Then, we’re all let into a holding area, where I meet up with zombie vet Rajtar, his wife, his brother and his niece. Chasing the living, it seems, has become a family affair. “I think it’s ridiculous but also awesome,” Ellen Estes says of her husband. “And it keeps him out of trouble.”
Zombie costume interpretation varies widely — I see zombie schoolgirls, zombie housewives, zombie doctors — but we all get equally soaked with muck before we head out onto the course. This final stage at the Zombie Transformation Center involves one Run For Your Lives staff member spraying down the undead with a hose full of dirty water while another slops buckets of sticky, red slime on us. It feels and smells like frigid corn syrup.
After a brief motivational speech and a recap of the rules (no grabbing runners, no taking their flags if they’re hurt or just plain exhausted, no following them into or onto the obstacles), we head to the course. Rajtar and I are assigned to Zone 17, one of the last stretches of the course that includes a dark shed full of treacherous-looking wires and a water slide that ends in a mud puddle. This is the best place to be, Rajtar assures me. “At the early zones, people still have energy and they’re packed together,” he says. “You want to get them at the end when they’re tired!”
I score a place behind an outcropping of tall grass and wait. At the sign of the first healthy runners, I sprint and growl, arms extended toward their flag belts. Burly, tattooed men shriek. Packs of friends scatter like pigeons. I snatch a few flags, sprint and sprint again while some of my fellow chasers in the zone begin to wither.
Soon, the race — or maybe just the scorching sun — starts to reveal more about the human condition. Faced with the advancing undead, the living show their true colors. Some people heroically block their significant others from danger, losing their last flag in the process. Some friends laugh at their companions’ ostensible misfortune. Some parents quickly leave whining adult children in the dust.
As a zombie, you get a firsthand glimpse of what Ashley Watson describes as the “sociological edge” of participating in the race. Plus, finding a socially acceptable way to get in costume and growl at people on a day other than Halloween is more than a little exhilarating for today’s laptop jockey. That’s clear by the hordes of zombies who, post-race, frolic in costume to a disc jockey and live bands on the festival ground, bowl on the lawn with plastic zombie heads or line dance to “The Cupid Shuffle.” Whatever the reasons for this movement’s quick spread across the nation, consider me infected.
Arielle Castillo is a Miami-based arts and culture writer whose work has appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone, Flaunt, Nylon, AOL’s Spinner and more. She prefers to run without red corn syrup in her hair.