Written by Jerred Ziegler.
The rise of traveling obstacle course races has thousands flocking to events like the Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, which travel from city to city to test racers’ physical limits. Urban Trials in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the first obstacle race series that engages participants’ minds as well as their bodies. The company has built a smartphone app that puts technology at the center of the race, pairing each physical challenge with a mental one.
Urban Trials’ 5K races push participants through several physical obstacles such as climbing over a wall. The company’s app recognizes digital triggers along the race route that prompt a question or task as teams run up to each obstacle. Teams look for clues at each challenge to answer the question on their screen. The technology tracks how long it takes the team to enter the correct answers, and then uploads their progress in real-time to a leaderboard. The team that completes the course fastest wins.
“If you’re running up to a set of monkey bars, your phone will know you’re at that obstacle, and a notification will pop-up on the screen — ‘You need to get across the monkey bars as quickly as possible, but pay attention to the colors along the way,’” said Urban Trails co-founder Daryn Hillhouse. “There are different colors on the monkey bars as you cross them, and you would have to answer questions like, ‘How many of the monkey bars were blue? How many were red?’”
The idea for Urban Trials came to Hillhouse in a very different setting than a fun obstacle course, when he was in the British Army and was required to be at his physical and mental peak in grueling conditions.
“When I left the army, I looked back and thought those were some of the best times in my life,” said Hillhouse. “It’s easy to replicate those tough conditions in a fun way. Friends and families can race together while scaling walls and climbing through tunnels. People want an opportunity to get out of the house with their kids and interact with them.”
Hillhouse’s concept began to evolve after he created an obstacle run near his home in South Africa in 2012. Two years later, as he was researching the type of technology he would need to implement the digital triggers on the course, he came across a web site for Roadtrippers. The company helps travelers plan routes and destinations with an interactive app. He contacted them and discovered that Roadtrippers was a startup in Cincinnati that had recently gone through The Brandery, a nationally ranked accelerator and a southwest partner of Ohio Third Frontier. The owner invited Hillhouse to come to Cincinnati to speak more about a business partnership and to see if The Brandery could help get his business started.
Urban Trials was accepted into The Brandery’s 2015 class and was awarded $50,000 in funding. They hired two engineers, developed new technology and hosted a pilot event in Cincinnati. Hillhouse says they’re working to close their seed round of funding and will hold 15 races across the country this year. In 2017, Urban Trails plans to hold nearly three times that amount. He says without the people and resources in Cincinnati, his business wouldn’t exist as it does today.
“It just hit me that this is where I needed to be,” said Hillhouse. “I have traveled all over the world and I’ve never met so many people who are willing to listen to your ideas and connect you with the right people to make those ideas a reality. Cincinnati has rallied behind their startups and we’re excited to immerse ourselves in the community here.”