5K races with creative twists picking up in popularity

Doug Gulasy
| Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, 8:47 p.m.

Eric Erlewine wore a white shirt to run in a 5K one Saturday morning in late August.

It didn't stay that way for long.

By the time Erlewine finished the “Color Me Rad” race, his shirt was splattered with yellow, blue, purple and other colors. His hair was stained pink, and his forehead had turned green.

More than that, he couldn't stop smiling.

“That's the point, right?” Erlewine, 28, of Wellsburg, W.Va., said of the colors. “I will keep it like this.”

Erlewine was one of about 8,000 runners who flocked to the Washington County Fairgrounds Aug. 25 to participate in the region's first “Color Me Rad” race.

The national race, in its first year, recruits volunteers to bomb runners with colored cornstarch at stations throughout the race.

Color Me Rad staff member Chantelle Rowley said Pittsburgh got the race's biggest response to date, so much so that organizers had to move the event from the North Shore to Washington.

“We were going to sell out the North Shore really, really fast, and that was back in June,” she said. “We decided we (weren't) going to make everybody happy by moving it, but we're going to allow a couple more thousand runners to run it.”

Color Me Rad isn't the only off-beat race that's landed in the region this year or will arrive in the coming months.

Derrick Smith, co-creator of the “Run for Your Lives” zombie race, which came to Butler Sept. 1, credited the Warrior Dash for popularizing the trend of unusual 5Ks.

The Warrior Dash, which describes itself as “a mud-crawling, fire-leaping, extreme 5K run from hell,” held its first event in 2009 in Illinois and began expanding nationwide in 2010.

Other popular adventure races or challenges, like the Tough Mudder, described at toughmudder.com as “probably the toughest event on the planet,” with its muddy obstacle-and-running course, soon followed suit.

“These adventure runs or obstacle course races, however you want to refer to them, I think they're trending well because I think people want to do something different,” Smith said. “I think people are looking for more of an experience.”

In “Run for Your Lives,” runners navigate an obstacle course while trying to escape fellow participants who are made up as zombies. Runners who get through the course without losing both of their “health flags” are declared survivors.

Smith said he and friend Ryan Hogan created the race in 2011 to play off the popularity of the television show “The Walking Dead.”

They thought it would be a small fundraiser for Hogan's athletic apparel company, but they ended up with 12,000 participants at the first event in Baltimore, Md.

“It was a little overwhelming, but as ticket sales started to come in, we realized we could spread it out across the country,” Smith said.

While “Run for Your Lives” raised money for the creators' company, other 5Ks raise money for charities.

“Color Me Rad” raised money for the Ronald McDonald House; the Tough Mudder has raised more than $3.5 million to date for the Wounded Warrior Project; and the Warrior Dash brings in money for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

Even charitable organizations themselves are holding unusual 5Ks.

The Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is hosting the Pineapple Classic 5K, in which teams conquer an obstacle course while keeping control of a pineapple. That race is Sept. 15 at Hartwood Acres.

“I mainly am trying to make my event stand out as much as possible and that every person that comes to Hartwood Acres that day knows they're supporting a great cause and they leave feeling good about themselves and having a great time,” said Brittany Murray, spokeswoman for the chapter.

Murray said the Pineapple Classic drew 100 racers in its first year but had quadrupled that as of last week. Race organizers placed a cap at 500 runners.

The Pineapple Classic will have a children's obstacle course. Murray anticipates seeing a lot of first-time runners.

Rowley and Smith said they get a lot of first-timers.

Steve Wagner, 38, of North Fayette estimated he's run about 10 5Ks before, but he brought his two children with him for the first time to “Color Me Rad.”

“It's a little bit different, but just a little more relaxed and a little bit more fun atmosphere than a typical 5K,” he said.

Smith anticipates going to more cities in 2013, as does Rowley, who said “Color Me Rad” may end up holding two races in Pittsburgh next year.

“The energy of everybody — I just love seeing it happen,” Rowley said.

“I've done relays in the past, and I don't think those even slightly compare to how much fun people have at these 5Ks. It's not only a run; it's also an experience.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-8527 or dgulasy@tribweb.com.

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