April 17, 2016. Walt Disney World. The Star Wars Dark Side weekend at Disney World included three standard-distance races: 5K, 10K, and half-marathon on consecutive days and a smattering of kids’ races up to 1-mile distance based on age. There was also a special Dark Side Challenge for people who wanted to run both the 10K and HM back-to-back (and get a special finisher’s medal shaped like the Death Star). Registration opened on September 22, 2015 at noon, and by the time I finished signing myself and my family up for our races at 12:18PM, the 10K/HM Challenge combo was completely sold out. So, be forewarned that you need to be Johnny-on-the-Spot when online registration starts for a RunDisney race or you may not get in. in hindsight, I’m glad I wasn’t able to get into the 10K/HM Challenge and only ran the Half. All of the races started at 5:00AM or 5:30AM so that they would be completed before the theme parks opened for the day and before the oppressive heat and humidity of Florida could really take hold. The kids’ races happen during the day, but they’re all confined to the ESPN Wide World of Sports park and are very short distances, so they don’t have to deal with the same considerations. This means, of course, as an adult, that you’re running almost the entirety of your race in the dark while everyone else is asleep. I’ll get this out of the way now as my biggest criticism regarding this particular RunDisney race: you don’t get to see much of the parks that you’re running through because only the running course is lit, and there are no spectators cheering you on at this hour besides the park employees (and the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers — who are all volunteers in costume). I still had a really good time overall, but I won’t be signing up for this race again. So, on to the actual race report. Thursday night: We flew in to Orlando and took the Magic Express bus from the airport to our room at the Wilderness Lodge (no renting cars for me on this trip — we would spend the entire weekend on Disney properties and using their various modes of mass transit). Friday: As we walk through the lobby to catch a bus to the runners’ expo at ESPN WWoS, we see people who had run the 5K earlier that morning coming back to the Lodge wearing their t-shirts and medals. The packet pick-up and expo is spread out over 2 buildings with ample signage and smiling RunDisney staff directing you along the way. The package is your bib, t-shirt, gear-check bag, and event guide plus some safety pins and some energy bars. There is a lot of Star Wars-themed running “stuff” and a lot of vendors on the expo floor. The Imperial March and Duel of the Fates are playing over the PA system pretty much the whole time and the big screen TVs are all showing scenes from the movies. Kudos for expo organization and festive atmosphere. I spend the rest of the day at the Magic Kingdom with my family. While riding the bus among the parks, I’m checking out the road surfaces that I’ll be running on for the race. They look relatively smooth and in good repair — not buttery, mirror-finish blacktop, but not gatorback or chip-n-seal either. Since I know the paths in the parks will be smooth, I have pretty high confidence I’ll be able to run the course entirely without shoes. Saturday: Wake up at 3AM, catch 4AM bus to Epcot with spouse for her 10K race. Staging area is one of the northern parking lots of Epcot. Stand in line for Porta-Potties for 25 minutes. Realize (later) that beyond the gate that says “Runners only beyond this point” there are another 100 Porta-Potties with much shorter lines. Mentally note this for my upcoming race tomorrow… There are 8 or 9 big Star Wars backdrops (e.g. Jabba’s palace, Death Star Throne Room, etc.) set up for photos. However, there are no PhotoPass photographers, so you’re basically either taking selfies, or asking the runner in line behind you to snap the picture for you with your phone. (The official photographer for the Dark Side races was Disney’s own PhotoPass instead of MarathonFoto, so I was kind of counting on there being Disney photographers everywhere and had pre-purchased the digital photo package because of this. Seeing no photographers at this point was a let-down. More on that later.) We do not attempt to brave the lines for photos. Since I’m not running the 10K, I wander around the staging area to see what to expect for tomorrow. I take off my shoes to check the surface. Lemme tell you, the Epcot parking lot surface looks really nice and uniform from a distance, but it’s (how do I describe this?) “spiky”. Like they tarred over a scattering of small pyramidal gravel. I’m really hoping that not much of the course uses this part of Epcot. The 10K course goes through Epcot, Hollywood Studios, down the highway, and finishes at ESPN. My wife reports back after the race that the final bit of the course included a run down a dirt road into ESPN. I’m like “dirt-dirt”? or “dirt-and-gravel”? She says, “there are some rocks and it’s about half a mile long.” Hmmm, definitely bringing my back-up shoes tomorrow… We hop on a bus back to the Lodge, get everyone breakfasted, and come back for my son’s 1-Mile race at 1PM. One parent is allowed to run with the child in the kids’ races, so I draw pacer duty. Since we are in the parks during normal operating hours, Disney’s “no barefoot” policy is in effect. I keep use my Luna sandals for the run. The kids all get a finisher’s medal with Darth Vader on it (made of rubber — smart choice since you’ve just handed flails to hundreds of children in your park). We spend the rest of the day in Animal Kingdom. Sunday pre-race: Wake up at 2:30AM, go down to the lobby to catch the 3:00AM bus. Bus doesn’t show up until 3:40AM and not all the runners fit into it (I _just_ made it in). Demerits to RunDisney for not having the bus schedules nailed by the 3rd day of racing… It’s about 63°F and little breezy. Totally not what I anticipating for a Florida race in spring, but I’ll take it. Staging area is that same Epcot parking lot from yesterday. I use one of the runners-only Porta-Potties that only has a 5-minute wait. There are a lot of people wearing Star Wars -themed stuff, but not many full-on “costumes”. (Kudos to the dudes in head-to-toe Kylo and Darth outfits and there were not just one, but two, gold-bikini-Leia runners). Since I had given them my qualifying time from the Philly HM in October (1:50), I was placed in the 2nd corral from the start line. (Hey! I can see the really fast guys from here!) There were 18000(!) people lined up behind me. You really, really want to have a documented qualifying time coming into this race so as not to be caught in the corrals at the back because the course is quite narrow in spots and there will simply never be an opportunity for you to find your stride in the huddled masses. Lucky for me, the start of the race is on the road and not the “spiky” parking lot. Sunday race: Air horn, fireworks, Imperial March, we’re off! The HM course goes from Epcot, to Hollywood Studios, and then waaaaaay out to the west on the highway to Animal Kingdom, then aaaalllll the way back, and finishes in ESPN. We run by the giant ball in Epcot, through some of the backlot, and around the World Showcase. Here, I reiterate that while it’s a hoot to run through a Disney park in bare feet, you can’t see anything around you because it’s so dark at 5AM. The paths were lit, but not super-brightly, and not continuously, so there were parts where I was really trusting in the scrupulous cleanliness of Disney in general, and hoping not to step in anything nasty or sharp. I encountered a few spots along the course that were lit up like daylight and figured out that’s where the PhotoPass photographer were shooting their action shots. Okay, now I feel better about the photo thing. There are also some “set pieces” along the course where you can step out and get a Star Wars pic. Again, PhotoPass photographers stationed there too. I skipped most of them because the lines were already 20-deep at the first few and I did not want to get caught by the mass of runners behind us. Hollywood Studios was nice because it’s basically set up to be seen at night anyway. Again, really nice smooth pavement throughout. Then, it was time for the long highway stretch to Animal Kingdom. Despite the placement of water stations, sound systems, and TVs along the way, there are very long stretches where you are running. in the dark. with only other runners. no spectators. on a highway. At last, we are at the Animal Kingdom. And we’re running the perimeter of the parking lots. For a long time. And the pavement is rougher here, so I retreat to running the lane striping at the edge (which, if you don’t know this trick, is a lifesaver on bad roads and hot pavement). The pavement within the Animal Kingdom on the paths is intentionally rough and uneven to reflect the ‘wild’ nature of the environments being simulated, but it’s runnable. Now we have to run the highway all the way back the way we came. This is probably the Darkest period (pun intended) of the race experience. Incidentally, you’d think a race in Florida would be flat flat flat. And you’d be right. Except that we traversed a bunch of on-ramps and overpasses to get from park to park and those added a really odd element of “hills” to the course. At the start of Mile 12, we reach the dirt road my wife had warned me about. I can see that’s got a lot of thumb sized rocks and other gravelly bits on it; there’s no grassy shoulder as an alternative path. So, I finally unroll the Zem Ninjas I’ve been carrying in my hands all this time and put them on my feet. It’s not too bad, but I still had to watch where I stepped. When I get to the end, I ask one of the guides if there’s any more gravel or dirt. “Nope” Great! I roll my shoes back up and about 400 yards later, I hit a long stretch of pea gravel. <eye roll> This is uncomfortable, but still runnable barefoot, and I’m close to the finish, so I just grit through it. The final stretch is on a paved, interior road at ESPN and you can hear the music and announcers before you can see them. There are some spectators here; mostly family members come to watch their runners at the finish. Announcers call out your name and hometown as you cross the line. As I collect my medal, drinks, and snacks, I see that some runners are clanking around with 4(!) medals: 10K, HM, Dark Side Challenge, and a final one shaped like the Millennium Falcon called the “Kessel Run” for running the Star Wars HM at both Disneyland and Disney World in the same year. That’s a lot of hardware! Sunday post-race: I spent the rest of the day at Epcot. The coolest part of this event was that most of the runners were spending their Sunday at the parks and about every 20th person I saw was wearing their 5K, 10K, or HM t-shirt along with their medals. It’s a surprisingly good feeling to be among a bunch of fellow runners (identifiable as such) in large crowds and to exchange little knowing glances and congratulatory thumbs-ups the entire day with them. This was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for me. We all flew out exhausted and happy on Monday morning. Wrap-Up: I was the only barefooter in the race as far as I could tell. I maybe saw 2 people wearing Vibram FFs, but otherwise, it was standard running footwear everywhere. I got a handful of comments that were all surprisingly similar. Something to the effect of: “Check out that guy. He ran right out of his shoes!” From a technical standpoint, I would say that this race is runnable barefoot except for that half-mile of gravel at the end. Sturdier soles than I might be able to handle it unshod, but you’d probably still have to slow way down. The roughest pavement is going to be in and around the parking lots. I think a lot of the 5K race is in the Epcot parking lot, so ironically, the shorter distance would actually be harder to run. Don’t come to this race to PR or for a “scenic” course. Come as part of vacation in the theme parks, to revel in the amazing geekiness of thousands of other Star Wars fans, and for finally finding out what it’s like to go barefoot in Disney World without getting in trouble.