I Tried It: Unite Fitness Decathlon

Or, "What the Hell Is a Decathlon, and Why Would You Do One?"

Decathloners performing the box jump // Photo courtesy Unite Fitness

The hardest part of getting ready for the Unite Fitness Decathlon was explaining to all of my friends and family what the hell a decathlon was—or in this case, what Unite Fitness’s version of a decathlon was. The day before Saturday’s challenge, when I told my dad what I was doing, he yelled into the phone:

A what?

A de-CA-thlon, Dad.

A thon?

A DE-CA-thlon.

What’s that?

Dad, like Bruce Jenner, except different.

The next morning, I received a text from my dad’s wife wishing me “good luck in the marathon.”

I can’t blame them. Until I was actually slogging through the event in Wissahickon Park last Saturday, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into either. In the end, what I did resembled a very tough workout with a very domineering trainer: a sequence of fitness stations, where participants banged out burpees, rope pulls, bench dips, box jumps and six other challenges under the watchful eye of Unite trainers, followed by a hilly, muddy 10K trail run. The race left me, three days later, unwilling to bend down and pick up the coins I dropped while buying lunch. That’s how sore I am.

I figured going in—this being the first time Unite Fitness was putting on a decathlon, and all—that the event would be chaotic. I was pleasantly surprised by how unruffled and upbeat race volunteers were. While start times were delayed by about an hour (my wave was supposed to kick off at 9:10 a.m., but I didn’t actually enter the event field until after 10), I found out that the holdup was because the park ranger had showed up about 90 minutes late that morning to open the gates for organizers. The Unite team, obviously humans who are impervious to pain and discomfort, compensated by starting the set-up anyway—dragging all the challenge equipment from their U-Haul truck out on the street, past the locked gate, and onto the open field of grass at Germantown’s Blue Bell Park. How could you complain knowing that? Anyway, all the competitors were in a good mood, probably because the weather was fantastic, and maybe a little from that giddy feeling you get when you’ve been thinking What the hell was I thinking? for several days.

I was happy to be in the third wave so I could watch the first competitors go through the paces, starting with 50 squat-and-presses with dumbbells in each hand (15 pounds each for women, 30 pounds for men). That was followed by 150 feet of walking lunges (“The back knee has to touch the grass!” yelled that challenge’s monitors) with the same dumbbells. Not everyone kept perfect form (including me, during my course nemesis, 75 TRX chest presses), and counting was strictly the honor system. So I guess you could “cheat,” but why bother?

By the third exercise, the broad-jump burpees (chest to the grass!), I was seeing stars. I stood and caught my breath for two minutes before launching into the rope slam. (You can see the full list of challenges with video demos here.) Most people paused to rest. I can’t imagine how you’d finish all the challenges and bang out a 10K run without stopping, and I don’t think that was the organizers’ intent.

When it comes to sports, singleminded obsessiveness wins in the U.S., and Americans are often only runners or only weight-lifters or only cyclists—leaving most people today clueless about what exactly Bruce Jenner and Jim Thorpe once achieved with their Olympic decathlon medals. The idea behind the Unite Fitness Decathlon was for competitors to prove they were well-rounded when it came to physical fitness.

I’d been only a runner myself for years, but luckily, when I started training for my first (and last, I’m not that crazy) marathon back in 2008, I quickly realized I needed to do more than run or I’d go crazy and probably damage myself. Enter the squats, the bicep curls, the triceps dips, etc., and my trainer, Pat Kempsey at Philadelphia Sports Clubs, which all combined to prepare me for Unite Fitness’s challenge. It wasn’t easy, but I finished (and gave myself permission to consume thousands of calories later in the day).

Also, I’m giving myself a week off from burpees and rope slams. I think Bruce Jenner would say that’s OK.

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