When I first heard about the Kessel Run Challenge, I immediately added it to my bucket list of races to complete. Not only because I love Star Wars, but because the medal is AMAZING! Zach just completed the Inaugural Kessel Run Challenge and is here to share some of the high and lows of both races. Let’s go for a run!
Star Wars was my first love. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the movies – I immediately fell for the feel, look and spirit of the films. They stuck with me through countless novels, comic books, video games, prequel movies, an animated series, and the exciting announcement – in October, 2012 – that Lucasfilm had been acquired by the Walt Disney Company.
That month I was training for my first marathon and first runDisney event: the 20th Anniversary Walt Disney World Marathon. I daydream when I run, and it was hard not to get lost in a galaxy of imagination: What would the new movies be like? Was Disney planning an expanded Star Wars presence in the parks? How would it feel to run a Star Wars themed race?
That last question was answered in just a little over two years!
I completed the first two Star Wars Half-Marathons in Disneyland, but I didn’t plan to participate in the inaugural Star Wars Dark Side races at Walt Disney World – I’ll tell you why before I wrap up. However, when runDisney unexpectedly reopened registration in mid-February 2016, I couldn’t help but sign up for the Half Marathon and see if I could earn the incredibly cool Kessel Run Challenge medal.
What runDisney has given us are two fun, wonderfully-themed races on fast courses with great entertainment along the way. Each has high points and low points, and I thought it would be helpful to discuss those for the uninitiated in three areas: Course, Entertainment, and Medals.
I dare anyone to not love the first five miles of the Star Wars Half Marathon in Anaheim. That portion of the course is almost exclusively through Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, or through backstage areas. No one has ever written a review of a west coast runDisney course without using the words “once you leave the parks, however…” This course is no different. Around mile 7 it turns through a residential neighborhood as bathrobe’d (NOT Jedi robe’d) residents stumble out to the curb for their morning papers. From there, it gets weirder.
At one point during the race I noticed a man in a wheelchair struggling to get up a ramp to the door of an adult bookstore. I instinctively veered onto the sidewalk to help him, but thought again when I realized that – considering I was dressed as Luke Skywalker – it would have been one of the strangest things happening on the planet at that moment. The entertainment makes up for the oddness of the course, and I’ll get into that in the next section.
When I signed up for the Dark Side half on the East Coast, the course was not yet public. A little detective work on the runDisney site revealed a start at Epcot and a finish at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. My quick conclusion was that we were getting a reverse Wine & Dine course, and the eventual map release essentially confirmed that, with a few notable exceptions! Most importantly – and maybe the highlight of the race – is mile 2 through World Showcase in Epcot. It’s dark. The torches are lit. Other than the music and sound effects it is eerily quiet other than the sound of shoes.
After Epcot was the part of the race that had my crowd concern antenna up – the narrow path between the Boardwalk and the ‘Studios. I had heard this was wingtip to wingtip during the 10K, but I thankfully had no problem keeping my pace up into what’s currently left of Hollywood Studios. Animal Kingdom is always a joy to run through in the dark, and then the final surprise of the course was a dirt path into ESPN WWOS off Osceola Parkway that I didn’t know existed!
Both courses are flat, fast and offer solid opportunities to run through Disney Parks. What excites me is that they’ll only get better when runDisney can route us through finished, immersive Star Wars lands at each resort in just a few years!
Again, the early portion of the Star Wars Light Side Half Marathon really shines. Star Wars music comes from everywhere, and characters are projected stories tall on buildings. The course runs through a tunnel underneath the Disneyland Railroad that has been lit lightsaber red and filled with the ominous sound of Darth Vader’s mechanical breathing.
In California Adventure, World of Color lights up Paradise Pier. Several character stops mark the way, the most popular of which this past year was easily BB-8 in DCA. I stopped during the 5K, 10K and the half, and never faced longer then a 5-10 minute wait.
Other stops include giant set pieces that allow runners to become part of iconic Star Wars scenes, like the Death Start trash compactor in Episode IV and the Wampa’s ice cave in Episode V.
As I said earlier, the course gets a little weird once it leaves the confines of the parks, but the on-course entertainment keeps the energy going. Several high school marching bands provide music and enthusiasm along the way, especially if you wave a lightsaber at them – I honestly don’t know where these kids get their energy that early in the morning! Huge contingents from the 501st Legion, the Rebel Legion, and the Mandalorian Mercs (fan costuming organizations, for those not in-the-know) hold down the course around mile 9, as well as several motorists with vehicles tricked out in a Star Wars theme. I wish there had been more on-course entertainment thereafter on the trip back to the resort, but the promise of a celebratory drink at Trader Sam’s is really all the motivation I need to reach the finish line.
I experienced my favorite mile ever in a runDisney event during the Star Wars Dark Side Half, and it was mile two through World Showcase at Epcot. There were no character stops, but Disney used light, music and sound to create an unforgettably atmospheric environment. By the time I reached the China pavilion, I had turned off the music playing through my phone, and was scrambling to make a recording of the ambiance so I’d remember what it felt like: perfect (click here for the recording).
Thereafter, I was really surprised by the low number of character stations. I may not be counting accurately, but I remember Chewbacca outside the International Gate at Epcot, Ezra and Sabine from “Rebels” on the way into Animal Kingdom, a second Wookie on the way out of Animal Kingdom, and a few stormtroopers sprinkled around. Instead, many of the most sought-after photo ops were at the start or finish line, including Darth Vader, Captain Phasma and Jabba. That’s very cool for spectators and runners who like to soak up the post-race finish line atmosphere, but there were certainly a few places along the course where a photo op could have broken up a long stretch without a distraction – I’m looking at you, Mile 8 Through The Animal Kingdom Parking Lot. On the less Dark Side, I loved the big screens along Osceola showing various lightsaber duels from the films – very cool!
The west coast finisher’s medal is based on the Rebel Alliance’s Medal of Bravery, which is awarded the Luke Skywalker and Han Solo at the end of the original Star Wars movie – that earns it a ton of fan credibility. The east coast finisher’s medal features a very cool spinner with Darth Vader on one side and the Emperor (with a semi-hidden Star Destroyer) on the other. Extra points for making the spindle the blade of Vader’s red lightsaber!
The Millennium Falcon-shaped Kessel Run medal is unbelievable. It is as big as my hand, but thin enough that it isn’t too heavy. In a close race with the 20th Anniversary Walt Disney World Marathon medal, it may be the favorite in my runDisney collection!
You can’t go wrong running either of these races, and you certainly can’t go wrong running both of them! If you’re at all into Star Wars (and who isn’t these days?) there’s a lot of see and get excited about, and as runDisney races they maximize time in the parks and send you back to the showers with a lot of wonderful memories.
And I mentioned earlier that I didn’t originally plan to run the Dark Side Half. That’s because my wife and I expected a new baby daughter to arrive exactly a month before the day of the race. I didn’t think I’d be up for too many Father-of-the-Year awards if I skipped the state that soon, but my wife was enthusiastically supportive, and I managed the whole trip from Philadelphia to Orlando and back in just about 38 hours. I want to give an embarrassingly public thanks to Leslie (and Charlie and very new Hadley) for her constant support of my crazy running nonsense!
Congrats Zach & Leslie!!