Posted by Kurt
A young man waits in the staging area before he begins his run. Jay wears a torn white dress shirt and plaid pants, all stained with fake blood. He has rubbed mud in his hair and fixed a false laceration along his cheekbone. As a zombie volunteer in the morning, he perfected a curious pretzel-shaped crouch, with his arms at unnatural and unsettling angles that just happened to be perfect for suddenly snatching at an inattentive runner’s flag, but now his shift is over, and he is ready to experience the other side of the event. He is an accomplished runner, with experience completing masochistic ultra-marathons and pushing himself for 24 hour races, but this is his first time to dodge zombies on his way through an obstacle course.
Jay was one of my new zombie friends, and we were two of six volunteers who worked the haystack obstacle from 8:00 to 1:00, then got in line to run in the 2:00 wave of humans. As zombie volunteers, we weren’t eligible to win, so Jay and I didn’t even wear the flags provided to us, but Lisa, Hunter, and the fun couple from New York sported flags like humans just to see more of what the race was like with an incentive to dodge zombies. Jay and Hunter were serious runners who wanted to push themselves for their best possible times, and the New York couple was running together, so I partnered with Lisa to enjoy a good run without paying attention to speed.
The race was terrifying. In my head, I knew that the zombies weren’t going to hurt me. I didn’t have any flags, and when I was a zombie volunteer, we definitely took it easy on zombie runners because we liked them more than anyone else. Still, I ran on the reptile brain for much of the 5K. When I got to the first haystack obstacle, for example, I knew enough to run for the stack on the left. The other stack was closer, and closer to the path to the next obstacle, but I knew from experience that people had done some serious damage to the hay on the zombie side of the stacks. Hours of frightened people sliding and rolling down the more popular pyramid had set up some really dangerous conditions, and the volunteers running together at 2:00 spread the word that we should all choose the other pyramid and make a beeline for the trees. Once I hit the top of the stacks, I planned to stop for a second to take in the scene before running along. When reality hit, though, I stayed with Lisa up to the hay, then panicked. I crawled up the stacks and kept my head down, watching my feet and correcting my course when a girl in front of me accidentally knocked a hay bale out of my way before I could step on it. She may have fallen down, but I have to admit that I didn’t even think to check. I didn’t think about my running buddy. I didn’t think about possible spectators around the edge of the obstacle. I didn’t think to help my fellow runners get to the woods safely. I thought about the bloody figures lurching toward me, and I thought about running as quickly as possible to safety. I dodged with better coordination than I had expected, and I was a few yards into the woods before I ever stopped to take a breath and check on my little alliance. Although Lisa caught up to me within a few minutes, and we crossed paths with our New York friends periodically throughout the course, Jay and Hunter were already far ahead of us (and they had their scores recorded just for fun, ending with impressive times that put them among the fastest racers of the day). This was kind of the plan from the beginning, but I couldn’t escape a sense that the terror of that first challenge had smashed all of our rational plans, in a way that I consider satisfying now that it’s over.
Most of the obstacles along the course were impressive. There was a tall cargo net wall to ascend (and then descend by another net on the other side), which would have been a physical challenge even without the mental challenge of two zombies roaming beneath the structure, reaching up through the nets to yank flags in a way that has been one of my personal nightmares since I was a child at a beach house with exterior stairs. We faced a high wall (not actually that challenging, since there were plenty of little ledges that made it almost more an interesting ladder than a climbing wall) with a slide on the other side into muddy cushions. In the morning, runners were presented with the option of crossing a pond by wading through chest-deep water or running along the narrow zombie-infested path at the edge, but by 2:00, the water option was closed because of excessive injuries in the first waves of runners. There was a hay bale maze with zombies hiding around the wrong turns. Many narrow trails had zombies blocking them entirely (at those points, I volunteered myself to fellow runners as a shield to block for them, but I usually didn’t block for long before my general panic spurred me along the path - the reptile brain responded to gore-dripping ghouls in my personal space, and although I had the presence of mind to say “excuse me” as I departed, I didn’t have the spine to block for more than a few people per zombie). There was a little tunnel with hanging plastic intestines that was probably better in design than execution. We encountered a large tunnel blocked off by a curtain of black plastic strips, and we were certain that zombies waited for us in the dark - our actual experience had strobe lights and threatening graffiti, but no zombies, which was either from a lack of volunteers or a clever misdirection. Near the end of the race, there was an enormous tub, like a waist-deep lap pool, full of cold red liquid (the obstacle was called the Blood Bath, but by the afternoon, honestly, there was so much mud that you wouldn’t have noticed any red color if not for the disclaimer sign at the entrance warning away racers who were allergic to red dye), and after that obstacle, we ran through thick mud for a long way as we followed in the footsteps of thousands of drenched runners.
The run was physically demanding because of all of the hills and mud (and zombies to dodge), but one of my fears before running was that I wouldn’t be able to perform daunting physical challenges. These obstacles were physically and mentally challenging, but I really think anyone who can run a 5K can handle the additional physical requirements of this obstacle course, especially since there are breaks from time to time as people bottleneck at the entrances to some of the more complicated structures. I don’t know if I have the nerve to run with flags for my next zombie obstacle course, but I won’t be afraid of the obstacles themselves.