We were an odd group to be heading to a race: two non-runners, a couple of out-of-shape runners, a three-year-old and a baby. And the location was even odder: a giant parking lot in the outskirts of Ottawa.
But this was no ordinary race. It was the latest Canadian stop of The Color Run, just one of the many non-timed, themed 5K races – recent popular ones include zombies and raves – that have been emerging not just as a new fitness trend, but a social one, too. Along with hordes of other participants of all shapes, sizes and ages dressed in white, we prepared ourselves to be sprayed with pink, purple, yellow and orange powder as we ran.
"I saw the need for an event that was about the experience and would appeal to a broader group of people," says Color Run founder Travis Snyder, whose race series saw 600,000 participants in 60 North American stops in 2012 and is on track to reach 120 North American and 80 international races this year. With the focus on fun rather than finish time, the event is designed to appeal to anyone who's interested in running, but intimidated by the traditional run-as-fast-as-you-can approach.
As with yoga, there seems to be no limit to running's rise in popularity. "It's a big market," says Michael Doyle, editor-in-chief of Canadian Running magazine, who calls running's continuing growth "unbelievable," and attributes some of that to fun-oriented events. Themed races are just another sign of how the sport is transforming from elite athletic activity to something anyone can do anywhere. "Traditional" road races, he says, are going to have to "get with the program" and provide more value, and a more immersive experience for runners.
"The zombie run was nothing like I expected, and yet everything I wanted it to be," says Vancouver runner Erin McInnis, who ran the race in Seattle in August. "It was scary, intimidating, frustrating, painful and pushed my physical and emotional limits. And it was pretty freaking awesome." Like many runners I spoke to, McInnis was looking for a change. As for the typically running-avoidant, a common refrain was "I hate running, but this looked like fun!" – a gateway drug, one might say, to a sport that's mentally and physically challenging, but ultimately rewarding in its simplicity.
Back in Ottawa, we ran through an orange cone-marked route that zig-zagged to eke 5K out of a not-that-large space. Or, at least, some of us did: The little girl and her mother, more concerned with fun than staying on track, made a beeline from colour station to colour station instead.
And at the finish line, opposite a mass of people tossing colour in the air in a post-run party, participants coated in Instagram-friendly hues asked for help with group photos as they experienced what might be their first runner's high. Judging by their broad smiles, it won't be their last.