Riddle me this: How do you take the good old-fashioned obstacle course run and make it a little more entertaining for both participants and spectators?
Add a whole heaping passel of the living dead, of course.
Proving once again that this whole zombie thing won't be over until it's infected EVERY part of society, Run For Your Lives comes to Indianapolis this weekend. The all-day event - on June 23 at Boondocks Farms in Knightstown - will feature competitors playing either zombies or the living, with the latter trying to chase down the former as they negotiate the course.
Derrick Smith, who co-created the event with his longtime friend Ryan Hogan, held the first race in late 2011 in Maryland and it quickly caught fire. "Ryan wanted to do a local mud run to promote his athletic apparel line, and we bounced around some ideas and names, and asked, 'Well, what are people going to run from?'" Smith says. "And it seemed to make sense that people would run from zombies."
"The Walking Dead was really taking off at that point," he continues. "We expected a few thousand people, but when we did our first event in October, 10,000 people showed up. Given that it was our first time out, we had some tough lessons to learn. Mainly parking. But aside from that, the people who ran got to experience the whole thing. Everybody had a lot of fun."
After that they went national, attracting 12,000 people to a recent Atlanta event. The whole experience has been a slightly dizzying one for Smith, who's been devoted to this gig full-time for the past year. "We had no idea it was going to get this big," he says. "We've built up a great staff of 30 people and we're still hiring. It's a lot of fun and it just gets better."
How it works
Run For Your Lives works like this: The whole thing is ostensibly set up as a good, old-fashioned 5K obstacle course around a farm, complete with tons of wall-climbing, water-fording and all sorts of similar character-building exercises.
The twist: Every participant wears three ribbons on a belt, and the walking dead will be on hand at all times, crowding, moaning, braaaiinnning as they grab for the ribbons. Lose all three, and you're out. Dead. Zombified. In classic video game logic, you can also grab up a health bonus pack to recover some life - provided you have the skill and/or luck to come across one.
Every story of the Zombie Apocalypse has its own twist on the whole living-dead thing, whether it's the shambling moaners of Dawn of the Dead or the lightning-fast sprinters of 28 Days Later. Smith and company aren't giving exact details when it comes to their own brand of ghoul; their guide merely recommends runners be ready to "run, duck, dive and dodge."
For that matter, Run For Your Lives doesn't really run on a predictable course. "We have dead ends and alternate routes; not everybody is going to be following the same path," Smith says. "We've got slow zombies and fast zombies, and every last one of them is after the runners."
Runners will be released in waves of about 400 at a time, giving the chance (in true zombie film fashion) to find out what it's like to run in a mass panicking horde of people and learn dramatically whether humanity is the REAL villain after all.
"Everything comes and goes in cycles, and zombies have been around for a while, but something about them really gets people," he says. "There's something about life and death, and what happens after death, that grabs the imagination. The end of the world scenario, an apocalypse of any kind, is always an interesting subject to think about. How are you going to survive if the world is coming to an end?"
When the zombies die
So, you may ask - and I did - what happens when the current zombie fixation in pop culture fizzles out?
"We do get concerned that the craze will die out, though we joke and say zombies will never die because they're already dead," Smith says. "Either way, people are still having fun with it, and so long as they are, I hope we can continue. We're always looking for the next big idea, the next event that brings people together and helps everybody have a great time."
The zombie tickets sold out within two weeks of going on sale. "They get the full zombie experience," he says. "We have an assembly line to put them through makeup and wardrobe, give them the mud and blood and position them on the course." Runner tickets sold out June 1.
Spectators can pay $32 to watch the race to enjoy the festivities in the Safe Zone and the Apocalypse Party afterwards. Performers for the Indianapolis event include Overman, the Winston Hours and Beyond Doubt.
"Sometimes people miss that it's not just a race," Smith says. "It's an overall experience. We have a pretty huge party going on, fifteen live bands including a lot of local bands, food, music, beer and other activities all day in the 'Safe Zone' festival area. It's not over once you finish the race or get killed. Get out there, run from zombies, have some fun."
If all goes well - and current signup rates certainly indicate that to be the case - they'll be back for another run next year. "We're planning on at least 30 events in 2013," Smith says. "We're going international but looking forward to building a fan base in each of our cities."