While many of his classmates spent the summer on the corporate-internship treadmill, Wharton junior Andrew Hudis was planning to bring the zombie apocalypse to a town near you.
As co-founder and creative director of Run for Your Lives, a business that organizes zombie-themed five-kilometer races around the country, Hudis was shaping running experiences that resemble a cross between a game of tag and a nightmare sequence concocted by gore-maestro George A. Romero.
The zombie run blends Hudis’ lifelong passion for running with a longstanding interest in participatory entertainment. Run for Your Lives, he explains, is best understood as “an experience that happens to involve running.” In his view, it and similar events mark a cultural shift away from purchasing objects and toward buying experiences.
Inspired by Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, Hudis’ philosophy is that “if you make a story intricate enough, people will perceive it as reality.”
The intricacies distinguishing Run for Your Lives include simulated toxic-waste spills, smoke, abandoned vehicles, frantic actors, and even a helicopter flying overhead—and of course lots of zombies. Even the water stations are in character, so to speak, as “vaccination stations” where volunteers dressed in lab coats hand out cups. Organizers pay particular attention to the mobs of undead, advising those who register for a run as zombies to arrive early enough to go through the “Zombie Transformation Center.” There, aspiring ghouls receive a professional-quality makeup job before taking their assigned places on the course.
Hudis and his partners modeled the narrative after zombie movies, allowing participants to experience the apocalypse as it unfolds. As the humans, aka runners, progress through the race-cum-obstacle course, they encounter frequent hordes of zombies, increasing in intensity near the finish line. In lieu of a stopwatch, runners gauge success or failure by whether they finish the run with all of their “lives” intact. Humans each get three flags; get all your flags taken by zombies and you’re dead; cross the finish line with at least one and you survive.
Though survival is not guaranteed, that hasn’t stopped the approximately 40,000 people who have toed the line since the inaugural run last April.
A longtime runner, Hudis got his start with short jogs around his neighborhood in fifth grade. “It was about figuring out how far I could go,” he recalls, and soon enough he would put himself to the test, running the Philadelphia Marathon as a high school freshman.
The zombie-run business, which he sold before returning to Penn this fall, is only the latest iteration in a series of participant-centered ventures that Hudis has orchestrated. He’s organized the Bucks County Half Marathon, a race that he still owns. There have also been concerts and Halloween-themed runs, but above everything else, there looms a race he planned when he was a high school sophomore.
While on a trip organized by Rustic Pathways, a travel-based student enrichment program, Hudis was taken by the plight of Burmese refugee children in Thailand. Many of them were orphans whose futures seemed bleak. Together with longtime running partner Phil Carlitz, he organized a charitable race whose proceeds would benefit the orphans’ education.
It was called Tribe 2 Tribe, and for a 16-year-old, organizing an international marathon proved daunting. There were exchange rates to consider and cultural differences to overcome, not to mention the elephants that greeted runners at the finish line and the feast for the whole town where the race was held. Their efforts and pluck paid off. People heard about the event through Runner’s World and came from as far away as South Africa to run through the Thai jungle.
“Runners are willing to travel to run really unique races and get a unique running experience,” Hudis explains. The event consisted of three races—a 5K, a half marathon, and a marathon—and many of the orphans, who were all first-time runners, lined up for the 5K.
Tribe 2 Tribe was successful enough to spark an encore run the following year. This time, the orphans trained for the race and ran the half marathon. “They still run,” says Hudis, who maintains ties with some of the children. “Every now and then, one of them will post on Facebook that they just ran the Bangkok Marathon.” It is this, perhaps more than the $50,000 raised by the event, that he is most proud of.
Now that Run for Your Lives has been sold, Hudis is beginning to think about what comes next. The run has given him perspective on his aspirations. The main takeaway from his time spent among the living dead, he says, was realizing that he is “fascinated by this junction of popular culture and business.” Hudis will see where that interest takes him as he continues his junior year at Wharton—whether it involves road races or something totally different. And though he’s not sure what the future holds, he can take solace in the knowledge that it is not, in fact, the end of the world. —Zach Nichols