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The walking dead are ready to pick up the pace

Ghouls and Zombies (supernatural entities)Arts and CultureTelevisionEntertainmentBrad PittAMC (tv network)Jane Austen

Picturesque little Darlington is a national historic district, home to an annual Apple Festival that attracts thousands and, come Saturday, a feasting ground for the undead.

"Run for Your Lives," a 5K run, with zombies, is coming to this tiny Harford County town. Oh, the horror.

"That's such a cool thing they're doing," says Heather Wheatley, a three-year resident of Darlington who sells soaps out of a newly opened apothecary shop across the river in Port Deposit. "We're gonna take these zombies just the way they are and accept them wholly."

Or, possibly, piece by piece, since zombies are known for occasionally losing a limb or two as they lurch along.

Planned as a combination race and obstacle course, the "Run for Your Lives" circuit will wind its way through the 200-acre Ramblewood campground, forcing runners not only to speed along but deal with such obstacles as mud, water, brush, maybe even blood. And, of course, the ever-present threat of zombies, all of whom will be looking to feast — or, at least, grab the pocket flags that runners will carry on their persons.

"For whatever reason, people seem to like the idea of being chased," says Derrick Smith, 28, one of the run's organizers. "Plus, I think everybody is a zombie fan right now."

Runners who make it through to the finish with at least one flag still on them will be eligible for prizes. Lose all your flags, and you can still finish the race, although your status as zombie chow will keep you from participating in the awards ceremony.

Organizers stress that this is no small-time foot race. Already, nearly 10,000 people have signed up to run, with another 600 expected to watch. And while Smith and his partner, Ryan Hogan, want to keep the number of pursuing zombies secret, he does allow that the number of undead (most of them volunteers) will be in the hundreds.

Taken together, well more than 11,000 zombie fans will be converging on sleepy little Darlington, which was chosen, Smith assures, simply because nearby Ramblewood was available. A picturesque historic town on the south bank of the Susquehanna River, Darlington has heretofore been best known for being a stop on the Underground Railroad and for hosting an annual Apple Festival the first weekend in October.

It's a lot of undead for a small town to handle. But residents seem unfazed.

"I think it should be a lot of fun," says Elaine Calderon, who chairs the Apple Festival. "If I were a runner, it would be a lot more fun."

Smith, who began making plans for this weekend's run — or, from the zombies' perspective, pursuit — about a year ago, says the idea sprang from the desire to get a little publicity. His partner, Hogan, had put together a line of athletic apparel and thought it would be cool to stage some sort of event to help get the word out.

"We came up with the name first, 'Run for Your Lives,'" Smith says. "Then the question became, 'What are people going to run from?'"

The answer seemed a natural, given the continuing popularity of zombies, which have become pop-culture icons in recent years. They've terrorized the living on TV (AMC's "The Walking Dead" series), film (Brad Pitt will be starring in next year's "World War Z") and graphic novels. Even the classics have found themselves zombie-fied; one shudders to think what Jane Austen would have thought of the 2009 best-seller "Pride & Prejudice & Zombies."

"They just keep on going," says local publicist Kevin Perkins, who hopes to have his own short film, "My Boring Zombie Apocalypse," ready soon. "They're even bigger than vampires."

Smith says he didn't realize just how big until the plans for "Run for Your Lives" began to take hold. Now, he and Hogan have started their own zombie-event company, Reed Street Productions. Already, they have similar runs set for 2012 in Atlanta, Boston, Indianapolis, Seattle/Portland, Pittsburgh, San Diego/Los Angeles and Austin.

This weekend, however, it's quiet little Darlington's turn. Will the town ever be the same?

Residents don't seem worried. "We often have whole groups of bicyclists or runners who come through our neighborhood, because it's beautiful," Wheatley says. "Why wouldn't zombies want that, too?"

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

"Run for Your Lives" is set for Saturday, Oct. 22, at Ramblewood campground, 2564 Silver Road in Darlington. Registration is closed, but you can still show up and watch the races, which begin at 8 a.m. Tickets (referred to as "Apocalypse Passes") are $32. Go to runforyourlives.com.

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