Zombies to run amid the muck in Pittsburgh

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Only runners with guts need apply.

It was probably only a matter of time before Pittsburgh landed a "zombie run," in a series of free-for-all obstacle races started a year ago by two Maryland men with a penchant for running amid the mud and the muck.

After all, we already have an annual Downtown "Zombie Walk."

"My good friend, Ryan Hogan -- we grew up together -- said, 'Do you want to throw together a small mud run?' " said Derrick Smith, managing member of an organization that created the "Run for Your Lives" series.

It's also rather a video-game experience in that each runner begins with small flags attached to the waist. In order to "live" -- and qualify for prizes after the race -- he or she must finish with at least one flag or bonus health token found along the course.

That's where the zombies come in. Instead of brains, they want your flags.

There are 12 events this year, including Sept. 1 at the Switchback Raceway in Butler. Entrants are challenged to complete a circuitous, roughly 5,000-meter course that incorporates natural obstacles such as hillsides and gullies.

There are various paths to the finish line, and they might be dotted with roadblocks such as a rope swing over a big pool of fake blood.

Indeed, there will be blood.

"The blood pit just started as a simple pool runners had to climb into. It's red, it looks like blood," Mr. Smith said, noting that obstacles might vary from city to city.

"Sometimes at different events, we have people sliding into a big pool of red, but now it's [often] climbing over monkey bars and trying not to fall in. Plus, we try to sneak in some other things."

"Mud runs" are gaining in popularity in the U.S., where athletes might start a 5K course by jumping into a pond and slogging their way through other messy challenges. They compete in timed "waves," similar to those used in triathlons.

Zombie runs add the element of a game of "capture the flag," only with many zombies of all sizes and speeds. They are not allowed to wrangle with the runners -- or vice versa -- other than attempting to remove a flag.

"We try to put a zombie twist on everything we do," Mr. Smith said.

In this case, entrants will be pursued by enthusiastic hordes of zombies that are assigned specific characteristics. Some run, some shamble, some crawl.

Only "chaser" zombies are permitted to run down prey. Others must try to surprise or freak out runners, like anglerfish in scary makeup.

Online at www.runforyourlives.com, the zombie FAQ makes it clear that interaction is strictly limited.

Question: "Can I tackle, eat, bite or hit runners?"

Answer: "Only if you want to be kicked out of the event."

Zombies, who pay a $25 entrance fee that includes a T-shirt, admission to the post-race party and a race medal, are warned that this is tough work, dirty work.

"Things get pretty messy during an apocalypse."

Yet the chance to be a zombie is highly coveted. The actual number of openings for zombies at each event is guarded, the better to surprise runners. An online meter shows that registration for runners is 70 percent full for Pittsburgh, but the zombie spots were sold out months ago.

In fact, competing as a runner in 2012 gives you a (figurative) leg up to enter next year as a zombie.

Instructions on how to bring out your inner zombie -- as well as professionals helping with makeup for the outer ghoul -- are provided at the "Zombie Transformation Center" at each site.

Participants are encouraged to be creative, and there have been "Mario and Luigi" video character zombies, as well as a shambling "Winnie the Pooh." Also brides and clowns, although the latter creep people out even when they aren't zombies.

"If it's the end of the world -- dress as you like," Mr. Smith said, adding that sensible shoes are nonetheless a good idea.

All participants must be at least 14, and runners registering by July 18 will pay a $77 entry fee. It's $87 from July 19 until Aug. 28. Spectator tickets are $32.

Survivors and zombies alike are welcome at a party afterward, and campsites will be available for overnighters. Mr. Smith said each event schedules about 15 or 16 live bands to play throughout the day.

Making the Pittsburgh area a stop on the zombie tour probably was inevitable. There are those who argue that Atlanta has become a zombie capital of the U.S., thanks to AMC's hit show "The Walking Dead."

Evidence to the contrary stacks up like so many George A. Romero screenplays, starting with his 1968 classic, "Night of the Living Dead." The creation of ghoulish makeup is also sort of a local industry.

Legendary artist Tom Savini gives his name to a makeup and special effects school at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen. In turn, some of its students have gone on to great success on Syfy network's reality competition show "Face Off."

Port Vue artist Greg Lightner -- who was on "Face Off" but did not attend the Savini school -- has zombified his share of models for film and videos. McCandless native Greg Nicotero masterminded the makeup effects for "The Walking Dead" and is one of the show's co-executive producers.

Around here, zombies are never uncool. Merely undead. And they're riding a wave of popularity around the country.

When "Run for Your Lives" organizers put on their first zombie event last year in Maryland, they planned for a crowd of "a couple thousand," Mr. Smith said.

"We ended up with 12,000 people," he said. "It was a little scary."

The series has become so popular, there's a hardy band of zombies that is following it from city to city, prompting Mr. Smith to point out the wonderful coincidence in nicknames: "Yes," he said, "we have our 'Deadheads.' "

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 12, 2012) The last name of Greg Lightner, a makeup and special effects artist from Port Vue, was misspelled in a story Wednesday about a zombie run coming to Butler.
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Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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