Cover Story

Running Like Crazy

A new breed of ‘fun runs’ — with color, glow sticks and zombies — leaves purists wondering what’s next


"I hate running.”

In covering Jacksonville running for more than a decade, I’ve heard that line many times. Too many times. Though, in my experience, the lovers far outstrip the haters.

Hardcore runners, after all, are an enthusiastic bunch, so it’s no surprise they’d drown out the nattering couch potatoes. Road racers can enjoy the runners’ high anytime they want, without the nagging fear of police run-ins or a drug test on Monday.

Beyond that, running has been able to reinvent itself again and again, first drawing new acolytes after Frank Shorter’s marathon gold in the 1972 Olympics. The sport boomed again in the ’90s and 2000s, with women passing men in terms of participation, the rise of charity races and celebrities taking to the streets — Oprah, Lance Armstrong, Will Ferrell, George W. Bush. They all may be faster than you.

Now a second boom (or maybe third, depending on how you count booms) is underway, thanks in part to the rise of party races of all kinds and colors. It’s no longer enough to put on a boring 5K for charity.

You better have mud!
Or glow sticks!
Or zombies!

If not, you’d better be throwing colored powder in my face or setting up foam machines or flinging water balloons. Because these runners aren’t here just to run.

Beer at the finish line? That’s quaint. Try the Tap ’N’ Run 4K, where you down beer at the start, during the race and at the finish [see “The Beer Run,” p. 11].

The purists, like the Gate River Run’s longtime race director, scoff. Doug Alred sees these as fly-by-night operations, not real races:

“They should call them color walks.”

“They don’t really run. They run for the first 50 feet and then go on dancing.”

“It’s all about making money. They couldn’t care less about running or physical fitness.”

It’s that point that annoys Alred the most. The people who organize “a race in a box,” to use Alred’s terminology, aren’t that interested in the health of runners or the Northeast Florida running community. They’re there to make a buck. “Charging someone $50 to run a color run is outrageous,” Alred says.

Perhaps, but there’s no denying that the “party races” have in fact attracted new runners — or new “runners,” depending on your point of view. And some of those runners (or “runners”) have in fact seen legitimate health benefits. Jacksonville’s Lindsay Fernandez says she got off the couch and ran her first race at Color Me Rad in April 2013. Through training and racing, she’s lost 50 pounds in about a year. “I’m proud of that shit,” she says.

While she enjoyed the Tap ’N’ Run, the 28-year-old Fernandez admits, “Drinking beer is good and running is good, but doing it together is not so good.” Even so, she’d consider signing up again for the atmosphere and the fact that the race medal doubles as a bottle opener. (Runners love cool swag.)

Alred doesn’t see the party races as true competition siphoning off runners. There’s only a little crossover, he says. And he does see new runners being attracted by fad races and then taking it up more seriously.

Fernandez, for instance, has already signed up for this March’s Gate River Run, the 37th edition of the city’s most famous race. With multiple events on race day, it attracts more than 20,000 runners, former and future Olympians among them. (It’s also the U.S. 15K national championship.)

But Alred wishes this was more the rule than the exception. He doesn’t ignore the fact that running can attract the extreme and the weird. The Tour De Pain Extreme, which he manages, challenges runners to compete in a 10K, 5K and a half-marathon — about 22 miles total — all within 24 hours. But Alred’s races generally emphasize competition and fitness, not parties. And few would question that color runs, zombie runs and the like value style much more than substance.

Jerry Lawson knows a thing or two about running with style. In his younger days, he competed with a Mohawk, an earring or a rattail. Lawson backed up his brash look with victories and broke the U.S. marathon record in 1997.

Now, living in Jacksonville and working for Alred’s 1st Place Sports running stores, Lawson laments that some of the focus has turned to flavor-of-the-month runs.

“It’s gotten more people into it, but it’s not about running. It’s more about the event,” Lawson says. “I think it’s taken away from the competitive nature of running, but it’s increased the participation.”

Alred says he’s already seen one footrace fad lose steam. “Mud runs have already run their course,” he says. “They’re losing numbers like crazy. People are just not doing them.”

He shudders to think what the next fad will be. “I don’t want people to take it lower than it’s already been taken,” he says.

For the marketing mavens putting on the party races, it’s only crazy if it doesn’t work.

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