Kate Joyce detests running. She has since she was in high school. But the prospect of trotting through vibrant clouds of yellow, blue, orange and pink has prompted her to make an exception this weekend.
Joyce will be among 25,000 people participating in Saturday's inaugural Baltimore Color Run, a 5K race — in the loosest possible sense of the noun — that's non-competitive and all about having a blast as runners are smothered in colored cornstarch. Many won't break into anything more than a brisk saunter over the entire course, surrounding Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium.
"I'm not a runner," says Joyce, 37, "but this looks like a lot of fun."
The Color Run has become a worldwide phenomenon since the first one was organized in Phoenix in January 2012 — expanding to more than 130 cities this year in the United States, South America, Europe and Australia. Runners show up, dressed in white T-shirts, and cover a 5K course. At each kilometer mark, teams of 20 volunteers spray them with colored corn starch — resulting in brilliant clouds that all leave their mark. Nobody's timed. No trophies are handed out. By the end, the runners all look as if they've been attacked by a crazed spin-art wheel (although organizers insists the stuff washes out and won't hurt anybody).
"It was awesome," says Kate Cwiek, a public relations and marketing manager for the Pride of Baltimore who took part in one of two D.C. Color Runs last year. "You've got the endorphins going from running. You've got the visual stimulation from all the colors. It was the ultimate feel-good experience."
On a Saturday when two popular 5K runs are taking place in Baltimore — the Preakness 5K is set for 10:30 a.m. at Pimlico Race Course — there's little doubt which will be the more colorful.
"I'm a big runner, but this looks like it is going to be purely fun," says Jessica Fast, 26, a marketing professional who's been a competitive runner since 2010. "It looks like it's going to be very lively, very silly, just a lot of people enjoying themselves."
Baltimoreans, apparently, have been hungering for a Color Run. Last year's two D.C. runs — which were actually run at Prince George's County's National Harbor — each accommodated only 5,000. When $45 tickets for the Baltimore run went on sale earlier this year, they were scarfed up so fast that a second run was added in the afternoon. Even with marketing limited to social media and Internet advertising, both were sold out within a month.
"We're super-pumped about how excited Baltimore is that we're coming to town," says Amanda Blanck, who's in charge of organizing the Baltimore and D.C. runs. "It was our fastest-selling race, for one this size."
The fact that the National Weather Service says there is a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms is not a hindrance.
"We've put on many color runs in the rain," says Blanck, noting the event would be canceled only if conditions are deemed dangerous. As of Thursday night, the event's website promises, "all systems go."
The Color Run is the brainchild of 35-year-old Travis Snyder, an event producer who says he's long been on the lookout for an event that participants can either compete in or simply enjoy. What he calls "the happiest 5K on the planet" is a mash-up of Disney's World of Color, an extravagant nighttime water show at the company's California Adventure park; events like DayGlow, an exuberant mixture of concert music and paint; and the Holi festival, a celebration of colors with its origin in the Hindu religion.
"One day it just clicked," he says. "I should create a running event that added the elements of color, getting messy and pure fun. The Color Run was born."
The for-profit race also aids charity; in Baltimore, it's Cool Kids Campaign, for cancer patients. The young patients will be volunteering at the color zones. Registrants are encouraged to be encouraging and supportive of them.
"It's great exposure for them," says Blanck, who added the exact donation amount is private.
The idea of 5K runs that emphasize fun more than competition have been gaining in popularity. A nationwide phenomenon has grown from the local 5K "Run for Your Lives," a zombie-infested obstacle course dreamed up by two buddies looking to spread good word-of-mouth about an athletic apparel line they were putting together. What started as a single race in October 2011 on a campground in Harford County has expanded into some 20 races throughout the U.S. this year. Some 16,000 people registered as potential zombie chow at last year's Maryland run.
David McDuff, a sports psychiatrist who's worked with the Ravens and Orioles, says 5Ks like these are perfect for people who want to add more fun into their exercise.
"In these kind of 5Ks, there's a nice mix of people who want to race, people who want to go out just to enjoy the wind and the weather, and people who just like to be around other people," he says. "It does give you a lift, when you run surrounded by others."
Besides, he notes, the idea of running — or even just intently strolling — around the stadiums where the Orioles and Ravens play comes with its own built-in appeal.
"It's kind of exciting to run around a sports stadium," he says. "You can indirectly connect with some of the energy that's in a stadium on game day. You can dream of being a very athletic person, a person competing at the highest level."
About 70 percent of Color Run participants are women ages 18 to 40, officials say. "Maybe that's because it's more of a family-centric event?" speculates Color Run spokeswoman Jessica Nixon. "There always seem to be a lot of mothers here with young children."
Adds McDuff, "Women in general tend to prefer to be part of a group."
The Color Run touts that more than 60 percent of participants in its events are running their first 5Ks. But competitive runners, too, can appreciate the fun. Christy St. Clair, treasurer and past president of the Baltimore Road Runners Club, says she won't be at the stadiums Saturday, but she can understand why other people will be.
"I don't think they feel the pressure of having to be fast. I think they just enjoy the moment, more than anything," she says. "I think it would be a fun thing to do. Why not? If nothing else, it broadens your portfolio of running events."
For Jessica Suriano, whose 8-year-old daughter, Julia, is a student at Roland Park Elementary, Saturday's race will be providing some serious mother-daughter bonding time. And possibly, for young Julia, an additional benefit as well.
"She's really excited that this is happening on Mother's Day weekend," Suriano says. "She asked me the other day, 'Does this count as my Mother's Day present to you, that I'm running this race with you?'"