra Gu packets, or a small tube of vaseline for instance.  In the case of runDisney events, this extends to various jackets, t-shirts, and other memorabilia, which is often hard to come by.

That latest craze in the past year or two, however, are the Official New Balance Shoes, many purchased simply for re-sell on eBay with a massive markup.  As a runner, I am left wondering why anyone would purchase shoes on the basis of the look and design alone, but yet the sales figures speak for themselves.  Sometimes participants will even don their new kicks for a race the following day.  I guess if one is going to wear shoes that may or may not be the right fit, then breaking them in probably is probably not a primary concern either.

Along with the merchandise, Disney seems to have done a good job finding new opportunities to add paid special events, like pasta parties, post race events, and race “retreat” areas on the morning of the run.  One particular tradition, once cherished by many, was the informal (and free) runDisney meetup that would often include a fun run with some of the running personalities at the event, like Jeff Galloway.  It was typically announced on twitter, and very small in nature.  Prior to the 2014 WDW Marathon Weekend, runDisney announced through bloggers there would be no meetup, citing all of the work required for the inaugural 10K and Dopey Challenge.  Understandable, runDisney never said these free meetups would happen for every race weekend.  Interestingly, when registration opened for the 2014 Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend, a new “Welcome Event” had been added to the schedule – sounding a great deal like the spontaneous, free runDisney meetups.  For a $200 $89 fee runners would get an:

  • Official Welcome from runDisney
  • Question and Answer Session and Dynamic Warm-up with Runner’s World Experts
  • Official Welcome to California with a ride on Soarin’ Over California
  • One (1) hour early entry into “Official runDisney Merchandise area” on Thursday, August 28, 2014
  • runDisney bag which includes a runDisney tech shirt and a Runner’s World Magazine

For those who hoped to one day experience a free runDisney Meetup, this news was as “welcome” as a left hook to the gut.

(edited: the article incorrectly listed the price of the Welcome Event at $200, it is listed at $89.  We have changed the price accordingly.)

Disneyland Half Marathon weekend

runDisney Bib Buying/Selling

Some people don’t have a registration, and hope they can get one from someone else.  Offers to sell bibs abound, and some even seek a moral high road by making the offer for charity.  Some participants are blissfully unaware that bib selling isn’t even allowed.  Nonetheless, it happens often enough for even a casual observer to notice.  It is basically impossible to come up with exactly how often it takes place.

I will respond ahead of time to the rather obvious rebuttal that it shouldn’t matter if someone else races in place of the original registrant.  From the perspective of the sport, running under a purchased bib means the final results recorded for the event will be inaccurate.  Someone’s name will be listed next to a time they did not earn for an event in which they did not compete.  I am not trying to say that this hurts the results in an obvious way, but in some small way it does take away from the integrity of the event.

A larger concern, however, might arise in the case of a serious – and otherwise legitimate – injuries or medical issues.  If an individual running under a purchased bib were to get hurt on the course, I would hate to be on the legal team for that person, for the race organizers, or even for Disney itself.  When you buy a bib, you haven’t signed a waiver of your own regarding issues just like that.  I hate to think of the mess that would result.

2013 runDisney Expedition Everest Challenge

runDisney’s Goals and My Goal

A fair question might be to ask why Disney puts on these events.  Reasonable answers might include their commitment to improving people’s health, utilization of the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility, or trying to reach a wider audience of individuals to visit Disney Parks.  Moreover, though, it is about making money, as is the case for any good business.  Part of their successful formula for that has always been around people having a good time, with a healthy dose of those less tangible things like wishes, dreams, and magic.

Many devout Disney fans – a title I would bestow upon myself as well – recognize this and fully accept that they are still a business with the goal of making money.  What we all like to see however, is a high quality product that is successful, which naturally brings in business, rather than focusing only on the business and hoping to keep things just magical enough to avoid losing too many customers.  It is with that same spirit that I voice my own concern for runDisney events.

I should also add that in spite of my criticisms here, there are plenty of things to like about the events; in that sense, my goal is only to evaluate the issues with the intent of hoping they can be remedied.  Let us now look at some possible solutions.  I will start with what I’d call the “knee jerk” ideas, and explain some of the flaws.  Then, I will offer some ideas of my own–some quite radical – despite that I do not think they will ever happen.

2013 WALT DISNEY WORLD MARATHON

Mickey Mouse Hot Air Balloon at the ESPN Wide World of Sports during the Walt Disney World Marathon. Photo by Todd Anderson, courtesy of runDisney

Ways runDisney Should NOT Attempt to Fix Things

1) Loosen the pacing requirements to accommodate slower participants.

I will say straight out that the pacing requirement of races currently is already very much a recreational pace.  Although there are a few (non-Disney) races with slightly looser requirements, many have finish lines that close much sooner.  A 20 minute pace would match an average human walking pace; a relatively leisurely one at that.  Part of the point of such events is that it is an extra effort, and takes some training.

Another thing to consider is that a race course open for longer is more expensive to operate.  It means more time aid stations need to remain open, and increased costs for entertainers.  It also increases the long-tail of slower participants more likely to need medical attention for issues like dehydration or hyponatremia.

2) Add (still) more events to each of the existing weekends.

If the sell-out rates of most weekend events are any indication, then the addition of more 5K and 10K events do not seem to be helping to ease the demand by much.  Why not?  Multi-day challenge events.  A non-trivial portion of the registrations that are sold are to combined entries like Dumbo, Glass Slipper, and Dopey.  The additional event does not substantially increase the number of total participants, rather it results in many of the same people participating in multiple events, often with a hefty price premium.  If anything, events seem to sell out quicker.

3) Allow peer-to-peer transfer of bibs.

If this were ever officially sanctioned, I fear it would be the kiss of death of runDisney events, and much like concert tickets, most sales would take place on secondary markets.  Apart from the issues already mentioned with transferring bibs, I suspect we would see individuals buying out bibs very quickly with the sole purpose of reselling for profit.  Although I don’t think the practice would last too long, as we would quickly find out exactly how much people were willing to pay for runDisney events, the chaos it would create is something I cannot even imagine.

4) More gender-specific events.

When runDisney first announced the Tink Half, they cited the need for new events based on how quickly the Disneyland half always sells out.  For many male runners however (myself included), this felt like something of an empty surprise.  I will temper how much I express about my feelings on this, since it is not productive, and I do not wish to ruin the excitement of those (mostly females of course) who are enthusiastic about this event.

What I will reiterate, however, is that adding events which are really only intended for half of the population will only go so far in helping excess demand.

2012 Disneyland Half Marathon

Things runDisney Should Do, And Why They Won’t

1) Make proof of finish time a requirement to register.

I know, the obvious concern against this is that people won’t be able to register without having done a previous race, thus raising the bar for entry in a sense.  With that said, a great many people, even those doing their very first race, often do find themselves participating in another event before race day, just to have that proof of time for better corral placement.

What I would love to see happen as a result of something like this is to help weed out some of the participants who do not take the training seriously, or who do not realistically have the ability to finish in time.  With the allure of the special medals for multi-day events and the like, I think it only raises the importance of proof of time.  An interesting side benefit is that nobody would be toeing the line for their first ever race.  Basic race etiquette, how to run in a crowd of people with a mass start, how to deal with water/aid stations, and various other skills are something really only learned through experience.  If it were the case that everyone was already at least a bit familiar with these things, I suspect it could only improve the overall experience for everyone.

So, why won’t this happen?  It would weed out those who sign up only because it sounds like fun, or they like the idea of a shiny medal.  For better or worse, that sense of excitement makes money for Disney, especially in additional purchases at the race expo.  From a business standpoint, I would estimate it is very unlikely they would want to put up any barriers that make it harder for these enthusiastic individuals to sign up.

2) Consider adding more race weekends throughout the year.

Simple economics of supply and demand suggests only two ways to fix the issue… and decreasing demand seems unlikely without continuing to alienate participants.  I recognize that race organization does require a fair amount of effort and planning.  Knowing that, it is probably easier to add events in Florida rather than California; coordinating with the city of Anaheim does add complexity.

I can imagine a scenario where there are runDisney events every six weeks, or even every month.  Some fans will try to attend nearly every event, and others will benefit from being able to pick those that are most convenient with their schedule, or that match a theme of their liking.

Sadly, I suspect it would also dilute the merchandise purchases, which means I don’t hold my breath that it will ever happen.  [Editor’s Note: After Tim submitted this article, runDisney added a new race weekend in November at Disneyland.]

2013 Walt Disney World Marathon

3) Make finisher medals just that, maybe even enforce time requirements on them.

There are plenty of debates online already, which I do not necessarily care to rehash here, but the fact is, many participants end up getting finisher medals in circumstances where it might be questionable whether or not they truly finished.  Some may finish outside of the time limit, others are swept and driven by bus to the finish line, others may leave the race entirely due to injury, yet in almost all of these cases, the participant still goes home with a medal.  I am not here to shame or judge anyone, but instead leave it up to each individual’s own recognizance to determine whether they feel they have earned the medal, given their best effort, or even simply feel it was part of the fee they paid.

What I am here to do is imagine a world where participants only got medals if they actually cross the finish line of the race, having gone the full distance on their own power.  In a more draconian scenario, perhaps even confirm that chip time meets the pacing requirements.  Though I realize this might sound harsh, my hope is that it might be one way to encourage people to truly be prepared for the event.

For the same reasons as my first point, I don’t think this will actually happen.  Not only does Disney not want to dissuade anyone from registering, they would not want to deal with the inevitable complaints that followed.  To be fair though, plenty of people already complain…

4) Require all participants to pick up their own packet/bib, or consider checking ID when people arrive at the pre-race area.

I know there are a few people who legitimately cannot make packet pickup, and find themselves in a position to greatly benefit from having someone else pickup for them.  Though there are no hard numbers on this readily available, I suspect this is the overwhelming minority, however.  More importantly though, on race morning, in the staging area, I am hard pressed to find a reason against a quick ID confirmation here.  Given the large entourage of security folk already present to check for bibs, timing tags, and accept bag checks, I don’t feel like this would be a huge burden.

As for Disney disallowing a friend or designee at packet pickup, I doubt this will ever happen.  Once again, it all comes down to business and money.  At least from the standpoint of the race expo, they have little reason to care who actually does the pickup, as long as it gets another warm body in front of the merchandise.  Ignoring the potential legal issues mentioned earlier, and at risk of sounding like a conspiracy theory, I would also bet at least a few interested individuals are not even bothered by bib sales at all, for the same reason.  In the simplest sense, it still benefits runDisney to have someone travel down for the event, and likely spend money while there.

5) Offer a special prize (maybe a pin) to those who finish under their estimated time.

Of all ideas I suggest here, this is one of my favorite.  After each race, or perhaps even sent by mail in weeks following, provide participants with a special reward for those who meet or beat their estimated finish time.  Maybe a special bonus medal, or maybe a runDisney “I met my goal” pin.  It doesn’t have to be too extravagant, but where many participants seem to thrive on the special bling anyway, why not give them more of what they like while improving the system?

Part of the issue with crowding results from runners completing the race at a different pace than estimated, and uneven corral placements.  With a simple reward in place, runners are incentivized to either push themselves along just a bit faster, or to be more realistic about their actual finish time.

The only real drawback I can see is trying to deal with complaints by those who did not make their pace.  That in mind, I suspect Disney might hesitate at this type of system.

2014 runDisney WDW Half Marathon

In Conclusion

Admittedly, this has been a bit long winded, but hopefully has at least been a thought-provoking read.  I know plenty of people greatly enjoy runDisney events, and I am not looking to rain on anyone’s parade.  My hope is merely that some of these issues can be worked through.  Are there any other issues I missed, or better solutions available?

Some reports from the recent Princess Half Marathon have suggested to me that they are now working with a system of more corrals with less people in each.  Apparently, this seems to aid in some of the early crowding issues.  This came as welcome news to me.

runDisney also dropped a nice surprise with the announcement of a new Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon, to take place in fall on the west coast.  This also came as welcome news.  Not only does it add a sorely-needed second [non gender specific] half marathon on that coast, but it is also being presented without a 10k event or corresponding double-up challenge.  I look forward to hearing how the event itself goes, but from a bigger picture, am hopeful this might be a sign that some things are moving back in the right direction.

unDisney Avengers Super Hero Half Marathon

Thanks to Tim Kirchner for his thoughtful piece.  Now it’s your turn.  I know we have a lot of runDisney race fans in our audience.  What do you think?  Are runDisney races just as magical and covered in pixie-dust as ever, or have you been finding some tarnish and wear on your finisher medals.  Please leave your thoughts and comments below and continue the conversation.  For more running adventures, family travel news, reviews, and trip reports, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

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