15th Time’s the Charm: I Ran a Whole Star Wars Darkside 5K

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This was my post-race email to a friend of mine. I finally ran an entire 5K.

I took this weekend to travel to the east coast Disney conglomeration in Florida (seriously, look at a map and see how many parks and hotels they have). The inaugural Dark Side Half Marathon was going on and timed up well for me, so I made the trip down.

There are so many things that were going on. I’m going to have trouble telling a coherent story (and I don’t have time to, so I won’t be fixing this as a draft later; sorry, sports fans). Turns out we’re past 4,000 words.

To begin with, we need our obligatory intro to know where our heroes left off.

Last year, I embarked on the Super Awesome Year of the 5K. I assumed around April or May, I’d be running the whole things, and then would be trying to break 25 minutes.

That so didn’t happen.

The least amount of times I walked in any race was like 4 or 5 times.

But I’m not one to let failure stop me from making harder goals, so I decided to go after a 10K this year.

Oof. That was kind of dumb.

I’ve been upping my mileage the past couple of months, including a whopper of March before a calf strain slowed me up two weeks ago. Luckily it healed and a test run showed I could do what I needed to do.

That’s the preamble for the weekend. Now the story’s going to take a meandering approach, much like the prequels.

A good starting point is the getting there. I’ve been to Disney World a few times, so I’m familiar with a couple of the parks, but I wasn’t familiar with anything else, and that’s what I was going to be living and breathing for the better part of 24 hours.

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I may or may not have taken this while driving a moving vehicle. Not a bad shot considering.

The first part of the journey had me trying to get into my hotel room. Here’s what they do: They call all of the hotels resorts like they’re not just hotels, and then they will give individual buildings at the hotels names, including some that I believe had hotel in their name. So I pull up and see parking for check-in. This is strange to me. I get my luggage out and start going into the building only to realize that taking my luggage in with me was a futile gesture. Turns out you don’t directly access your room from the lobby area (not without a lot of meandering around the resort/hotel). I checked in, and my room wasn’t ready, so I waddled back to the car and dropped my stuff off before I went in search in food.

Now here’s the kicker. The lady at the desk said I wouldn’t need to come back to the desk when my room was ready. They’d text me, and I could go straight there.

Except they never told me where the room was.

Eventually, I got the text, which said to go to the desk (like I wasn’t going to have to anyway). I was ground level, with outside facing doors. These are two things I prefer not to do with hotels. I hadn’t realized the rooms were this way when I booked.

I should stop here and say I got a “value” room because it seemed obscene to pay that much more for a place I was just sleeping at. Of course, this meant I was staying in a tiny room that had the smell of an old La Quinta. Seriously, there’s a certain smell that only hotels seem to have.

It was a nice enough room. You have room to sleep and dress, and that’s about it, but when you’re at Disney, that’s all they want you to be doing (and probably all you want to be doing there anyway).

You have to give them credit. They really commit to their themes. The soap and the shampoo also had their own Mickey Mouse take. And the TV plays a lot of park-specific programming, mostly to promote itself to get you to come back, but they also had channels for cartoons and for Radio Disney. It’s a neat little Disney tweak on what is basically a regular, small hotel room.

I only had two real complaints about the room itself. They skimp on blankets and the sink was clogged (I really meant to tell them about that when I checked out. Whoops.).

The next order of business was getting to the expo to pick up my packet. This is where I first learned that these races aren’t as smoothly run as you might like. When I checked in, I asked where to get on the bus, and they pointed me to their area for lines to get on buses for various things across the Disney property.

So after getting acclimated in my room, I worked my way toward the line. I waited for a while. My particular line actually was for two buses. The first bus comes up, but it’s for the other park. But a guy who was waiting asked the bus driver when the ESPN Wide World of Sports bus would come by.

It wouldn’t. Because of the race events, that bus is actually picking up at the front of the resort. There were signs talk about race activities, but I assumed it meant just the races (and I had been told by a Disney employee where to go to get on my bus).

Worked my way to where I was supposed to right after a bus had left, so it was just me and the lady working that stop for the race events.

I tried making small talk. I should never try making small talk.

I mentioned that I’d actually gone over to where all the other buses were going. And she got testy with me. “Didn’t you see the sign?” Yes, but I thought it meant just the races. “Well, isn’t the expo a part of the races.” Ok, I get it. You’re unhappy you’re working bus stops and literally clicking a counter for hours on end.

She then went on to tell me how someone got mad at her because they’d been waiting 45 minutes at the other stop (the AUDACITY of someone who was the victim of poor communications to do that!). And it turns out a bunch of other people had done the same thing. Yeah, clearly the markers were adequate. I walked past the actual stop like 4 or 5 times and didn’t know it was the stop for the expo. Must have been clearly marked. Hell, on the way back from the race, the bus driver stopped at the regular bus stops not knowing where to go.

Luckily, that was the end of the organization issues, though I know others have worse stories about Disney races. They outsource the race stuff, so it’s not surprising they don’t run with the same clockwork the rest of the property does. Seriously. If you haven’t been to Disney before, go. It’s amazing how the keep this gigantic machine running as smoothly as they do. They must employ half of the Orlando area.

The buses were actually kind of nice. The ones I got on were charter buses (some were the regular Disney park buses, which I’ve never been in, so maybe I was getting the raw deal), so it was a flashback to high school football and track without the unnecessary sports movies. Seriously, every football trip featured a football movie on the way up. Track just showed regular movies. The track team routinely won district and the football team never had a winning record. I’ll let you figure out which coaches had the right idea.

Side note on the buses. We rode them to and from the race. I was drenched in sweat at the end. And then I sat in a fabric seat. I feel sorry for whoever has to clean those seats after these races (or the people who sit in the seats after no one cleans them).

One day, I’d really like to go back to the ESPN place when there’s something real going on, like a tournament. It was pretty neat to see how many fields and such they have. Unfortunately (or fortunately), all they had was the race event stuff going that I could tell. And that was a lot.

Seriously, a lot.

There were so many sellers of crap I neither wanted nor needed. But Jeff Galloway was there. That was pretty neat. On another blog, this is where I’d tell you I waited in line to see him and said I enjoyed his articles in Runner’s World, but this isn’t another blog. This is the blog of shy introvert who’s still kind of surprised he signed up for a race knowing how many people would be running.

My enjoyment of the expo was tampered a bit by a few things. One, the aforementioned shyness combined with thousands of people. Two, I was getting tired (I’d been up since 3 a.m.), and I knew walking around this expo wasn’t a good way to prepare for my run. Three, I’ve been on a minimalism kick, so buying something that doesn’t scream “BUY ME!” is kind of out of the question. But I was tempted.

They had an obscene amount of light sabers. The largest group was Kylo Ren’s (obvi), but they had a pretty solid breakdown of a lot of the Jedi and Sith ones from the first 6 movies. I wanted to get one, but I also knew it would sit in my office (and I don’t honestly have a true favorite among the bunch, so no single one jumped out. Maybe once Rey has hers).

The coolest thing that was a definite no was New Balance having Disney-specific shoes. I don’t wear New Balance, so I wasn’t going to brave buying new running shoes even if there were people working there (plus, you can only buy so many pairs of runnings shoes in a calendar year). That said, it was neat. You don’t see them every day.

So the expo consisted of me getting my gear, wandering the true expo just to see what was there, and then getting on a bus to leave. I didn’t even do the BB-8 meet and greet. I kind of wanted to, but meeting an inanimate object when you’re exhausted doesn’t have the same pull.

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Race shirt. Coolish design. Awful heavy material. I hate heavy t-shirts. But I have a shirt that says inaugural on it. That’s something.

By the time I’d gotten back to my room, I had 9,000 steps on my Activité (and it tracks a lot more conservatively than the Fitbit did). After my late lunch, I wasn’t too hungry that night, so I grabbed a bag of chips and called it a night.

Almost.

I was hoping to start going to bed around 7 to attempt 8 hours. I started at 8 and wasn’t close to sleep until 9.

And that’s when I was forcibly reminded of the nightly fireworks they do. I was near Animal Kingdom, I think. Wherever it came from, it was loud and it went on for a few minutes. My solace came when the fireworks ended and I played a relaxation app that puts me to sleep (it’s not supposed to do that, but it does, so I use it sometimes).

Less than 6 hours later, my morning began.

Ugh.

3 a.m. alarm clocks aren’t fun. If I was brave, I would have gotten up at 4 and then had an hour to get ready and get on a bus before I got in trouble. Unfortunately, I knew that wouldn’t be good. My stress level gets ridiculous when I’m rushing and when it’s already amped up from travel, lots of people, race nerves, an early wakeup time, and lots more people, I wasn’t playing. The loss of an hour of sleep was worth it.

I responded to a few emails (I like doing that to freak people out), and then got up to face the day. I had a little baggie of pretzels and a piece of jerky to tide me over ’til I could get further sustenance. I also hopped in the shower to warm up. I did it for my January race last year, and it helped then. I’m not sure if it helped this time, but it felt good. Around 4:15 or so, I wandered over to the bus stop (the right one). The bus was packed. And it was packed with geeks. These are my people.

This is the dynamic I really loved about this race. I’m not sure what other Disney races are like, but Star Wars is a fantastic beacon for all ranges of nerds, and a 5K is such a welcoming distance for newish or non-runners, so there were a lot of folks you wouldn’t expect at a 5K.

Maybe it’s just because I’m not a true runner, but I love the newbies. I hate breaches of etiquette that they bring, but I love that they’re there, especially those who are overweight. At least these folks are trying.

Of course, this packed bus was just the beginning. There were at least 80 people on my bus, and there were lots more buses and lots more people who drove themselves.

It was obscene how many people were there. It was also obscene how many portapotties there were, though much appreciated. The first portapotties were a popular destination. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. After that, I worked my way to the big space that was in front of a stage and had concessions. I did not partake in either (’cause they’re really wasn’t anything to partake in). I could see where the corrals were and I was going (plus there were even more portapotties that way with less of line than the ones in the big open area). I went into my corral and started pacing/warming up. This was a mistake because it was too early, but I had nervous energy to burn. They had 6 corrals. Each corral could hold more people than my largest 5K prior to this did. Luckily, they don’t max out the corrals. Half an hour prior to the start, they started ushering everyone to the corrals who wasn’t already there.

And this is where things get odd from an organization standpoint, though I think I know why they did it.

The first corral to work their way to the front was the last one, which clearly held the slowest people (I was in the next one, thank you very much). We were moved into holding area after this group moved toward the start line.

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Took through my arm bad case, though I was in this spot for about 20-30 minutes, so maybe I should have just taken the stupid thing off and got a clear picture.

So me and a thousand of my closest friends sat around waiting for the start. This is where my warming up became useless and possibly hazardous because I could really move once we were all queued up like this, so warming up mostly stopped and my legs were trying to stiffen from the day before’s walking.

The bright side was being around a hip trio who dressed up. One was Chewy (complete with brown onesie), one was Han, and the other was Rey (pretty sure Han and Rey were engaged, which is not canon). They were too cheery to stress around. And again, this is a dork’s race, so there were a lot of elaborate costumes, including armored stormtroopers.

The first group to go was the wheelchair racers. Then then a couple of minutes later, the slowest group went. We followed about 5 or so minutes later. Presumably, this means they continued and the fastest went last.

I’m guessing this was done so the event would finish sooner because the back end would catch the front end. Practically, it’s a nightmare to run because the people in front of you are slower than you (not to mention the walkers I abhor who like to start up front in any group anyway). I passed people the entire run. Mentally, it’s fun to pass people. Practically, it was a lot of weaving and almost cursing at adults in costumes. The other reason it seems weird is that finishers won’t be as spaced out, which I know’s the goal, but that means the people handing out goodies at the end will deal with a crowd once the main traffic jam hits.

Now for the actual race.

Jeez. This really is a prequel. I just gave you the galactic senate proceedings when all you wanted was a good lightsaber fight. Well, here’s your lightsaber fight .

The fireworks went off for my group, and I started walking to the start line. Seriously, there were SO MANY PEOPLE. The 5K isn’t chip-timed, so I either had to watch the clock or time myself. I had a new toy, so I timed myself.

Someone got a new toy to try.

A post shared by Quisto Settle (@applications_of_randomness) on

I finally splurged on a running watch because I wanted to see if tracking my heart rate would help me out in the long run. This was my first test and if it was ok would also give me a good idea of my max heart rate so I would have a better idea than the default (the default was 185, but I knew I’d gone over that on treadmills).

Once I really got running, I was weaving. The first mile was the second worst I’ve dealt with. Oddly my July race with fewer than 1,000 was actually worse, but it had people who got up front to waddle in front of other people (I only use waddle because they were up front. If you know you’re slow at the back of the line, I’ll call it running slowly or walking).

Today, I actually ended up in the grass at one point. I didn’t want to do that, but people pick odd traffic strategies. I just hoped I didn’t find a hole. No one wants a DNF a quarter mile in. It’s hard to make clean passes when there’s such a log jam and the slow people aren’t running with each other.

My watch was set to alert every half mile. My first half came in at 4:32, which wasn’t ideal but also wasn’t unexpected. I knew I needed to slow my pace.

And then I did something I’ve had a bad habit of doing before accidentally but was a little more intentional about this time. I started trailing runners. I wasn’t trying to draft them (that’s a dickish move anyway and a useless one at my pace), but I was following them. I trailed this older couple for a fair amount of time. They were two abreast, so they opened up holes and held a manageable pace. I passed them at some point before the first mile ended, but they helped me stay manageable.

At this point, we’re just running behind the scenes. The first mile was outside of the real park area. Despite not being in the actual park, there were still photo opportunities. I’d seen that this would be the case, but I didn’t fully grasp what that would entail. People stop running and get a picture. This I knew. What I didn’t know is that these lines would get ridiculously long. People would run, see what the picture was of, and then double back to get in line. Again, someone else writing this blog might have gotten in these lines. Only one was enticing for me, and I really would have just wanted a pic as I went along.

Then I got my 5:23 second mile. This was a better sight because it meant I was now on 10-minute pace for the first mile, but I was running slower than I thought. I also hit a mile on my watch before I hit a mile on the course. I hit the first clock mile at 18 minutes (remember, the clock start and my start weren’t synced, though I didn’t look for when I started because of my watch, so I don’t know where I was according to the course clock).

And finally I was in the proper park (Epcot). Things got a lot better here. Traffic thinned (passed a lot people and a lot people stopped for pics). Running in the park was cool and a little wasted on me. I was still running after mile 1 and I was pushing to see if I could run the whole thing, so I was concentrating on my pace, my breathing, and watching my time closely. What I did see was cool. I’ve been in Epcot before, so I was seeing how it looked during a race vs during (mostly) daytime crowds. And I always enjoy running by water. It’s soothing.

The weird thing was people taking pictures all over the park that weren’t the race setups. If there was a statue or something they liked, they stopped and took a pic. I don’t have any race pics because I was on a different mission, but maybe in another life I’ll run with friends and we’ll do the site-seeing thing (and I can use the stops as rest to cheat my way through a longer race). In the park were the 3 best things about the race. First and foremost were the stormtroopers for one race photo op. This is what I would have wanted a picture of, though not with. Second was Chewbacca. Chewy would have been first but the cast member’s costume (I really hate that I just called a Disney employee a cast member) was clearly not nearly as cool as the real Chewbacca costume. Chewy’s awesome, but it’s not the same when the fur looks off. And third, the park restrooms were accessible. I live in pure fear of a mid-run bathroom stop. I run 5Ks, so bathrooms are nonexistent away from the start/finish (and I’ve done a race that didn’t even have that). I’d have to hope for a field of trees at most races. Here, though, I would have gotten first dibs on the park’s restrooms. Thankfully I didn’t need it, but I like the idea that I could have used them if need be, and then some early bird who’s going to see Future World can go to the restroom and smell that faint smell of runners who had to make a break for it.

As I was clipping through the park, I hit 5:32 and 5:16 for my next half-mile increments before seeing the route 2-mile clock saying 29 minutes.

Somewhere around the two-mile point (not sure if before or after ’cause I was dragging at this point mentally), I picked up another pacer. I was inadvertently running with her for the bulk of the 3rd mile (or she was inadvertently running with me). If this was a romantic comedy, we would have made small talk while running, gotten breakfast after the race, and then engaged in a long-distance relationship with Andy Samberg as my funny friend who tries to tell me it’s a bad idea before he helps me out at the end of the movie as I seek to win the girl’s heart for good. But this is the real world, and we were both huffing and puffing with effort. Maybe she’ll read this and know I’m the Han to her Leia. Or maybe her significant other will and I’ll be frozen in carbonite.

Eventually I lost her too. I don’t know if she succumbed to walking or not. But while we were accidentally running together, I hit 5:07 for my 2.5 mark.

EDIT: I went and saw the official pics (complete with those awful wordmarks to ensure I don’t steal). They had a bunch of photographers during the stretch she and I were running together. Technically, I was ahead of her in most (which may have been me being a dick and pulling ahead of her unintentionally). But the photos are actually kind of funny. In some, we look like we’re supposed to be running together. But in one, it looks like I’m cutting her off on a turn. Angles, am I right?

And I was feeling it. At this point there were discussions in my head. Do I walk now and try to finish strong or do I keep running just to see what you can do?

I kept running. But I was hurting. And I knew I was risking throwing up my pretzels. But I also knew I was running farther than I’ve ever run nonstop before. Once I knew I hit that magic line, that’s what sustained me. I’ve never done this before. There was a magic to it (and a fair amount of recklessness).

I tried to back off my pace because I could feel it trying to pick up on me. More people were starting to walk. The crowd was thinning. And my competitive instinct was loving every pass. This might be how I lost Leia. Despite intentionally trying to slow to attempt a full run, I hit 5:04 to close out mile 3, which meant I’d hit the route’s mile 3 soon and the finish would be less than 2 minutes away.

At this point the beast was hungry and started pushing. Where some people were just surviving, I finally started approaching a stride. No matter what, I ran farther than I ever had before, and that was the fuel I needed. I finished, hit my watch for a 33:55 on a 3.33 mile run. I had a 10:11 pace on the watch. Basically, I have no idea what I ran. All I know is I ran every step.

Right at the finish, they gave me my medal.

I really wish they pushed the stations back a bit because I really was risking losing my pretzels by stopping my momentum so soon. But I let someone drape it over me.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a majestic hero at the end of Episode IV.

But I was also exhausted. I started walking to through the finishers’ area. I grabbed a bottle of water and a bottle of Powerade. Then I got a banana. Then I got some box with unknown contents. And I kept walking. Stopping wasn’t going to fly.

Once I was breathing a bit better, I stopped and ate the banana and inhaled the Powerade. I went a bit slower with the water because I knew I was still in position to see my ingestion habits in reverse.

There were more photo ops after the race. The coolest was Darth Vader. This one did tempt me, but the line was long (’cause he’s Vader), and I just wanted to shower and get some sleep. Again, maybe another day.

Aside from the typical post-race stuff (stretching, bingeing on food, showering, hating humanity, etc.), I also had a new thing to try: exporting the watch data.

Beyond giving me my splits, it also tracks a whole bunch of information. It’s actually kind of sick what that bad boy does, and it’s not the newest generation. All that jazz will be for another post.

But the main thing I wanted to see was my heart rate.

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So if that’s fairly accurate, it’s actually a bit scary how high my heart rate stays the whole time, but this is kind of the point. I need to know what’s going on. I know I can’t maintain a 175 average for 6 miles.

Hopefully I’ll be able to use this over the next couple of weeks as I up my mileage to prep for the 10K. This also tells me where my max heart rate is (or at least close to it), so my watch will have a better idea of what’s going on during runs. And maybe I’ll also set it to alert when I get too high to keep me at a more manageable pace. I’ll definitely have to mix in walking, so maybe I’ll look up the Galloway method after all.

But until then Sith fans, may the Force be with you.

-Q

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