No, not literally. It’s a 5k obstacle course.
If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s an obstacle course with zombies. Think L4D2, minus any sort of defense besides running away as fast as you possibly can. If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, it’s worth a gander.
The goal, obviously, is to finish the obstacle course with your brain intact. More specifically, each person is given a belt with 3 flags on it. Finish the 5k with at least one, and you’re considered a Survivor. Cross the finish line without any flags left and, well, let’s just say you’ve become the latest addition to the menu.
Enter: team Zombies are a compbio experiment gone wrong. We all took pseudonyms for this one.
Our heat started at 9:30. After entering one of three starting chutes (aptly named “Appetizers”, “Entrees”, and “Desserts”) and running out through a very dense cloud of man-made fog, we crossed the starting mats and our timing chips beeped to signal we were off!
…and I kid you not: as soon as we crossed the timing mats, our path suddenly turned skyward. As in, hands-and-feet climbing up a stupidly steep hill. It wasn’t long, but the dirt was loose enough such that without sprinting up the hill (there were too many people to do that), you’d slip if you didn’t crawl on all fours.
The next little bit was running through a very windy and hilly trail. We were kept on a very narrow path by police tape, roping off the rest of the wilderness (and virtually ensuring maximum chaos when we ran into zombies).
And run into zombies we did: a few “stumblers” appeared about 0.25mi in, moaning and reaching for us but generally easy enough to sprint around (particularly if we were in a large group). The challenge came about 0.75mi in, when the trail suddenly went skyward again, only to reveal ~10 zombies waiting for us in a clearing at the top. Chaos ensued, and “Zoey” lost one of her flags, but the rest of us made it out unscathed.
Then came the first true obstacle:
The first and shorter slide was merely insurance that we’d be thoroughly soaked for the bigger slide. The first one dumped us into a 4-foot deep pool of muddy water; the second slung us into a 4-foot deep hole of watery mud. Now thoroughly disgusting, we took a few minutes to regroup (“Nick”, for whatever reason, kept his eyes open on the second one and consequently got two eyefuls of dirt as a reward) and hydrate at the nearby aid station.
Still with 11/12 of our flags, we pressed on.
The trail leveled out significantly. No longer were we on rocky, hilly hiking trails, but instead on stunt bike trails (this was, after all, at the Switchback Raceway in Butler, PA). After running through a few more muddy sections, we encountered another group of zombies clustered in front of an ominous house that blocked our path.
With the house squarely in our path, there was only one way to go: through it.
“Coach” and I whipped up a nice diversionary tactic, where he stalled the zombies out front long enough for me to dash through the main entrance, and for him to subsequently dive into the house through a side window. I entered a few seconds ahead of him and immediately came to a halt.
I couldn’t see a damn thing. The fog was so thick I could make out about 1 foot in front of me.
Two seconds later, I heard Coach tumble through the window…and suddenly a heard a very loud SNAP!, followed by Coach yelling and cursing in pain.
Another POP! Another stream of curses. What was going on?
“They’re electrified!” I heard him yell. What was electrified?
I walked a few more steps, and suddenly a wire, suspended from the ceiling and dangling to about a foot off the floor, appeared out of the fog no more than a foot in front of me.
Walking gingerly alongside it, I came to the horrifying realization that rows of these wires criss-crossed the interior of the building, with no more than two feet in between each one. This necessitated a very slow, very cautious passage through the rows of sizzling wires.
Somehow, I made it out unscathed, as did my other teammates. Coach grumbled a bit more as we exited the house and pressed on through the bike trails, until we crested the top of a small hill and caught a glimpse of what lay beyond.
I lost count at 20 zombies. This was a gauntlet. No obstacles, no serious hills, just a 10-foot wide trail littered in zombies.
We waited until a large number of survivors had finished the electric house and gathered in horror with us at the top of the hill, then we charged the zombies en masse.
Many of us lost flags. I actually made it through the crowd without losing any; I slowed once I’d passed the last few to wait for my teammates…and suddenly I felt a yank on my belt, followed in rapid succession by a second yank. Two zombies sprinted by me (these were “runners”, obviously), each carrying one flag. I looked on in horror as one of them turned, laughed, and said “Sorry man, you still had all 3.”
Bummer. From a full complement down to 1 in the space of a couple seconds.
My teammates caught up, and somehow (excluding me) we were only down 1 more flag, to 8/12.
The next obstacle came up quickly: crawling under barbed wire through mud. This wasn’t electrified, but as I crawled I did see a few errant tufts of hair, suggesting this was still a painful obstacle for some folks.
The trail then wound around through trees, still very flat and occasionally muddy, but with no huge concentration of zombies as before. We took the time to walk, regroup, and generally figure out how to survive the rest of the course.
We knew we were approaching the endgame when we came upon another straightaway with more zombies than I could count. It was yet another gauntlet, but the crowd of survivors had thinned to the point where our earlier tactic of rushing en masse wouldn’t have much effect. Plus there were even more zombies than before. This was going to be bad.
We rushed. We ran hard. Every ounce of my football training was kicking in to make sharp, tight turns in muddy shoes without slipping. And for almost the entirety of the gauntlet, it worked. Zombies made grabs at my flags and missed by inches, some even slapping against my waist but trailing off without the payoff of a flag.
But then I saw this guy:
I dodged around him, barely escaping his outstretched clown hand…only to have my last flag nicked by the zombie hanging out just behind him, and conveniently the last zombie in this gauntlet.
I was dead.
I waited there for my teammates, who for the most part suffered similar fates. Nick was the only one to make it out with a flag; suddenly our fortunes weren’t looking too good. There was a short zombie-free stretch that involved scaling chest-high walls, during which we plotted how to run interference for our one still-living teammate against the hordes of zombies that surely still lay ahead in the final 0.5-miles of the course.
After jumping the walls, we were greeted with another horde. Not nearly as numerous as the one we’d lost 75% of our team to, but enough to pose a threat (unlike the zombies at the start who largely just harassed, or the zombies in the middle who only targeted individuals with 2 or 3 flags, these zombies near the end were aggressively out to snag any remaining flags), the three of us who were already in the process of zombification ran a small diversion: effectively a flying-V, protecting our lone teammate with a flag.
It worked reasonably well up until the entrance of the yet another house, where Nick was bodily tackled to the ground by a zombie guarding the entrance. As this is an expressly forbidden tactic (for either side), the zombie apologized and gave Nick back his lone flag. We were still in it!
This house was pitch-black inside, and while it appeared devoid of anything electrified, we quickly realized it was very easy to get turned around: the interior walls formed a maze. To make matters worse, the floor was exceptionally sticky mud; we almost lost our shoes a couple times.
Upon emerging from the house, a trio of zombies were waiting. They descended upon us too quickly for us to mount an interference run, and before we knew it, our final flag had been stripped from Nick.
The final two obstacles were even in sight! The first was a very long, very hot crawl through covered corridors. The last involved yet another round of electricity: this time, chain-link fencing laid only a 8-10 inches above the ground marked the final trial before crossing the finish line.
I spared no granule of dignity and plastered myself flat against the ground, inching myself forward as quickly as I could without raising myself up in the least. All around I could hear pops and subsequent screeches from individuals who floated a little too high off the ground; I was particularly cognizant of the fact that the left half of my body was submerged in a pool of water as I crawled.
Nevertheless, I escaped unscathed once again, and crossed the finish line with a time of 1:00:59. SLOWEST 5K EVAR.
The race itself was (obviously) a lot of fun. The obstacles were well-designed, and the zombie volunteers were a perfect mixture of intimidating, frightening, and obviously having as much fun as we were.
That said, I doubt I’ll do this again next year, and here’s why.
- Cost. This is, by far, my biggest complaint. The cost-to-value ratio is absurdly high: registration alone is in the $65-85 range ($65 if you register when we did: October 2011 for a September 2012 race). Swag is limited to a tech t-shirt (not terrible, not great either) and a medal upon finishing, which you can see above. Everything else costs money, and a lot of it.
- No food, [almost] no drink. With the exception of two water fountains located in the dank corner of the “Safe Zone” shed where the band stage was located, and the three aid stations along the course (one of them at the end), there was no free drink to be had. And nowhere was there any free food. None. Upon exiting the race, the water fountains (which had the strongest metallic aftertaste I’ve ever encountered) are the only sources of free water.
- Food and drink prices are outrageous. There was a food/drink area outside the Safe Zone where little trailers were set up to serve edibles. They were fairly standard carnival food: tasty and calorie-tastic. But they used that stupid fiat currency where you trade cash for tickets, and use the tickets to buy edibles/drinkables. Furthermore, it was $5 for a lemonade. A lemonade. The mark-up was obscene.
- General non-race organization. The race itself was well-organized. Its peripheries were less impressive (showers were just leaky cold-water pipes, nowhere to sit during the “Apocalypse Party”, brutally long lines for food/drink in the blazing sun instead of indoors, etc), particularly on the point of camping. We paid $20/person to squeeze our tents into a small area that rapidly filled up with lots of other tents. As in, fewer than 10 feet in any direction between tents. And we were pretty much left to our own devices; thank God they left the porta-potties at the race location overnight!
All in all, a fun experience, but the costs are prohibitive. Suggestions to keep cost from being a deal-breaker: provide some free food and drinks at the end (water bottles, gatorade, bagels, bananas…you know, the stuff that every other race ever has at the end), drop the fiat currency, change the camping prices to be $20/tent rather than $20/person, make sure there’s enough charge-for food to go around (more trailers == shorter lines == more food), and halve the registration fee.
It’s like paying the price of a Lexus for a Ford. Yeah, it’s a reasonably good car and certainly won’t disappoint beyond what you’d expect, but for that money why wouldn’t you just buy the Lexus?