With her 30th birthday approaching, Natalie Green made a "Twenties Bucket List" of things to do. At the top of that 11-item list -- above goals such as "Begin writing a book" and "Begin saving for a family Disney trip" -- was "Train for and run a 5K."
But Green, a 29-year-old mom who works in marketing for a company in Chattanooga, Tenn., didn't want to do just any weekend road race. That seemed boring. She had a specific race in mind, and in February of this year she began running regularly for the first time in her life, doing about 10 miles per week to get ready to outrun zombies.
Her target: the Sept. 14 Run For Your Lives 5K in Dalton, Ga., one of 20 races in the national series in 2013 in which runners not only have to run 3.1 miles, but must conquer obstacles and avoid swarms of makeup-wearing zombies. As Green wrote on her blog in January when she posted her goals, it looked like "epic awesomeness," but she knew she'd have to be in better shape to do it.
"I love zombies," she says. "I love 'The Walking Dead.' I love zombie movies. So when I found out about that [race] … I made that kind of my ultimate fitness goal this year, to be able to run that."
Green completed the run, despite having her final flag (think flag football) taken by a zombie just before the finish line, earning her an "infected" finisher's medal. She not only had a blast in the event -- "I'm planning on doing it again next year," she says -- but added "runner" to her list of pre-30 accomplishments, having also done another race this year, the Color Me Rad 5K.
Green is just one of a growing number of participants in a new wave of nontraditional races that often are more social than competitive and feature obstacle courses, crazy/fun themes (zombies, ugly sweaters, mud, foam, costumes and colors), festivals, bands, beer and sometime (horror of horrors) no race timing. According to Running USA, which keeps tabs on the nation's running industry, more than 3 million runners will take part in nontraditional runs in 2013, up from a little more than 2 million in 2012, 1 million in 2011 and 100,000 in 2010.
"It's astounding growth," says Ryan Lamppa, media director for Running USA. "It's rocket-ship growth."
There are at least 16 nontraditional running series now in the U.S., according to Running USA, with many expanding overseas. More are expected in 2014. They comprise the top-growing category in running, says Lamppa. The Color Run, for instance -- a noncompetitive, untimed 5K in which participants are splashed with colored powders at every kilometer -- is now the most popular running series in the world and will include about 1 million runners this year in 100 events.
After attracting 6,000 people to its first event in January 2012, the series quickly took off. Sixty events in 2012 drew about 600,000. This year's 100 events included runs in Asia, Australia, Europe and South America. Its popularity was a shock even to Color Run founder Travis Snyder.
"We had no idea," says Snyder of the way 2012 unfolded. "We thought the best-case scenario, maybe we'd do 10 cities, you know, get a couple thousand runners [at each]. … Yeah, it's been a fun ride."
It's been a fast ride for the whole genre.
The Muddy Buddy series, which began in 1999, was ahead of the curve. It was created in the image of some older, stand-alone down-and-dirty obstacle races and mimicked to some extent elements of the World Famous Mud Run at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton near San Diego that began in 1993.
Then came the Spartan Race in 2004. The Warrior Dash was born in 2009. The Dirty Girl Mud Run and Tough Mudder series launched in 2010, followed in 2011 by the Ugly Sweater Run, Foam Fest and Run For Your Lives series. Then in 2012 came the Color Run, Color Me Rad, Color Vibe, Electric Run and Great Inflatable Race. This year the Run or Dye, Mud-a-Palooza and Great Bull Run were born.
The surge in these events has added to what's been called the second running boom, which began in the mid 1990s. Almost every year since, the number of race finishers in the U.S. has grown, thanks to increasing numbers of female participants and a variety of other factors. In 2012, the number of 10K finishers went up 4 percent; half-marathon finishers were up 14.9 percent. There were 15.5 million race finishers in 2012 (56 percent of them female), compared to 8.6 million in 2000 and 4.8 million in 1990 (when just 25 percent of runners were women).
But it's this new wave of nontraditional races -- in which participants are more interested in having fun than posting a personal-best time -- that has seen the biggest growth. As Lamppa noted, not even the rising popularity of half-marathons "has seen that type of growth."
Munirah McNeely, director of the Warrior Dash 5K for Red Frog Events in Chicago, expects the series to draw about 500,000 participants this year in 50 events worldwide. That's up from 33 events in 2011, 10 in 2010 and the inaugural event in 2009 that drew 2,000 people. The Run For Your Lives series has grown so quickly that Bill Ward, a spokesman for parent company Reed Street Productions, says, "I have a hard time telling people we're a third-year company."
The first Run For Your Lives 5K was in 2011 near Baltimore, and the company founders expected perhaps 3,000 participants, but got 8,000. In 2012, there were 11 events. This year, there are 20 (with about 160,000 entries) and in 2014 the company hopes to have between 30 and 40. Ward says Reed Street put on the first event for a completely different business model.
The company initially was selling athletic clothing, had a surplus of inventory and decided to hold a race that would be a vehicle for selling the product on-site. But the event was so successful they knew they'd struck gold and shifted gears. How did they come up with the zombie theme?
"Really, the initial thought was, 'OK, let's have an obstacle race,'" says Ward. "And then it turned into, 'Let's do it a little different than everyone else. Let's give them flag belts and try to have them cross a line with a flag. That means they've survived.' And then the next person countered it and said, 'Let's have them run through obstacles and cross a 5K course, but let's have them running away from zombies.'"
It was brain-storming (for brain-eaters) at its finest.
Says Ward: "They kind of face-planted into greatness."
What's the appeal?
So why are so many people flocking to these runs? It's a combination of factors, the biggest being that a majority of participants aren't road racers or active runners. These events are attracting thousands who wouldn't dream of signing up for their local 10K.
Green, who took part in both the Run For Your Lives and Color Me Rad events in 2013, wanted to do something fun that promoted fitness, but offered something more than running.
"I think that running has kind of a stigma attached to it," she says. "People, when you say you're a runner, more often than not people are like, 'Oh, God, I hate running.' Because it's hard. You have to train yourself to run. Not anybody can just pick up and run, you know, not having a base.
"And I think that 5Ks like this that have these added elements, it's kind of appealing to everybody. If you want a really challenging, scary one, Run For Your Lives is a good one. And if you want something that's going to make you feel good and kind of be happy, you've got the Color Run. It's not just running. You're running from something, in the case of zombies, or you're participating in something fun, like the Color Run or Tough Mudder, things like that. It's the added bonus."
Ward estimates only about 25 percent of Run For Your Lives participants are avid runners. Snyder says 60 percent of Color Run entrants have never run a 5K (or longer) race before. McNeely says about a third of those in Warrior Dash events have done at least one 5K and about 25 percent more have done a longer race.
Lamppa says more than half of participants in nontraditional running series are novices.
"It's novel, it's new, it's different," says Lamppa of the new runs. "And about 60 percent of the fields for these nontraditional events, these are brand new runners. They're not coming from the road race world."
Also, this phenomenon has exploded in the social media era. These runs are happenings, and entrants often sign up with friends or in groups, come up with team names, wear the same clothes and post pictures and updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Because they're new, they've been embraced by the under-30 set. And because that group is so plugged in to social media, the events get huge marketing bumps from participants' posts to friends and family.
"They tapped into that social element, that sharing," says Lamppa. "And because it is new, it's not your parents' sport in that sense, so I think that's part of it, too. It's kind of theirs. It's more about the experience and having fun and being with your friends."
Says Ward: "The number of tickets one-off that we sell -- people who show up by themselves -- is so small I can probably count on both hands."
Warrior Dash's McNeely says social media is their lifeblood.
"I think that's really allowed for growth to occur as quickly as it has," she says.
She also believes what we're seeing now is "the start of a larger wave" of more events, which she applauds.
"We're really excited about it to see other companies wanting to motivate people to come out and get active and challenge themselves," she says. "I don't see health and fitness ever really going away."
Throw in the festival atmosphere -- the bands, DJs, beer and assorted contests that come with these events -- and they become even more social. Snyder, who with his wife, Heidi, started the Color Run series, is a triathlete who previously managed a triathlon series, Racetri.com.
He loves being competitive. But he and Heidi believed there was a market for something more low-key and fun that would particularly be embraced by women, many of whom don't necessarily want another hard-edged facet to their lives. With a race like the Color Run, there's no pressure, no timing.
Plus, in a plugged-in world, the run provides a "tactile, real interaction with the world around us," Snyder says.
The whole idea is to create a happy environment.
"At a normal 5K, that person next to you is kind of a measuring stick to realize how fast you are," says Snyder. "If you beat them you're better. If you're slower than them, you're worse. Whereas at my race that person next to you is just part of the community, and you're probably giving them your iPhone, saying, 'Can you take a picture of me and my friends?' and high-fiving them, telling them that's an awesome outfit. … You're not feeling the same pressure."
Is it a fad?
Lamppa says some in traditional running circles wonder if these nontraditional series are a fad, or if their participants will become serious runners. It's too soon to know if they'll fade away as quickly as they arrived, he says, but he remembers that people labeled the first running boom in the 1970s a fad and were proven wrong.
"I think so long as you can put on a good product at a good price, I think -- no pun intended -- the nontraditionals have legs," he says.
Plus, there's an unknown percentage of participants in the Color Run, Foam Fest or Mud-a-Palooza that may like their first running experience and try a 5K, 10K or other race. That's the case for novice runner Green, who says she's eager to run a complete 5K "from start to finish."
In the Color Me Rad and Run For Your Lives, there was a lot of stopping and starting (and at times, sprinting to get away from zombies).
"So I still have to finish a complete 5K," she says. "That's my first goal, and once I reach that goal, I want to do a 10K."
Already, she's been recruited by coworkers at her new job in Chattanooga to run the Chickamauga Chase in April 2014, a longtime traditional 5K.
So she's looking forward to that -- and also to her rematch with the zombies. This time, she's hoping to get that survivor medal.