Zombies Ripped My Flesh (Boston Phoenix)
At least I didn't die alone. In the company of more than 6300 athletic nerds, I had traveled to Amesbury, Massachusetts, to LARP out the zombie apocalypse at an event known as Run for Your Lives. The 5K race through the forest combined a hectic woodland obstacle course with a survival game against the grabbing hands of actors dressed like zombies.
The rules were simple: slop through moats, crawl under electrified fences, and plunge down mudslides, without giving up three belted flags to the legions of walking dead stationed throughout. Does gym-class boot camp mean I might stand a chance when a bumbling scientist breaks the wrong vial? Do choreographed kickbox moves mean that I'll be a well-oiled escape machine, boomstick on my shoulder as my motorcycle roars away to the Safe Zone? I wanted to see.
The Run for Your Lives organizers suggested, in the weeks before the event, that we practice moves like squats and lunges to prepare. While jogging down the Esplanade one day, I slipped onto the grassy patch beside the road, and slalomed a bit between the trees, discreetly, I hoped, pretending they were zombies. I felt a rush, and my sprints shaved three minutes off my usual time.
Race day was cool and overcast. We parked offsite at a nearby greyhound track and lined up for the bus to the course. Our line grew quiet as a bus pulled up and unloaded a round of earlier runners. Every eye watched the door for hints of what lay ahead. Runners tumbled out disheveled and muddy. Some limped.
A short drive later, we pulled into Amesbury Sports Park, where the main building was transformed into a zombie staging area. Newly minted zombies in fresh makeup milled around the porch; one sat on the edge facing us, idly swinging his legs. I realized the returning runners we'd seen earlier were actually the cleaned-up version: fresh off the trail, survivors were dazed and drenched head-to-toe in slick, brown mud. By now, thousands had tramped through the already-muddy trail, and less than a mile of solid ground remained; we were about to trudge for our lives, rather than run. We lined up according to our personal estimated times: "Appetizers," "Entrees," or my choice, "Desserts," for those anticipating a 12-minute-or-more mile, including obstacles. Then we ascended a steep hill, where our decomposing foes made their first swipes for us.
Zombie fashion focused on the stopped-in-their-tracks look: interrupted in their daily lives, the undead still sported their wedding-day finery, or bathrobes and foam rollers. There was a kilted Scotsman with a brutal head wound, a hollow-eyed pregnant zombie, and, of course, the ever-repulsive zombie clown. In the middle of fields, they groaned, grappled, and sometimes gave chase.
Some seemed to have a better-than-undead grasp of language, and the tags I lost went to zombies as limber as any runner. Most zombies stationed themselves in gauntlets, but quick ones made breaks for it, so keeping a 360-degree view was key. US Marines kept watch, lending a creepy verisimilitude; at Atlanta's event earlier this year, the CDC even made an appearance.
Thick, clay-heavy mud sucked the sneakers off many a foot. We gripped at trees and branches for leverage, slipping and squelching through the hilly trail. Our sneakers collected a weighty, thick coating of it. The muck gave off a mossy stink.
As we progressed, I watched our comfort standards erode. At first, we avoided puddles and stuck with the grassy solid ground on the trail. But after a few good dunks, we began to learn it was easier to ford the flooded trail than to churn the gluier mud, and had someone dumped a wheelbarrow of the stuff upon my head by then, I'd have taken it in stride. We teamed up, struck deals, and made alliances with strangers, busting past zombies in packs.
But just like a first-season episode of The Walking Dead, there were long stretches with nary a zombie, and the focus turned to idle chitchat as we plodded our way to the finish. "I guess I'll finally see if I'm allergic to poison ivy," I said to a stranger in a headcam.
Hanging onto our tags was a game of dipping, ducking, and sprinting around zombies. Runners conserved energy between nimble, twisting sprints and assessed risk based on how many of their flags remained. Once my last flag disappeared and I was dead, however, the course's intensity relaxed; for one thing, zombies didn't want me, and I became little but a sightseer — or occasionally a human shield. Only about two percent of the people in my wave finished the course in less than an hour.
For those of us running in late afternoon, we reached the top of the course only to meet a 40-minute bottleneck at the final obstacles: a pair of slides into icy pools of mud, the second of which was a scaled-up waterslide built into a hill. Though the wait was cold and soggy, the plunge was exhilarating. The slide tossed us into a sloshing, toffee-colored pool where many eyeglasses and cameras met their end. We crawled from the frigid water and slipped the muddy final yards to the finish line, which waited behind a low-set electrified fence. Slicked with mud from head to toe, I felt like an action hero.
Runners continued to cascade over the hill when race officials announced awards: by the afternoon, mud had slowed the remainders down too much to qualify, but this was the wrong race for anyone looking for serious athletic achievement. In the "Safe Zone," toweled-off runners splayed out on the Astroturf drinking cheap beer and eating festival food, snapping pictures with an undead Santa. I couldn't decide which was more awesome: off-duty zombies gnawing smoked turkey legs, or neatly applying condiments to hot dogs.
As I settled in for a return bus trip, I read the label on the driver's Bloodborne Pathogen Protection Kit with new eyes, and took note of the nearest exit.
This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix, May 9, 2012.