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Zombies, mud runs, undie dashes drawing new types of 5K racers

Shaina Sine dashed through the back hills of Dade City dodging zombies and ghouls.

The plan was to run the Zombie Run 5K with her friends — but she had to increase her speed because the makeup was too realistic.

"I'm a huge scaredy cat," she said. "I told everyone, 'I'll run from them if chased.' "

Sine, 35, a grant writer at Moffitt Cancer Center, considers herself a runner, yet she even admits running isn't the appeal of a new generation of road races hitting Tampa Bay.

With wacky gimmicks ranging from being pelted with colored cornstarch to running from bar to bar for beers, sponsors have introduced dozens of add-ons to stand out from the crowded field of road races in Florida.

December's Color Run 5K through St. Petersburg had an estimated 15,000 participants. Up north in Dade City, the Zombie Run 5K drew 1,100 participants even as the temperatures hovered in the 40s.

And in its second year, Sunday's Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon and Mini Marathon in St. Petersburg, which features a free concert by Sean Kingston, will bring in more than 6,000 runners from all 50 states and 11 countries. Runners' ages range from 25 to 59, and more than half are women, said Emily Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Competitor Group, the race organizer.

Deb Voiles, 59, founder of the training group Run Tampa, said there are 150 races scheduled within a one-hour drive from Tampa through the end of 2013. An increasing number of those races are offbeat.

"We have the market for it," she said. "The Tampa Bay area attracts the kind of person who likes to get outside and have fun with their friends in great weather. So it's the perfect opportunity. When one race director sees the success of something like the Color Run, they think, 'Let's go have something there.' "

Racy races

Saturday morning, more than 500 runners will line up in Tampa's Al Lopez Park to take part in the inaugural Undy5000 — a 5K that encourages participants to run in their underwear to support the Colon Cancer Alliance.

The relatively new event has been run in 19 cities across the country, but only landed in the bay area this year, said Renee Fromkin, 72, a colon cancer survivor and the local race organizer. Her own sister was diagnosed shortly after she was and did not survive. Since that time, Fromkin has focused on raising awareness about "a lonely disease no one wants to talk about."

She heard about the Undy5000 and worked with the alliance to bring it to town. Fromkin will be walking the race, but has opted out of baring her underwear.

"It's a wonderful opportunity ... for the community to come together and share camaraderie with those fighting colon cancer and those who have lost someone to the disease," she said.

Finishers receive a commemorative pair of underwear, though the ones they show up in are usually decorative enough. There have even been contests for best undies at past races.

"People make their own underwear too," Fromkin said. "I've seen Batman underwear and some dedicated to lost loved ones."

She's hoping the unique chance to run "free" will bring people of all walks out to hear more about colon cancer.

It's a gimmick that could draw as large a crowd of observers as participants.

Still a challenge

Other local runs try to up the level of difficulty to remove the time element and draw runners of every skill level to the course.

Largo hosted the Play! Dirty Run on Feb. 2 — the city's first of its kind.

There were "mud pits to run or crawl through, a mud slide, a tire run, a hay tunnel, wooden walls of various heights to climb over, a mud crawl through a culvert and the general terrain of the whole race was uneven," said Mandy Petersen, recreation program supervisor for the city.

Like Tough Mudder and the Warrior Dash before it, Play's focus was on finishing.

"It's a different demographic," Petersen said. "People who are not regular runners can come out. It's not beating the clock. It's having fun while becoming more active."

Matty Kinback, 27, of Tampa ran the 12-mile obstacle course Tough Mudder in Dade City twice, partly for the challenge and partly because the race was so different from his normal triathlons.

"This was a kind of completely different beast," said Kinback, director of marketing for clevertraining.com. "That it wasn't the traditional (race) — that's what drew me to it."

Nick Zivolich, CEO of Feb. 2's Best Damn Race in Safety Harbor, hoped to create a run satisfactory to serious runners.

"Gimmick races are not really for competing. Serious runners want to go set the course record or a personal record," he said. "Everyday Joes and Janes can start a couch potato-to-5K program and run those races, and that's great."

But for the Best Damn Race, Zivolich hoped to create an ideal running environment — and then save the rest for post-race amenities.

Best Damn Racers were greeted at the finish line with medals, T-shirts, unlimited free beer, sandwiches from Jimmy John's and a DJ who spun tunes to keep the energy up.

Zivolich said the use of the word "Damn" to promote what would otherwise be a traditional road race was his attempt to stand out in an already crowded marketplace.

"We're not trying to offend anyone," he said. "We're just trying to get their attention."

Zivolich, 34, even changed his registration process — the first 900 registrants were able to sign up for $1 — to try and offer something new to the running community.

"If you take care of the consumers and make it a good experience, they will take care of you," he said. "Races that don't do well don't come back."

Running for fun

Sine ran the Best Damn Race Half Marathon, but isn't quite bold enough to check out the Undy5000. On her annual calendar are pub runs, obstacle runs, scavenger hunt runs and cause runs such as Miles for Moffitt.

She hears about wacky races from her friends at her CrossFit gym or on social media.

"There's a group aspect to a lot of them," Sine said. "For the Tough Mudder, we got a group together helping each other get over obstacles. It was more social. We were not taking it as seriously."

But she wonders if the appeal can remain with the wealth of choices.

"It's going to have to hit the point of diminished returns," she said. "The Zombie race was $90. We got it on LivingSocial for $45, and that was still too much."

Kinback said he's enjoying the evolution of the road race.

"It's definitely turning the sport much more toward fun to appeal to those individuals a little less competitive," he said. "I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that those who are competitive will still seek out traditional races."

But just because you conceive of a wacky race doesn't mean that's where your work ends.

Everybody thinks they can put on an interesting race, but if you don't, people won't come back the next year, Sine said.

"You can have one event, but there's no guarantee there will be a second one."

Zombies, mud runs, undie dashes drawing new types of 5K racers 02/06/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 7, 2013 12:27am]

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