I jog down the hill and along quiet streets. It’s a beautiful summer night, the air cool and the sky star-speckled. But in my ears, the world melts into chaos. A helicopter screams as it falls out of the sky and deposits me into a zombie-infested wasteland.
The real-life zombie run I participated in the week before inspired me to reload Zombies, Run! onto my phone. The app, available for iOS and Android, mixes zombie apocalypse radio stories with your own playlists and adds some interval training to your run with pace-based zombie chases. Along with the immersive storytelling, you can collect items, unlock achievements, and build up a base.
Since it’s been years since I last played, I have to restart from the beginning. I start up Mission 1 accompanied by my “Questing” video game playlist (because video game characters can run forever of course!) and head off into the night.
I leave the streets and cut north onto the Sammamish River Trail, an unlit bike path along the river that passes by a golf course and open fields.
As I turn around at the halfway point, I hear a siren in the distance, outside of my headphones. The faint stab of concern this always brings is replaced by an appreciation of how well it matches the apocalyptic scenes in the app.
But an ear-piercing noise interrupts my thoughts, and it’s not the siren.
Holy shit, it’s coyotes. And they’re right next to me!
The pack yips and howls, presumably in response to the siren. I can’t see them through the gloom and riverside bushes, but I realize with a spine-tingling chill that they’re running alongside me. Another pack, much farther off to my left, echoes their call.
I keep moving in a surreal haze of disbelief, grinning foolishly, and in an impulsive move I yank out my earbuds and raise my voice to join them.
It feels ridiculous, but also wild and exhilarating. My heart is pounding out of my chest, and it’s not just because I suck at cardio.
A minute later the coyotes drop off in a deafening tussle of snarls and growls and I leave them behind.
I put my headphones back in and became Runner 5 again, gathering medical supplies in an abandoned hospital. Shit’s going down in the imaginary world, too – the pack of zombies from the parking lot spotted me! My distracted jog turns into a sprint until I get the “Zombies evaded” signal.
Panting, I draw up short. I’ve reached the turnoff to the most efficient way home, an uphill gravel path through a thicket of trees. From where I stand, all I can see is a yawning black hole framed by branches.
I’ve never taken this path at night before. There are for sure coyotes in the area, maybe even knife-wielding rapists (yeah, right, this is Redmond, but you can’t tell my brain that). A bad idea, but that tremor of hesitation means I have no choice.
“The Call” from the Journey soundtrack swells in my ears as I pass into the gloom.
Oh wow, it’s even darker than I expected. I slow and wait until the faint silver glimmer of the trail swims out of the blackness.
My straining eyes turn the experience into a hallucinogenic grayscale trip. I duck at phantom branches and leap over ambiguous ruts like I’m in the Ministry of Silly Runs, until I reemerge under the open sky.
On the home stretch, the streetlights cast my running shadow against a rock wall. It also reveals the shadows of bats, my favorite nighttime friends, darting around my head.
My grin grows again and my posture straightens. Before I was Dances With Wolves and now I am Batgirl, nighttime vigilante.
In audio-land, the zombies chase me all the up to the virtual gates of Abel Township, which clang open to welcome the new runner. Mission complete!
But oh no, let’s not get too cocky. The game switches to radio mode and sets off a zombie chase… just as I reach the base of the final ridiculously steep hill leading up to my apartment. I start my slow, sad ascent, legs churning futilely. The beeping grows faster. The zombie moans grow louder. My shoulders slump in defeat.
Items dropped, zombies distracted, glory stolen at the finish line.