I'm in Houston in leggings and a neon T-shirt, about to run a 5K that's also an EDM festival. It's billed as the first of its kind in the world, and I'm intrigued by the weird combination: a bunch of hopped-up ravers forced to run 16,404.2 feet before they can reach the promised land of a headliner DJ? Sounds like heart attack central.
My friend L and I were planning to run the whole thing, I promise, but it's raining hard and we get there late and instead of stretching we decide to drink wine in her car with the heat blasting. Girls with glowsticks scamper past the windows. Somewhere in the distance, columns of light shoot into the air at regular intervals. L and I finish our wine and trot onto the racetrack to join hundreds of neon-clad runners, all shuffling toward the faint ecstatic screaming coming from the finish line. But before we can work up any real momentum, we see something that stops us where we are: a black light selfie station.
This is Nocturnal Lands, the world's first "running music festival," and it turns out to be possibly the world's tamest rave—kids attend with their parents, rain forces the DJ to close his set two hours early, and you can't run 50 feet without coming across something that reminds you of Instagram. The 5K course snakes through the massive parking lot of the Sam Houston Race Park, a horse racing track, which lends the scene an dreamlike air—like, Where are the horses? And who follows horse racing anymore?—and there are small stages set up along the course, a la pit stops in auto racing. At each stage, a DJ plays, refueling the runners' increasingly hyped-up adrenal glands with the glory of music—or something like that. I wanted to come to Nocturnal Lands because the idea of 8,000 adrenaline junkies running and dancing and running again was, quite frankly, a little terrifying, and I wanted to see it all go down.
But instead of frenzied movement, we're stuck in the selfie tent. L and I aren't immune; we take a photo under the black lights and then trot over to one of the smaller stages, where a gaggle of teenage volunteers is handing out water. We chat with a group of bros in tiny running shorts, who think the addition of a 5K to the EDM scene is a "cool idea" and who wore cross-country shorts because it was "hilarious." The rain is distracting but pleasantly misty. We sniff around for the slightest whiff of illegal activity, convinced that we'll stumble upon the dark underbelly of the festival at any moment, but nothing surfaces. Instead of darkness, we find children and med students.
"There's been one kid for every four adults," one of the teenage volunteers tells me. "It was dead earlier, but it's gonna get crazy." It's 8:30 PM. The run started at 7:30.
The vibe is sweetly innocent, almost like a party sponsored by the Disney Channel. We had to sign waivers before running, but the risk of physical harm here seems nonexistent. The "run" eventually turns into a pleasant walk, as runners chat to each other and fidget with their glowsticks, making their way from tiny dance crowd to tiny dance crowd.
This isn't the place to go into the history of EDM, but suffice it to say that, like plenty of other musical genres, there's an ongoing rivalry between the "mainstream" and the "underground," and people complain that, well, the scene used to be cooler. Today, the biggest EDM festivals rack up descriptions like "face-melting" and "mind-blowing" for their expensive pyrotechnics. If raves used to be illegal back in the good old days, and if today's EDM megafests are mostly sweaty rich kids doing coke off each other's bodies, then Nocturnal Lands is EDM made accessible and nonthreatening. You can bring your kids here. You can wear your comfortable shoes. No one is going to trample you. No one is going to offer you pills. The serious runners are stone-cold sober. The old ravers, dressed to the gills in feathers, are also stone-cold sober. The bros have naught but a lonely Bud Light cart to get them wild.
I chat with Mike and Katherine, a couple in their 40s, who recently partied until five in the morning at a three-story Chicago nightclub. Here, they are sober, sweaty, and happy. Mike holds a lightsaber and describes the experience as "good clean fun." Katherine laughs from beneath her pink-and-yellow wig. "No one spilled beer on us," she says. They are the benevolent guardians of this new, accessible scene. They say, diplomatically, that the music has "changed" since their wilder days. How? "The DJs talk more," says Katherine.
Eventually, L and I jog over to the finish line, which slithers beneath a huge blown-up arch plastered with the Red Bull logo. It's raining hard now. The last of the runners are slowing down and taking selfies as they complete the race. There are smoke machines, confetti canons, girls in pink sweatsuits dancing onstage, all ruled over by the headliner DJ duo, Boombox Cartel, who have come up from Mexico City.
One of the DJs keeps interrupting his set to insist that people use the hashtag #nightnation. The Bud Light cart glows under the moon. A girl swirls inside her light-up hula hoop and tells me her experience here has been "low-key." Apparently that's the preferred adjective of the night. Turns out that running plus dancing doesn't necessarily equal more adrenaline, more insanity. In fact, it seems as though the infusion of running culture into the EDM scene is actually a stabilizing influence. If the old-school ravers don't mind this new, clean fun, then who am I to long for wilder days that I never experienced?
By 9:30 PM, it has not gotten "crazy," as my teenage friend predicted. The parking lot is turning to slush. L and I creep away from the soaked, happy crowd at the finish line. The track is almost empty now and one of the little stages, positioned over by the horse stables, has been abandoned. But it's still flashing with multicolored lights, and the DJ table rocks wildly in the wind. It's not sweaty or wild or crazy, but it looks really cool. Best of all, no one's paying attention to this little stripped-down scene: no DJ, no party, all vibe. It's in this moment, when no one is sponsoring or organizing or telling us what to do, that we want music.
Follow Tori Telfer on Twitter.