Run For Your Lives, a 5k Zombie Obstacle Course

Raymond O'Connor
February 11, 2012

T
he majority of holidays we celebrate are group events, consider Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, etc. Each of these holidays require at least a little consideration of other people: during Christmas itís expected that gifts are reciprocated, Thanksgiving involves a large family meal, and Halloween at my age usually means going to a party dressed as something scary or sexy [or both? See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYN-0pEdt38]. When individual holidays come around though, itís nice to take advantage, and really, the only individual holidays we get are birthdays and bachelor(ette) parties. For example, my bachelor party involved gambling in one of the most crime-ridden areas of Philadelphia and watching mediocre, American soccer (I think one of those qualifiers is redundant). With this in mind, a few months ago I received a call from an old college buddy inviting me to our mutual friendís bachelor party. He warned me it was a little unusual, but I didnít hesitate in accepting. After all, if youíre going to force people to ride a cramped van through Chester and sit in the rain, you probably owe it to your friends to return the favor. The plan for our friend Stanís bachelor party was to run a 5k, but not just any 5k—and, sorry Stan, despite the previous statement, if was just any 5k I might have had to pass—a 5k zombie obstacle course called Run For Your Lives [see http://runforyourlives.com/].

Before we continue, a little background information on my athletic ability is probably in order. Like most kids, I played organized soccer and baseball until the age of 12. Unlike most kids, I can quote my exact batting average for my final year of baseball: .000. I struck out the majority of at bats and I only remember reaching base once. That play involved catcher interference, on a pitch I undoubtedly would have whiffed worse than Ryan Howard swinging at any semi-competently thrown slider (boooo -ed.). I also only actually made contact once, which resulted in a line drive to the short stop. A few years later, some friends and I, Brett included, decided to sign up for middle school football. I joined in, being assigned to the under-110 lbs league. When I was on the field—rarely of course—I played defensive tackle. I saw game action only once, when both coaches decided to play their bench players, and the opposing offense called three or four identical plays: a run to the left A gap, right through the hole previously occupied by my scrawny body before the offensive guard pushed me 20 yards down field. I was promptly lifted from the game. The next year, all of my friends quit except for me and I had gained enough weight to be shifted to the unlimited league. Though I was over 110 lbs, I was probably only around 118 lbs. and 5 foot 6 inches. At this size, I clearly could not play on either line, so I was put in the corner-back position, which requires more skill and speed than I possessed at the tender age of 13. I quit a few weeks into the season. Besides high school gym (which included the amazing mix of soccer and football known as speed ball!), that was the last significant physical activity I participated in.

Event

Run For Your Lives is not only a zombified 5k, it also is a fairly large outdoor party with food, beer, and bands. Runners paid a $67 entrance fee, though party-goers only had to pay $30. The event I attended was held in Darlington, MD, notable only for its Apple Festival [see http://www.darlingtonapplefest.org/], large camp ground named Ramblewood (where the event was held), and tiny streets, completely incapable of handling upwards of 10,000 attendees.

Before I dive into the review, there are few things I hate in this world more than mud and traffic. Run For Your Lives involved a whole lot of both, sometimes simultaneously.

1. Prerace experience

The race was organized in twenty waves, separated by a half hour, and which dictated our schedule for the day. The majority of the party, including the bachelor himself, was to run the 10:30 AM wave, and Mike, his brother Andrew, Ryan, and I were scheduled in the 12:30 wave. The event organizers sent out an email requesting that runners show up an hour and a half before their start time, meaning we were shooting for a 9 AM arrival. Everyone met at the best manís house in Bear Delaware at 7:30, and after the requisite hellos, beers, and Wawa stop, we were on the road around 8:15. That should have been plenty of time to reach the event parking lot by 9. Figure 1 shows a map of the area.

I donít remember exactly when or where the traffic started, I do remember that we finally reached the shuttle bus around 10:00, giving the 10:30 participants 30 minutes to get to the camp ground, check in, find an area for our stuff, and get to the starting line. Obviously, that did not happen. We were all a little stressed out, as this was the first race for everyone involved, we didnít realize that your wave time doesnít really matter all that much. The 10:30 members eventually ran at 11:30. I was glad that they still got in before me, as I was ready to pump them for information regarding obstacles, routes, and zombie behavior.


Figure 1: Site map.
Figure 1: Site map.

2. Swag

We get a bag full of crap? Sweet. After I signed my release I proceeded to the check-in area and picked up my packet. Fortunately, it was not all that crowded so I was in and out in a few minutes. The packet contained a timing chip, that when attached to your shoe, clocks you in and out of the race giving your elapsed run time, and a race bib, which was a piece of thick stock paper with some numbers on it. I was number 5649. The bib also had a free beer ticket and a gear check ticket. At the next station I was given an olive green Warwear shirt, think stretchy, polyester Underarmor rip-off, and my bag full of crap. To my shock and horror, the crap bag had an energy shot, but not 5-hour ENERGY. It was something called Worx, I took it as a person insult, though fortunately I was only 2 hours into my morning energy ration.

3. First sign of lameness

One of the early racers in our group, Steve, while not a runner exactly, was a fairly accomplished high school athlete. Steve prepared for the race a few times and said that his best 5k time was around 25 minutes. The average 5k time for a 30-year-old is around 26 minutes. At the time, my best mile time, from high school mind you, was a torpor-iffic 9 minutes and 12 seconds. About 20 or 30 minutes into their start time, Phil and I found the finish line so we could watch Steve, and what I found there surprised me. The website describes the finish line as follows:

The Finish Line, Why would there be a fence at the finish line? To keep zombies out. If you want to make it to the Apocalypse Party, you will need to get past The Finish Line.

Maybe my imagination was running wild, maybe the illustration on the website fooled me (figure 2) [see http://runforyourlives.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Zombie-Fence.jpg], but what I found at the finish line was not the ten-foot-tall barb wire fence I was expecting. Instead, it was maybe five feet tall, with a large opening on the bottom for you to slide or crawl under. Take a look at that figure again. Huge fence. Decrepit building. Barbed wire! Zombies!! In reality, none of that. Just a small chain link fence after a short down-hill jog.


Figure 2: The Finish Line.
Figure 2: The Finish Line.


Figure 3: Guess who got eaten.
Figure 3: Guess who got eaten.

Race

1. Hot stink tunnel (race start)

Two guys in Halloween store-bought camo guarded the entrance to the race. It consisted of a tunnel-like structure covered in black tarp. The tunnel was broken up into three sections, fast runners (appetizers), described as being able to complete below a seven minute mile, regular runners (entree), seven to twelve minute mile, and slow runners (dessert). Because of my extensive training (see below), I could confidently fit in the regular runner category; however, my friends in my wave did not fit this category. Consulting figure 1, I ran with the two large gentlemen, and one of the fellows in jeans. QED. (who wears jeans to a 5K?!? -ed.)

We loaded into position about ten minutes before our start time. It was a cool day, upper 50ís, but it was hot in the tunnel. And it smelled. The race couldnít start fast enough.

After the faster lanes started, we were given the signal. I jogged past a mat connected to some box that beeped at me. The race begins. The first thing I see is a stack of hay bales, maybe seven feet tall. I scramble over them, and at the bottom is my first pack of zombies. Now, one of the most important rules given to was that we were not to touch the zombies. Easy enough I think. When I juke the first zombie, I canít help swiping at their outstretched hands, grabbing for my flag belt. Whoops, rule #1 broken in about 30 seconds. As I sprint past the zombies, thereís a fork in the road, fortunately Steve told us to go right, which puts us on a narrow path through the woods.

2. Stay with the group! (Zombies)

One of the biggest questions going into this thing was how are the zombies going to behave? More like the speedy, 28 Days Later zombies or more like the shuffling, Dawn of the Dead zombies? I can confidently say that the zombies are more like the Shaun of the Dead zombies. They shuffle around and are kind of a joke. They wonít chase you, they just kind of stand there, wait for people to run by, and snatch at their flags. Their behavior suggested a pretty clear strategy to almost every participant: If you see a pack of zombies, wait for a large group and try to overwhelm them with numbers. The more people in your group, the smaller the chance you have of being the person they grab. This also became an annoyance, as it could take a few minutes to gather a large enough group, especially as we were already towards the end of our wave.

3. Relief (Obstacles)

As foreshadowed above, the obstacles were disappointing. Really the only challenging obstacle was the hill climb, which really was a monstrous hill. What the obstacles provided was relief from the zombies, which was pretty welcome.

  1. Hay bail wall. As described above, this is a stack of hay bails about seven feet tall with a bunch of zombies waiting at the bottom. After we make our Steve-recommended right turn, we enter a narrow path in the woods. There are a few people in front of and behind us so we are stuck with the pace of the group. There was mostly camaraderie among the runners; I would point out zombies the best I could and so would other people. I would also use people as human shields, camaraderie! Along the narrow path there are a few zombies scattered around, basically waiting to lunge at you. Theyíre fairly easy to pass, my strategy was to stay close to someone in front of me and wait for the zombie to grab at them—camaraderie! Once they committed, I would just change directions and go around them. That and I stuffed my flags in my pockets to make them harder to grab. Oh, and I also put them in front of my junk.
  2. Cargo net climb. After we cleared the woods, we came to a cargo net. It was a pretty standard, approximately 10 foot cargo net climb, but with a zombie underneath. I stuffed my flags in my pockets so they wouldnít dangle, wiener-like beneath me. Kind of cheating, but whatever. After the climb, there was a pack of zombies at the bottom, and one of them got a flag. Two flags left.
  3. Tunnels. This is another disappointment, the website advertised the tunnels as some complex sewer system packed with zombies and turds. I actually dreaded this the most as I imagined myself stuck in a 3 foot tunnel, up to my nostrils in human feces with zombies bearing down on me. Turns out the tunnels were about 5 feet in diameter and maybe 6 feet long, I barely had to duck to get inside. After the tunnels we came upon a choice of directions. To the right appeared to be a dead end that we ignored, though looking back thatís probably where one of the health bonuses was. A health bonus was a special flag that, despite having all of your original flags taken, allows you to survive automatically. We scrambled up a hill towards an amphitheatre after which we had to rest.
  4. Hay bail maze. After running up the amphitheatre we come upon a maze guarded by a large gentleman in fatigues. The hay bail maze is basically all diarrhea-looking mud and I hate mud, especially the diarrhea kind. Fortunately the zombies werenít feeling very froggy here so I got through unscathed. After the maze there was an extremely steep hill to run down. On the way down some guy drops and rolls the last 20 feet or so. That looked safe.
  5. Dark tunnel. After the hill we pass a small building and stumble on a covered bridge, whose entrance had been covered in tarps. It looked pretty ominous, as if there was no way anyone was getting out alive. I waited for a large group to form, and we all charged. Aside from a few strobe lights, it was empty. Clever girl.
  6. Lake swim. After the covered bridge we came to the dreaded lake. The lake had a rope across it, so you didnít have to swim, just pull yourself along the rope. One member of our group, Ryan, in jeans(!), didnít want to get wet, so he took the long way around. I reluctantly climbed into the lake and started pulling on the rope. It didnít feel cold at first, but shit, after maybe 30 seconds I was freezing and had turtled-up junk. Sorry, ladies. The opposing bank is basically mud, and lots of it. I start stomping my way through the mud and after awhile I run into, who else but, Ryan. He said that the ďlongĒ way around was actually very short and he was boner-dry. Cleverer girl.
  7. Hill climb. The next part of the course was a long climb down a steep hill. The hill was super muddy so we have to go very slow. When we finally reach the bottom, we realize that weíre going to have to do the same, but in reverse. This is really the only intimidating obstacle in the whole race. The hill is pretty enormous, but we press on. I get to the top of the hill ahead of my friends so I stop and wait for them. A huffing and puffing Andrew shows up first, finally followed by Mike and Ryan. Ryan plops himself on the ground and says he needs a rest. Iím pretty tired of waiting so Andrew and I go with a group that has formed. As weíre standing around waiting for more people, one of the zombies charges, forcing our hand. Everyone scrambles and runs through the zombie gauntlet and I get hit again. One flag left. Hilariously enough, one zombie gets mad enough at me for stuffing my flags in my pockets that he breaks the fourth wall. ďCome on, pockets!Ē I heard as I ran past one guy. Clever me!
  8. Over under bars. I guess over under bars are supposed to be tough if youíre going quickly and trying to achieve a good time, but I kind of throw myself slowly over and duck a few inches under. I think I kicked a girl in the face on the way over though. Sorry mac!
  9. Wall climb. Up ahead I see a large wall, which would be awesome, but thereís quite a large line formed to go up it. Andrew and I have to wait a few minutes before we can get up the wall, which is pretty easy. On the other side is a slide down to the bottom, while we are informed vigorously not to hold our legs out straight. I bend my legs and let go.
  10. Hanging intestines. I wait for Andrew and we press on. Up ahead is a bunch of fake intestines hanging from a wood frame that we run through. Um, okay. Why would a bunch of zombies hang some intestines up?
  11. Blood water. At least it was supposed to be blood water. At this point it just looks like mud water with a red tint. Itís cold, the whole zombie thing is wearing a little thin, but Iím almost done.
  12. Finish line fence. After the blood water, I wait for Andrew and we start running up a steep hill. The hill is slick with mud and there are a few zombies blocking the way. I only have one flag left and at this point, Iím pretty determined to finish with it. Thereís no large group to hide in, itís just me, Andrew, and two strangers versus the zombies. I try not to be at the head of the group at any point, and basically wait for any zombie to lunge at another person before running past. This is tough as Iím running through mud, but Iím ultimately successful. At the top of the hill, I hear music, and see some people milling around. As I emerge, people start clapping and cheering and I feel like a rock star. I spot the finish line fence and prepare for my best baseball slide. See figure 4.


Figure 4.  I fucking rule.
Figure 4. I fucking rule.

Results

While I havenít participated in any organized sports in the last 16 years of my life, I have gained enough wisdom and patience to know how to train and prepare for events of significance, exams mostly.

1. Preparation

Prepare to be impressed:I actually completed a seven week training regiment. The schedule I followed was provided by the Mayo Clinic [see http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/5k-run/SM00061], and unlike most garbage on the Internet, this actually worked. I even had to skip a week because of knee issues, but at the end of the training I was able to complete a 5k in about 30 minutes. Not bad considering my best single mile time in my entire life was 9:12, and I wasn’t even being chased by zombies at the time, just macho jocks. Unfortunately, though I trained to run, the zombie 5k was more of a slog through the mud. Iím still glad I trained, as afterward, I was barely winded and able to drink lots of beers.

2. Results

56:27.5, ouch. 5,649 out of 7,046. 3,808 out of 4614 of the ďaliveĒ finishers. I trained seven weeks for that?

I think some statistical analysis is in order to make myself feel a little better, and fortunately the full results can be found at http://www.eliteracemanagement.com/run-for-your-lives/. First off, the best time was 20:39.1, which, while not an amazing 5k time for a professional, is pretty ridiculous considering the circumstances. The worst time was 10:28:13.5. Over 10 hours. How is that even possible? I donít even think the event was 10 hours long. The mean time was 47:48, the median was 46:36, and the standard deviation was 16:35, putting me below average in all senses of the word, but still within one standard deviation! See figure 5 for the full distribution. The statistics for the alive finishers were almost identical, though the standard deviation was a little tighter at 14:35. I was in the 80th and 83rd percentiles for the full card and alive finishers respectively.

None of the above statistics make me feel any better. But wait, the age group was included in the data, maybe Iíll fare better against 30-year-olds. The mean finish time for 30-39 was 49:15, the median was 47:56, and the standard deviation was 16:40. So the mean and median are a little higher, putting me in the 76th percentile and that still stinks.

Weíre going to have to do a little more work to up my self-esteem. At the end of my training, I could run a 5k in about 30 minutes. Thatís not a particularly good time, but itís great for me. If I can correlate that to a zombie 5k time, maybe I can project how I would have run if I hadnít been waiting around for my friends. I Googled ď5k statisticsĒ and found a website that allows you to enter your age and time and compares you with other runners [see http://www.runbayou.com/Wavacalc.htm]. I entered in my age, 31, and my time, 30 minutes, and was told that Iím in the 57th percentile for runners my age. Now weíre talking. According to the data I have, the 57th percentile for the 30 year old group gives a time of about 50 minutes. Behold, through the power of statistics, I improved my time (in my head) by 6 minutes.

My friends in the first wave did a little better. Stan, the bachelor survived and clocked in at a very respectable 45:20.2, placing 3,209 and putting him in the 65th percentile. Steve, while becoming zombie food, finished in 40:38.1, giving him 2,073rd place and putting him in the 48th percentile. Now for the bottom of the pack, my group. Bringing up the rear were Mike (dead) and Ryan (alive), finishing in around 1 hour 12 minutes. That puts them in the 97th percentile. Yikes. Doing a little better was Mikeís brother Andrew (alive), who I stayed with for most of the run. I jogged past him in the end, but he still finished in 57:08.4, putting him in the 81st percentile. Go Andrew.


Figure 5: Histogram of the finish times.  Bin size is 1 minute.
Figure 5: Histogram of the finish times. Bin size is 1 minute.

3. Race advice

If youíre like me in that youíre not some elite runner trying to break records, how you run the race depends largely on your friends. You could always go it alone and try to get the best time possible, but thatís not all that much fun. I donít regret running with my friends, even though Iím kind of a perfectionist and Iím extremely obsessed with numbers, especially improving them. I was ultimately able to rationalize 6 minutes off of my time, so you could always do the same.

Donít worry about losing your flags either. Itís fun to try to dodge the zombies and waiting around for a group to form gives you a chance to catch your breath, but thereís no difference between finishing alive or dead. You get the same medal, and, given the best times shown above, youíre not going to win a prize either way. A couple of survival tricks are 1) put your flags in your pockets so the zombies canít grab them 2) put your flags in front of your junk so they donít want to grab them 3) put your flags on your ass so they canít see them and think youíre already dead. I didnít try 3, but 1 and 2 work fairly well if you donít mind getting yelled at and getting your junk grabbed. If you do lose your flags, take a minute and go down one of the many dead end paths, you just might find a health bonus.

Conclusions

I have a friend who likes to joke that all zombie movies are the same: Thereís a zombie problem . . . and itís escalating! Run For Your Lives didnít quite capture that zombie truism. There was no escalation and I havenít even touch on the party aspect yet, which was pretty fun. There were some bands, no one notable, lots of food and beer. The worst part was that only crappy beer was available, Pabst Blue Ribbon and National Bohemian. At least you get a free beer ticket if you run. After awhile though, we were just kind of sitting around in the cold and it was time to go.

The zombie decor was disappointing. I was expecting to be scared, not laugh. The zombie make-up was actually done pretty well, but it was not done in a frightening fashion. I was expecting zombies to be wandering around, forcing me to stay on my toes constantly, but it was pretty easy to see where they were. They never came up behind you and just formed a human gauntlet for you to run through.

Ultimately, I think I would attend again given the chance. Iím not going to go out of my way to go next year, but if a few friends are interested Iíll go with them. The organizers sent out an email the day after the race stating that they are fixing the parking situation by using Cal Ripken Stadiumís parking lot. That would solve a lot of the issues I had with the event. I also will not run with the slowest of my friends, that ended up being a little frustrating. Nor will I worry about losing my flags.

After the race, I ended up changing in a port-a-potty, which sounds disgusting, and is even more disgusting when you actually experience it. So, next year, how about a changing area?

Post Script

Wait a minute. Did I just LARP? [see, embarrassingly, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Live_action_role-playing_game]. Thanks, Stan.

raymond.oconnor@brutalhorse.com
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