I'm a Mom and a Runner: This Is What a Walt Disney Marathon Is Really Like
In my pre-kids life, I was a runner. I’d start every day with a four-mile run, occasionally peppering in a race or two to stay motivated. And then I became a mom, and “me time,” even for something as important as a workout, went up in smoke. After six years of never exercising (unless hoisting my two boys up and down the stairs and in and out of car seats counts), I decided to channel my obsession with all things Disney and my urgent need to finally get back in shape into the same place by signing up for my first runDisney race, the 2019 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon.
Over the course of my training and race weekend, I met so many incredible moms—each had a different journey and story to tell, but the common thread has been that runDisney finally gave us all a way to focus our passion for Disney into finally putting our fitness first. And I think we can all agree: when Mom is healthy and happy, everybody wins.
If you think running a marathon means monotonous pavement pounding from start to finish, you haven’t experienced a Disney marathon. From fireworks at the starting line to character photos ops along the course through the theme parks to inspirational Disney music keeping you going, runners quickly learn that a runDisney race is so much more than just logging your distance and getting that medal. More than just a race, running a Disney marathon is an experience—an initiation into a passionate, supportive community where every mile really is magic.
Here are some of the stories of incredible Disney marathon moms, plus all you need to know to run your first Disney race.
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From a Way to Cope to a Way of Life
Lisa DiNoto turned to running to help her grapple with the overwhelming stress and sadness of supporting her dying father while working full time as a corporate lawyer and raising two young children. After her father passed away, her family resumed their long-standing tradition of regular visits to Walt Disney World and it became the place she found joy again. “My heart sang when I was there and ached when I left,” she says.
Still running regularly at home, DiNoto signed up for her first runDisney race, the 2017 Princess Half Marathon. Exactly two years to the day after her father’s death, she ran the race, and life was never the same again. That race became an impetus of sorts for a monumental life change: just six months later, DiNoto quit her job and her family packed up their life in Maryland and moved to Orlando, mere minutes from the Magic Kingdom. “Because,” says DiNoto, “when you are forced to wake up to how short life is, following your joy starts to make a lot more sense.”
Now, she participates in every runDisney weekend at Walt Disney World, sharing the experience with her husband and her two sons, who not only cheer her on from the sidelines but also run the kids races themselves.
- RELATED: How One Mom Got Inspired to Run a 5K
Making Fitness a Priority
Mother of four Stacey Nyman had always been active and exercised regularly, but after the birth of her fourth child, she found herself more than 80 pounds overweight and battling a fourth bout of diverticulitis, which required surgery.
“After my surgery I became even more overweight and very sedentary,” she says. “I wanted to do absolutely nothing.”
Determined to take control of her health, she made a commitment to do cardio every day for one year. In the fall of 2017 she and her husband, Scott, whom she calls both her running partner and best friend, began running thanks to encouragement from a Disney fan podcast running group, the Be Our Guest Podcast Lizards. The Nymans started by running local races before signing up for the 2019 Walt Disney World Half Marathon.
For the Nymans, running their first Disney race was nothing short of magical. The trip marked only the second time in 15 years that the couple spent the night away from their children. “The first few hours were really tough,” says Stacey. “But once we started meeting friends we’d met online in the BOGP Lizards group, the anxiety went away. It was a rejuvenating time for our marriage. We had SO much fun.”
After their first race, the couple was hooked. This year, during the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, the Nymans will participate in the Dopey Challenge, running all four races for a combined 48.6 miles over the course of four days.
Like Stacey and Scott Nyman, many parents, particularly those with young children, use runDisney as an opportunity for a kid-free trip that lets them connect as a couple and experience their happy place in a different light. Natalie and Jake Parillo bring their three children on at least one Disney vacation a year, but they decided to leave their kids at home with family when they ran the 2017 Wine & Dine Half Marathon.
“We love our big family trips, but the idea of just going together was very intriguing,” says Natalie. “We did all the stuff that we wouldn't normally do with the kids—a leisurely walk around World Showcase, cocktail hours at Trader Sam's, Abracadabar and Nomad Lounge, roller coasters that my kids are either too afraid or too short to ride. We moved slowly. We people watched.”
My husband and I took our first Disney vacation without kids for my runDisney race, too. Having the opportunity to take things at a slower pace, without the stresses of hangry toddler meltdowns or getting back to the room for bedtime, enabled us to focus on each other and just have fun.
A Family Affair
Mother of three Carol Kosla used to stay in shape by playing soccer. But, as she entered her late 40s, she became conscious of the fact that her teammates and opponents seemed to get younger as she got older, and she started looking to change things up. “My girlfriends ran marathons, and I thought they were crazy, but then I just started running,” she says.
Carol’s first Disney race was a half marathon in 2015, and it was special for another reason: she ran it with her two sons, ages 15 and 17 at the time. Five years later, at age 55, Carol has just completed her fifth runDisney race, the 2019 Wine & Dine Half Marathon. She’s run four half marathons and a full marathon, and she’s run every single race with her oldest son, Michael.
Want to Run a Disney Race? Here’s How to Get Started
Choose Your Race
At Walt Disney World, there are four race weekends held annually, Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend (January), Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend (February), Star Wars Rival Run Weekend (April), and Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon Weekend (November). There are also race weekends held at Disneyland Paris in May and September.
RunDisney races range from diaper dashes for babies all the way up to the epic four-day, four-race, 48.6-mile Dopey Challenge during Marathon Weekend. With the right training (more on that next)—and your doctor’s blessing—most races should be within your grasp. Typically, each of runDisney’s four annual Walt Disney World race weekends offer the following races:
- Diaper and Kids Dashes (Ages 0-8)
- Kids One Mile Run (Ages 4-13)
- 5K (ages 5+)
- Half Marathon
- Two-Course Challenge (Half Marathon + 10K; 19.3 miles) or Half Marathon + Virtual Half Marathon
Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend (Jan. 8-12, 2020 this year) is the only weekend when a full marathon is offered.
Sign Up Early
Before you get your heart set on a race, make sure it’s still available. RunDisney races are extremely popular and fill up fast. If registration hasn’t opened up for your race, be ready when it does because it’s on your mark, get set, go to snag those coveted spots. Dates for all 2020/21 races have just been announced, so check them out and mark your calendar!
For most runners, RunDisney races are a no-pressure affair. “Don’t worry about your time,” recommends Kosla. “You want to stop for the characters—that’s what makes it fun.” Instead of going for a personal record, many runners set a goal of keeping a quick enough pace to allow time to stop and take photos with the characters and enjoy the unprecedented opportunity to be in the parks before they’re open for regular operation. That said, the more physically prepared you are, the more comfortable you’ll be, and that equates to more fun.
If marathon (or any distance) training sounds daunting and time-consuming, it doesn’t have to be! Olympian and official runDisney training consultant Jeff Galloway has pioneered a revolutionary training program that has made distance running accessible to nearly everyone.
Galloway’s “Run-Walk-Run” method helps minimize injury and allows runners at all levels to work their way up at a comfortable pace, with plenty of recovery opportunities. The best part is his training plans, customized to every Disney race distance, will fit into even the busiest parent’s schedule. Believe it or not, you can train for a full marathon and never have to run more than three times a week.
Where to Stay
Staying on property at an official Walt Disney World resort always has its perks, like Extra Magic Hours and free airport transportation on Disney’s Magical Express (no need to travel with car seats!). On race weekends, staying on property will also get you free transportation to and from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex where the Expo is held, and you’ll also get free transportation to and from the race itself.
You’ll get these benefits from staying at any Walt Disney World resort, but because most races finish at Epcot, our top hotel picks for easiest access are Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas, Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club, and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin.
Bring Your ChEARing Squad
One of the best things about runDisney is the support you get from spectators and volunteers along the course. For some races, spectators are even allowed inside Magic Kingdom to cheer runners on as they run along Main Street. “Getting into the park and having so many people cheering for you is really exciting,” says Koslo. “It gives you that boost of energy and you’re like, ‘I can do this. I can finish now.’”
DiNoto loves having her kids out there on the sidelines during a race. “I think it’s incredibly important for my kids to be there cheering the runners on because it helps them to understand the emotion and the victory that comes out of all of the hard work of training,” she says. Her kids make their own signs, cheer for the runners, and meet her at the finish line. “I want them to see that my self-care in training is for a purpose,” she says. “And I want them to see the excitement out there on the course so that they’re inspired to be a part of it one day.”
To ensure your family gets a great spot to watch you, consider a ChEAR Squad package, which includes a guaranteed viewing location and grandstand seating, non-alcoholic drinks, private restrooms, and more. Another favorite viewing location is along Disney’s Boardwalk.
Maximize Your Time at the Expo
The runDisney Expo at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is big part of race weekend, so be sure to build at least a few hours into your schedule to enjoy it. This is where you’ll pick up your race bib and shirt. You can also shop for commemorative race merchandise, get advice from the pros like Jeff Galloway, get your trouble spots KT taped, and get some great photo ops with characters.
Not just for runners, the Expo is free and open to all, so even if you’re not running any of the races, you’re still welcome to check it out and learn more about future races. You can—and should—also bring family members who can hit up the Inspiration Station where they can make posters to cheer you on.
As soon as you cross the finish line, it’s time to celebrate. You’ll be handed your medal and all you need to refuel—a snack box, water, Powerade, and a banana—then head over to the Family Reunion Area to meet your family or celebrate with friends and fellow runners. There’s music, character meet-and-greets, a merch tent, and food and drinks for purchase. Go ahead and drink that beer at 8 a.m. if you want—you’ve earned it!
What To Wear
Costumes aren’t required at runDisney, but a scan of your fellow runners would suggest otherwise. Race costumes run the gamut from low-key “Disneybounding” (wearing an outfit inspired by a particular character) to head-to-toe costuming so elaborate, you can’t believe they’re running in that. (You might want to save that over-the-top costume for the 5K or, for longer races, at least do a trial run to make sure it’s comfy.)
More Ways to Be a Part of runDisney
In an effort to make Disney races as widely available as possible (and to keep runDisney junkies going during the times of year when it’s too hot or crowded to organize a race weekend in Orlando), runDisney has created a series of “virtual races.” This winter, run the Star Wars Virtual Half Marathon any time from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2020, and the summer Virtual 5K Series, a series of three 5Ks through June, July, and August 2020. These races can be run on your own time and at your own pace, and you’ll get an awesome commemorative medal to mark your achievement.