Run For Your Lives: A Tale of Escaping Zombies (and then becoming one)

If you were to ask me, “Elizabeth, do you like zombies?” my answer would be firmly and solidly “fuck, no.” I’m phobic of blood. I am prone to panic. I hate horror films. I still hide behind my hands during parts of 28 Days Later. Don’t even get me started with Dawn of the Dead: never finished it.

Knowing this, you might follow up by asking, “then why in hell do you spend so much time doing stuff that has to do with zombies?”

Know thy enemy, my friend. (Also, it’s helpful training. You see, my closest circle of friends apparently have a location where they will go if there ever is a zombie apocalypse. They also all have given each other helpful zombie killing weapons. I do not yet have a weapon nor do I know the location of said safehouse. I hope, with these efforts, I shall someday earn my place in their apocalypse plan.)

This brings me to today’s zombie topic: Run For Your Lives, a 5K obstacle course (complete with zombies.) About two years ago, I found out about RFYL online. It was a pretty obscure event back then with very few locations, but I was immediately excited about the challenge. I’d just gotten into running (I was going to write “hardcore running” but since I max out at 5 miles, I know I’m not hardcore. I mean “hardcore” as in “I was running 5ish times a week and that made me feel like a badass.”) I vowed to participate in RFYL as soon as it came to an area near me.

Shortly after discovering RFYL, I also happened upon a Kickstarter for Zombies, Run! – the world’s coolest, most awesome, amazing, incredible, stupendilicious app for iPhone (and now Android.) Zombies, Run! is akin to a radio drama: turn on the episode when you are ready to run and be teleported into a post-apocalyptic world where you are running to help a town. There’s story, there’s drama, and there are bouts of zombies chasing after you (terror and HIIT all in one!) This app cemented my desire to not just IMAGINE zombies lunging at me whilst I ran through Golden Gate Park, but actually experience it.

My first chance came last October in Temecula (Southern California, near San Diego.) Myself, my husband, and my friends Greg and Cailin signed up. We were ready for a road trip, to camp, and to flee from ferocious undead beings. Alas: Extra Life landed on the same day as RFYL and my dreams of zombie 5Ks vanished.

But wait! RFYL, over the course of two years, became a HUGE FUCKING HIT. (And now you know why I had such a long preamble: I am that person who wears the band tee shirt from the first tour just to show people that I was there first. Goddamnit, I may not have gotten to run until 2013, but I totally was into RFYL before it was cool and there was a kickass trailer to a pretty badass song and tons of marketing dollars and a national advertising campaign.)

Okay, zombie-hipster-issues out of the way, here’s the fun part.

On May 11th, 2013, Mike, Greg, Cailin and I set off for a motocross course in Clearlake Oaks (Northern California, about two hours north of San Francisco) to run in RFYL and also be transformed into terrifying Chaser Zombies (Cailin was a Shambler, although even without speed, she was decidedly the most dedicated actress and terrifying zombie of all of us.)

Our race began at 11 AM. Greg and I suited up with GoPro cameras strapped firmly to our chests (I feared we would look uber dorky but it turns out that we fit in perfectly.) The funnel where we were corralled had three distinct sections: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. We decided to go in the very back of the entrée section and were the first wave released.

The first half mile of the course was fairly quiet: a couple crouching obstacles and a gentle uphill climb. Then came chest-high plywood walls that I vaulted over (less athletic folk literally rolled over them. It was kind of weird and also made me feel like I was in incredibly good shape. (I’m not.))

Then came the zombies: at first, they were just a smattering of shamblers, lunging half heartedly at us. Soon, they began to stagger in larger clumps and a few lunged towards us. We paced ourselves and walked and I sped up only in short bursts to get around the worst of them.

The first “difficult” obstacle for me was a 2x4 plank set over thigh-deep muddy water. I’m not much of a balancer, so I got about three steps in before falling off into the water. This was a happy accident, though, because it was somewhere around 80 degrees and the course had barely any shade. Being drenched up to my thighs with frigid water was a blessing.

By the time we reached the water station a mile into the course, all three of us were feeling the pain. I think this first mile had the most sustained uphill climbs, but that might just be my imagination. The first wave of runners were all still relatively packed together, and since we mostly all still had three flags, we were hesitant to move forward whenever we saw a zombie. The first mile went like this: people would walk or jog at their own pace until an undead was sighted. Everyone would then stop twenty yards away and eye each other, waiting for someone to go first. A couple times, I instigated the rush: “come on, let’s run together. They can’t get us all.” We counted to three and charged (with half hanging back, unsure if we woud live up to our word.)

Just after mile one I lost my first flag. It was a cheap loss: a zombie snuck out of the bushes behind me and yoinked it. I suppose that’s how it happens, though: most fall prey to a zombie they never see.

Mile two felt the longest of the entire race. More and more zombies piled up and as the groups grew larger, we realized that we couldn’t tell the difference between shamblers and chaser zombies. As you hurried past a horde, you could never tell if someone would lunge and then pursue. Worse yet, some began to lurch forward as a group of humans bunched up, scattering our tightly clumped packs to the wind and leaving us all exposed to groping arms. The group also began to thin out: the less athletic were hanging back and those that were actually trying to run the race had sped on ahead. There were fewer folks to run with, making the “mob rush” technique nigh impossible. Greg was also the most strategic of our small pack of three (our group, by the way, was called The Poopy Poops. That’s also our League of Legend ranked team name, if you must know its origin.) Often I would race through a zombie obstacle only to look back and see Greg, eyeing a particularly nasty zombie, trying to employ some sort of psychological warfare or simply a staring contest. I also think Greg had it worse than Mike and myself: he’s tall and thin and I think the smart zombies translated that into an athletic build, so those who wanted a challenge went for him. I want to say I felt bad about this, but it helped me. Hey, it’s the apocalypse! Whatever works.

Obstacles during mile two entailed another deep pool of water (the mud almost sucked my shoes off my feet) and a fifteen-or-so foot triangle of wood that you had to climb up over and down again. (I skipped this as well as the obstacles that made you crawl on your knees. I have a bum knee right now and am going to have to have surgery. My compromise for doing this race was that I wouldn’t run wouldn’t do any knee-intensive parts.) We also had to navigate over barbed wire but so long as you knew how to step with high knees, you were golden. Mostly, mile two brought more zombies: larger groups, more chasers, and far fewer stretches where you could walk and not worry about guarding against the undead.

We took a five minute rest at the mile two water station. Greg, for all his strategy, was a bit worse for the wear and I knew we were all dehydrated and overheated. We wanted to devour all the water in sight but also wanted to make sure we didn’t upchuck it during the last leg of the race.

I should also mention at this point I’d lost all my flags. I made it until right before the water station before my third flag was torn free and I want to say I gave that zombie a nice little chase but since I wasn’t juking folks (knees, damn you knees) I knew that I would not be able to avoid becoming zombie food. Gimpy folks never make it in the apocalypse except for that guy in The Walking Dead who doesn’t have a leg. Seriously, fuck that guy.

Mile three was the least and most brutal of the entire race. It was less intense because I was dead: I could walk through zombies and give them “hey I’m infected!” fist bumps and not worry about them chasing me. This was good because by mile three, I realized that it doesn’t get hot in San Francisco and I am woefully untrained in the art of exercising in heat. (Clearly, the west coast has made me soft in more ways than one. New York City summers laugh at me struggling in this weather.) However, mile three brought the most zombies, the most chasers, and the most intense obstacles.

In sight of the last water station was the Smokehouse, a signature event for RFYL. It’s a plywood house, covered in black trash bags, with electrical wires hanging down throughout the entire thing, ready to shock you if you touch them. Why is it called the Smokehouse, you ask? Because you can’t see jack shit in it: it’s entirely filled with smoke.

I crawled into one of the windows and slowly began inching forward, seeing the wires inches before I hit them. Now, I want to reinvent this moment, but it’s on my GoPro, so I can’t: I got about ten feet in before a wire hit me across the back of both thighs (that were sopping wet) and shocked the everloving shit out of me. I screamed like a little girl. It wasn’t even voluntary: I just let out of shriek of sassiness that really can’t be matched.

I also then pussed out entirely. My survival instinct set in hardcore and I, in short, panicked. Greg was just climbing into the house behind me when I screamed. “How the hell do you do this?!” I screamed to the darkness. A couple voices replied “you crawl on your belly in the mud the whole way.” To this I replied something like “fuck this I’m leaving.”

I left the Smokehouse recklessly fast. I knew as I was leaving I was going to get shocked again. I was in full panic mode. And I was shocked again, once, and I let out yet another involuntary scream. And while I’m not proud of it, I dare you to go try inching through that thing after being shocked by a wire you swear wasn’t hanging down from the ceiling.

Greg took a long, long time to get through the Smokehouse (and I don’t blame him. After my exit, I’d be doubly cautious, too.) He didn’t crawl, but I think he had an advantage since he’s stupid thin. Mike heeded my warning and also skipped the Smokehouse.

After that, Greg and Mike crawled through deep mud under plywood triangles. Greg kind of lost his mind as the mud got deeper and deeper and I was super happy to film that. From there, it was the home stretch. At the very end, there was a stretch of monkey bars over a pool of chest deep water. Not knowing my own strength, I opted to jump into the water and wade across (bonus cold water on a hot day!) Unfortunately, I got to the end and realized I was facing a slick plywood wall with no footholes. The wall came up to my eyes and for about ten seconds I panicked again (this time out of embarrassment) because I was unsure if I would be able to get out of the pool on my own. I’d aleady skipped two obstacles and abandoned a third, however, so I grabbed onto the two pillars that held up the monkey bars and hoisted my legs up, over my head and forward and pretty much vault/slid/jumped out of the pool. The next day my biceps were sore from this maneuver and it was, by far, the moment were I legit felt like a zombie-running rockstar. The GoPro footage doesn’t do it justice. Just play the Rockie theme song in your head and pretend this isn’t a plywood pool of dirty water, okay?

At the finish line, Cailin cheered and snapped photos. The final obstacle consisted of an electrified chainlink fence that you had to belly crawl under. After my last run-in with electricity, I opted out.

While neither Greg nor Mike nor I survived the race, we had a blast and were thoroughly exhausted. We weren’t done, however, The race took us about an hour fifteen to complete, giving us just enough time to shower (and by shower I mean “use a hose to wash off the muck”), change into zombie outfits, and get makeup on for our shift.

Not gonna lie: zombie makeup was fun but getting gross blood thrown on me almost made me toss my cookies. As I said before, I’m phobic of blood, and while I knew this glop coating me was likely just food coloring and corn starch (or something…) it still made everything in my body want to turn inside out and disappear.

This is also the part of the day where I ding RFYL’s heavily. You see, this is a for-profit operation. We pay $35 for the privilege of beinga zombie and $45 to run (folks who run without volunteering as zombies pay between $70 and $100.) In short, RFYL makes bank on this event, especially when you consider everyone I encountered was a volunteer: zombies, makeup artists, course officials. I think only the owners of the event, people selling food, and the medical staff were paid. So when zombies were told to grab two 12 ounce bottles of water for a three-and-a-half hour shift on a non-shaded course in 80-to-90 degree weather, I say fuck that. It’s dangerous. We were dehydrated and that’s not enough water.

We did get to find out a bit more about how they gameify the course, however. Zombies in early zones aren’t allowed to pull all the flags: it isn’t until zone 10 (right at the third mile mark) where runners are even able to lose all their flags. This revelation made me feel less awesome since that means I lost my last flag at the earliest possible moment, but it also made me give kudos to the organization for realizing that people need incentive to keep going. Fewer than 20% of all runners make it to the end alive: with a stat like that, you have to give people false hope or else they might just decide to turn back before the halfway point.

The four of us were stationed in zone 11, right after the Smokehouse. This was awesome because we got to pull the last flags of runners and, in general, those who passes us were a moderate challenge. There were a couple demoralized or injured folk with flags that I let limp past because stealing a flag from a sad person who doesn’t even have the energy to jog just seemed cruel.

I also found out that I suck at being a zombie. I mean, I don’t know how to moan or limp or put my hands out in a convincing zombie manner. Cailin made me super jealous: she even had the “my foot is broken” leg drag down. Me? I just sounded like a rabid maniac who also had played too much Plants vs. Zombies because I just kept moaning “BRAINS” in the exact same way the zombies do whilst they cross your digital lawn.

All that being said, I got 10 flags (most of my group, how’s that for awesome?!) I also got to commiserate with runners as they paused after the Smokehouse, catching their breath before running past our line of undead. I’d chat them up, cheer them on, and then back off and lunge after them wheezing BRAAAAAINS as they fled in (probably not actual) terror. We also got to see cheaters and shitheads first-hand: the guys that tried to steal from our flag pile after they were dead. The people who hid their flags or dangled them in front of their crotches (dudes, please. I will grab your junk going for a flag. If I yank your bits and bobs and hurt you, maybe that will teach you why they said at the beginning of the race “don’t hang flags in front of your genitals.”) The worst were the meat shields, though. I mean, there’s fair play and then there’s putting volunteers at risk so you can get a medal that says “I Survived.” I mean, since we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the mentality of winning: why the hell is it so important to cheat or bully (and potentially hurt people) to win? It’s not like we have a pro football contract or a Wheaties deal pending if we win a medal. It’s a goddamned game and the prize means nothing if you didn’t even earn it. Right? I mean, clearly I’m not right, but what the hell people. This is like aimbotting on crack and it breaks my fucking brain.

So, to the shitheads: basically, folks who had a flag would surround themselves with dead friends and the dead friends would push, shove, bully, and body check you to get their friends past. The worst guy was in his teens, completely covered in mud, who came after me with his arms wide saying “come on, want a hug?!” I actually had to scream “don’t fucking touch me” to get him away. He then promptly went to harass Greg who, I guess because he’s a guy, not only got this hugging thread but also got shoved several times. Luckily, Greg is awesome and jogged ahead to a future course official to get the shithead disqualified from the race. Protip for future RFYL runners: don’t be that guy. Just lose. It’s okay. It’s really not worth hurting people to keep a flag.

Also, a word about the course officials: those guys and gals are rock stars. They were out on the course for nine hours solid and were given nothing but snacks (and by snacks I mean like, Doritos and those packets of crackers with fake cheese in between them.) They were tragically underwatered and very, very sunburnt. The two helping our zone were very unhappy. Allegedly, RFYL said they were going to get VIP treatment on the course – every need handled. Bullshit. Shame on you, RFYL. That’s shitty and dangerous.

Around 5:30 PM, the amazing go cart of “everyone has finished the zone, you can go home” came through. That’s when I finally convinced Greg to go into the Smokehouse and shock himself (the smoke was off so you could see all the wires) and when we realized Greg’s shoes were grounding him (which is why he didn’t think the shocks were so bad.) This is also when we took our amazing iPhone videos of electrocuting ourselves (thanks to Stat Medical, who came by and watched us repeatedly shock ourselves and filmed for us!) I swear, if they ever put up the video on their YouTube channel, they really need to name it “The reason we are hired for these events.”

After fun times with the Stat guys and a couple photo ops with runners who wanted a photo with ACTUAL REAL AWESOME ZOMBIES (I’m a celebrity!) we hosed ourselves off (this time it was actually just a stream of water shooting out of the water truck) and removed our makeup. We also picked up our zombie swag, bringing me to the third huge thing that RFYL seriously fucked up. So, we were volunteers, right? Dehydrated, soaked, tired volunteers. We signed up for shirt sizes ahead of time (I asked for a Ladies Large – no reason to wear a tight zombie shirt) but when we got there, not only did they not have Ladies sizes at all, they were out of most sizes. Greg signed up for a small and got a medium. I even asked before our shift if we could get our shirts early and the woman at the desk said “no. You’ll definitely get the size you want. We ordered enough.” Well, bullshit. And given that I paid for that shirt, I kind of hate you. I also kind of hate you because the zombie medal we got wasn’t a zombie medal at all – they just gave us all “I Survived” medals which is super cheap since those are supposed to be hard earned. I didn’t survive. I got infected and then took a shift as a zombie. Why don’t I get a “I was a Zombie” medal? I mean, come on, people. Budget for the right swag. We are paying for it.

Bitching about swag aside, the swag for being a runner was awesome. We also get a shirt for that portion of the event, but instead of being a crappy cotton convention shirt, it was a moisture wicking runners shirt (that actually fits me!) I am going to rock it at boot camp and am very, very excited about it.

And thus ends my tale of Run For Your Lives. After we left the event, we headed to the nearest gas station food shop (which was filled with course officials and other zombies.) It was the most decadent and satisfying run on a gas station I’ve ever had: frappuncinos in bottles, liters of water, Reese’s, and a bag of Smartfood popcorn. Food never tasted so good – probably because other than half a bagel and a small bag of chips, I hadn’t eaten since 8 AM.

Verdict on the event? Awesome, but mostly because I was with my best friends and we can make pretty much anything awesome. Words to the Run For Your Lives paid organizers? Treat your volunteers better. If you want to make this work for the long run, you’ll need repeat volunteers. Take a page from PAX and see how they treat their Enforcers, then do that. For me, I’ll likely run again if there’s a future Northern California event, but I’ll never be a zombie again until they fix the lack of water problem.

Inspired by my tales, pictures, and videos? Check out www.runforyourlives.com and see if there’s an event in a city near you!


* Note: All pictures taken are compliments of Cailin Laabs except the shitty ones. If you see a shitty one, then it’s definitely mine.

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