From age 12 to 30, I ran competitively—at my peak, I was running 65 miles per week and training to break three hours in the marathon. I only knew one running speed: fast. And suddenly, I had to stop running altogether.

I was attacked and suffered severe injuries that made it impossible to run. My whole life had revolved around training and running—the friends I hung out, what I looked forward to, my daily routine—and it was inextricably tied to my career as a running coach, personal trainer, and fitness writer.

I felt like I lost a huge part of my identity, let alone my passion, mental health coping mechanism, social network, and structure in my day. I grieved the loss of running in much the same way that one grieves the death of a loved one.

However, after years of no longer being able to run, I decided to try and get back into the sport last summer after a work trip had me testing out treadmills, which forced me to run.

I discovered a few things: running now is very painful; the mobility challenges from my injuries make it impossible to run smoothly; and I can’t run anywhere near as fast as I used to.

But, I also discovered I can run.

Last fall, I was given the opportunity to try the runDisney event in January 2024 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I hadn’t run a race in over seven years, but I had heard Disney races are pace inclusive to runners for all levels, so I decided to be brave and give it a shot.

Why runDisney races are unique

Due to the inclusivity of the events in terms of the cut-off times and welcoming atmosphere, runDisney races are super popular for beginners looking to start running, runners who are returning to the sport after a long break (such as postpartum moms trying to start running again), experienced runners who are looking to complete their first marathon, and competitive runners alike.

Tons of dates and distances

There are many Disney races throughout the year, and at various Disney parks, which makes it easy to find one to fit your schedule. In addition to the Walt Disney World Marathon events, there are several other runDisney races at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Disneyland in California, and virtual races as well.

(Check out the current runDisney race calendar here.)

One of the benefits of the runDisney events is that even if you can’t attend one of the races in person at a Disney theme park, most of the races offer a virtual option. This allows you to register for the raise and then complete the distance at home wherever you live using a GPS watch. You will still receive a finisher’s medal, a T-shirt, and all of the swag.

The Walt Disney Marathon weekend, which is held every January at Walt Disney World theme park in Orlando, Florida, is the preeminent runDisney event on the race calendar.

The weekend includes a 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon (13.1 miles) on Saturday, and a full marathon (26.2 miles) on Sunday. Some runners take on what is known as the runDisney Dopey Challenge, which involves running all four races on back-to-back days.

Although I wish that I was in shape enough to handle the Dopey Challenge, I knew that the full marathon was going to be out of my wheelhouse in my limited training time.

As a running coach, I always advise runners to prioritize their safety rather than try to do something their body is not ready for. So, I settled for doing the other three shorter Disney Marathon Weekend races: the 5K, 10K, and half marathon.

Generous cut-off times

All of the RunDisney events have very generous cut-off times so that you can walk without being pulled from the course. The atmosphere is all about embracing the joy and magic of the confluence of running and Disney rather than necessarily aiming for your fastest race time.

I knew that running three events would be more than ambitious, as it has been 7 years since I have run a single race. However, I imagined that my energy and confidence would be buoyed by the fun atmosphere and general inclusivity of the runDisney race environment (spoiler: it was!).

In fact, inclusivity for runners and walkers of all ability levels is baked into all Disney races: The cut-off time for the full marathon is seven hours, the half marathon is four hours, and for the shorter races, you have to maintain a 16 minute per mile pace. That’s a brisk walking pace that’s attainable with training for most individuals.

So if you consider yourself a “slow runner,” you’ll not only have plenty of company along the race course—you’ll be an official finisher.

Many marathons have much faster cut-off times and you’ll be asked to leave the course if you are still making your way toward the finish line at a slower pace. Plus, you don’t get the glory and confidence boost of actually crossing the finish line and earning your race medal.

Impressive organization

All of the runDisney races are also very well organized: There are starting corrals based on your anticipated average pace or finish time. This means that if you are a new runner and plan to use a run/walk approach, or you want to walk the entire race distance, you will be seeded with participants of similar ability. Similarly, if you are a competitive runner, you can submit a “proof of time“ race result for the Disney half marathon or Disney marathon. Your previous race result will then be used to give you a bib number for a higher starting corral alongside runners who will be maintaining a similar race piece.

The races all have everything you would expect from a top-tier road race such as water stops, clearly marked courses, medical tents along the course and at the finish line, and a free breakfast box with snacks when you finish the race.

Unfortunately, a tropical storm required last-minute changes to my half-marathon race, shortening the course to only 7.2 miles. The entire runDisney organization pulled off a massive change in the final hours before the race and made it a great experience.

(On that note, another perk of the runDisney races: The swag is awesome! The race medals are huge and feature Disney characters in 3-D that move, plus, you get a long-sleeved technical T-shirt for each Disney race that you run.)

Robust community

The setting and your fellow runners are other special aspects of Disney races. Whether you are doing one of these runDisney races at Disney World or Disneyland theme parks, you get to run through the different parks.

Tons of participants wear Disney-themed costumes, and every mile or so, you can stop and take pictures with your favorite iconic Disney characters, from classic favorites (like Mickey Mouse and Snow White) to modern ones (like Elsa and Moana). There is also plenty of entertainment on the race course as well as in the starting area and finish line areas, with music and more character experiences for photo ops.

I had the opportunity to watch the full marathon, and although plenty of runners in the fast starting corrals wore costumes, the corral with the walkers was definitely the party vibe race experience. All of the walkers and joggers seem to be having the time of their lives, many clad in costumes of their favorite Disney princesses, villains, and superheroes.

It’s really a fun atmosphere—and can be an exciting distraction if you are struggling during your race.

There were parts in some of my own races where I wasn’t fully in it, but I was captivated by the energy of the runners around me, the excitement of Disney World, and my own deep joy for having a race opportunity that felt so approachable and celebratory—no matter where I was in my running journey.

How to prep for a Disney race

Training for a Disney race isn’t inherently different from training for any other road race. However, if you are going to be doing multiple Disney events back to back (like I did), or you are taking on the full runDisney Dopey Challenge or Goofy’s Race, it is important to tailor your training plan accordingly.

Running a half marathon and a marathon on consecutive days is extremely taxing on the body, and training requires doing back-to-back longer runs. For this reason, the Dopey Challenge is usually best reserved for experienced runners who have been training for a couple of years and have already run a full marathon.

But beginners can absolutely do the full Disney Marathon—and many of the triumphant finishers are indeed first-time marathon runners.

One of the cool things about all of the runDisney events is that accepted participants get a free Jeff Galloway training plan to help prepare for whatever events you have registered for.

There are different training plans based on your fitness level, and the Jeff Galloway features a run/walk approach for newbies.

Echelon Fitness also sponsors the Disney races, so you can use the Echelon Stride treadmills with the Jeff Galloway run/walk training programs to prepare for the races. These treadmill workouts are a great option for runners who live cold-weather climates who are training for the January Disney races.

Ultimate, runDisney brought me back to racing

I absolutely loved my experience at the 2024 runDisney Marathon Weekend, and while my finish times were nowhere near as fast as they used to be, I felt so much joy and gratitude that I was able to run again, let alone in such supportive races.

Going into it, I was admittedly anxious to see how it would be to participate in a race in a totally different light than I had run a race before. I had also never been to Disney World or any Disney theme park, so I knew that I was in for an eye-opening experience.

Ultimately, I was extremely impressed with how well-organized the runDisney races were and how welcoming, supportive, and celebratory the entire atmosphere surrounding the events was.

I love the fact that you can go there to run your heart out and try to achieve a fast time, or go there and try to celebrate the start of your fitness journey. Either way, runDisney seems absolutely committed to organizing running events that are memorable and empowering.

For me, just being in a physical state where I could lace up my favorite running shoes and participate in the very sport that has been the greatest gift and passion in my life was truly the real-life embodiment of the special magic that Disney movies and Disney parks are all about.

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