Popular fun runs are creating a new interest in running. 

You might want to think twice before registering for a popular run a week or a few days before the race. Chances are, the race is probably sold out. Trying to secure these race entries is almost like trying to buy a ticket to the Coachella Music Festival.

What the Coachella Music Festival did for concerts, modern fun runs are doing for classic races — making them a party not to be missed.

From mud runs and zombie chases to donut dashes and paint races, race directors are stepping outside the box and finding creative ways to keep runners coming back for more. This new wave of national run series has its roots in old-school road races, only with much less of a focus on racing in favor of having some zany fun while running.

In the Run for Your Lives 5K series, runners navigate a 5K obstacle course and try to reach the finish line as fast as possible while being chased by other runners dressed as zombies.

The nighttime Glo Run series, which puts runners in glow-in-the-dark T-shirts and plastic jewelry, and has them run through black lights and strobe lights, has been selling out to large crowds, while others, such as The Color Run and the very similar Color Me Rad 5K series, have added race dates more than a year in advance to accommodate its influx of participants eager to run through a blaze of colored corn starch at each kilometer.

What’s the appeal of these new events? Is it the costumed sweat fest? The Facebook photo opp? Or checking off No. 25 on a summer bucket list? All of the above, plus the simple fact that they’re downright fun, no matter if you’re a veteran marathoner or a couch potato who hasn’t run more than a mile since grade school gym class. Plus, most of the races have a charity component built-in to their mission.

“The appeal is that you have a new way to involve people who may not otherwise come to the sport,” says Andre Mika, executive creative vice president of sports marketing agency TBA Global. “Racing is a life blood of the fitness community, so by having these events, they’re able to showcase the sport in a new way. And for the people who race regularly, it’s just plain fun.”

While some speculate that fun runs are gimmicks and should not be considered real races, Mika counters by saying its power to strip away the intimidation factor often associated with classic, competitive races is enough to motivate participants to get up and run. They might not attract serious runners looking to improve their PRs, but that’s precisely the point.

“There’s certainly a fear factor when it comes to more legitimate running, like races with chip timing, but why wouldn’t the sport do something that didn’t draw more attention and popularity to itself?” Mika says. “It’s like flag football games—there are tons out there, but it’s not like the NFL is saying, ‘That’s not really football; they shouldn’t be enjoying that.’ People play because it’s fun.”

Avid fun run participant Albert Joe Genato agrees. The 25-year-old will soon participate in the Run for Your Lives Zombie 5K and The Color Run in Temecula, Calif., and San Diego, respectively — both of which are nearly 130 miles away from his hometown of West Covina, Calif.

Genato says it’s worth making the trek down to these events because of the easy-going ambiance that lets him forget about the fact that he’s there to run.

A fervent social media user, Genato is one of many who use Facebook, Twitter and other outlets to tweet and tout their latest endurance adventure, contributing to the races’ reputation of being inevitable items on users’ news feeds.

“Nowadays, it’s about who caught the biggest fish and what experiences you have,” says Dan Schorr, founder and creative strategist at Start2Finish Marketing. “These races are an opportunity to show the guy who just finished a triathlon or shot a 75 on the golf course, ‘Who cares? Look what I did!’”

This piece first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.