On a crisp October morning, Brian Gallagher stood along the periphery of Citi Field, taking in the unusual view as he caught his breath. Teams of athletes filed into the stadium, but none of them sported baseball uniforms. Music blasted from the surround-sound speakers, but every bleacher seat was empty.
That Saturday morning, a new kind of game had come to town. The arena thumped, whooped and winced as over 1,600 contenders took to its numerous stadium steps, its private concourse hallways and its pristine field turf, completing a challenge of one of New York City’s long-distance, obstacle course races: the Men’s Health Urbanathlon. Today, Gallagher reminisces on those 10 minutes spent inside the home of the New York Mets as his favorite part of the event that keeps him coming back each year.
For the athletically inclined New Yorker looking to escape skyscraper-induced claustrophobia, hop off the hamster wheel in the fluorescently lit gym and blow off some steam, the city’s surrounding neighborhoods host a series of fitness events that focus less on completion times and more on the experience on the way to the finish line—and the party that rages on the other side. Over the past five years, traditional 5Ks and half-marathons have transformed from simple running paths into ones that breathe fire, drop neon paint from the sky and crawl with bloodthirsty zombies. These novelty races attract runners searching for inspiration that does not focus on hardcore training regimens, achieving new personal records or beating the racer alongside them, but rather on escaping everyday life for a little bit and having some roll-in-the-mud kind of fun.
On a weekday, Gallagher, 32, blends seamlessly into the corporate backdrop of Rockefeller Center, with his pink-checked button-down shirt, crimson tie, and flecks of gray throughout his neat beard. As an investment banker, he is on call constantly, attached to his cell phone long after the official workday comes to a close. The only hour of the day where Gallagher is unreachable, deliberately M.I.A., is between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. when he hits the floor of his nearby gym and works up a good sweat. “It’s my favorite hour of the day every morning, where I can clear my head,” said Gallagher. “I look forward to it.” When Men’s Health introduced their Urbanathlon obstacle race in New York City six years ago, Gallagher decided to give it a try.
The Urbanathlon allows thousands of race participants each year to ignore pedestrian traffic signs, stomp on the hoods of yellow taxicabs and scale the stairs of Citi Field, among other obstacles along the 9.5-mile course in Queens. During this event, individual athletes and co-ed teams alike experience the urban landscape in a way unrecognized during the 9-to-5 daily grind.
The post-race festival, with food, drinks, music and product giveaways, excites the crowd as much as the race itself. “It’s just a nice way to unwind afterwards,” said Gallagher. “My buddy and I even participated in a push-up contest after the race, which was really fun.”
Fun and community are great motivators, explained Jen Sinkler, a fitness expert who has completed obstacles races similar to the Urbanathlon. “Themed events definitely deliver on that front. They can provide a goal to work toward, often times in a group.”
Upon moving to New York to attend graduate school at New York University, Renée Jacques, 23, was struck by the cutthroat nature of her new city. The petite, 5-foot-tall Florida native began to run, an activity she had always disliked, to help relieve the anxiety brought on by moving to such a high-stress, competitive and sometimes hostile place. Noticing Jacques’ new fitness fix, her cousin encouraged her to take it to the next level with one of his favorite athletic events: the Tough Mudder.
This 10-12 mile long, military-inspired obstacle race, introduced in 2010, has earned its reputation as one of the most hardcore mud runs around. From the ice bath “artic enema” to the 16-foot-high plywood “Berlin walls,” two-dozen intense obstacles make the actual running— which is just shy of a half-marathon— seem easy.
Jacques’ cousin failed for months to win her over. “All I can do is run,” Jacques said. “I have no upper body strength. I have no strength in general. I don’t do any strength exercise. There’s no way I am going to be able to do that.” However, her most stressful week since moving to the city, only days before the event, convinced her otherwise. “I don’t know what came over me. I had never even done a 5K before,” said Jacques. “I just made up my mind that I was doing it.”
The camaraderie component of the Tough Mudder revived Jacques more than the physical challenge itself. Everyone joins in the event in teams, and the majority of the obstacles are designed to be nearly impossible for lone participants. The run is not timed, encouraging teams to cross the finish line together. It concludes with free beer, live music, and exhausted “congratulations” and “thanks” between former strangers.
Nassau County-based clinical and sports psychologist Tom Ferraro, Ph.D., acknowledges that people naturally crave outdoor activity, a craving that can be tough to satisfy in urban settings if the same old running path or neighborhood basketball court feels less than inspiring. “The biggest problem facing us now is the lack of the ‘third place,’ that place outside of home and work where we meet our neighbors,” said Ferraro. These racing events with unique premises serve as an “example of the creation of the third place where we can find community.”
Real life requires us to be very competitive, said Jacques. “We are in a really bad economic part of our lives, we are all striving to get jobs, we are all trying to make something of ourselves, and it’s extremely hard. We are forced to be competitive with each other, so these are the really good escape mechanisms that let us bond together, relax, be friends and care about each other.”
Long-distance obstacle runs are only a small subset of the events making a splash across New York’s fun fitness scene. Minimalists, for example, can let it all hang out in the Freshpair Underwear Run, a 1.7-mile fun jog in Central Park. Foodies can find satisfaction in the New York Hot Dog Challenge, a 2.5-mile run with 10 mandatory hot dog cart stops along the way. Even Walking Dead fanatics can experience the impending apocalypse in Run For Your Lives, a 3.1-mile course filled with ravenous zombies looking for fresh meat. Running has never been less boring.
New York licensed mental health counselor Joan Ingalls believes that people who gravitate to these types of events are responding to their social nature rather than the severity of the physical challenge. “They are people looking for fun ways to stay active about be outdoors—not be so serious,” said Ingalls. “The zombie run gives people something to run from and laugh about. It gets people’s minds off of running and onto a shared group experience.”
When Elizabeth Irwin isn’t spending long working hours in Times Square managing hedge funds, she is searching for new ways to stay active in the big city with a likeminded group of a people. Growing up a soccer player in Richmond, V.A., she gravitates to team-based events as opposed to solitary sports. From dodgeball to flag football, Irwin participates in club sports that allow her to add a little more fun to her week. “Group environments are better for me. I’m not very good at plugging in the headphones and just going running for five miles,” she said. “I need other people around to motivate me.”
When one of her flag football teammates sent her an email last spring about The Color Run™ taking place in Brooklyn in July, Irwin could not resist. The Color Run™ coins itself the “happiest 5K on the planet.” Removing race completion times from the equation, the event focuses on dousing each participant from head to toe in various neon shades of powdered paint. Clouds of different colors hover over each of the five checkpoints throughout the race, coating each runner dressed all in white with layer after layer of vibrant cornstarch.
Irwin’s team ran in the first wave on that July morning in Brooklyn. “Some people were running, some people were walking, some people were just dancing around because part of the fun is that you want to get color on you,” she said. ““At first it looked like you’d been shot, because red was first. And then it was blue! And then yellow! And by the end, you just had it everywhere.”
However, Irwin recounts that the best part of the event took place after the run itself. The Color Run™ concludes with a giant dance party with—as one would expect—more powdered paint. “It was just silly and fun,” she said. “Everyone is having a blast looking totally stupid, and I feel like, especially in New York, you don’t really get opportunities to completely let it go like that.”
The friendly nature of this event lures many exercisers who have never completed a 5K before. Recently Irwin convinced her mother to sign up for the upcoming Virginia event by explaining how people from all fitness levels can participate and that continuous running is not necessarily the goal. “It’s something that brings people together, because you don’t have stress about holding people back,” said Irwin. “As long as you embrace the silliness, you’re going to have a good time.”
Originally written for my graduate writing/reporting workshop