Colour races break all the rules

No time clock, no training routine: it’s a messy, five-kilometre party
Just shut your mouth at the finish line
Pittsburgh Post-gazette/ZUMaPress/Keysyone Press

Melissa Wilson’s first five-kilometre road race was in a suburban-mall parking lot in Braintree, Mass.—an hour’s drive outside Boston. She made an eight-hour road trip there from her home in Burlington, Ont., just to run zigzags around pylons as music blared in the background and volunteers threw clouds of neon-coloured dust on her. She was sweaty and covered in neon paint when she crossed the finish line and she didn’t even know her time. No one was keeping track. “It seemed insane,” Wilson says, laughing. It was a little crazy, and that’s the way organizers want it, as two competing American companies come to Canada for the 2013 race season, where they’ll combine road running with a party atmosphere and leave neon-stained participants in their wake.

The Color Me Rad and The Color Run, both of which are launching runs in Canadian cities this summer, ask participants to wear white. As the runners make their way through a marked course, volunteers and staff douse them with dyed cornstarch using a variety of techniques, including a simple toss, a squirt gun and cornstarch cannons. Sunglasses and a closed mouth are both recommended, says Wilson, a 26-year-old education student. “I had my mouth open as I ran through the first colour station, so I got a mouthful of cornstarch,” she says. “I was choking because, of course, it absorbs all the moisture in your mouth.”

There is no official time clock when participants cross the finish line, though there is more paint. Participants receive two cups of coloured dust inside a plastic bag, which, upon the race’s completion, they toss in the air in unison, sending up puffs of pink, yellow, blue, green, purple and orange—a dusty rainbow which then settles on the runners below. “I’d hardly call it a five-kilometre race; I’d call it a five-kilometre party,” says Sean DeGrey, a race director for the Color Run.

These runs began in 2012 and follow in the wake of other popular obstacle-course runs such as Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Mud Hero, all of which share the element of a giant mud pit somewhere on the route. In fact, Color Me Rad founder Matt Ward also organizes the Dirty Dash, a series of just-for-fun runs in the western U.S. that require runners to get covered in muck.

Both coloured dust and mud allow a participant to embrace “that intrinsic desire to act like a child and be ridiculous,” says Ward, who used to take part in triathlons, but found the people too competitive. He has since switched to ultramarathons. “Yeah, they’re really long and super-crazy and hard,” he says, “but there is a camaraderie there, because everyone is suffering. That same camaraderie we bring to Color Me Rad.” Ward describes the latter as a “gateway drug for running.” It gives rookies a chance to abandon social norms and get messy without the intimidation of a timed event that requires a lot of training.

John McDonald, 25, says signing up for the Color Me Rad five-kilometre run in Calgary was the motivation he needed to make some big lifestyle changes. The electrical engineer, who had never run for fitness, has lost close to 60 lb. since he started training in January. “It didn’t look too competitive,” McDonald says. “You’re probably not looked down on if you’re someone who isn’t really athletic and who just decided to sign up for it for fun.” McDonald won’t be the only novice runner at the Calgary event; organizers for both the Color Run and Color Me Rad say between 50 and 60 per cent of participants have never raced before.

Seasoned runners may be inclined to write off such runs as gimmicky. Running is supposed to be simple. There isn’t a lot of special equipment required and runners can do it anywhere. Still, the popularity of the races speaks for itself. “I thought, best-case scenario, in Year 1, we’d do 10 to 20 events,” says Travis Snyder, the Color Run’s founder. His company did 60 runs last year and has expanded to 150 events for 2013, with a million participants domestically and international races as far away as Australia and Brazil. That coloured dust remains a novel enough concept to attract thousands of novice runners who are looking to put some party in their fitness.