Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): A Chance to Design an Obstacle

I’ve quietly lamented in a previous post how the Urbanathon is, on balance, a runner’s race. The promotional imagery and videos generally portray buff dudes in skullies and compression shirts amped about going into the depths of hell and back. I get it (and these guys are there, it’s just that they are in for a rude awakening when the obstacles barely register a blip on the ‘depths-of-hell’ meter). The reality, in my limited experience, is that the obstacles are more speed bump than road block.

So I was glad to see the Men’s Health contest to call on ideas for a new obstacle. Men’s Health would cull the list of entries and put a few into a final vote among their Facebook fans, and possibly the winning entry would get included in one, some, or all of the US Urbanathlons (Chicago, New York, San Francisco). The person who submitted the winning idea could also earn a race registration, among other things.

I jumped at the chance.

As I considered possibilities, I tried to keep 5 things in focus:

  • Must require a good amount of upper body strength (there are enough things on the course to tax your legs, and we need to level the playing field).
  • No gimmicks, like mud or water. Let’s keep it professional, here.
  • Must be something that can handle the large flow and volume of participants (this from the guy who had to wait nearly a minute at the first tire obstacle in 2011).
  • Has to be practical. I initially thought about a variation on the blocking sled (that you see in football practices), but how the heck do you reset those for each participant?
  • The penalty for not completing the obstacle had to be severe enough to make you think twice about just skipping it or giving up (in 2011 I saw some participants just forgo an obstacle without even trying).

Inspired by some recent playground freelancing by my 10-year old, I submitted an idea which I’ll call the ‘arm bar.’ Here are the broad strokes:

Urbanathlon Obstacle Contest: 'Arm Bar'

Here is a version of the jpeg I submitted to Men’s Health, along with a variation of the copy below.

  • Climb a portion of a 9-foot(ish) pole (3 inches in diameter) to reach a 15-foot(ish) horizontal pole (still 3 inches in diameter) that you must traverse.
  • My vision is hand-over-hand (work those shoulders!), but one might wrap their legs and pull themselves across military style.
  • At the end of the horizontal pole, climb down (not jump), run 20 feet ahead and do another set.
  • If you can’t do a set, that’s 25 pushups. Can’t do either set, that’s 50. Not even going to try, that’s 50 pushups plus an additional 30 seconds you have to remain in the obstacle area before you can proceed.

Climbing is hard, especially after a few miles of running. And the muscles required to pull this off aren’t ones you use every day. I also feel like these complement the monkey bars, and don’t replicate them. In fact, I read considerable post-race feedback (including my own) that the monkey bars are too short and too easy.

As expected, Men’s Health received some quality entries, and I’ll keep an eye on which ones make it to the final round. Here’s to hoping the ‘arm bar’ gets its day in the sun.


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