Color Me Rad 5kBlue-colored corn starch rains down on participants in the Color Me Rad 5K, sponsored by the East Tennessee chapter of Make-a-Wish.
When Luis Perez jogged around the final turn, no other competitors even in sight, he bobbed his head left and right. He didn't know where to go. He began running straight, back toward where he started his jog, but someone stopped him. No, he was told. The finish line waited to his left, through the final gauntlet.
So Perez turned and ran down a gravel road, alone. All seemed fine, until three people approached, each concealing something. Perez halted. He crossed his arms and stooped a bit, shielding his torso. Then the three people -- the Color Bomb Squad -- chucked plastic bags.
Already, Perez's once-white shirt showed stains of green, pink, purple and yellow. Now, as he crossed the last obstacle of the Color Me Rad 5K on Saturday morning, he ran through a fog of orange-dyed cornstarch.
For most of the morning, the 6,500 participants ran in groups and Bomb Squad members divided their attention, and their supply. But running in the first of four heats, Perez outpaced everyone. He was the Bomb Squad's only target.
Perez, 14, has been running track at Valley Point Middle School in Dalton, Ga., for about a year. He has run in a couple of 5Ks, and he signed up for this one after seeing a Facebook advertisement. It looked different.
"But I didn't expect it to be like this," he said after his run, watching a crowd of white T-shirts spray cornstarch on each other and dance to hip-hop and techno in the parking lot behind the Tennessee Pavilion.
Part endurance race, part Dayglow rave, the Color Me Rad 5K is a traveling event that crosses the continent.
Participants in Saturday's run paid $30 or $50, depending on when they registered, and the event sold out about two months ago.
Some proceeds went toward the Make-A-Wish Foundation of East Tennessee, which also received money for each of the 100 volunteers who signed up to help Saturday.
Runners arrived about 8 a.m., when temperatures sat in the mid-40s. Waiting to start, some people blew their breath against cupped hands, bounced on heels or reached arms around their own bodies in a self-hug. Anything to stay warm.
Finally, about 8:45, Color Me Rad Director Scott Ward stood on a lift above the crowd in the parking lot, directed them to dance and poured buckets of dyed cornstarch. It wafted in the air like colored smoke, gliding in and out of the crowd.
Toward the back of the audience stood Cassandra Hagnr, 34, and her roommate, 24-year-old Laura Romero. Hagnr heard about this run when she participated in a 5K last fall.
"It just seemed fun," she said. "It seemed like good roommate time."
The first heat of the morning started next to Finley Stadium on Carter Street about 9 a.m. Runners bounded north on Riverfront Parkway, continued until they reached Molly Lane, a couple of blocks beyond Martin Luther King Boulevard, and turned around to retrace their steps in the opposite lane. They finished in the pavilion parking lot, where water bottles and Clif Bars and more dancing to "Ice Ice Baby" remixes awaited.
Unlike Perez, many less-competitive athletes showed up to run, and also to party. Lori Stenger, 32, and her group of friends wore capes. It was Stenger's idea. She cut some red fabric and pinned it to white, paint-ready T-shirts. On the capes she wrote "DTR" -- Drunk Tank Racing. An anti-hero alliance.
"I couldn't sleep last night," she said. "I was so excited."
Contact Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.