The whole idea of Sunday’s 5k running race through Saratoga Spa State Park wasn’t to finish first — it was to avoid the zombies lurking along the trail.
An army of the undead was strategically positioned throughout the course, eager to steal flag football-style plastic strips from the runners as they passed. If runners lost all three of their strips to the zombies, they were dead.
Well, not really, but no matter how quickly they navigated the course, they were out of the running for first place.
About 1,000 runners — more than three times the number expected — turned up to dodge zombies in Sunday’s rUNDEAD race to benefit Special Olympics New York.
Theme race organizers across the region are welcoming similarly robust crowds, no matter what their gimmick. Athletes and couch potatoes alike are flocking to foot races where they get doused in colorful cornstarch, leap over blazing logs, or take a wintertime dash down a city street in a Speedo.
Josh Merlis, club president of the Albany Running Exchange, explained the attraction of the races-with-a-twist: “If nothing else, I feel it’s a return to our youth. It is an escape. Running itself, it’s something we feel we have to do. We want to, it’s good for us, but it becomes a chore. … To have these opportunities to get out there and to play in the mud and run around with face paint or to get sprayed with some color and to do it with your friends and to forget about work is the greatest feeling in the world.”
A dead run
The participants who turned up for rUNDEAD Sunday did look like they were having the time of their lives, despite the mangled zombies who stumbled into their paths or came at them in a dead run.
Bill Paley, 27, of Burnt Hills dressed as Snow White for the race. “I’m a damsel in distress,” he explained with a grin.
Beside him was Kristal Ramjeet, 27, of Burnt Hills, who was wearing a gray nun’s habit. “I have the Lord on my side,” she said, holding up a cross attached to a long, beaded necklace.
Hanging out with the princess and the nun was Scott Kraeger, 39, of Queensbury, who was posing as a runner from the 1980s, complete with cut-off jeans shorts, a Budweiser T-shirt and sweat bands on his wrists and forehead.
“Running by itself sucks,” he said, and his companions agreed.
This race is different, his 13-year-old daughter, Gretchen, insisted. “There are like zombies chasing you. Who wouldn’t want to do that?” she asked.
Paul Cuddihy, 46, of Glenville, probably felt like a zombie after getting dragged out of bed early Sunday morning by his teenage daughters to run in the rUNDEAD race, but he was smiling right before race time. He said he’s never run a 5k race before.
“I don’t have any idea what I’m doing, but I figure if I get a bad time, I’ll just say, ‘Well some zombies were chasing me and it just slowed me down.’ ”
People who would otherwise never consider running are willing to get out of bed for theme races because many offer a way to have a great time while raising money for a great cause, said Jim Larson, race director for The Albany Society for the Advancement of Philanthropy, which sponsors the annual Santa Speedo Sprint in Albany. This year’s costumed run up and down Lark Street will be held Saturday, Dec. 8. All proceeds will benefit the HIV program at Albany Medical Center and the Albany Damien Center.
The Albany Running Exchange hosted their annual Hairy Gorilla Half-Marathon on Sunday in Thacher State Park, and 650 costumed runners were expected.
“In Runners World this year, they called it the best costume trail race in America,” Merlis said.
Participants pick up as many bananas as they can along the course, which is decorated with things like tombstones with the runners’ names on them. And to make it even more fun, there are people dressed like gorillas lurking in the woods.
Merlis owns a company that does race timing logistics at 125 events annually. He said he’s seen tremendous growth in the popularity of theme races. That’s great for race organizers, but as more and more participants are lured by fun gimmicks, Merlis said there are safety concerns, especially with runs that include obstacles.
“The major difference between running on the roads and doing these obstacle runs is that obstacle runs become a full body experience. You are going to need to use your hands, you are going to have to jump, you are going to need to remain more alert,” he cautioned. “We’ve seen plenty of ambulances leave events with people in them.”
Stuart Kaul, event director for Hero Rush Events, said there is danger in any sort of a race, but people are willing to take risks in theme races because they want to do fun, active things.
“The runs that have been going on for the last 20, 30, 40 years are somewhat monotonous,” he said.
Hero Rush runs include obstacles based loosely on things firefighters might experience during a call. The one held at Ellms Family Farm in Ballston Sept. 8 drew about 1,000 runners who, along the course, stumbled through a container made to look like the smoke-filled apartment of a hoarder and dove into a 40- by 20-foot vat of green “Hazmat” slime spiked with 55-gallon “toxic waste” drums.
“People know they are putting themselves in probably a little more danger than they would if they were sitting on a couch watching a game, but that’s the fun of it,” Kaul said. “That’s the fun of life.”