Philadelphia is the first of 17 cities to host such a contest. Runners set off about 300 at a time and had three "life balloons" attached to them that zombies tried to pop before the finish line. I suited up to test my luck against hordes of the undead.
Before embarking on my quest to survive the zombie apocalypse, I consulted the literature for tips and strategies on not being eaten alive. Much of it seemed like a bit of overkill. Finding a machete or chainsaw, stocking up on canned food, and getting my hands on a souped-up four-by-four seemed a little extreme for a charity run.
Still, there was one nugget of advice I thought might serve me well: Form alliances.
So when I got to the starting line of the run, I sought out friends for the difficult task ahead. I came upon some teens.
"Hey guys, how are you doing?" I said. "Are you guys a team?"
They seemed pumped, without a shred of the fear of mortality that only comes with age.
"Yeah," said the presumed ringleader. "We form an alliance, then I guess, you know, you can help each other out. Although if these guys die, I'm just going to leave them behind. I'm just saying that."
On that note, I decided maybe this wasn't the group for me. I continued to seek companions.
'Love can combat all the zombies'
A group of girls in pink shirts stood waiting nearby.
"How are you guys feeling about this run?" I asked.
"We're a little nervous, but confident at the same time," one replied.
"And I see you've got a group here. That seems like a good strategy," I said, hopeful.
"Yeah, team love. Love can combat all the zombies."
"And what's your strategy here?
"Run like hell."
Soon after, we were off, and things did not start well. Right off the bat, I fell to the back of the pack — not a good place to be.
I tried to move up, and a nearby runner tried to encourage me. "You go!" she said.
I sensed an opportunity. I told her I was trying to form some alliances among the runners, but all I got from her was a half-hearted "maybe." It didn't seem like a solid groundwork for trust. I pressed on.
Soon after, I encountered the first zombie. My heart pounded as I zigged and zagged through the mob, with zombies grabbing at my vital organs (life balloons) all the while.
Even with the first gantlet cleared, I feared that, without a buddy or a group, I wouldn't make it through the next one. I wondered how my fellow runners had fared so far.
A stumble and an organ gone
I asked a father running with his son.
"You make it through OK?"
"Yeah, good," he said, showing signs of shock.
I was just beginning to feel like I could do this when disaster struck. Two zombies approached me. I thought I could cut between them, but I didn't account for the muddy conditions. I took a tumble — and lost my first balloon to a hungry walker.
With two balloons still intact, I kept going. Soon enough, I bumped into a guy named Joe running in camouflage pants. Hoping his military training might come in handy for me, I engaged him.
"That's good, man," I said as he made an evasive maneuver. "You saw your opportunity, and you took it."
"Yeah," he said. "Kick it into turbo only when you get close to them."
I thought I had found an ally in Joe, but he met a grim end when we ran through a particularly infested stretch.
But I had no time to mourn my new friend. Another zombie attacked — and popped my second balloon. With the end just a few hundred feet ahead, I clung to hope.
Outdoing the undead
I saw the finish line, but there was a particularly voracious zombie waiting for me. As he chased a group to the right, I broke left — and crossed into safety.
I had survived — but at what cost? So many of my new friends ... gone.
I finished the run with a newfound admiration for the groups that had managed to stay together during the zombie apocalypse. Still, that pressure-cooker situation did seem to stir in me a long-dormant empathy with others of my own kind. As I glanced toward the start line, I saw the final group set out.
Stay safe, I thought to myself. And lean on each other.
Not everyone wished the other runners well. Maybe their instincts for self-preservation were stronger than mine. Maybe they'd been desensitized from years of Hollywood zombie hype. Or maybe it was because this entire thing was fake.
Whatever the case, I had survived to see another day.