This weekend in California an estimated 19,000 runners will try to outrun 500 zombies.
Well, it is California.
The runners are taking part in a 5k obstacle course called Run For Your Lives. The company behind the race has been staging these events all over the country. You might have even seen its first national ad last weekend during the season premiere of AMC's "The Walking Dead".
Here's how the zombie race works. Participants work their way through a 3-mile obstacle course wearing a belt of "health flags". Zombies — both running and walking — pop up unexpectedly along the way and try to grab the flags. Runners who make it all the way to the finish line with at least one flag left survive. Those who don't are declared dead. Both the living and the dead then enjoy a huge party. It costs about $80 to participate.
"We're trying to make sure we present the best experience," said 29-year-old Derrick Smith, CEO of Reed Street Productions, the company behind the races. Until about a year ago, Smith was studying English and working at a hotel in Maryland.
(Read More: Products for the Zombie Apocalypse.)
So how did he end up running a zombie obstacle course company?
The answer is one of those ideas-so-crazy-they-just-might-work stories which keep America strong. Stronger than zombies.
Smith said a friend of his, Ryan Hogan, started an athletic apparel company called Warwear. In late 2010, Hogan wanted to generate publicity for the clothing line, so he and Smith started brainstorming.
"Let's do a mini 'warrior dash'," they decided. They looked for compelling domain names, snagging RunForYourLives.com. "What do people run for their lives from?" Smith said they asked each other. Both men were fans of "The Walking Dead". "People run from zombies all the time."
The first race was held last October in Barrington, Md. "We expected maybe a thousand people," Smith said. "We ended up with 12,000 people."
A business was born. Smith quit his hotel job, and Hogan put the apparel line on the back burner (though he makes the official race T-shirts).
(Read More: Signs of the Apocalypse.)
Where do they get their zombies? People sign up AND PAY to be them. How crazy smart is that? The would-be zombies arrive early on race day to go through the company's own zombie "transformation" which includes clothing, make-up, "and gallons and gallons of fake blood."
Costs for materials and services average about $10,000 per race, plus permitting fees and insurance, but Smith says the company is profitable. "It's a pretty large scale production."
Rules forbid zombies from having weapons or grabbing racers beyond capturing a flag. Occasionally Smith has fired zombies and removed runners after they've intentionally collided at full speed or otherwise gotten too physically aggressive. "You can only go so far with the fantasy."
As for this 29-year-old former English major, he never imagined himself a CEO, let alone running a company that holds obstacle course races involving zombies. What has he learned?
"I can't do everything. I can't be staking the course and also doing a sponsorship deal," Smith said. "Letting go has been the biggest challenge."
(Read More: Why Zombies Are Taking Over the Economy.)
Run For Your Lives is holding a total of nine races this year, with 22 more planned in 2013. Subaru of America is a sponsor. Smith said he was in talks with Slim Jim, but no deal ever came together. "I didn't know if that was the healthiest way to go."
The company has grown to 28 employees and they're constantly tweaking the races. "We've learned a lot of lessons."
One lesson involved the seemingly ingenious idea of have an electrified fence that runners must crawl under at the finish line. Was the current a little too strong at first?
"I think so," Smith said, "but we figured it out." He said the fence has become one of the best parts of the race. It has real shock value. "People love it, people are scared of it."
—By CNBC's Jane Wells
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