ANAHEIM — While competing in Disneyland's inaugural 5-kilometer race Sunday, world-class runner Laura Mykytok of Hershey, Pa., found her mind wandering from the course to all the attractions--and distractions--around her.
"I kept thinking, I've just got to get to 'It's a Small World,' " said Mykytok, referring to the famous Disneyland ride.
Not long after she finished fourth in the women's division and received $2,000 in prize money, Mykytok, considered one of the country's top female runners, got a hug from Goofy and said, "This is the ultimate California experience."
"I was too shy to talk to them (Disney characters) when I was a little kid," she said. "But now I talk to them, no problem."
Along with Mykytok, about 8,000 runners from countries as far as Zimbabwe and Japan participated in Sunday's marathon and 5K races. Under balmy blue skies, runners made their way across the flat and winding course, as thousands of spectators lined up to encourage them.
Although some well-known long distance runners competed for a total of $50,000 in cash prizes, most entered simply to try the new course, shoot for their best times and have a chance to run through the Magic Kingdom. Each race started before the park opened for visitors.
"It was fantastic to look at all the attractions," said Jim Adams, a 5K participant who underwent triple bypass surgery three years ago. "Everything's happy out here. If you feel a little bit low, it'll pick you up. It's Fantasyland."
As the entrants gathered at the starting line of each race, trumpeters played and Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and other Disney characters provided a colorful send-off. The event was capped with a gala parade on Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A., although runners who wanted to visit the park had to pay admission to get in after their race.
The 5K course, equivalent to 3.1 miles, started and finished at Disneyland and included one loop through the theme park and surrounding streets. The marathon course, which attracted 2,000 runners, included two loops around Disneyland and such landmarks as Anaheim Stadium and Arrowhead Pond.
The biggest glitch of the day occurred early in the marathon when runners took a wrong turn, throwing off the mile markings. Race officials, however, were able to alter the course so that runners still completed 26.2 miles.
"The course was good, but too bad it got messed up," said John Bozung of Utah, who has run 19 marathons in the past 18 months. "The hardest part was doing the loop twice. Psychologically, you don't want to have to see the same things twice."
Although only the top runners received cash awards, everyone took home a special Disneyland T-shirt and water bottle. In addition, every marathon participant received a gold-plated Mickey Mouse medallion and winners of each event received a Mickey Mouse trophy.
"I think Disneyland is a great place to have a marathon," said Holly Kasulka of Fountain Valley, who snapped a photo of her father as he passed her along the longer course. "It's nice because the runners can enjoy the scenery as they go through the course. I know this is a marathon that my father will want to run forever."
Julie Rinefort, an Agoura resident who is six months' pregnant, participated in the 5K race. Rinefort said the festive atmosphere made it easier for her to get through the course.
"While I was running I saw Mickey and Goofy and slapped one of their hands," she said. "It's kind of a kick because when we got here, hardly anyone was here. That's kind of your dream as a kid. You come to Disneyland and no one's waiting in line."
Disneyland sponsored the marathon and 5K race as part of its yearlong 40th anniversary celebration and to help promote the theme park, Anaheim and the rest of Orange County, said Judson Green, president of Walt Disney Attractions. The event also helped raise money for 10 Orange County charities.
"It offers a different atmosphere from most marathons," Green said. "We're extremely pleased with the way it's turned out."
Although Disneyland has not decided whether it will sponsor the event next year, it could turn into an annual event if another corporation agrees to sponsor it, said Mark Feary, Disneyland's vice president of sales.
Feary would not disclose how much Disneyland spent on the races this year.