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Why running like an anime ninja is a thing

Running like a character from the anime "Naruto" is an internet meme. One fan decided to turn the running gag into a real event.

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I'm standing in Bethesda Terrace, the historic landmark that's known as the heart of New York's Central Park. Several couples are taking wedding photos and tourists are busily snapping pictures of themselves. A handful of people are rowing boats in the pond.

It's a perfect Saturday to be in the park, with a light breeze inviting thousands into the green. But I'm not simply here to enjoy the last days of summer -- I've got a real purpose.

I'm here to run like a wannabe ninja.

My plan is to meet the hundreds of people who've supposedly committed to showing up for a "Naruto run," a half-joke, half-ode to an insanely popular Japanese anime program.

"Naruto," for the uninitiated, began in 2002 and centers on a world of kid ninjas. A hallmark of the show is the countless scenes of characters running in a distinctive style. Instead of pumping their arms back and forth while dashing, characters in "Naruto" run with their chests forward and their arms tucked back like wings that never flap.

Alfred Ng/CNET

The stance became a running gag online, thanks to people knowing about that one kid who took the show way too seriously and thought the style would improve speed. The goofy running posture went global, with multiple Facebook memes about it. But there's a mix of mockery and love, with people around the world setting up what appear to be spoof events, like "Naruto run down Church Street" in Vermont and "Run Across Lower Field" in Quebec.

Some of them have actually happened, like this one in Brazil.    

I decided to go to the largest organized get-together near me, in Central Park. It boasted 3,800 people interested in attending, and 980 people who said they were going to be there, according to Facebook. 

Originally, Neill Chua, the event organizer, set it up as an inside joke among friends. In two days, it grew into a meme out of his control, and he decided to make it an actual event. From the few friends he sent it to, the event page grew to 2,500 people invited in less than 24 hours.

"I remember the first three days, my phone would vibrate nonstop," Chua, a 25-year-old engineer, says. "My friends were like, 'You gotta just go all the way now.'"

Showing up

I get here early, so I run for a bit on a jogger's trail with my arms hanging back, just as a warm-up. A few people stare at me like I'm an idiot.

photo-of-run

The group of people running like anime ninjas in Central Park.

Alfred Ng/CNET

When I get back to the meeting spot, I see Chua. He's in a "Sailor Moon" shirt, twirling a fidget spinner shaped like a ninja throwing star. Around him is a small crowd, with some dressed like the characters from "Naruto." A woman near Chua wears a "Naruto" jacket, while her friend sports a ninja headband.

To blend in (and show off my dorkiness), I decided on a black long-sleeve with the logo of the Uchiha clan, a prominent ninja family that makes up the show's villains.

There's only one problem with this scene: The crowd around Chua isn't anywhere near as large as the Facebook invite suggested. Instead, there are maybe 20 people.

Most of the people here thought the event was a joke but showed up just in case it wasn't. Michael Vallejo, in town to play a concert, had come all the way from Seattle and had some time to kill.

He'd been looking for events on Facebook to go to before his show, and he made up his mind when he saw the "Naruto" run.

"It's Central Park, and it rules to be in a big, dense city and do a run with a bunch of goofs," Vallejo says. He doesn't even really like "Naruto" that much.

When memes get real

As we line up to do the dash, a part of me is worried about how stupid I look. I've done the run as a joke more than once on my own and with friends. I actually injured my shoulder in Toronto after extending my arm too far back. But in a group of 20 other strangers, it feels too organized for people to see it as a joke.

For instance, it's funny if you spontaneously mock Smashmouth's "All-Star," but you blur the line between meme and fandom if you actually head to a show. When you make the meme real, it loses some of its irony. This is coming from a guy who hosted a competition to see who could come out with the longest "yeah boy."

Chua brandishes his phone and plays the theme song from "Naruto," and we're running. We run for a long time, like little kids. We get a lot of stares from tourists and street performers. A man holding a python while riding a hoverboard looks at us like we're the weird ones.

Kate Burleson is one of the few who thought the run was a joke but showed up to see. She says she'd love to do it again.

"If I were to do this another time, I would definitely wear my running shoes," says the Manhattan resident.

Despite my initial reservations, I realize I had a lot of fun. For those 45 minutes, we shared a moment in living the meme. 

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Correction, 11:36 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of event organizer Neill Chua.