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Thousands run for their lives Saturday in Darlington; hurricane threat cancels Sunday's Zombie events

Running in a 5K race can be challenging and tiring. Imagine running over, under and through a dozen obstacles, many involving mud and water on a hilly course and, oh yes, with hordes of the undead chasing you.

Sounds like a lot of fun, huh?

An estimated 12,000 people packed Camp Ramblewood in Darlington Saturday for the zombie-themed Run For Your Lives 5K obstacle course race. The threat of Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the Middle Atlantic region did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for nor the participation in Saturday's race.

More was planned for Sunday; however, on Saturday evening organizers announced on the event's Facebook Page and later via e-mail that all Sunday activities had been canceled by order of Harford County because of the approach of Hurricane Sandy.

"Harford County officials just called to tell us tomorrow's [Sunday's] race is being canceled due to the impending storm," organizers wrote in an e-mail sent to the media. "We are so sorry for any inconveniences this may cause, but it's 100 percent out of our hands."

Event officials also said via Facebook that arrangements would be made to offer "transfers" to another event.

The Zombie Run was first held last year in the same Darlington location, and similar Run for Your Lives events have spread across the United States since then.

And, as was the case in 2011, traffic was heavy along roads in the Darlington area, although both the Harford County Sheriff's Office and Maryland State Police appeared well prepared and had several deputies and troopers on duty to direct traffic. Organizers lauded those preparations.

Running for your life

For the Saturday 5K, participants had to make their way through a series of man-made and natural obstacles while wearing a flag belt.

Meanwhile, volunteers made up to look like zombies were stationed at various areas on the course, attempting to pull flags off as many runners as they could. If a runner got to the finish line with a flag, they successfully survived the "Zombie Apocalypse."

Baltimore-based HGL Productions was subcontracted by race organizers Reed Street Productions to coordinate, dress up and disperse all 750 "zombies" in three shifts of 250 along the course.

Each zombie volunteer had to go through wardrobe and makeup before being sent along the course. In wardrobe, staffers would shred each zombie's clothing or would provide old clothing if they chose. Afterward, professional makeup artists would add realistic blood and cuts on their faces. Every fourth or fifth zombie got a latex prosthesis meant to resemble a very large gash or open wound.

'Muddy and Bloody'

The last part of the zombie-making process is what unit production manager Pete Chilcoat, the man in charge of the zombies, called "the muddy and bloody stage."

"Someone dumps buckets and buckets of fake blood on them," said a grinning Chilcoat, who is a co-founder of HGL Productions with his brother, Brian.

Zombies were divided into "stumblers," whose movements were limited to only a few feet, and chasers, who could pursue runners up to a certain distance.

"We give instructions on what they can and can't do, and where they can and cannot chase people," Chilcoat said.

Chilcoat said there was a "wider demographic of people who want to be zombies" because, unlike running, being a zombie did not require a participant to be in top physical shape.

Many zombie volunteers from previous races have shown up with creative costumes, such as film characters Ron Burgandy, Forrest Gump and even Danny Zuko from "Grease."

"It's like Comic-Con but with zombies, and it's awesome," Chilcoat said.

Fun to scare people

One zombie has achieved a particular level of notoriety after appearing in early trailers, or previews for the first event. Gabe Romero donned a red, yellow and blue clown outfit, complete with makeup, a red wig and big red shoes for what he said was his fourth race.

"It's just fun scaring people," Romero, a Rockville resident, said. "It tends to make a lot of people stop and think twice, but that's the fun of it."

In addition to the 2011 Darlington race, Romero participated in the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania events earlier this year. He came up with the idea for a zombie clown from "a little bit of [the movie] Zombieland and just to mess with people."

"It's simple makeup, but it's acting the role that induces a mortal fear," Romero said, adding that "even as a stumbler it's very exhausting." He plans to run in multiple states next year.

The race, to say the least, is a grueling challenge as well.

'Almost impossible'

"At some parts, it's almost impossible to make it through [an obstacle] without losing a flag," said Hanover, Pa. resident Ben Markle, who ran with his friends Shannon and Justin Pierce from York, Pa.

"[The zombies] have strategy," Justin Pierce said. "If they see you have more flags, they target you."

"This one guy got tired and just handed his flag to a zombie," Markle said laughing. "It's a tough course, with a lot of hills. You're tired and they're waiting for you at the bottom of a hill."

All three were experienced runners, with Markle even having experience with endurance runs. Only Justin Pierce, who is more of a sprinter, managed to finish the race with a flag remaining.

"One out of three ain't bad, huh?" Markle laughed. Still, the race was worth it for all three participants.

"It's fun, because you don't have to be the best runner in the world to enjoy it," said Shannon Pierce.

Running for two

One participant didn't even let being 11 weeks pregnant stop her from running.

"Shh! Don't tell anybody!" Julie Pendergrass said, laughing while riding on the shuttle from the parking area to the campgrounds. "This is the only race I do for fun."

Pendergrass, from Nottingham, Pa. has participated in charity 5Ks and half-mile runs in the past. She ran in the race Saturday with her friend, Scott Berrier, who she met in the previous year after she fell during the race and he nearly ran over her.

"He almost plowed into me," Pendergrass said. Both were excited about this year's race.

"It's putting yourself in the zombie apocalypse," Berrier, from Lancaster, Pa, said. "It's like an episode of [the AMC TV series] The Walking Dead."

Berrier registered for 2012's event almost immediately after last year's run, taking advantage of a discount code offered by Reed Street Productions after parking woes plagued the first event.

Pendergrass even came wearing a costume: a short red dress in the style of Alice from the "Resident Evil" film and video game franchise. Missing, however, was Alice's trademark black boots, replaced by black sneakers for practical reasons.

"I didn't want to go and rock the boots because I didn't want to get them messed up," Pendergrass said.

Berrier chose more normal running attire: a black compression shirt with athletic shorts. He had a noticeable addition: a white, black and yellow luchador mask typically worn by professional wrestlers from Latin American countries.

Dressed for action

The two were not the only participants wearing costumes. In fact, a sizable number of participants preempted Halloween by wearing creative outfits.

Washington, D.C., residents Matt Kaiser, Quincy Fritt and Kristi Smith coordinated their costumes. Kaiser and Fritt wore dark suits and ties, earpiece radios and American flag lapel pins and flanked Smith, who wore a navy blue pantsuit with a blond wig.

You guessed it: Kaiser and Fritt were Secret Service agents protecting Hillary Clinton.

"The costumes were born out of last year," Kaiser explained. "Quincy and I died early, and protected 'Hillary' for the rest of the race."

Fritt, like many participants, had a palm-sized video camera strapped to his head to capture the running experience on video. All three participants had participated in last year's event and hoped that logistics would be improved this time.

"[Last year] The actual race was great, but getting there was a project," Kaiser said. "There was a two-hour line of traffic last year. It can only get better." As of 10:30 a.m., the three were impressed with the changes made by the organizers, Reed Street Productions.

"It's a 150 percent improvement from last year," Smith said.

That's what Reed Street Productions staff hoped to hear. Last year, rain caused problems in the parking areas and there was a traffic bottleneck. Two days after the 2011 event, organizers even offered a refund and a free race to the many participants who couldn't run after being stuck in traffic.

Pendergrass remembers one car catching on fire and multiple cars getting stuck in the muddy field used for parking.

"I think I helped push three or four cars out [of mud] last year," Pendergrass said.

Preparing for a crowd

This year, traffic engineers were brought in to prevent long car lines and bottlenecks and gravel was placed in this year's off-site parking field on 3540 Smith Road, according to Robert Siegel, director of marketing for Reed Street Productions. Buses shuttling people from the parking site to the campgrounds also kept traffic down, Siegel said.

"We've had 16 buses running all day long," Seigel said. "Running people in and out seems to be working."

Seigel wasn't worried about any weather-related issues, even with Hurricane Sandy scheduled to arrive Sunday.

"We've had great weather today [Saturday]. It looks like we'll avoid the hurricane," Seigel said, pointing to the storm's early trajectory that had the storm scheduled to arrive in the area late Sunday night after the two-day event was over. Still, he said, preparations for rough weather would be made.

"Our number one concern is our customer's safety," Seigel said.

Any decision to shut down the event would come from Reed Street Productions' Director of Operations or Harford County officials, Seigel added Saturday afternoon. A few hours later, the word came.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Run For Your Lives announced on its Facebook page that Harford County officials had canceled the race for Sunday.

"Harford County officials just called to tell us tomorrow's race is being canceled due to the impending storm. We hate that this is happening, but it's 100 percent out of our hands. Anyone who was scheduled to come tomorrow (runners, spectators, zombies, and people w/ camping) will be issued transfers to any 2012/2013 RFYL race. Details will be coming later in the week re: transfers. Mother Nature is a real bitch," said the post on the Run For Your Lives Facebook page.

Gaining popularity

Since the first race at Camp Ramblewood last year, the event has spread to 13 locations across the U.S. and Canada, and will expand to 20 locations next year. On Oct. 20, a record 22,000 people showed up to a two-day Run for Your Lives event in Temecula, Calif.

Despite the event's quick rise in popularity, Seigel, a Baltimore County native, said that for the organizers, "coming home is always special."

"The property isn't as conducive to what we would like, but it's our hometown and it's a special place," Seigel said.

"The home crowd is who we do the event for," he added. "They're the ones that started everything, and that's why we keep coming back."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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