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The Color Run: The latest in a new wave of fun runs

Related article: Finding a child's capabilities is easier with a little fun

IRVINE, Calif. — As a young Michael Jackson sang about how we "wanna be startin' somethin'," I couldn't resist.

I laid down on my back and moved my arms furiously like I was making a snow angel. Only instead of moving snowflakes, I was pushing piles of colored cornstarch with my limbs.

"It's a rainbow angel!" I yelled. My now 13-year-old stopped, stared at me for only a moment, and then she turned and ran away, laughing, obviously embarrassed and murmuring something about her mom being weird. I jumped up and chased her down.

"You can't ditch me now, kid," I said, grinning down at her green and pink face during the April 28 race. "You got me into this, and now you have to run with the monster you created."

She shook her head and then looked at me with a bit of panic. "Just please don't dance, Mom, please," she said, a hint of desperation mixed with laughter. Note to teenagers: Never, never give your mother ammunition like this.

Travis Snyder did not set out to convince the world that running isn't always about the finish time. It isn't always about the pain, the PR (personal record, for you non-runners) or the podium. Snyder didn't set out to show the world that because he didn't know it himself.

"I was a pretty intense runner, triathlete," said Snyder, who started the Color Run 5K races in January of this year. "My wife got her master's in exercise science and I was her guinea pig."

Yes, he was that guy obsessed with shaving seconds, finding more efficient ways to train and achieving whatever goal it is that he'd set for himself when he signed up for a race. Then he made a decision that would take him on a different path.

"I decided to stage my first event," said the Brigham Young University graduate. "I was still in school and we did it just for fun. It was the Salem Spring Triathlon, and a couple hundred people came out. From there I kind of entered a spiral where we added more events."

He was part of the team that created the Red Rock Relay in Moab (May) and in St. George (September). His former business partner still runs those very popular events, and interestingly, they attract both serious runners and new or casual joggers. But Snyder didn't begin staging races with any grand ideas. He said there is simply something uniquely satisfying about offering athletes the opportunity to test themselves.

"There are really high highs and potentially low lows," he said. "It's kind of a beautiful thing to think that you are offering something that these people everywhere are thinking of and training for. One or two events kind of drive their everyday activity."

Snyder says being part of the pinnacle of that goal is an experience unlike anything else. "The event day is a beautiful opportunity for someone to realize the manifestation of their work."

He understands the competitive drive. As he participated — either as an athlete or a race director in competitive endurance events — he began to see something unexpected.

"The more I'm in it, the more I realize it's a lot less about (the competition) and a lot more about the everyday activity of living a healthy lifestyle," he said.

Signing up for the race was the goal that kept people motivated to make more healthy life choices for the weeks and months leading up to the event. Despite the camaraderie that accompanies most endurance events, the preparation for race day can be a solitary endeavor.

"Think about it, even someone who is a crazy event person, signing up right and left," he said. "Ninety percent of the work is still done by themselves on a running path, a treadmill or a bike. The event provides the framework for people to map out goals and have fun."

Snyder and his wife started discussing ways to get more people involved in races and events when they stumbled onto the idea of the Color Run.

"I really was starting to search for something that was more of a recruiter," he said. "Something less threatening to someone who was less active."

The Color Run is just the latest in a new breed of events marketed as more to non- or new runners. In fact, some serious runners avoid events like the Color Run precisely because they're not physically challenging enough. But Snyder believes even serious runners will find a place for events like this in their lives if they shift their mindset just a little.

"For a more serious runner it can be a break," he said. "It can also be something a runner can do with a less active friend of family member. That's really where the bulk of our growth has come."

A Color Run is a 5K that starts in waves every 15 or 20 minutes, with color stations at each kilometer. At the one my daughter and I ran, yellow was first then green, pink and purple.

Everyone received a color packet in their bag — and a white T-shirt — and at the end of the race, there are color throws every 20 minutes or so. They had music, dancing, snacks and an air blaster that takes the majority of the non-toxic color off of your skin and clothes. (Although, if you sweat, it seems to stick a little longer.)

No one can deny the popularity of these kinds of events. The Dirty Dash, a Utah-based series of runs through mud and usually other mud-covered obstacles, sold out to more than 6,000 runners in its first weekend two years ago. Now it boasts 13 races (usually sold out) in seven western states.

Wasat Leishman, who owns Wasatch Area Race Productions, has spent his career staging serious, competitive events, including the USA National Triathlon Championships. But a couple of years ago, he began to see the hunger for a different kind of "race." So last year he started Kiss Me Dirty, which is an all-women's mud run, and the Pride Day 5K. Kiss Me Dirty sold out and actually out-grew its first venue, Wheeler Farm. WARP officials decided to offer two dates in two different locations, one in Salt Lake County and one in Ogden.

"We wanted to be different, special and unique," Leishman said. "The feel and texture of these all-women's events is really special." Leishman decided to try and adapt the mud run concept to one of Utah's most famous natural resources — the greatest snow on earth. He held a "Lick the Pole 5K," which was an obstacle-laden 5K course at Soldier Hollow that paid homage to the movie "A Christmas Story." Both Leishman and Snyder believe creative minds will offer more of these events, even while there is an increase in the number of serious, competitive events as well.

"It's a totally different market," said Leishman. "In the current environment, everybody is looking for something fun and different. If you've never done a triathlon, it is a fun an energetic environment."

But as the event director for the USA National championships in the sport for two years, he said there is an almost insatiable demand for events that market fun first, fitness second.

"The market is currently craving more of a party atmosphere," he said. "The Color Run is a really creative idea."

It takes the Hindu concept of a spring color festival and marries it with the traditional 5K. Utahns will likely have plenty of opportunity to try the new race as Snyder is hoping to stage a Color Run in Utah in the next year, and another company, also Utah-based, started the same type of 5K called Color Me Rad. That series debuted in Utah on April 28 at Utah Valley University with a sold-out race (about 4,000 people).

Snyder said the gap between events focused on fun and events centered around competition isn't as wide as some may initially believe.

"I don't think they are that different," said Snyder. "Both of them fulfill a completely different set of satisfactions."

"There is something really awesome about making a goal to run a sub-20 minute 5K and doing it," he continued. "That has a distinct set of satisfactions and highs. But going and doing the Color Run, it's much more about being social, a little more about the experience and just about being. It's a lot less about expectation; it's just about fun."

In fact, Snyder has heard from serious runners who were roped into his Color Runs. One Texas man explained that while he was initially irritated to learn that the 5K would not be timed, his mood shifted as he stood with "thousands of people dressed in white, smiling and happy."

"He turned off his watch and just ran," he said. "He told me it was one of the most beautiful running experiences. The pure innocence of it came back to him on that morning."

Snyder said 60 percent of those who sign up for the Color Run have never done a 5K. His hope is that it shows them that the sport isn't just about pain or sacrifice. It's also about health and living a more active lifestyle.

"People are surprised it was three miles," he said. "These first-time runners suddenly realize, 'I can actually run three miles.'" And knowing it's a possibility could open the door to other experiences.

It was somewhere between pink and purple that my daughter said it. I tried not to make a big deal about it. But just like a gardener who knows he's about to experience a special harvest, I knew the seed that would change her life had been planted on a former military base on a cloudy, cool California morning in April.

"This is the best 5K of my life," she said running sideways, grinning and giggling. "I love running!"

Related article: Finding a child's capabilities is easier with a little fun


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