Our group heads into the chain link chute, doubled over beneath camo netting. A man on a megaphone explains the infected situation while we crouch with bated breath. Suddenly, the crowd surges forward as the air fills with screams, the rattle of chain link, and the moans of zombies behind us. The megaphone crackles: “There’s been a breach – they’re here! Go go go!”
We stampede out of the chute and dodge past the first wave of clawing zombie arms. Raw panic crackles in the night air. Eventually, the path in front of us clears. Out of danger for the moment, we slow to a walk, flushed and laughing but keeping a wary eye on the dark woods around us.
We’ve come to Straddleline ORV Park on this calm August night to voluntarily run for our lives in an event put on by the Human Movement, benefiting brains through the Kennedy Krieger Institute. We are armed only with a race bib, headlamp, flashing green bracelet, and most importantly said lives. These are three flags affixed with velcro to a belt. The next 5 kilometers will be riddled with shambling gory zombies intent on stealing them.
It’s time to strategize. A man with his son joins the conversation, explaining that he’s been through several of these before. His sage advice is “Stick with the fat chicks”. A larger woman tosses a disgusted look over her shoulder, but he offers no apology. He’s the grizzled veteran straight out of a storybook, and we cling to him like a rock in a storm. But just as suddenly as he appeared, he vanishes. We won’t even know whether he survives.
It’s soon clear this 5k is not a timed race to the finish line. Instead, it’s a tiptoe on tenterhooks with occasional all-out sprints. Our ears strain for warning screams while our headlamps probe the darkness ahead, passing over muddy pits and abandoned luggage strewn across the trail. Above all, we look for the flashing red wristbands that mark the infected.
When one of these appears, the survivors turn into a skittish herd of sheep, balking and frantically seeking an opening. Being prey does not feel very heroic. Finally, someone makes a break for it and the mad dash ensues, twisting and jumping, every human for him/herself.
The zombies come in all shapes and sizes. The least terrifying is a young girl who squeaks and hugs herself to avoid being run over. The opposite end of the spectrum is a hulking military man who wraps me in a bear-hug to grab my tail flag, half tearing off my bib in the process. Some amble slowly in clear sight while others leap out of bushes and chase you down the trail or through a tunnel.
During each lull, we regroup and count our losses – one flag here, two there. The flags’ location means your butt is repeatedly zombie-groped, so you don’t know how you fare until you’re through the mob. “Go-it-alone” Rob is the first of our party to die, and I succumb shortly after. Things become a lot less tense after that – although infected, you don’t get to turn on your friends, so you pretty much become a corpse shield to distract the zombies.
Also positioned along the course are various obstacles. The zombies aren’t supposed to bother you during the obstacles, but one lone ghastly-faced little boy paces just past the wall climb. The volunteer warns him to stand back, but he just gnashes his blood-smeared teeth in anticipation. It’s legitimately creepy. Near the end is a rope climb for an extra life that I have no hope of completing, though I have fun watching the real future heroes of the apocalypse canvas straight up it.
The course is not without legitimate dangers, especially in the dark. Russ twists his ankle crashing through a chain link maze, while Dmitri goes sprawling into a ditch. A zombie helps him up.
Finally, we turn the corner and see the dirt bike arena, the final stretch. Floodlights silhouette a few zombies staggering around on a ridge, faux fog swirling up around them. I suppress a delighted shiver. From that point on, there’s no respite from the horde. However, most people are already infected, so the zombies have a tough time trying to spot flags. We jog through the finish line into a clearing full of fire, music, and alcohol.
Dead or alive, our reaction is unanimous: “That was awesome!”