A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won
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A Did Not Finish Runner’s Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won.

Guest Contributor Kelly Bryant Seymore, the gal I ran the 2016 Princess Half Marathon with, is here to discuss her DNF tale, something we all fear!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … Well, actually it was only last April in Orlando Florida, something unexpected happened to me at the Disney Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon that never crossed into my mind.  My first DNF – Did Not Finish.

I was swept. I was unable to complete the race. I failed.

A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won

I also finally got a glimpse of those infamous Disney balloon ladies that I have heard rumor of and yes, they do exist.

For those new to running, some races require you to maintain a certain pace on the course. If you are unable to maintain that pace you can be removed from the race and not allowed to finish. At runDisney races, this cut off pace is marked by several ladies walking with balloons tied to them. Along several points of the course if you are behind these balloon ladies, you will be whisked onto a waiting bus and not allowed to complete the rest of the course.

Being an experienced runner with multiple halfs, marathons, and various back-to-back challenge races under my proverbial running belt, the thought of not finishing a race was the furthest thing from my mind. Maybe I was getting cocky and the running gods wanted to teach me a lesson. Who knows? But I did learn my lesson the hard way.

And now I am here to share the experience.

First a bit of background. I have been a Star Wars fanatic since the original came out in the theaters. Growing up I had the action figures, light sabers, bed sheets (which I still have), and was Darth Vader for Halloween. Even in my “old age,” my love for Star Wars lives on. The opening theme from the movie is my phone’s ringtone.

I am also a bit Disney obsessed, to put it mildly. So when I heard the announcement for the Inaugural Star Wars themed races at Disney World, there was no question I’d be signing up! The stars were aligned as it also happened to fall on the same weekend as my wedding anniversary. BONUS!!!

A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won

I convinced my husband this would be the perfect anniversary trip as well as his first indoctrination into Disney races. The force was with us and we were able to secure spots for the Dark Side Challenge, which was the 10k on Saturday, followed by the Half Marathon on Sunday. So not only do you get the medal for each race, if you complete both races in the challenge, you get a 3rd bonus medal. Woohoo! I am all about the bling and Star Wars bling is even better.

A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time planning the perfect trip: hotel reservations, dining reservations, costumes, and of course the actual training for the races. After months of anticipation, finally the big weekend arrived! We dropped off the kids with the grandparents. Flew down to Orlando on that Friday. Spent time at the race expo picking up our race bibs, shopping and getting a picture with BB8.

We had an early dinner and went back to resort to rest up for the first day of the challenge. The Tie Fighter 10k race on Saturday, our actual anniversary date, was out of this world! I dressed as Darth Vader, reliving my childhood, and feeling great. I had a fabulous run. I was able to stop for pictures with various Star Wars characters.

A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won

I was a bad wife and did not start in the same corral as my husband, but we somehow managed to meet up after mile 4 ran the rest together. They even announced our names, as Vader and Obi Wan crossed the finish line, hand in robotic hand.

A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won

What a perfect race! This was the best anniversary ever! After a whirlwind of character photos, and a very long bus wait, we made it back to the resort. Quick showers and off to the Grand Floridian for a late brunch.

As with all race weekends, I am usually pretty careful with what I eat. The rule in running is never trying anything new for a race. This also goes for what you are eating or drinking before and after the races. You don’t want to risk eating some new exotic food and incur the rebellion of your GI tract. I was playing it safe … or at least I thought I was.

Since we opted not to get park tickets this trip, we spent the day monorail resort hopping. Then we took a trip over to Disney Springs, to do a bit of shopping and have an early anniversary dinner at Raglan Road. Again, I was eating dishes that I have eaten before with no issue. I was also being very diligent throughout the day to keep hydrating.

The Dark Side Half started at 5:00am so we returned to the resort and started preparing for the next day and to get to sleep. Not much romance happening on this trip. 😉 Lights were out and we were asleep around 9:00 pm with the alarm set for 02:15am.

Turns out, I did not need that alarm.

Around midnight, I woke in a sweat. Oh no! This can’t be happening. That dreaded feeling, and then a mad dash for the bathroom. Needless to say, I either ate something bad or picked up a virus, but my GI tract was in full revolt. I spent the next couple of hours on the cool tile floor in the bathroom.

2:15am hits, my husband gets up and starts getting ready with me contemplating whether or not I could race. But I’m stubborn. I’ve spent all this time and money planning the perfect Star Wars anniversary weekend. And the nausea seemed to have subsided a bit. There couldn’t possibly be anything left in me anyway, so dammit, I was going to run.

I got dressed in my R2D2 costume, chewed some Tums and out the door we went. We made it through the bus ride to the race start with no incident, but I promptly had to visit the port o’ potties in the staging area. Needless to say … and not to totally gross you out … but nothing can describe the experience of the next 30-45 minutes. I then managed to stagger over to the medical table for the equivalent of Pepto Bismal chew tablets, which made me feel a bit better.

I also asked where the first medical stop was on the course. Only about 3 miles in. At that point, I had to make a decision whether to even start the race. But the Pepto was kicking in so we devised a plan. 3 miles wasn’t really that far. I could at least walk to the first medical tent on the course and re-evaluate at that point.

A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won

We make our way to the corrals. I was in C with my husband a couple of corrals behind. I decided to start ahead of him as I knew I wouldn’t be fast and then he could catch up further down the course … or at least identify the body passed out on the side of the road.

A Did Not Finish Runner's Tale: The Day the Dark Side Won

After what felt like an eternity, the race started and I managed a slow jog for a couple of hundred yards, but the body protested and then I’d have to walk. This jog/alk cycle got me through to Epcot. Once I entered the park, I walked the entire way around World Showcase. Usually, I run through there so quickly I don’t take the time to look around. The walk allowed me to take in the moment. The scenery of the different countries at night, with the torches around the lake, and the Star Wars score playing in the background was a surreal.

Yep, this old tough broad cried.

But back to the race. I managed to make it, very slowly, to the first medical tent located in the Boardwalk resort area between Epcot and Hollywood studios. Fortuitously, the medical tent there had Imodium tablets available, so I quickly took those and then hung around the tent for a few minutes to see how they settled.

My husband caught up at that point and stopped to check on me. The next medical tent is at Mile 5.2, only little over 2 miles. By that point, I had not eaten and I’d managed only a few sips of fluids since dinner the night before, plus the sun was rising soon. I knew I would not be able to do the entire distance without risking a hospital visit due to dehydration, but I wanted to make it through Hollywood Studios in case there are any good characters.

We talked and decided I’d walk to the next medical tent and then I’d definitely stop. I sent him on his way and told him he needed to keep running so at least one of us would earn that Challenge medal! I managed the walk through Hollywood Studios and made it to the next medical tent as the dawn crept in.

By the way, the medical volunteers at the races are phenomenal! After checking on me and offering me fluids to sip, I sat myself down on the curb near the grass just in case I need to make a mad dash into the woods. Disney already had a couple of buses on the side of the road waiting for the sweep. However, I was told none of the buses would leave until the official balloon ladies had passed by, so I was in for a bit of a wait.

There were a couple of Disney cast members with the buses who were there to help with the process. They checked on me and asked if I wanted to sit on the bus to keep warm. They also offered water or Gatorade. At that point, there was just one other person already waiting on the bus. I decided to wait outside, so I could watch the runners in their costumes go by … plus I wanted to cry in private.

After I regained composure and my post exercise warmth was replaced with shivers, I made my way to the bus. As time dragged by, I was joined by a few more runners who were ahead of the cutoff pace but no longer able to finish the race due to various reasons. There was a sense of comrade amongst those who joined me on the bus. After we let the tears dry, we started talking amongst ourselves and shared our stories. There was a young lady who had twisted her ankle, a young mother who had just given birth a couple of months prior and was just too exhausted, a gentleman scraped up from falling, and another from California who was attempting the Kessel Run in the same predicament as I was. Total strangers thrown together by miserable circumstances in the most magical place on earth supporting one another.

It was truly a humbling experience.

As we sat on the bus consoling each other, I glanced up and saw the Death Star balloons floating over the crest of the hill.

The balloon ladies had arrived.

There was a frantic rush of people in front of them trying to get through the intersection before them so they would not get swept. There were Even more behind the balloon ladies desperately trying to catch up before it was too late.

It was heart wrenching to observe.

As the balloon ladies turned the corner past the cutoff point, the bus swiftly pulled and blocked the intersection and the remaining participants were directed on to the buses. It was an emotional experience for all. Disney was prepared and had boxes of tissues to pass around. Once the first bus was filled, it pulled off and made its way back to the finish line area.

The bus pulled onto a road behind some trees just parallel to the finish line area. As we started unloading from the bus, some us were wishing each other luck, wishes for a speedy recover, a few hugs, and of course, more tears. As you stepped down from the bus, you were met by volunteers who recorded your bib number and you had to cross a timing mat, like those they have at the finish.

If you had on a Coast To Coat or Kessel Run wrist band, they cut those off at that point. You then walked by a small tent where there were more volunteers handing out the half marathon medals. I know that there is controversy in the running community about whether or not the medal should be given if you do not actually complete the race. And to be honest, before this experience, I was mostly in agreement with that sentiment.

But that discussion can be for another time.

Disney does give those that started a race but did not complete, for whatever reason, a medal for the race. The Disney race program now does call them just participation medals, not finisher medals. However, they do not give out any of the challenge medals if you did not complete the races in entirety, that also included Coast to Coast and the Kessel Run challenges. Therefore, I did not earn my coveted Dark Side Challenge Death Star medal.

After receiving just the half medals , we were directed down a small path through the trees that came out just beyond the race finish area past the challenge medal tent and beyond the area where you take the finishers picture. It was very discrete and you could easily blend in with the other runners who had just finished as you came out from the path. I was grateful Disney took the effort to make a bleak situation a little more bearable.

I blended in with the other runners and the most difficult race of my life thus far race was officially over.

Thankfully, I had been getting text updates with my husband’s progress and he was only about 10 minutes from being finished. I sat amongst the finishers and waited. I watched him as he received his Dark Side Challenge Medal and got all emotional yet again. As he made his way towards me, he took off his medal, and offered it to me. The gesture was much appreciated, but I declined.

I just told him that I would just have to come back next year and earn one on my own.

Laura Bowers

Laura is a writer, runner, reader, runDisney addict, blogger, vlogger, wife to an amazing guy for 26 years, mom of two wonderful boys, excellent chili maker, and obsessive list keeper. She still thinks Spice World was an awesome movie and feels no shame about that plus she can quote most lines from Talladega Nights. Shake and bake!

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  1. You were not alone with the GI struggles: I ate at ‘Ohana (a usual meal for me) and was up at 2am super sick as well. I thankfully made it through the race, but it wasn’t pretty. Thanks for sharing your story!

    1. Oh man, I love ‘Ohana but after an unfortunate chicken incident a few years ago, (it tastes like lighter fluid,) I’ve been hesitant to eat there pre-race. Your story now confirms that decision! Thanks for stopping by and I’ll be sure to pass on your thanks to Kelly! 🙂

  2. Nicole Williams says:

    I am a GI patient – with lots of issues. I cannot eat anything a minimum of 8 hours before wake-up time before any race. A late lunch was my last meal the day before I ran that race.
    It also happens that a good friend had recently passed away (far too young, motorcycle accident). I went directly from his services to the airport to catch my plane from the West Coast. I ran with a sign on my back and him in my thoughts. As I was running and watched the sun rise – I started crying thinking of Nick. I regained my composure (sooper hard to run while crying). My playlist had various music that would cause me to start crying at various times. But I was able to get back in control and I finished. I earned the Half, the Kessel Run challenge and the Coast to Coast medals that day.

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