Even with the looming prospect of fitting into a wedding gown, the only way Cindy Brandecker could imagine taking up running was if someone were chasing her.
So Ms. Brandecker, 32, has twice paid some $75 to spend a Saturday being pursued by blood-spattered, professionally made-up hordes of stumbling (and sprinting) dead at Run For Your Lives, a zombie-themed 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race that also features apocalyptic obstacles like a pitch-black smoke-filled house with live wires.
To receive an “I Survived” medal, runners must cross the finish line (an electric fence with an 18-inch clearing they have to squeeze under) with at least one flag intact of the three they wear on a belt. About 30 percent of the participants earn a medal, according to company figures, though even the so-called “infected” or “killed” are allowed to finish the race.
“I’d hate to do a traditional 5K,” said Ms. Brandecker, of South Bound Brook, N.J., who lost all her flags at both races. “I don’t understand people that find running fun, but having the obstacles and people coming after you makes it so it’s fun.”
Purists may grumble that zombies don’t run, yet the undead slots — where participants dress up, have prosthetic pustules and bite marks applied, then stumble after or chase runners — sell out almost immediately.
For a recent Run For Your Lives on a Christmas tree farm in Medford, N.J., there were 750 zombies and 7,500 runners. As is typical for these events (there are now about a half-dozen companies offering them), the crowd was mostly novice exercisers and zombie zealots, many of whom wear cameras mounted on helmets so they canupload videos to YouTube.
Zombies are everywhere: in AMC’s hit TV show “The Walking Dead” (the top-rated scripted show of the 2012-13 season), in Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” and Seth Rogen’s “This Is the End,” and even in the venerable Archie Comics series, which has a forthcoming zombie story line.
Combined with the current mud-run craze, the brain-scoffing swarms have infected the fitness world, with events across the United States, including the Walking Dead Escape race at Comic-Con in July. Unsurprisingly, there is an app for this: Zombies, Run!, which raised financing in less than a week on Kickstarter. Released in 2012, it has been downloaded more than 500,000 times.
Unlike at Tough Mudder-type extreme races and even regular running ones, escapism and fun are the point of zombie-themed runs; pushing to the point of muscle failure is not. AtRun For Your Lives, participants can skip obstacles, and there is little incentive to keep pace at the front of the pack, let alone sprint ahead. “Stay in groups — there’s strength in numbers,” said Barry Tsang, 35, of Jersey City, offering advice to runners in later waves after he survived the New Jersey event.
Danielle McDevitt, 31, of Absecon, N.J., a zombie outfitted in a leopard-print dress and a necklace that read “SEXY,” signed up with her sister so they could chase their husbands, who were running.
“I think in this day and age, everything’s so serious,” she said. “You have to worry about your jobs and your mortgage. This was a time for us to not worry, to go get made up and be stupid and just have a good laugh.”
Ms. McDevitt thought she and her sister got a better workout than most of the competitors, who typically finish in less than an hour, while zombies are out on the course for around three hours, and “we were running for all of it.” (Their husbands escaped unscathed.)
Sarah Juliet Lauro, a visiting assistant professor at Clemson University who studies zombies (and whose work commitments have kept her from running in an event), said interest in zombies tends to spike when the economy splutters.
The races, she said, “are a valve for releasing some anxiety, even if it’s a threat that you can’t really name or put your finger on.”
Run For Your Lives began in 2011, intended as a one-time event in a Baltimore suburb to help its founders get rid of excess workout clothes from a struggling start-up. The race attracted 12,000 people from around the world.
This year, there are 22 events in the United States and Canada, including one in Brooklyn in October. The Zombie Run, a competing company with a higher fear factor and an elaborate suspense-filled narrative, will host 16 events, aiming to be like the famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast by Orson Welles, “where people might forget they’re doing something that’s staged,” said Andrew Hudis, 20, a University of Pennsylvania junior and a founder of the company.
Even municipal governments have staged such runs, usually to publicize disaster preparedness, after the Centers for Disease Control in 2011 posted a tongue-in-cheek primer for coping with a zombie apocalypse.
“If you’re ready for zombies, you can be ready for all the man-made and natural incidents that occur,” said August Vernon, operations officer for North Carolina’s Forsyth County Emergency Management Agency, which held a zombie 5K in April.
By 7:30 a.m. at the New Jersey event, blood (xanthan gum mixed with red and black dye, and water) was already being shed by the five-gallon bucketful.
The race’s blood technician, James Howard, 27, stood in front of a long line of zombies, using a pitcher’s windup to throw two handfuls of blood at each one.