I’ve found myself in some pretty dangerous situations on my runs. Angry swans, pitch black tunnels, scary-looking teenagers.
But this was different.
Sweat beaded on my forehead, but a little more than usual; my usual sheen of running perspiration now mingled with a sheen of pure fear. I’m not sure which was the loudest, the thumping of my heart, so frantic that I thought for a moment that it might burst clean out of my chest, or the voice of the bloke screaming in my ear, telling me “Run!!! Run Faster, for god’s sake, they’re nearly on top of you!”
I didn’t need his panicky advice to urge me on though. I could hear them behind me, and that was all the motivation I needed right now. Run or die, it really was that simple. I dug deep, summoning every ounce of speed I could muster, ignoring my lungs’ screams of protest as my legs kicked up a gear and propelled me forward. It was fast, by my standards at least.
I just prayed it was fast enough.
And then, calm. A Stephen Hawking style computer-generated voice informed me that I’d successfully evaded the zombies, and the guttural undead moans that had been piped through my earphones were quickly replaced by “Suck My Kiss” by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Yes, for those of you who were worried that I’d been chased by actual supernatural beings (or that I’d decided to go running in Dunstable), let me put your minds at rest and tell you about my first play of a new smartphone app called “Zombies, Run!”
Basically, ZR is an app that uses GPS and accelerometer wizardry to bring a new dimension to running. The idea is that you run it with earphones in and set off (with a musical soundtrack of your choice) into a fictitious (I hope) world of post-apocalyptic zombie-infestedness (real word).
***SPOILER ALERT*** It quickly transpires that you’re the sole survivor of a helicopter crash that sees you making your way through an area plagued with the walking dead, all hungry for your brains (or who just want to chat and share quinoa recipes, I never actually thought to stop and ask). Your chosen music is interspersed with radio messages from a group of survivors who are watching you on CCTV, and who helpfully guide you towards a place of safety and away from the zombie hordes, while providing a plethora of quips, handy exposition and back-story.
So far so clichéd you might say, along with “hang on, isn’t this supposed to be a running blog?”
Which is where “Zombies, Run!” really stands out. The zombie genre has been done to death* in recent years, and these days you can’t go more than five minutes without seeing them portrayed in film, TV show, book, comic, computer game or feminine hygiene product. Okay, so maybe not the last one**, but you get the idea. At the same time, the rise of the smartphone has brought with it a deluge of GPS running apps, all essentially the same, albeit with varying degrees of performance and user-friendliness. So zombies are popular, and running apps are popular. My question is… why did it take someone this long to spot such an elegant gap in the market.
The app will appeal to two types of person, namely the gamer who has a go at running for the sake of playing the game, and the runner who sees this game as a way of adding a little flavour to some of their runs. To be honest, I can’t see the former sticking with it beyond a couple of plays (unless it opens their eyes to just how bloody wonderful this running lark is and they become, ahem, One of Us) but for the established runner it could be a winner. Okay, so it’s not the sort of thing that we’d use every single run (unless you’re one of those runners who lives in their mum’s basement and spends their spare time pulling the beaks off pigeons while listening to thrash country & western) but it’s certainly an interesting diversion, and the perfect antidote for those odd occasions where the training plan gets a bit samey.
So, what’s it actually like?
Well, pretty good in my humble opinion. I’ll get the negatives out of the way first:- it’s a bit pricier than most apps (although if they add extra missions as free updates then that’ll soon balance out) and the sound levels seemed a bit off, meaning that I had to turn the volume up for my music but then quickly down again when it cut to the deafening game speech (although I’m not very techy, so that might just be my phone settings). I’m sure I came up with a few more minor niggles mid-run but I can’t for the life of me remember them now so they can’t have been that important.
And the positives? Well this is a tricky one. As someone who has always harboured a tendency to spice up runs by imagining he’s being chased by zombies/werewolves/CHUDs/cyborgs/Skeletor/the-inexorable-pressure-to-act-my-age I’m always going to be a bit biased towards this sort of thing. Predictably, I loved it; although even I, in all my childish SciFi geekiness, would have to admit that it’s not something I’d use that often. Maybe I’ll roll it out once a month as a special treat, like the occasional breakfast fudge-toastie or the way that every now and then I’ll back down and agree to wear the Sheriff McSexy costume.
But speaking from my own experience, it’s certainly immersive. It starts off slowly, and you can’t shake the feeling that you’re playing a game and listening to (often very convincing) actors. But then after the radio messages have been punctuated by a few songs and you’ve settled into a nice steady run, you sort of forget that a little bit and start to enjoy it for what it is, indulging yourself in the drama of it all. The turning point for me came when I was plodding happily along a familiar route, only to find myself casting my gaze from left to right, scanning the horizon in search of the abandoned hospital my radio companion was directing me towards. As I ran alongside a river, I spotted a couple of ramblers on the other side, except my imagination quickly transformed them into a couple of undead “walkers” and I found myself feeling grateful that there was no way they could easily cross the river and eat me all up.
A couple of miles in, and the zombie ambush came out of nowhere, as ambushes often do, and I found myself in the “run or die” situation alluded to at the start of this post. Now, depending on how long you’ve been reading my blog for, it may surprise you to learn that I consider myself to be of relatively sound mind. Believe it or not, I didn’t actually believe that zombies were actually chasing me, hot on my heels and (hey, who can blame them?) hungry for my flesh. But a good game deserves to be humoured, in the same way that you cheer Rocky on despite knowing full well that Sly Stallone and Dolph Lundgren are actually the very best of chums in real life and would sooner stick pins in their own eyes than punch each other up. So I turned on the gas, and I ran as if my life depended on it*** until I’d evaded those cadaverous, flesh-eating bastards**** and could finally settle back into a blissful jog.
It turned out that outrunning those first few waves of zombies was more or less the end of that particular mission, and the last half of my 10k run was spent listening to my own playlist interspersed with survivor chat, courtesy of a couple of chaps commentating on the unfolding zombie nightmare with a generous side-order of acerbic banter. Imagine a post-apocalyptic Martin Yelling and Tom Williams (www.marathontalk.com – if you’ve never listened to this, where the bloody hell have you been???) and you’re pretty much there.
As I reached the 10k mark, I glanced down at my watch and realised that I’d beaten my PB by a comfortable 3 minutes. In the last few weeks I’ve been losing a fair bit of tummy-ballast and (while not necessarily training harder) I’ve been training smarter. Who’s to say whether my PB-smashing performance was due to this, or if it was, in some small part, down to the app. We’ll never know.
Until the undead apocalypse of course.
Zombies. They’re the new Garmin.