In late 2011, I had moved back to Chicago, and I figured I would never be able to do Run For Your Lives, as it was only in Baltimore.
However, the original zombie race (forget these "Run from the Undead" or other zombie races, this literally is the original) was so popular out in Baltimore that in 2012, they expanded. The closest race to Chicago in that first expansion was St. Louis. Whomp, no go. In late 2012, the 2013 "tour" was announced. Northern Illinois was on the list. I signed up immediately, probably the farthest out I have ever signed up for a race. I signed up in November 2012. The race took place today.
It was a great setting though. After getting off the expressway and driving through corn farms for half an hour, just about two miles from the motocross track, I came upon two massive smokestacks belching white smoke high into the air. Byron, as I found out, is home to a large power plant. The huge smokestacks gave a little bit of that apocalyptic atmosphere you want for a zombie race.
The course was set on an actual motocross track, and the first thing I saw approaching the course was hills -- lots of them. Damn. There are no hills in Chicago. As I continued around the perimeter of the course to registration, I saw some of the obstacles, which vary by location and are kept secret from participants.
I saw an army crawl through mud under barbed wire, several tall hurdle-type obstacles, jumps over six-and-a-half-foot tall bales of hay, etc. I got a little nervous as I remembered that my upper arm strength is approximately nil. I won't go over all the obstacles in detail in order to save the spoilers, but remember that they do vary by location. However, there is one constant: the veritable gauntlets of 8-10 zombies scattered throughout the course.
After checking in and getting my bib, I found a spot near another participant to pin it on. The triathlete mom, as I later found out, struck up a conversation. She was by herself too (her friend was still far away on the road), and she was in my 10:00am wave, so we decided to team up. After all, safety in numbers is the name of the game.
Before our wave start, we watched some of the other runners out on the course, and immediately recognized that you're better off in groups. Some of the first people to cross the finish line were all by themselves -- and "dead" despite looking like, and likely being, marathoners. In groups, zombies are forced to pick one person at a time, so you have a better chance of being able to slip by in a large group of runners.
Time for the army crawl through the mud under barbed wire. The twist that was probably unintentional -- underneath the mud was rocks. As I sit here typing, my knees are cut up, scraped, scratched, and bruised -- and I was wearing capris that covered my knees. The palms of my hands are not much better.
Immediately after slopping out of the mud, we were trying to shake some of the mud weight off of us, but we didn't have time: zombies were immediately sauntering toward us, and, kicking up mud, we slid through them. I made it through that gauntlet without losing another flag. However, by the time we went through two more gauntlets (and some other obstacles), I was dead. A zombie bride delivered the final blow.
I was pretty much the first dead person in my wave, which was embarrassing, but it also gave me an important role: zombie bait. I felt like Rick from The Walking Dead as I immediately became the leader of the group. I ventured first through remaining zombie gauntlets, running like I still had flags, waving my arms and screaming "I'M DISTRACTING!" as zombies unsuccessfully looked for remaining flags on my belt (while my fellow racers whizzed by untouched).
The race continued like this, and through it, a sense of camaraderie emerged, which made this race exponentially different from your regular road race. In packs, we would strategize, shout warnings to runners behind us about zombies on the trail ahead, and some participants would even stop on top of hurdle-type obstacles to give an arm to and help as many as 20 fellow participants get up and over the obstacles. The whole race was a sort of "renewing my faith in humanity" thing. We didn't even know each other's names, and yet people would do things to help others without question, without hesitation, and without even having been asked.
Case in point, when I struggled with the six-and-a-half-foot hay bales due to my aforementioned lack of upper arm strength, a fellow runner literally got down on his hands and knees in front of the bale, making a bridge with his body and wordlessly proposing that I step on his back to make my way up. I looked at him like he was nuts and said, "Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?" He remained on the ground, saying, "Yes, do it, just don't make a running start!" I complied, leaving him a big muddy footprint on his back as a reminder of his good deed.
When we approached the finish, it was the biggest gauntlet of all. At least 15 zombies were waiting. The majority of our wave had died, so we waited beyond their reach for someone who still had a flag left. When he arrived, there were at least eight of us with no flags remaining, and we collaborated a sort of quarterback sneak so he could get through alive. We dead runners ran first, trying to distract as many of the zombies as possible to allow for the alive runner to sprint through. He nearly lost the flag after tripping and falling after rolling to the left around a zombie, but he got up and booked it to the finish, alive. Those of us who helped him through that last gauntlet screamed and cheered as he crossed the finish line with one flag left.
I had a really fantastic time at the race, and it was definitely a unique experience unlike any other race. I will say that it was really, really hard. Having been pretty much strictly a runner for the past year, this had basically no principles of an endurance event. It was actually more like a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) race.
The event was essentially a series of repeated intervals -- an obstacle that typically required jumping over, crawling under, or climbing up it, a walk to a gauntlet, and then a full-on sprint through the zombie gauntlet, with some lateral, tennis-like movement thrown into the sprint (which left everyone, even the most fit runners, doubled over and wheezing afterwards). Even my triathlete PIC said at one point after a gauntlet, "I'm not as fit as I thought I was."
My main aim for this race was of course to survive, but after that didn't work out, I was determined to do all of the obstacles despite being dead. I saw a few people just skip the obstacles after they "died" because they figured what was the point? I'm already dead and that looks hard. But I signed up for an obstacle race, and where's the fun in skipping obstacles -- skipping what's difficult -- just because you're dead?
And more importantly, I wanted to do all of the obstacles to prove to myself that I could. Sure I didn't do all of them particularly well, and needed help from other runners on some, but the point is that I went into them gung-ho. Even when my knees were bleeding from crawling through the second rocky mud pit, I did it. Even when I came up to a big hill, I'd run up it even though I didn't have to, pretending it was hill repeats as part of my half training since Chicago lacks hills. I kept jogging through zombie gauntlets. Even if I wasn't at an all-out run like I would be if I still had flags, I at least picked up my pace considerably.
It was really difficult and reminded me that I need to not only work in more HIIT, but also some upper body workouts. I would 100% do this again, and I'm very glad that I found a partner in crime for the day, as it kept me accountable for someone, which made it a little bit more fun. Next year, I might even register for a zombie shift, it looked like fun. A lot of people that I saw in my wave and other early waves ran the race and then went to get done up as a zombie for a zombie shift, and I think I may opt for that.
In conclusion, Run For Your Lives was a race worth waiting two years for. Next year, I'll bring fingerless gloves and some kind of additional knee covering for the rocky army crawls, but consider me in.
Run For Your Lives 5K
September 21, 2013
Untimed, finished Infected, 100% obstacles completed