Races like the Disney Princess Half Marathon harness the power of women working together

"Is that the nine-mile marker up there?" my sister asked as we bounded forward at the Disney Princess Half Marathon at Walt Disney World in Florida. "Nope! That's mile 10!" I said enthusiastically. "Just a 5K to go. You've totally got this!"

"What? We're already at mile 10?" she asked brightening up. "I run 5K all the time."

Running side-by-side as Frozen's Elsa and Anna-Disney's most famous sisters-my sister and I marveled at how fast her first 13.1-mile race was flying by. The furthest she'd run in training was 10 miles. Normally, she'd stare at her watch, time dragging on, she said. Normally, she'd be plugged in, tuned into her music. But we were sans earbuds, happily chatting mile by mile, admiring other runners' costumes, taking photos with Disney characters lining the course, and laughing so hard, at times, that we couldn't breathe. I've run more than 20 half-marathons, but was most excited for this: pacing my sister to her longest run yet. It was as magical as I imagined, thanks to the power of togetherness. (Ready to run? Try this Beginner 5K Training Schedule.)

"Women are social and tend to tackle new goals with a close friend or group of girlfriends more often than men," Running USA wrote in a 2010 report. "Find a female who ran her first half-marathon in 2009 and chances are her best friend was right there beside her every step of the way."

At the Princess Half, mothers and fathers ran with their daughters, husbands locked step with their wives, and best friends donned coordinating costumes. The course was littered with duos and trios in team outfits or matching shirts-including men in tutus-celebrating the women in their lives. (That empowerment is one of the 30 Things We Love About Running.)

Notable among them was 1500-meter World Champion and Olympian Jenny Simpson, who paced her sister Emily Bradshaw to her first half-marathon finish. "She is the most important woman in my life. Being able to do this with her-the whole Princess Half Marathon Weekend experience, from the expo through the race-I've really seen running through her eyes. And it's brought me a fresh love for the sport again," Simpson told me after the race. "There are so many training runs that I do selfishly, trying to prepare myself for different events. This was so fulfilling in that I was doing it really just for her and with her."

More than 90 percent of the 20,000 finishers at the 2015 Disney Princess Half Marathon were women. And more than half of them were first time half-marathoners.

My sister is a perfect example. She ran her first 5K at the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend in 2012. I was by her side, step for step. So when she decided to run her first half, she wanted to return to the race where it all started, surrounded by women, many of them-like us-in costumes, putting a premium on fun and togetherness over speed and competition. (Speaking of, you should probably sign up for Shape's Diva Dash!)

As one of the five largest 13.1-mile runs in the U.S. (the other is Nike Women's Half Marathon), Pricess has brought a record number of females to the sport. Thanks to these types of events-including the Oakley New York Mini 10K, the first women's race, which debuted in 1972-women now make up 57 percent of the running population, versus just 25 percent 25 years ago. The Nike Women's Marathon and Half Marathon debuted in 2004. The Disney Princess Half Marathon followed in 2009. Between 2005 and 2010, women went from 48 percent to 53 percent of all runners. Why? These races create an environment where women feel welcomed, catered to, and not discouraged by the race experience.

"Some ladies prefer the women-only events perhaps because they enjoy the camaraderie of other female runners, and still others feel less self-conscious about their pace," Running USA wrote in a 2012 report on the growth of women's running. (Hate Running? 25 Reasons to Love It.)

Simpson agreed. "Even for me, there are times where going into a gym or being out on a running course can be a little bit intimidating," she told me. "Princess is a less competitive atmosphere and more of a sisterhood. That has been a surprisingly fulfilling part of this weekend for me."

There's a reason Always' "Like a Girl"  Super Bowl commercial resonated with so many women, myself included. My entire life, I've heard "you run like a girl" as an insult. But at the Disney Princess Half Marathon, running like a girl-and like a woman-is celebrated. (Find out What Professional Athletes Think of Always' "Like A Girl" Ad.)

Before my own half-marathon, I watched my six-year-old niece race her heart out amongst a huddle of other boys and girls during the Princess runDisney Kids Races. Initially, she was afraid to run, and this is a girl who runs everywhere. I could see the familiar look of intimidation in her eyes. I offered to run with her and lifted her above the crowd so she could see the finish line. "I run that distance all the time!" she shouted. Suddenly, she was ready. In the final meters, she shot ahead of me. I had to find another gear just to catch up with her. My heart fluttered. I want her to grow up in a world where running "like a girl" means, simply, running strong. Thanks to races like the Disney Princess Half, we're a few steps closer to that goal.

My eight-year-old nephew also competed in the Princess Kids Races. But he was more impressed by watching my sister and I run together, marveling at our running costumes. After the half-marathon, he ran up to us with open arms, enveloping us in hugs. "You guys look great!" he shouted. "Next year, I want to run with Daddy dressed at Yoda!" He cued into the togetherness of the event.

For most women, it seems, that's what running is all about. In fact, 92 percent of young women believe a group of females are very powerful when they come together to achieve a common goal, and 90 percent believe they can accomplish more with the support of friends, a group, or a team-specifically, other women, according to a national survey commissioned by active wear brand Soffe. Further, 83 percent feel they accomplish more and push themselves farther when working out with a female friend, group, or team, and 81 percent are more motivated to exercise when they're with other women. (Check out 10 Races Perfect for People Just Beginning Running.)

That sentiment rang true for Simpson. "My sister and I were the typical sisters in high school. We did not get along, we were competitive with one another, and kind of went in different directions," Simpson told me after the race. "But running is something that has really brought us back to together in the last few years in a real and sincere way."

As my sister and I neared the finish line of the Disney Princess Half Marathon, I spotted Mickey Mouse handing out high fives. He was my sister's favorite character as a child-her room was filled with Mickey Mouse sheets, Mickey Mouse dolls, Mickey Mouse rugs, and more. She still has her monogrammed Mickey ears from childhood framed in a shadow box.

"Do you want a high-five from Mickey?" I asked her. "Heck yeah!" she shouted. She slapped his hand, then raised her arms above her head as we crossed the finish. Steps later, our arms were around each other.

Women's events like the Disney Princess Half Marathon encourage camaraderie and togetherness in an age when people still sling "you run like a girl" around as an insult. I run like a girl and I run like a woman. And I do it proudly with the women in my life by my side. (For more, see What Makes You a Runner?)