Last Friday night I participated in my first ever nontraditional running event: The Urban Challenge, coordinated by Fleet Feet in West Hartford in conjunction with retailers in Blue Back Square and West Hartford Center. It was a combination running and scavenger hunt with 120 teams of 2 people, described on the event website in the following manner:
The event is similar to the television show The Amazing Race, with teams of two receiving clues, completing challenges at different locations throughout the Center & Blue Back Square, running from location to location and, in the end, racing to be the first team to the finish line. Knowledge of the area will give you an advantage, but teams can use their phones, Internet and people on the street to help them solve the clues.
Indeed, the race involved some strategy and skill, as there were 23 clues to various shops, 10 of which had to be solved (and confirmed with a stamp given out by the retailer) before runners could head to the finish. Not only were the destinations described in riddle (e.g., REI was described as a place involving “people in green”), but at each location, a task (like carrying a canoe up and down the sidewalk at REI) had to be completed before that location’s stamp was awarded in the passbook. The race started with participants tearing open the envelope of clues, at which point runners either a) took off sprinting, using the strategy of running as fast as possible from destination to destination, or b) stood there deciphering clues and plotting the most efficient route with which to obtain 10 stamps, trying to avoid out-of-the-way stores.
There are similar races that take place, often on a larger scale, all around the nation. For example, Challenge Nation puts on an urban scavenger hunt in major cities around the U.S., including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. They even host a National Championship! And these races, in turn, are part of an even bigger trend: the exponential growth of alternative races. According to Running USA, alternative running events such as Tough Mudders, Zombie Runs, and Urban Challenge races had approximately 4 million finishers in 2013, up from a few hundred thousand finishers a few years ago. People seem drawn to the fun, the less competitive nature of the events, the camaraderie of the participants, the team-based nature of competition, or the unique challenge of mixing running with some other element such as navigation or obstacle courses.
So, are they worth it exercise-wise? Well, the Urban Challenge took us about 30 minutes to complete, and with all the stops and starts we likely ran no more than 2 miles. Certainly I would have been more efficient with my time had I covered those 2 miles at home without all the other elements. But, I had a lot of fun! My partner Suzanne and I were in hysterics for most of the race, and it was great to see the Center covered by brightly dressed (some in costume) runners of all ages sprinting frantically from store to store. I’m reminded of one of the key elements to adopting and maintaining any exercise regimen: It has to be fun. To that end, some public health advocates have suggested that we move away from the traditional time- and number-based recommendations of exercise and health and instead focus on incorporating exercise through more nonquantitative methods (see included alternative exercise pyramid). After all, who lives life solely by data? At least for one night, I lived it by the unknown: with a list of clues and an unmarked passbook.